Julia York shares her list of anxiety-inducing true crime documentaries that have left her yearning for answers.
As someone whose favorite pastimes include Googling things like “infamous missing person cases” or “Jon Benet Ramsey theories," I am always on the hunt for the best true crime documentaries that will feed the fragility of my already nervous psyche. While most streaming services are chock-full of true crime content these days, it’s only once in a while that a truly great and unnerving film or series comes along to disturb audiences, sticking in our minds long after the credits roll. These five haunting true crime documentaries will up your anxiety, and you may find yourself scouring Reddit boards late at night for answers.
Though it perpetually begs more questions than answers (and one maybe-not-so-improbable owl theory), Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s The Staircase (2003) plays out like an addictive fiction and thus feels particularly haunting in the wake of its grim reality. Now both an infamous case and documentary, the film follows the case of Michael Peterson in real time as he faces (and eventually stands) trial for the supposed murder of his wife, Kathleen, who was found in a puddle of blood at the bottom of their stairs. Filming Peterson both in his home and as he sits, stunned, in the courtroom, Lestrade captures intimate conversations between Peterson, his lawyers, and his children as they struggle to understand and defend Peterson’s assertion that Kathleen died as a result of falling down the stairs.
All of this is despite the fact that her death indicates the opposite. It is eventually discovered that years prior, a family friend was also discovered dead at the bottom of the stairs after Peterson was the last person to see her alive. The documentary keeps me Googling theories about the case at night because no one knows what really happened. The Staircase is streaming on Netflix.
DEAR ZACHARY: A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER
When his best friend, Andrew Bagby, is murdered, filmmaker Kurt Kuenne decides to travel North America, gathering stories from Andrew’s vast network of friends and family to share with Andrew’s newborn son, Zachary. Except, here is one of many twists of Dear Zachary (2008): Zachary’s mother is Andrew’s murderer, Shirley Turner, who, due to a confounding misstep in Canadian law, continues to walk free and maintain close custody of baby Zachary. In real-time, a film that begins as a tribute to a beloved friend morphs into a harrowing narrative of profound love and loss as Andrew’s parents fight to maintain contact with their grandchild — which means spending intimate time with a murderer.
The film is a documentary that delivers a hard gut punch because it always seems like things couldn’t possibly get worse, but they do. Keep the Kleenex close on this one, friends. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
ABDUCTED IN PLAIN SIGHT
This documentary by Skye Borgman fully convinced me that though I may be in denial about some things (the ending of Game of Thrones, for example), I will never be as mind-blowingly in denial as the parents in this film are about almost everything. Abducted in Plain Sight (2017), which tells the true story of a young girl who was abducted not once but twice by a family friend, is aggravatingly perplexing. Over and over, you’ll find yourself yelling at the screen, “How did anyone let this happen?”
In the 1970s, young Jan Broberg Felt was kidnapped twice for a period of several days by family friend Robert Berchtold, even after Berchtold’s initial actions were known to Jan’s parents. And yet somehow, letting Jan maintain a relationship with her kidnapper and abuser is just one of the absolutely bonkers decisions her parents make over the course of this story. I feel myself getting worked up again just thinking about it. Abducted in Plain Sight is streaming on Netflix.
As the baffling events of The Imposter (2012) unfold, one question, among many, arises: who can be trusted? Through interviews and reenactments, Bart Layton details the shocking case of Frédéric Bourdin, a French con man who tricked an American family into believing he was their son, Nicholas Patrick Barclay, who disappeared years prior. How exactly did a 23-year-old man with dark hair and an unshakable French accent convince both authorities and an American family that he was a 16-year-old, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, long-lost Texan teen? As Barclay’s family and Bourdin recount the story, this question remains frustratingly unanswered. However, it soon becomes clear that both Bourdin’s motives for perpetrating his crimes and the family’s willingness to believe the lie — even when confronted with undeniable evidence — may not be clear-cut. The documentary offers an unsettling look into the mind of a master manipulator and explores the lengths we may go to ward off the traumas of our past. The Imposter is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
THE JINX: THE LIFE AND DEATHS OF ROBERT DURST
There’s something about The Jinx (2015) that grabs you by the lapels and shakes you into a wide-eyed stupor until you are left breathless. In the series, Andrew Jarecki tells the story of Robert Durst, a man accused of committing a series of gruesome crimes, including the disappearance of his first wife and the murders of a friend and neighbor. However, Jarecki’s main narrative source is Durst himself, who (at the time of filming) continues to walk free and agrees to sit for a series of intimate interviews regarding his alleged crimes.
In real-time, it soon becomes clear that Durst is guilty, and as both Jarecki and the viewer realize this fact, the film turns from deeply intriguing to can’t-look-away addicting. Maybe it’s Durst’s soulless black eyes or that he (badly) disguised himself as a woman to trick his landlord and murder his neighbor. Maybe it’s that the documentary starts with the discovery of a headless torso in a bay. Mostly, it’s that Jarecki shows his often bizarre interview process and the discovery of new and deeply damning revelations as they happen. The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst is streaming on HBO Max.
Committed lovers of true crime know that when it comes to scary movies, the fact is often more unsettling than fiction, and those of us who can’t look away are always searching for the next stunning case that will linger in our bones. From a mysterious staircase to a pair of eerie black eyes, the all-too-true tales in these five documentaries conjure lasting, haunting effects.