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‘The Sons Of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness:’ Satanic Panic And The Obsession Surrounding The Son Of Sam

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David Berkowitz, one of the most infamous serial killers in New York history, is the topic of Netflix’s most recent true crime limited series “The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness.” The series premiered May 5 and is the latest edition to the slew of Netflix true crime specials like “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel (2021)” and “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019).” However, unlike its countless predecessors, this series looks past the work of a single serial killer and into the obsession of one investigative journalist in what he believes to be the truth behind the murders of the Son of Sam.

The series itself is four episodes long — each about one hour in length — and delves into the true story of the Son of Sam killings as told by investigative journalist Maury Terry. Terry, prior to devoting his life to the Son of Sam murders, worked as an editor and research journalist for IBM news. However, in the summer of 1976, the murder of 18-year-old high school student Donna Lauria in the Bronx began a media frenzy. It was through this event that Terry’s fascination with the Son of Sam began and ultimately consumed his life for decades after.

The actual murders of the Son of Sam, or David Berkowitz — a 24-year-old postal worker living in Yonkers, N.Y.— often targeted young women, not for the sole fact that they were women but based on who was vulnerable and available to become a victim. These murders occurred over a one year span and brought New York, a city already consumed by crime, looting, violence and murder, into chaos. The New York Police Department (NYPD) could not connect a single name to these murders until the sixth and most publicized victim, Stacy Moskowitz (19), was shot along with her date 20-year-old Robert Violante, with only Violante who survived. 

Throughout the year-long spree, the people of New York grew from fearful to hateful and ready to enact revenge towards the man who brought such loss to this community. This led to desperation on part of the NYPD and, as Terry concludes, the rushed and incorrect persecution of Berkowitz.

This is where the series takes a clear turn that distinguishes it from Netflix’s previous true crime series. Rather than relying on the atrocities of Berkowitz’s crimes and capture, the series divulges into the conspiracy that Berkowitz did not act alone. Rather, he was a part of a satanic cult known as The Children.

Photo provided by Bettman/Contributor on biography.com 

For many true crime junkies, this conspiracy element could make or break the series; however, there are several points made by Terry’s obsession with this conspiracy that warrant some investigation. Terry posits that many of the police sketches, particularly the last killing of Moskowitz, look nothing like Berkowitz. In addition, several of the letters sent to lead detective Joseph Borrelli and New York Daily journalist Jimmy Breslin hints at the identity of the Son of Sam. One alias given in these letters is “John-Wheaties — Rapist and Suffocator of Young Girls,” pointing to one of Berkowitz’s supposed accomplices, John Wheat Carr and his brother Michael Carr.

Although this alias could be a simple coincidence since Berkowitz knew the Carr family and claimed that it was the Carr’s family black labrador retriever that inspired and directed his murders, the Carr brothers’ father was also named Sam. In addition, as mentioned in the letters, their father was abusive and would lock them in their attic as punishment. The coincidences presented by Terry are compelling; however, as the series continues, the reality of this conspiracy becomes a bit more convoluted.

By linking Berkowitz and the two Carr brothers to a nationwide Satanic cult, Terry claims that Berkowitz was simply taking orders and was not the only culprit in these killings. This would later be affirmed by Berkowitz 16 years after his initial incarceration. At the time and continued into the present day, the craze of Satanic panic has been a method of increased press and fear in the general community. Therefore, creating such a conspiracy is not conclusive even if there is some circumstantial and witness evidence to back it up. This makes the series a bit more confusing and shocking than informative; however, it does bring a more positive side to true crime.

Oftentimes, controversies arise around true crime, such as those surrounding “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer” released by Netflix this year, include explicit and unnecessary crime scene images that lead to overall exploitation of victims’ stories. Although the victims are mentioned and some videos of Berkowitz and crime scenes are shown for a few seconds, they are not the focus of the series. This is not discounting the significance of these victims and their families, but it does offer an alternative narrative. It can also be argued that presenting Berkowitz as part of a larger Satanic cult removes the blame and downplays his role in the murder of these innocent victims, which may also be viewed negatively by the series’ potential binge-watchers. 

Ultimately, the show is an easy watch, and Terry’s narration makes it quite interesting since he offers his own insight on the Sons of Sam obsession. Whether or not this conspiracy holds any ground is for viewers to determine; however, it is a good watch nonetheless.

Carisa DeSantos is an Entertainment Intern for the spring 2021 quarter. She can be reached at caridesantos@gmail.com