The Best True Crime Documentaries You Won’t Be Able To Look Away From

Photo: Netflix / YouTube
Carole Baskin, Steven Avery and Chris Watts

Long before television even existed, true crime captivated the public — from Jack the Ripper’s murder spree in Victorian London to Lindbergh’s baby kidnapping in 1932.

Unsolved mysteries generate a huge amount of interest (including the aforementioned infamous cases) and the roster of outlandish and gruesome tragedies only continues to grow.

Whether a famous story or an unknown tale, there is an appetite for this genre of non-fiction storytelling that captures humanity at its worst while reflecting the society we live in. The perpetrators are not the only focal point, and filmmakers have also sought to remember the victims and bungling investigations while depicting the circumstances.

“I’m gonna watch a murder show,” the women of Saturday Night Live sang during a recent episode, and this catchy number reflects the collective obsession. As well as networks and long-running shows like Dateline dedicated to true crime, streaming services such as Amazon, HBO Max, Hulu, and Netflix are stacked with options.

From well-known serial killers to personal tales of survival, the list also covers everything from audacious heists to cults.

Grisly tales are far from the only ones available, and the selection below includes criminal cases without a high body count.

Familiar titles that became pop culture hits are sprinkled among series that flew beneath the radar — and are still worthy of your time.

RELATED: 8 Best True Crime Podcasts For People Who Just Love Being Scared

While some of the documentary subjects have already been the focus of dramatized versions, a few of the stories are currently in development and will soon be appearing alongside the non-fiction versions. Now is your chance to get the inside scoop before those hit streaming platforms.

Looking for a true-crime documentary to satisfy your inner detective? Here’s a list of 30 films and docuseries to check out, as well as where to watch them.

List of the 30 Best True Crime Documentaries and Where They’re Streaming Now

1. "Lorena" (2019)

The 1990s is having its moment in the sun once again. This reexamination applies to fashion trends, movie revivals, and major news stories that dominated the headlines such as how Monica Lewinsky was unfairly portrayed in the press.

Lorena Bobbitt falls into the latter camp after she gained infamy in 1993 when she cut off her sleeping husband’s penis. The four-part series directed by Joshua Rofé (and produced by Jordan Peele), explores how Lorena and John Bobbitt’s differing stories were covered and the way Lorena’s domestic and rape accusations against her husband was turned into a national joke.

This was a time when the 24-hour news cycle was in its infancy and this case encapsulates how the court of public opinion has a damaging and lasting impact.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime

2. "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills" (1996)

One of the definitive true crime documentaries, "Paradise Lost" details the gruesome events surrounding the deaths of three 8-year-old boys in 1993.

Acclaimed filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky head to West Memphis, Arkansas to investigate the brutal murders and the three teenagers accused of the crime. Irrational fears about the occult and satanic worship had the press whipped up into a frenzy, and this was cited as the motive.

Police interrogation techniques and the pressure put on the teenagers is central to a case that spawned two sequels by Berlinger and Sinofsky. "Paradise Lost 2: Revelations" and "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" follow the appeals of the West Memphis Three (who have always maintained their innocence) are also available to stream. The latter was Oscar-nominated in 2012.

Where to watch: HBO Max

3. "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst" (2015)

It is rare to get as close to the suspect as Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling get to the “eccentric” Robert Durst in this now legendary docuseries. Durst’s life is littered with tragedy and the disappearance of his wife in 1982 (still unsolved), the murder of a confidante 18 years later, and the dismemberment of a neighbor in Texas all add up to a disturbing picture.

Jarecki actually directed a dramatized version of Durst and his first wife Kathie (the couple is played by Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst but with slightly different character names) in the 2010 movie "All Good Things" — and Durst was a fan of his work.

This is a massive red flag regarding the figure at the center of this story. Estranged from his very rich New York real estate family, this documentary is bristling with scandal. But not even Jarecki could’ve predicted the hot mic moment and the bombshell uttered that turned "The Jinx" into an instant classic and led to an ongoing trial.

