Feed Your True Crime Obsession With These 10 Unbelievable Stories
There is perhaps nothing as ubiquitous these days as true crime. Everywhere you look, there’s a Starbucks and a true crime documentary or podcast. But true crime satiates us without the calories. Instead, we fill up on the fascination of evil, the adrenaline rush, the fear that it could happen to us, and the relief that it’s not. For women, who make up the vast majority of true crime readers/listeners/viewers, it’s the insight into a criminal’s mind and the survival instincts that can be gleaned from life-or-death scenarios. Regardless of the reason, we’re obsessed with true crime, and it shows. If you are too, here are 10 of our wildest true crime documentaries, series, and films to feed your obsession.
Based on a real-life investigation that lasted almost 30 years, the series follows the mysterious disappearance of Barbara Neder, the sister of high-ranking federal police officer Thomas Bethge. In 1989, shortly after two couples are brutally murdered in Isefort Forest, Barbara disappears from her home without a trace. Only a young rookie cop named Anne sees a connection between the two cases. When the local police department gives up on finding Barbara, Thomas takes matters into his own hands. Even as his search turns desperate and decades pass, Anne remains steadfastly committed and becomes instrumental in making sure the case never turned cold.
How could 38 people witness someone get murdered and do nothing? In March 1963, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was stabbed and killed outside of her apartment in Queens, New York. It was later reported that 38 witnesses either saw or heard the attack, but nobody called the police or came to her aid, spawning the psychological phenomenon known as the bystander effect, or Genovese syndrome. Forty years later, Kitty’s brother investigates to find the truth behind what really happened.
Without a doubt, the most terrifying killers are the real ones. You may think you know the story of Aileen Wuornos, but Nick Broomfield’s second documentary about the notorious murderess reveals a far more complex portrait. Delving into her dark past, the documentary traces how a life of trauma, killing, and incarceration have taken their toll on the mental state of an already troubled individual. Filmed while awaiting her death sentence, this is a brutally candid look at the killer’s descent into mental instability in her final chapter.
On May 7, 2000, in Jacksonville, Florida, 65-year-old Mary Ann Stephens is shot in the head before her husband’s eyes. Shortly after, 15-year-old Brenton Butler is arrested. But is he guilty or just an easy scapegoat? Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Film, the story follows the case of a Black teen that everyone—from officers to journalists—was ready to condemn. But when his defense lawyer, Patrick McGuinness, joins the case, everything changes. What starts out as a seemingly open-and-shut case turns out to be a shocking miscarriage of justice.
In 1965, 16-year-old Sylvia and her younger sister are left under the care of single mother Gertrude, who has several children of her own. Soon Gertrude begins taking her anger out on them, particularly Sylvia, whom she falsely accuses of spreading rumors and flirting with the father of her children. Based on a tragic true story, the film lays bare the appalling lack of humanity and cruelty one mother exhibited toward a child who was not her own. Featuring gut-wrenching performances by Elliot Page and Catherine Keener.
With a population of 58, Terlingua, Texas is a tiny off-the-grid community where everyone knows each other and life is simple and predictable. So when the beloved owner of the town bar is murdered, minds inevitably start spinning and questions start flying. Soon the once-quiet community finds itself divided and, ultimately, the residents are forced to reevaluate themselves. “Badlands, Texas” follows the murder trial of Glenn Felts and the subsequent unraveling of a town that perhaps needed to be woken up from their usual existence anyway.
There are few true crime stories that will make your blood boil and heart sink like this one. The documentary follows the murder of Andrew Bagby and the years-long bitter custody battle for his son that followed. After being shot point blank by a scorned lover, it’s revealed that she is pregnant with their baby. When Bagby’s parents try to win custody of baby Zachary, they are thrown into a living nightmare, forced to negotiate with their son’s murderer, maneuver around international politics, and, ultimately, face a betrayal so heartbreaking you’ll scream at your screen. Despite the harrowing story, the film, directed by Bagby’s childhood best friend, somehow manages to be a touching tribute to a man whose life was taken too soon.
Every parent’s worst nightmare comes true in this documentary following one mother’s attempt to cope with her son’s unthinkable act. After Charity’s 13-year-old son, Paris, is charged with murdering her 4-year-old daughter, Ella, she’s left to pick up the pieces of her family. In the wake of an event no parent is ever prepared for, Charity is riddled by regret, guilt, and moral confusion. Would getting Paris help be betraying Ella? Can she ever forgive Paris? It’s difficult enough to answer these questions, but then the story takes a twist and Charity is left with even bigger, more daunting questions about her family.
Eerily reminiscent of the Salem witch trials, “Southwest of Salem” follows four Latina lesbians, known as the San Antonio Four, who were wrongfully convicted of gang-raping two young girls. Opening with the women in a Texas prison, where they’ve spent nearly a decade, the film then reveals the story of their horrific persecution, driven by homophobia, racism, juror bias, and the same prosecutorial fervor that defined Salem. After capturing the recantation of one of the alleged victims, the film becomes an investigation that ultimately led to their exoneration and inspired new legislation.
In 1946, filmmaker Travis Wilkerson’s great-grandfather murdered a Black man named Bill Spann and got away with it. This injustice becomes the impetus for his documentary and investigation into the case and the social climate that allowed for it to happen. The haunting doc explores how a community, and by extension the whole South—and by further extension the entire country—could be complicit in a man’s murder.