I remember the first time I heard the name David Berkowitz. It was on an old episode of Seinfeld – I can’t remember exactly what the plot was, but it somehow revolved around Newman’s job at the post office. At one point, Newman presented a mail bag he claimed had been owned by Berkowitz: the so-called ‘Son of Sam.’ Completely unfamiliar with both the name and the moniker, I then did a Google search for “Sam Berkowitz.” I was apparently under the impression that David was the son of someone much more famous.
Of course, I soon learned that ‘Son of Sam’ was simply the nickname of a notorious serial killer, much in the same way that ‘Nightstalker’ refers to Richard Ramirez or ‘Unabomber’ is interchangeable with the name Ted Kaczynski. But in many ways, these cases are not the same. ‘Nightstalker’ and ‘Unabomber’ were aliases conjured up by the media; ‘Son of Sam’ was invented by Berkowitz himself, scribbled at the bottom of rambling letters he sent to the police. Why Berkowitz chose the name – and whether he acted alone in the shootings – serves as the focal point of The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness, a Netflix docuseries that delves into the horror and the tragedy that stalked an investigative journalist for nearly four decades.
Berkowitz shot and killed six people in New York City during the 1970’s, becoming not only the subject of a state-wide manhunt but one of the most notorious murderers on the planet. His killing spree attracted international attention and terrified New Yorkers. Eluding police for more than a year, Berkowitz was finally arrested in 1977. He was reportedly asked, ‘Are you David Berkowitz?’, to which he replied: ‘No, I’m the Son of Sam. And you got me.’
All of this was covered within the first fifty minutes of a four-episode long series. I remember watching the footage of Berkowitz being paraded before reporters and asking myself, ‘What the hell are they gonna talk about for three more episodes?’
Well, as it turns out, The Sons of Sam is less about David Berkowitz himself and more about an investigative journalist called Maury Terry. Terry studied the case for decades and made it his life’s obsession to prove one theory: that Berkowitz was tied to a murderous Satanic cult that had actually been responsible for the shootings.
To give credit where it’s due, some of the coincidences Maury identified through his research are astonishing. The police sketches released before Berkowitz was apprehended look nothing like him; one looks suspiciously like a young John Prescott and another looks remarkably like Richard Ramirez, another serial killer with a rumoured link to Satanism.
According to Maury, one of the sketches bore a striking resemblance to a man named John Carr. John’s father was Sam Carr, a neighbour of Berkowitz who is widely believed to be the origin of Berkowitz’s ‘Son of Sam’ moniker. Berkowitz claimed that both of Carr’s sons, John and Michael, were involved in the cult and had played an active role in the murders. Both real-life ‘sons of Sam’ died shortly after Berkowitz’s arrest: John was found dead in an apparent suicide in 1978, while Michael was killed in a freak car accident less than a year later.
The series also dives into Maury’s belief that Satanists were involved in two other high-profile murder cases: that of Stanford student Arlis Perry in 1974, and Hollywood producer Roy Radin in 1983. Terry wrote a book about his investigation, The Ultimate Evil, which convinced many – including the parents of some of Berkowitz’s victims – that there was an occult-inspired conspiracy behind the killings.
I won’t give too much away in case you haven’t seen it, but not all of Terry’s theories panned out. The mainstream narrative has remained unchanged for forty years: David Berkowitz acted alone. The truth is that once you start looking for coincidences, you’re gonna find them. And as strange as some of those coincidences may be – and Terry did identify some genuinely spooky ones – that’s probably all they are. The Sons of Sam reminds me a lot of The X Files: sure, it’s fun to think about little grey men in flying sauces, but that doesn’t mean we should accept it as fact. Linking a serial killer to a murderous Satanic cult is an intriguing idea, and I enjoyed the series a lot, but the line between fact and fiction is just a little too blurry.