Where to watch: HBO Max, Hulu

4. "The Case Against Adnan Syed" (2019)

Podcasts have only added to the true-crime fever with Serial kicking off the investigative podcast boon. Sarah Koenig’s wildly popular 2014 investigation into 18-year-old high school student Hae Min Lee’s murder and the man accused of the crime led to the four-part HBO series, which looks into the events that led to Adnan Syed’s arrest and subsequent prosecution.

Oscar-nominated director Amy J. Berg adds context to the case, as well as depicting more about who Hae Min Lee was, and giving an update to Syed’s appeal process. Filmmaker bias is hard to completely extract from the process, and some did criticize the pro-Adnan framework.

One notable aspect is Berg shone a light on who Hae Min Lee was and the victim is often an afterthought when a crime gains this much attention.

Where to watch: HBO Max

5. "I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter" (2019)

Technology plays a major role in this landmark case that saw Michelle Carter accused of encouraging her 18-year-old boyfriend Conrad Roy to kill himself. When the police discovered the incriminating text messages, Carter was charged with involuntary manslaughter.

Told over two episodes titled “The Prosecution” and “The Defense,” filmmaker Erin Lee Carr explores this nuanced case with empathy and without judgment regarding Carter’s involvement.

Hulu is reported to be developing a series based on this text-suicide trial called The Girl from Plainville with Elle Fanning portraying Carter.

Where to watch: HBO Max

6. "Who Killed Garrett Phillips?" (2019)

Following the murder of 12-year-old Garrett Phillips in 2011, the police investigation in the small northern New York town honed in on one suspect. In the predominantly white community, Black soccer coach Nick Hillary (who was the ex-boyfriend of Phillips’ mother) was identified as a possible suspect. Liz Garbus presents a familiar story of insufficient investigating, prosecutorial misconduct, and deep systematic racism that potentially let the real killer escape.

The two-part documentary explores all avenues of the case (although Garrett Phillips’ mother did not talk to the filmmaker), including how rushed the investigation was, leads that weren’t followed, and how the unsolved case divided the Postdam community.

The accused, Nick Hillary did speak to Garbus multiple times and footage from his 2016 trial is also included.

Where to watch: HBO Max

7. "Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults" (2020)

The 1975 disappearance of 20 people from a small Oregon town, followed by the mass suicide of 39 people two decades later is tied to the Heaven’s Gate cult who are at the center of this four-part series.

Clay Tweel’s exploration considers why people were drawn to the UFO worshipping cult and its leader Marshall Applewhite. They believed that beneath our human form we are extraterrestrials, which turned them into a national joke.

The documentary features surviving former members and loved ones of those who died in 1997 — in what is still the largest mass suicide on US soil. Going beyond the headline-grabbing details (such as everyone was wearing the same style of Nike sneakers when they died by suicide), Tweel portrays a group who deserves more than being remembered as a joke primed for pop culture.

It is also a precursor to the story of the NXIVM cult that is at the heart of HBO Max’s "The Vow."

Where to watch: HBO Max

8. "Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children" (2020)

If you have watched the second season of the excellent "Mindhunter" on Netflix, then you will be familiar with the horrifying crimes that haunted Atlanta between 1979 and 1981.

Across five episodes, Sam Pollard and Maro Chermayeff’s series depicts the harrowing events surrounding the disappearance of at least 30 African American children and young adults.

After the case was reopened 40 years later, new information and evidence have come to light that suggests Wayne Williams might not be the perpetrator of the crimes (or there are other suspects that have been overlooked). A repeat true-crime documentary theme is inept police work, a community left in tatters, and a broken system that hampers what work is being done — all of which are present here.

Racial tension is also a massive factor and previously unseen footage reveals how this contributed to this tragedy.

