The true crime genre has exploded in recent years. What was once considered a “guilty pleasure” has since transcended to a highbrow subculture of popular entertainment. But many don’t realize that true crime has been around for centuries, originating with 16th century authors producing copious publications reporting on capital crimes.
Many have attributed the recent resurgence of the true crime genre to the viral popularity of the podcast Serial back in 2014. And in its wake, new true crime podcasts pop up almost weekly. But your headphones don’t have to be the only source for your obsession — documentary makers have been on the forefront of true crime for decades.
If you’re a bona fide true crime addict, then you’re no stranger to the high profile documentaries like Making a Murderer, The Jinx and The People v. O.J. Simpson. But you may be less familiar with these six compelling documentaries that you can — as of December 2016 — stream instantly on Netflix!
6 documentaries to feed your true crime addiction
1. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son about His Father
Duration: 1h 35min
What to expect: This documentary has garnered something of a cult following since it was released in 2008. This film is unique in that it was written, directed, produced, edited and scored by a close friend of the central crime’s victim. In it, viewers are introduced to the undoubtedly lovable Dr. Andrew Bagby whose promising future was abruptly cut short when he was shot five times at a state park near his home in Pennsylvania.
The documentary, assembled by lifelong filmmaker Kurt Kuenne, includes interviews with Bagby’s family members and close friends as it weaves in and out of the complicated international investigation following his death. Chock full of raw emotion and utterly shocking twists and turns, keep the tissues nearby and be sure to watch this one until the very end.
2. Amanda Knox
Duration: 1h 32min
What to expect: O.J. Simpson, Jodi Arias, Casey Anthony — these have become household names since the nation (and much of the Western world) was captivated by their very public murder trials. The name Amanda Knox belongs in their company.
Knox was an American exchange student studying in Italy when her roommate, British student Meredith Kercher, was murdered. It didn’t take long for Italian investigators to consider Knox a prime suspect, but it was the work of the international media that solidified her guilt to many.
This 2016 Netflix documentary takes a focused look at the investigation into Kercher’s murder, the media circus that inevitably followed and the insurmountable toll it took on the lives of those involved. The film includes fascinating interviews with some of the key players in this case, including Amanda Knox herself, her then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, lead Italian investigator Giuliano Mignini and one of the journalists responsible for stirring up the media frenzy.
3. The Witness
Duration: 1h 29min
What to expect: In The Witness, Bill Genovese is a man on a mission. Along with filmmaker James Solomon, Genovese reexamines the 1964 murder of his older sister, Kitty Genovese. When the 29-year-old was attacked and murdered on a quiet street in Queens in the middle of the night, it didn’t take long for the tragedy to become a nationwide sensation. The media quickly reported that an alarming 38 witnesses stood by from their apartment windows, yet not one phoned the police or tried to help Kitty – something that became a widely publicized example of the ‘Heartless American.’
Genovese tracks down several of the 38 witnesses to interview them in the present day and it’s not long before he discovers that all was not as it seemed. In an examination of the moral purpose of a witness, the unyielding power of the media and 1960s New York culture, The Witness is a quiet yet powerful film.
4. The Hunt with John Walsh
Duration: Two seasons available (8 episodes each)
What to expect: John Walsh is best known as the host of America’s Most Wanted — a show he was inspired to create after his own six-year-old son, Adam, was abducted from a Sears department store in 1981. Just over two weeks after the kidnapping, evidence of the young boy’s body was discovered in a drainage canal approximately 120 miles from his home. Adam’s killer wouldn’t be identified for nearly 30 years.
The Hunt, much like America’s Most Wanted, is an investigative series that profiles ongoing, unsolved crimes recounted largely through interviews with witnesses, family members of the victims and law enforcement officials. The show covers a new unsolved crime in each episode, each one ending in typical AMW fashion: displaying a photograph or police sketch of the suspect along with a phone number to call if viewers have relevant information.
Since the show began airing, seven of the fugitives featured have been captured, one has been killed and three have been found dead. The show currently has three seasons, the first two of which are available to stream on Netflix.
5. Who Took Johnny?
Duration: 1h 21min
What to expect: This documentary explores one of the most confounding missing person cases to plague our nation: the disappearance of 12-year-old paperboy, Johnny Gosch. Early one Sunday morning in 1982, Johnny vanished from his paper route in West Des Moines, Iowa — his wagon full of newspapers left abandoned on the sidewalk.
His parents were shocked by the lack of urgency displayed by local law enforcement regarding their son’s case. It took more than 45 minutes for the police to show up after the initial call to report Johnny missing, and even then officials stated they were required to wait 72 hours before they could officially classify him as a missing person and begin investigating his disappearance.
Despite the neighbors’ reports of a large man speaking to Johnny from his vehicle while another man later followed him along his paper route, the Gosch family had to stay put for three excruciating days while clues that could’ve led to the whereabouts of their son drifted further and further away.
In the years that followed, a truly bizarre series of events unfolded, leading to many more questions than answers in Johnny’s case. You must watch the details of this case unfold to truly believe it.
6. CNN’s Death Row Stories
Duration: One season available (8 episodes)
What to expect: This CNN documentary series is equipped with a dynamic team. Co-directed by Academy Award-winning directors Alex Gibney and Robert Redford, each episode dives into a different capital murder case, all narrated by Academy Award winner Susan Sarandon.
The series unravels the investigations of each case, focusing specifically on the accused murderers sitting in prison as they slowly await their court-mandated deaths. From chilling, unremorseful alleged killers to purported criminals who’ve maintained their innocence from the start, the show serves as an — at times controversial — examination of capital punishment.
There are currently two full seasons of Death Row Stories, the first of which is available to stream on Netflix.
From the screen to a real-life scene
Grab the popcorn and your favorite beverage, settle into the couch and let these six documentaries feed your true crime addiction while provoking critical thought over evidence, witness testimonies, botched investigations, wrongful convictions and the harmful and helpful impact of media coverage.
If you’re the type who’s always ready for a new, confounding case to examine — whether through true crime documentaries, podcasts or news stories — you might consider turning your investigative nature into a career. You can learn more about your options by reading our article: Private Investigator vs. Police Detective: Making the Case
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in December 2013. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2016.