Netflix's 'The Sons of Sam': Interview With Joshua Zeman - Rolling Stone
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Netflix’s ‘The Sons of Sam’ Depicts the Dangers of Our True Crime Obsession

“Be careful about going down this rabbit hole, because you might not find a way out,” director Joshua Zeman says of the film, which follows the investigative work of journalist Maury Terry

The Sons of Sam

David Berkowitz was convicted of the son of sam killings — but journalist Maury Terry believed cops clung to that story to appease fear in the city, not because it was correct.

Netflix

Journalist Maury Terry was already neck-deep into trying to prove that David Berkowitz, a.k.a. the Son of Sam, did not act alone in his New York City killing spree when he received a letter from the serial killer in 1981, postmarked Attica Correctional Facility. “I am guilty of these crimes,” Berkowitz wrote, “But I didn’t do it all.”

Berkowitz went on to tell Terry that he was part of a cult, as the journalist had suspected, and that there was more than one Son of Sam, even naming his neighbor John Carr, who Terry had long suspected of being involved in the 1976-1977 string of eight shooting attacks across New York City, for which  Berkowitz had been convicted. Berkowitz signed off with a warning: “Maury, the public will never, ever truly believe you, no matter how well your evidence is presented.”

Such is the crux of the upcoming four-part Netflix docuseries The Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness, which will be released May 5th. The series focuses on Terry’s obsessive journey to prove that Berkowitz was not a lone gunman, but a part of a many-webbed conspiracy rooted in Satanism, snuff films, and cold hard cash. But it’s not Berkowitz and his alleged accomplices that are truly the focus of the series — instead, it’s Terry himself, a journalist who sacrifices his time, resources, and, ultimately, his life in the pursuit of those who perpetrated the Son of Sam killings. Terry died in 2015, his work unfinished.

For director Joshua Zeman, who befriended Terry before his death, The Sons of Sam is a cautionary tale about the dangers of true-crime obsession — and a look at how the police and media calcify certain mythologies as fact. For example, before meeting Terry, Zeman hadn’t heard about the multi-gunman theory — despite being a true-crime documentarian — so engrained was the myth that Berkowitz took his orders from a dog/demon named Sam with a hunger for young blood, which the killer himself debunked more than 40 years ago. Zeman was also inspired by a 2016 Rolling Stone story, “How the Son of Sam Changed America,” which delved into how the press fed the insatiable interest in the killer.

Over the course of four hours, Zeman shows viewers the mania that the shooting spree whipped up in New York City, the fervent hunt for the killer (which may have led police to overlook signs that he hadn’t acted alone), and Terry’s increasing obsession with the case — from penning news articles shortly after the killing spree to shilling his 1988 book The Ultimate Evil on daytime talk shows, interrogating Berkowitz on the news to following sometimes dubious leads to desolate small towns.

Rolling Stone spoke with Zeman about the genesis of the series, getting to know Terry, and the dangers of true crime. We also have the first episode of a companion podcast below.

How did you become interested in Maury Terry his work? You’ve been interested in this case for almost 10 years now, right?
I was actually doing a documentary called Cropsey [in 2009] about some missing kids in my hometown of Staten Island, New York. I was filming with my directing partner at the time, Barbara Brancaccio, and we had heard rumors among journalists and lawyers and even some police that these missing kids were somehow connected to the Son of Sam case. More so, that these missing kids were connected to this cult that was theoretically behind the Son of Sam case — that and that Berkowitz didn’t act alone, that he was part of this cult. I didn’t believe it at all. I thought it was Satanic Panic. I thought it was complete bullshit.

What changed your mind?
These veteran detectives at the NYPD sat me down and they said, “No, let me tell you a story.” They proceeded to tell me that there were a number of detectives, both past and present, who had done some investigative work and believe that David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam, the notorious serial killer in the Seventies, did not act alone. They told me that if I wanted to know more that I should look up a guy named Maury Terry and read his book, The Ultimate Evil. I picked up The Ultimate Evil and honestly it scared the shit out of me — and I do not scare easy. I am a debunker of things that go bump in the night.

I didn’t totally believe it, but there was something about this book that was super fascinating, kind of in a Manson-esque terror way. But more so, this book was really fascinating because as you are reading it, you are feeling this writer go down this rabbit hole of the Son of Sam case and making all these connections. I really wanted to kind of seek out this writer.

I went to Maury Terry’s house. We had lunch and he turned out to be this really fascinating character. He was both like a mentor — because he knew all about crime and I love true crime — but he’s also a bit of an unreliable narrator because he was so invested in it. He was begging me like, “Please make a documentary about this case. Please tell the story to the world because I could not convince them that David Berkowitz did not do it alone.”

I did not want to make the documentary, but I was still interested in talking to Maury; we became friends if you will. I went to go do another series called The Killing Season and while I was doing that case, Maury passed away. A couple of months later, I received his files, including all of the interviews and letters, correspondence he had with David Berkowitz. I suddenly realized that I could do the documentary and it would not just be about the fascinating investigation. It could be about this true-crime writer.