Where to watch: HBO Max

9. "I’ll Be Gone in the Dark" (2020)

Based on the book of the same name by crime writer Michelle McNamara, this docuseries effectively weaves McNamara’s personal story alongside her investigation into the man she first called the Golden State Killer in 2013 — a name that has since stuck. McNamara sadly died while writing this book and before the man who had terrorized California in the ‘70s and ‘80s was finally apprehended.

Capturing the crime writer’s incredible (and dogged) investigative skills, this series also focuses on the victims rather than the man who committed them. It is a beautiful testament to her work, which also approached this form of non-fiction storytelling in a way that never felt exploitative.

This is not only an incredible true-crime series, but it was also one of the best TV shows of any genre that aired last year.

Where to watch: HBO Max

10. McMillions (2020)

Murder dominates true crime, but there are also plenty of scamming stories to be dissected. One of the more outlandish recent offerings is the events surrounding the McDonald’s Monopoly promotion and the array of accomplices who participated in this scheme to get rich quickly.

It isn’t just the criminals who provide colorful narration regarding the fraud that totaled $24 million dollars and how the ring was brought down. The FBI agents who worked out of the Jacksonville, Florida office are interviewed and one is more chaotic than the others — so much so that he got his own promo from HBO.

The Emmy-nominated series falls into the “wild but true” category and gets more outlandish with every twist.

Where to watch: HBO Max

11. "Murder On Middle Beach" (2020)

Combining a personal investigation with a documentary series isn’t that uncommon but it is rare that a director is a close to the victim as Madison Hamberg is. The first-time filmmaker started this project while he was at college as he tried to unpick the pieces of his mother’s death.

This isn’t just about solving his mother’s violent murder but also peeling back the layers of a family fractured long before this incident. These include the fraudulent activities Barbara Beach Hamburg was embroiled in at the time of her death and potentially shady business dealings by her ex-husband (and Madison’s dad).

It is an incredible feat and one that reveals many cracks in the police investigation, a difficult relationship with his father, and the effects of a decade without answers.

Where to watch: HBO Max

12. "O.J.: Made in America" (2016)

Winner of Best Documentary at the 2017 Academy Awards, the in-depth examination of O.J. Simpson’s rise and fall gets to the heart of a definitive moment in 20th century America. Celebrity, race, class, gender, the media, and the criminal justice system all factor into this story, which goes beyond the surface level details of the murders Simpson went on trial for in 1995.

This is one of the first examples of turning the spotlight back on an event that defined the ‘90s and the beginning of the 24-hour news cycle. Made in conjunction with ESPN films as part of the 30 for 30 series, the five episodes explore the circumstances that surrounded Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman’s horrific murders, and how the so-called trial of the century was covered.

The seven-hour runtime might sound like a big investment but it never drags and every moment is worth diving into.

Filmmaker Ezra Edelman spoke to former colleagues, friends, and those who were involved with the case and subsequent trial. It is a great companion piece to the dramatized "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story" (also released in 2016) and the ongoing "You’re Wrong About" podcast episodes looking back at O.J.’s trial.

Where to watch: ESPN

13. "Sasquatch" (2021)

What begins as a story straight out of "The X-Files" turns into a far more sinister deep dive into California’s criminal underbelly that exists in the region known as the Emerald Triangle. Even that name sounds like somewhere Mulder and Scully would venture to in order to investigate the alleged murder of three men by a Sasquatch.

Over three episodes, journalist David Holthouse meets the Squatchers obsessed with finding the mythical creature while also uncovering dark truths about the murdered men. The remote location was once home to the back-to-the-landers in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but this self-sustained community was broken up by the War on Drugs (they also grew marijuana).

This sprawling tale reveals the troubling reality of the murderers the Sasquatch was blamed for — real monsters are often human — and is a fascinating look at the Golden State’s isolated mountains (and the plants grown for profit).

