18 Crime Documentaries To Stream and Be Horrified By

I think if I were to do an inventory of my brain, the “I truly don’t need to know this shit” section would be filled to the brim with true crime stories, satanic panic, and sadistic cults. I guess a lot of us are drawn to the macabre and to explorations of the criminal mind and why people do unspeakable things. Then there’s the criminal justice system itself in the US, which has its own unspeakable and ethically inexcusable structures to investigate. So, if you’re looking to #netflixandcozy this wintery weekend and have already watched Making a Murderer, here are some disturbing films to curl up with, all available online in some format.

I’ve split the list into two categories: documentaries in which the crime is the focus, and documentaries in which the criminal justice system is the focus. Make your own recommendations in the comments!


True Crime & Criminals Documentaries

Cropsey – Netflix

A cannon crime documentary, this one is like somebody made a really professional movie out of your childhood nightmares. All Staten Island kids knew the story of “Cropsey,” an escaped mental patient who was kidnapping and murdering kids in the ’70s and ’80s — but also, somebody was kidnapping and murdering those kids. This story is at the intersection of legend and shocking reality.

Aileen: The Life and Death of A Serial Killer – Netflix & Amazon Prime

A follow-up by the documentarian who made Aileen: The Selling of a Serial Killer (also on Netflix), which focused on how the case of lesbian serial killer Aileen Wournos, the subject of the film Monster, was being used by everybody close to the case to cash in. Aileen’s story is tragic any way you look at it and she is also a very interesting human being.

The Staircase – Sundance Doc Club & Amazon

Before “Making a Murderer,” there was this eight-episode investigation into the case of Kathleen Peterson, whose novelist husband is accused of murdering her after he calls 911 and says she’s died from falling down the stairwell. In a way this series is also about the system itself because prepare to be blown away by the incredible defense you can buy for yourself if you can afford it.

The Imposter – Netflix

A 13-year old boy in Texas goes missing and three years later, somebody claiming to be him shows up in Spain. What is going on.

There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane – Amazon Prime & HBO Go

The chilling case of a suburban mother who crashed her mini-van going the wrong way an upstate New York parkway, killing herself, the five children in her car and the three men in the SUV she ran into. This documentary looks for the truth between the two images of Diane: reckless alcoholic or perfect wife and mother.

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst – HBO Go & Amazon

Robert Durst, man.

Capturing the Friedmans – YouTube

The Friedmans seemed to be a normal middle-class New York suburban family. This film, by the maker of The Jinx, mixes their extensive collection of home video into the story of what happened when the father, Arnold Friedman, and his youngest son, Jesse, were accused of possessing child pornography and molesting children who came to the house for computer classes.

Dear Zachary – Netflix

This one’s a real tearjerker. Kurt Kuenne, a friend of Andrew Bagby, who was allegedly murdered by his ex-girlfriend, learned after Bagby’s murder that his ex-girlfriend was pregnant with Bagby’s son. Kurt began making a movie for this son… and then there’s a tragic twist.


Documentaries focused on The Criminal Justice System

Girlhood – Netflix

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Girlhood, about two young girls in a Baltimore juvenile detention center, is raw and real and bigger than its subjects and its director and the 88 minutes you’ll spend watching it.

Kids For Cash – Netflix & Amazon

It’s an ugly one: the story of a judge convicted of sending a suspicious number of children to two specific private, for-profit youth detention centers with severe and lengthy sentences… and the kickback they got for doing so. Or, in Amazon’s words: “the untold stories of a judicial scandal that rocked America and the chilling aftermath of the lives destroyed in the process. ”

The Central Park Five – Netflix & Amazon Prime

If you are a human being, you should familiarize yourself with this case. In 1989, five black and Latino teenagers were convicted and sent to jail for raping a white woman in Central Park. They did not commit the crime, but there were larger factors at work that led to their incarceration.

Brother’s Keeper – Netflix & Sundance Doc Club

A small town in New York rallies to support an elderly man who always lived on the fringes — specifically, in a shack on a farm with his bachelor brothers — when he is accused of murdering the brother he’s lived with all his life.

The Thin Blue Line – Netflix

Directed by former private detective and now well-known documentarian Errol Morris with music by Phillip Glass, this 1988 film, marketed as “non-fiction” rather than as a documentary, is often credited with pioneering modern crime-scene reenactments. It tells the story of  28-year-old Randall Dale Adams, who was convicted and sent to prison for the murder of a police officer. He did not murder the police officer.

Murder on a Sunday Morning – Sundance Doc Club & Amazon

An Oscar-winning documentary about a 15-year-old black teenager accused of murdering an elderly white woman and how his defense team unraveled his case to find horrific police misconduct.

Gideon’s Army – Netflix & Amazon

The story of three public defenders working tirelessly and thanklessly to get justice for clients who can’t afford representation.

The House I Live In – Netflix & Amazon

A hard look at the war on drugs and who’s winning (nobody!) and who is suffering

The Paradise Lost Trilogy – Amazon Prime

Probably the first true crime documentary I ever saw was the first Paradise Lost film, the story of four boys convicted for murders they didn’t commit because of Satanic Panic and the fact that nobody liked them.

Into the Abyss – Netflix & Amazon

Werner Herzog follows a man sentenced to death for murdering a nurse and possibly two other people during a car theft in the weeks leading up to his execution.

Riese is the 37-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2753 articles for us.

19 Comments

  1. Such a good list, I can’t wait to watch some of these.
    The Staircase and Dear Zachary are amazing. But Dear Zachary, jesus christ that documentary scarred me. I’d say ‘tear-jerker’ is an understatement. I was full on sobbing for a good half an hour after that, if not more. Its the only movie, non-fiction or not, to ever have that effect on me, and I’ve seen that echoed elsewhere, even on reddit. Definitely watch it, just make sure you’re feeling your best. Or maybe your worst, and then you’ll already be prepared to feel awful? Who knows. Its an amazing film.

    • You might wanna rethink that, because Autostraddle just reported that MI5 is the most LGBT-friendly employer so who knows what hot lesbian spy will turn up at your door?

  2. Is it terrible that I know the formula of crime documentaries so well or already know the infamous or serial murderer’s case so well that I predict or say the next part of something? No one wants to watch these things with me, but I can’t blame them because I Hermione and give further details or even corrections which can be TMI.

  3. How convenient I just sat down to watch one.

    Dear Zachary made me cry harder than anything ever has before. It’s stunning and devastating but I almost never recommend it because it scarred me.

  4. It’s not on Netflix right now, but there’s a documentary series Hard Time I’ve watched a couple of times that fascinating. It’s about the prison system in Georgia, and follows several inmates and a new prison guard for the span of a year. If it goes back up I hiiiighly recommend watching it.

  5. I don’t know if I’ve missed seeing it elsewhere on Autostraddle, but it’s worth mentioning that the women who made Making a Murderer, Laura Riciardi and Moira Demos, are a lesbian couple who met while taking a graduate film studies course in middle age. They ended up selling their NYC apartment and moving to Manitowoc for quite a while so they could cover the case. Their documentary style is very impersonal, of course, but I really like the sound of them.

  6. Dear Zachary tore my chest open & stomped on my bleeding heart, but once I was done bawling my eyes out I felt weirdly like my life is better for having met Zachary’s father through the eyes of those who loved him. Don’t watch it with anyone who you don’t want seeing your ugly cry face

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