It’s the time of year when I tend to push the boundaries of how many scary stories I can stomach. That includes horror movies, but also, true crime offerings that I may have skipped. Of course, with true crime, that self-soothing mantra of “at least it’s not real” doesn’t apply, which makes it all the more haunting. Here are four picks that shook me to my core.
“Beware the Slenderman”
On May 31, 2014, in Waukesha, Wis., Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser, then 12 years old, lured their friend and classmate Payton Leutner into a forest and stabbed her 19 times. Weier and Geyser were trying to appease the fictional character Slender Man, a tall, lanky, faceless ghoul and modern-day boogeyman whose image had been disseminated on the Creepypasta Wiki, a horror-centric online forum. The girls believed that if they killed their friend, they would save their families from Slender Man’s wrath and get to live forever in what they called Slender Mansion.
This 2016 documentary, directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky, uses chilling footage of the girls recounting the precipitating events to police officers hours after the stabbing. And Brodsky spent 18 months with the parents of Weier and Geyser ahead of their trial on charges of attempted first-degree murder.
Particularly hard to shake is how Slender Man captivated young people. The character originated from a Photoshop challenge to create convincing paranormal images, then spread to platforms across the web and became the basis of popular online games. In the documentary, mental health experts talk about the role of internet as companion; the abundance of grotesque imagery online; and what I found most disturbing: the concept that a meme with great spreadability is in fact a virus of the mind.
“John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise”
The term “killer clown” would normally send me running for the hills. But I was curious about this 2021 six-episode Peacock docuseries, which is a comprehensive exploration of the crimes committed by the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who preyed on boys and men and was sentenced on 33 counts of homicide in 1980. Gacy, who had been a respected and well-connected figure in his Chicago community and who performed for children as Pogo the Clown, was executed at an Illinois prison in 1994.
Along with interviews of investigators, a sister of Gacy’s and family members of victims — as well as film of the excavation of his home, under which dozens of bodies were buried — the series includes a great deal of previously unseen footage of a 1992 interview with Gacy by the F.B.I. profiler Robert Ressler, who is credited with creating the term “serial killer.” (For “Mindhunter” fans, Ressler inspired the character of Special Agent Bill Tench.) Most indelible to me is how utterly ordinary and unremarkable Gacy seemed.
While serial killers like him have often been too heavily glorified, there is value in not forgetting the systemic failures that allowed such horrors to continue unchecked. Much as they did with the crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer, the police ignored warnings and pushed aside clues, including pleas from a victim who’d survived, because of entrenched homophobia.
“Dr. Death”: Season 1
I decided to binge this 10-episode series on a 12-hour road trip with my dogs. Not even one episode in, I had to pull over and get out of my car for some air. But I persevered, so don’t let that dissuade you.
Season 1 of this Wondery podcast, reported and hosted by the science journalist Laura Beil, tells the story of Christopher Duntsch, a young neurosurgeon who arrived in Dallas in 2010 and charmed his patients with confidence and charisma. He claimed that he could cure back pain when nothing else worked. Under his care, which amounted to butchery, over 30 patients were severely injured; two died.
As stomach-turning as these accounts are, revelations about how he slipped through the medical system are worse.
“In the Dark”: Season 1
In 1989, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped on a dead-end country road in his small Minnesota town, a kidnapping that would fuel an already fast-growing national paranoia: that pedophiles were snatching up America’s children. The search that followed was one of the largest manhunts in U.S. history. Though the investigation was terribly mishandled — as the host Madeleine Baran, an investigative journalist, and a team of reporters make clear over nine episodes and two bonus episodes of this American Public Media podcast (it found a new home at The New Yorker earlier this year).
For 27 years, there were no answers, but a couple of weeks before Season 1 was set to debut, in 2016, Wetterling’s remains were discovered, changing everything and taking a story from decades ago and placing it breathlessly in the present.