Where to watch: Hulu

14. "The Staircase" (2004-2018)

This is another must-see documentary and one that has led to some out-there theories (look up the one involving an owl). The events surrounding Kathleen Peterson’s “accidental” death are shown in Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s 2004 French TV miniseries that captured the trial of her husband Michael Peterson.

The Oscar-winning director was given access to Peterson’s trial, legal team, and his family as he mounted his defense against the crime he has been accused of. The novelist claimed his wife had fallen down the stairs but evidence suggested otherwise.

The original series won a Peabody in 2005 and de Lestrade made two more episodes to capture Peterson’s retrial in 2013. Five years later, Netflix commissioned three more episodes and it is currently being made into a scripted series for HBO Max with Colin Firth set to play the accused and Toni Collette as his dead wife Kathleen.

Where to watch: Netflix

15. "Making A Murderer" (2015)

If Serial was a benchmark moment for true crime podcasts then Making a Murderer is the documentary series that kicked off the Netflix domination in this particular arena.

Steven Avery’s legal entanglement captured the audience’s attention due to a prior case and the heavy-handed interrogation techniques used to get a confession out of his nephew. Avery had been released from prison after serving 18 years for a rape and attempted murder he did not commit, but four years her was convicted of Teresa Halbach’s murder.

There was some dispute regarding information the documentary left out, but the series did receive critical acclaim and won four Emmy Awards.

When it was released in December 2015, it was a surprise hit for the streamer and they have been trying to recapture this level of interest with subsequent true-crime offerings.

Where to watch: Netflix

RELATED: Haunting True Stories & Important Lessons From 9 People Who Survived Attempted Murder

16. "Amanda Knox" (2016)

Amanda Knox has been convicted twice (and subsequently acquitted) of her roommate Meredith Kercher’s senseless murder in the small Italian town where they were both studying in 2007.

This documentary film debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in 2016 before landing on Netflix that month and recounts the trial by media, the actual trial, and Knox’s campaign to prove her innocence.

Most of the major players are interviewed and it examines the notion of the “right” way to behave when a terrible crime has been committed.

Focused on Knox, it sets out to show her innocence and why the tabloids found her so fascinating.

Where to watch: Netflix

17. "The Keepers" (2017)

Scandals linked to the Catholic Church are not unexpected (particularly after the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team’s explosive findings), but this seven-part series about the still-unsolved murder of Sister Cathy Cesnick finds new ways to shock.

Sister Cathy was a popular English and drama teacher at an all-girls school in Baltimore and her 1969 slaying sent shockwaves through the community.

But was she killed to keep the abuse inflicted on pupils a secret? There are no definitive answers, but her former students play amateur detectives in a bid to find justice for Sister Cathy while keeping her memory alive.

It is a harrowing but necessary watch that highlights how long-buried secrets can still cause harm decades later.

Where to watch: Netflix

18. "Wormwood" (2017)

Documentaries often feature reenactments or dramatized renderings of real events but Errol Morris’ series about CIA experiments using LSD presents this story using recognizable actors like Peter Sarsgaard, Molly Parker, and Jimmi Simpson. Considering the story is about blurring perception this creative choice is a bold one that matches the material.

What appears to be an apparent suicide of biological war scientist Frank Olson (Sarsgaard) could be a murder made to look like Olson killed himself. Project MKUltra is an infamous CIA program (Eleven’s mother was a participant in "Stranger Things") and this plays a pivotal role in this story.

Told through interviews with Olson’s son Eric, the series explores the unstoppable desire to find out what really happened and this seemingly futile quest for the truth.

Where to watch: Netflix

19. "Abducted in Plain Sight" (2017)

The kidnapping case of Jan Broberg is hard to believe but the events that took place in an Idaho neighborhood in the 1970s are true. The teenager was abducted not once but twice by her much older neighbor at the ages of 12 and 14.

Religion, alien abduction, and good old-fashioned manipulation all factor in Skye Borgman’s documentary that features a now-adult Jan Broberg discussing the events that led to this crime.