What was it like to get so involved in this intense story? It seems like you would have had to go down the rabbit hole yourself to be able to tell it correctly.
Of course. I mean, that is the whole thing. I was very cognizant of not wanting to fall into the same trap that Maury Terry had fallen into, but in some ways, it is inevitable. You can’t not do it and so, in a lot of ways, I made the film about Maury and his falling down the rabbit hole as not just a cautionary tale about true crime for everybody, but for myself as well. It was a lesson for me. It was really weird because that lesson suddenly became so prescient for everybody, with both the rise of bingeable true crime and web sleuthing.

Suddenly it became this is an important lesson for all of us right now. Be careful about going down this rabbit hole because you might not find a way out. We’re normal people, right? We spend eight hours watching a show and we are like, “Oh my God, what happened to the weekend?” Or, “Oh my God, I didn’t make food. I didn’t do any of my work or I didn’t … ” You are ignoring the family. This is a guy who went down that rabbit hole for 40 years. It affected his relationships. It affected his family life, affected his health, in some ways it kind of killed him.

That’s something I’m very interested in as well. I feel like we’ve seen more and more examples of true crime obsession taking over people’s lives — like Michelle McNamara and her book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, about the Golden State Killer. Finding him consumed her.
I have been there. It is dangerous, it is dangerous. I spent 10 years trying to get this story out there in the public eye. You have to be somewhat obsessive to do that. You have to be somewhat obsessive to think that you can help solve something, but you also have to be careful because there are a lot of other people egging you on. You find validation in all these other people, so it becomes very much like QAnon. It’s like, oh my God, you lose a loved one down the rabbit hole.

Do you think Terry’s theories about Berkowitz being part of a Satanic network were rooted in reality? Or was he getting into QAnon territory?
You know what I like to say? I say that Maury Terry made a deal with the devil. Maury Terry’s initial investigation of how David Berkowitz did not act alone was extremely well-researched and well-investigated. He had a preponderance of evidence to suggest that David Berkowitz did not act alone, whether they were sketches, clues in the letter, police reports, even investigations by former NYPD themselves to suggest that Berkowitz did not act alone.

When he presented that evidence publicly, and when he went against the both police narrative and the press narrative that had been codified — David Berkowitz and the talking dog — when he went against that narrative, the police called him a crackpot. That’s when I think he doubled down.

Tragically, the only people who would give him a platform were the tabloid press, the Geraldos of the world, the Morton Downey, Jr.s, the Richard Beys, places like that. That ironically dovetailed into the Satanic Panic wave that was coming across the nation. I think he found a number of different venues that would amplify his specific message that Berkowitz did not act alone, but in doing so he kind of made a deal with the devil and sacrificed his own credibility, which ended up undermining his original work.

What do you think would have satisfied him?
He had told me that all he ever truly wanted was the police to apologize. He wanted to make sure that the victims knew who shot them. He was almost naive in the way that he was so forthright. It was interesting, I would tend to chalk up certain things to big city politics and he was offended almost, in that kind of altar boy sense. He always wanted the police to apologize, but people have told me after a while that it is like maybe Maury never wanted to find the truth because he never wanted the journey to end.

Before those cops told you about Maury Terry, had you heard about the theory that there was more than one Son of Sam?
Weirdly enough, I had not, and I grew up in New York City, like, Son of Sam was our guy. I think that that was one of the very interesting things that we really tried to go into in the documentary. The idea of, as the old saying goes, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. That line from Who Shot Liberty Valance? The idea that when the legend becomes codified, it is so hard to fight that legend.

You obviously talked to so many different people for this. What did you learn about the relationship between Terry and Berkowitz?
To me, their relationship is best defined by David’s very prescient comment [in a letter he wrote to Terry from prison], “No matter how much evidence you have, the world will never believe you.” How did he know? That is the most amazing thing to me. It is not the journalist who is the prescient guy, it is the serial killer who was somewhat more sane in that moment saying, “Look, you are never going to win against the establishment. You are never going to change this codified legend of David Berkowitz and the barking dog.” A lot of this series is about press and press mythologies and how we create those mythologies.

What do you think Maury would think of the finished product?
I am sure he would love it and hate it at the same time. I am sure he would yell at me for hours.

He was truly fascinating, but I think he becomes far more important in consideration with both the way that we consume media and the way in which we go down the rabbit hole. For me, it is all a rabbit hole. Everything is a rabbit hole, it is all one big rabbit hole. I think Maury becomes the ultimate sacrifice in our understanding of this cautionary tale and true crime.

I think that you like true crime as much as I do. I think we are kind of at a crossroads or at least some kind of bracket about our relationship to true crime. Don’t you think so?

I 100 percent agree. It seems like some people watch true crime to…
Get off?

Yeah. I watch the shows because I enjoy the investigative process and the way it fits together.
I do it, to be honest… I do it to change the way in which we look at our criminal justice system. I do it to show that life is far more complicated than solving a crime within half an hour. I do because I am interested in the way that the press creates narratives and mythologies and we kind of take them and run with them. David Berkowitz and the barking dog, five teenagers wilding through the park, while the barking dog is the equivalent of wilding. [It begins as a] police narrative and then a press narrative — then a fearful public that codifies that, that is the whole thing. The secret sauce to the cement is the fear of the public. They want the story to be over. They want the nightmare to be over. So, the secret sauce is fear.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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