Told over a tight 91-minute runtime, this is an extremely unusual story that features a lot of familiar true crime hallmarks.

Where to watch: Netflix

20. "Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist" (2018)

The title of this four-part documentary captures some of the bizarre events of the 2003 “pizza bomber” case and is one of several titles on this list that is a Duplass Brothers Production (see also "Sasquatch" and "Wild Wild Country").

Unlike other series on this list that tap into deep-rooted issues with the judicial system or media failings, this one is mostly concerned with the motivations of the perpetrators and not the wider picture.

The initial murder of Brian Wells (that included a bomb collar and pizza delivery) was a complex plot to rob a bank in Eerie, Pennsylvania, and a case that captured attention back in 2003.

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Where to watch: Netflix

21. "Wild Wild Country" (2018)

Where is the perfect place to start a cult? For Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (aka Osho) the Oregon desert is ideal for building a utopian city. But not everyone in the small town of Antelope is thrilled with their new neighbors and a conflict with local ranchers begins.

What follows is the first bioterror attack in US history and the largest case of illegal wiretapping recorded. Somehow this cultural moment was forgotten until directors Chapman and Maclain Way revisited the events that occurred in the 1980s.

Cults are big business, and this is another extreme story and it is hard to believe it occurred less than 40 years ago.

Where to watch: Netflix

22. "Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened" (2019)

Not one but two documentaries about the luxury island music experience, which fell apart at the seams in 2017 landed two years after the fraudulently marketed event took place. Hulu’s "Fyre Fraud" is also worth checking out but it doesn’t have Andy King revealing how far he was willing to go for some Evian when the event started crumbling.

King became a meme and the official face of the water brand, so not everyone came out of this in tatters. The made-for-social media party from entrepreneur Billy McFarland sold out quickly because who wouldn’t want to party with Insta models in the Bahamas?

But it was too good to be true and this documentary reveals the behind-the-scenes mess as well as interviews with those in attendance, employees, and people who ran local businesses hit hard by work that went unpaid. It wasn’t just rich kids who were out of pocket because of this now notorious festival.

Where to watch: Netflix

23. "American Murder: The Family Next Door" (2020)

Director Jenny Popplewell uses social media and text messages to show the gulf between how we present our lives on Facebook and the messy reality.

When the pregnant Shannon Watts and her two young daughters were murdered in 2018, her husband Chris Watts initially claimed he had no idea what had happened to them.

The story told in this documentary using Watts’ frequent posting and text message to paint a very different story and the end result is a thoroughly modern version of an old heartbreaking story.

Where to watch: Netflix

24. "The Innocence Files" (2020)

If you watch a lot of true crime then the flawed justice system in the United States is something you will have seen time and time again — whether wrongful convictions or sloppy investigations.

This nine-part docuseries is split into three sections — “The Evidence,” “The Witness,” and “The Prosecution” — exploring how an innocent person can be found guilty and the detrimental impact this has on both the accused and the victims.

The Innocence Project has worked on high-profile convictions such as the Central Park Jogger case depicted in Ava DuVernay’s "When They See Us," but the eight stories featured in this series are lesser-known accounts that are just as worthy of attention.

Where to watch: Netflix

25. "Trial By Media" (2020)

Whereas "The Innocence Files" explores cases that flew beneath the radar, the stories featured in "Trial by Media" took up column inches for months and were plastered all over the front page. If it bleeds, it leads is a tabloid saying, and the six-episode series includes the infamous "Jenny Jones Show" murder and the so-called “Subway Vigilante.”

The focus of this series is to show how the media impacted public opinion and how these crimes were prosecuted playing on bias and opinions formed by the news we consume. Other cases include the heartbreaking murder of Amadou Diallo at the hands of the police (he was shot 41 times and memorialized in a song by Bruce Springsteen).

Racial tension is a factor in the latter and while this shooting occurred more than two decades ago, it is still relevant and all-too-familiar when considering events in 2021.

Where to watch: Netflix

26. Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (2020)

It is hard to know what impact this docuseries would have had if it wasn’t released in the first month of a pandemic lockdown, but the portrayal of Joe Schreibvogel (aka Joe Exotic) was one of the most talked-about non-fiction series of 2020 (for better or worse).

Even if you haven’t seen any of the seven episodes, you have likely heard of Joe. From the mystery of what happened to Carole Baskin’s first husband to the crime that landed the titular Tiger King in prison, this story is ripe for a documentary — and from the same team as Fyre.

Mullets, animal print attire, and the laws that let you keep exotic animals in a private collection are all eyebrow-raising elements that aim to shock.

Nic Cage is set to play Joe Exotic with Kate McKinnon as Carole Baskin in a scripted version from Amazon Studios of these wild (pun intended) events.

Where to watch: Netflix

27. The Ripper (2020)

In the 1970s, women in England were told to stay home during a spate of murders in various northern cities and towns. The police were at a loss and the growing body count led to this extreme measure. Women protested this mandate and this sadly resonates with the recent Sarah Everard case and the similar suggestion from the police to local London residents.

Turning back the clock 40 years reveals authorities not sharing information, making assumptions about the killer only targetting sex workers, and focusing on the wrong information.

Nicknamed the Yorkshire Ripper because of similarities to the Victorian serial killer it is worth pointing out that Hallie Rubenhold’s insightful book "The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper" also reveals failings similar to this 20th-century case.

This series is at its strongest when it focuses on the women who were there at the time and not the men who investigated the horrific crimes.

Where to watch: Netflix

28. "Murder Among the Mormons" (2021)

Homemade bombs and forged documents are at the heart of this series of crimes in 1985 that shook the Morman community in Salt Lake City. The three explosive devices were linked to master forger Mark Hofmann and this plays out like a more deadly version of author Lee Israel (played by Melissa McCarthy in the excellent "Can You Ever Forgive Me?").

Directed by Jared Hess and Tyler Meason (and produced by documentary maestro Joe Berlinger), it explores the church with sensitivity and insight no doubt informed by their upbringing (both were raised in the Mormon faith).

Documents are integral to the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints and this gets to the heart of the history behind this religious institution.

Where to watch: Netflix

29. "This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist" (2021)

On St. Patrick’s Day in 1990, two men impersonating police officers gained entry into the Isabella Stwart Gardner Museum in Boston and stole works by artists including Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas, and Manet. The haul totaled over half a billion dollars and the case is still unsolved.

Over the last 30 years, suspects ranging from the security officer working that night to the Italian and Irish mob have been interrogated but still, the FBI has come up empty-handed.

There are plenty of threads that suggest the crime can still be solved but a lot of the persons of interest are now dead.

Where to watch: Netflix

30. "The Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness" (2021)

The notorious 1976 “Son of Sam” killings that haunted New York City were attributed to Dave Berkowitz and he is another killer featured on Netflix’s "Mindhunter," as well as Spike Lee’s 1999 movie "Summer of Sam."

The press referred to him as the .44 Caliber Killer (on account of the weapon he used), but no one could be prepared for who Berkowitz blamed for his crimes. He claimed that a neighbor’s dog was speaking to him and ordering that he kill people at random in the various New York boroughs.

This documentary not only depicts the events of that terrifying summer, but it follows a reporter who became obsessed with the idea that the police hadn’t caught all of the perpetrators.

Narrated by Paul Giamatti as the now-deceased author Maury Terry, this is a documentary that takes a different approach to an infamous serial killer.

Where to watch: Netflix

RELATED: 5 Gruesome Unsolved Murders That Armchair Detectives Still Try To Solve Today

Emma Fraser is a freelance culture writer with a focus on TV, movies, and costume design. You can find her talking about all of these things on Twitter.