The Best True Crime Documentaries for All You Armchair Detectives Out There


The appetite for true crime documentaries has only multiplied in recent years, and in the streaming age, there are a plethora of TV shows and movies exploring mysteries, murders, and cold cases. From Netflix juggernauts to sleek HBO offerings, here are 31 of the best true crime documentaries to watch if you have a passion for justice and don’t mind feeling a little scared when you go to bed at night.

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Captive Audience: A Real American Horror Story

In 1972, seven-year-old Steven Stayner went missing. Seven years later, he reappeared, having escaped his captor and rescued five-year-old Timothy White, who’d also been snatched by convicted sex offender Kenneth Parnell. Hulu’s Captive Audience tells Steven’s incredible story, and explores what happened when his abduction was turned into a TV movie. And in 1999, when three women were brutally murdered, the Stayner family found itself at the center of another national investigation that changed their lives forever.

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The Inventor: Out for Blood

Elizabeth Holmes’ story has been well documented, and has just received the adaptation treatment in Hulu’s The Dropout, starring Amanda Seyfried. In January 2022, Theranos’ founder was convicted of “one count of one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and three counts of wire fraud for intentionally deceiving investors,” per The Wall Street Journal. While Holmes awaits sentencing, delve into HBO’s documentary about the healthcare startup that promised to change the world, before it all came crashing down.

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The 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground is a searing exploration of the terrifying cover-up of sexual assaults on college campuses across America. The film follows survivors who, in attempting to report the crimes committed against them, often face disbelief, victim-blaming, and an unjust erasure of any alleged crime. The Hunting Ground shows how a group of survivors fought back within the legal system, and attempted to change the way women and other victims of sexual assault are treated on campus.

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Netflix’s The Tinder Swindler catapulted Simon Leviev to international fame for all the wrong reasons. If you’ve somehow managed to swerve the glossy doc, The Tinder Swindler tells the story of a suave con artist with a penchant for online dating. Featuring interviews with his victims, many of whom lost tens of thousands of dollars, The Tinder Swindler exposes the underbelly of app romance, and hopefully serves as a warning to anyone thinking of transferring their internet bae a ton of cash.

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WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn

Though this saga is one more of epic corporate failure than traditional true crime, fans of the latter genre will still be fascinated with WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn. The documentary takes viewers behind the scenes of WeWork, examining the quick rise and subsequent fall of the shared office space company. It’s worth watching whether you’ve been watching Apple TV+’s WeCrashed or not, if only to see where Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway drew inspiration for their portrayals of founders Adam Neumann and his wife, Gwyneth Paltrow’s cousin Rebekah.

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If Unsolved Mysteries is your jam, then Netflix’s Worst Roommate Ever is the perfect binge-watch for you. Each episode introduces another offender who’s bound to make even the worst person you’ve ever lived with look simply angelic. From financial scams to professional squatters, Worst Roommate Ever will make you think twice about inviting any unvetted strangers to stay in your abode.

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Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives.

Netflix’s Bad Vegan tells the story of Sarma Melngailis, a New York restaurateur who became involved in a large-scale embezzlement. When Melngailis met a mysterious man named Shane Fox online, her life and business were forever changed. As well as making promises of immortality to her beloved dog, Fox made out he was embroiled in an intergalactic battle of good and evil. In order to pass his many tests, Melngailis found herself becoming financially involved in a way that threatened her livelihood.

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The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann

When Madeleine McCann went missing from the Algarve, Portugal on May 3, 2007, she was just three-years-old. Fifteen years later, the case of her disappearance from the vacation rental her family was staying at continues to gain traction in the media. Netflix’s documentary about the child’s disappearance re-examines the evidence, explores the suspects, and tries to find answers over a decade on.

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White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch

Crime Scene: The Times Square Killer

Netflix’s Crime Scene series continues to expand, this time focusing on the case of The Times Square Killer. When a suspect known as the “Torso killer” starts a reign of terror in New York City in the ’70s, police struggle for leads regarding the murderer’s identity. What they don’t realize is that they’re looking for a dangerously prolific killer with a serious hatred of women. As with any Netflix documentary, plenty of twists and turns ensue, and viewers are bound to be shocked by many of its revelations.

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Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer

American serial killer Richard Ramírez, known before his arrest as the “Night Stalker,” was responsible for the murders of at least 14 people, and committed spurious other crimes including kidnap and torture, during the ’80s in throughout California. Netflix’s Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, explores the desperate search for the elusive murderer and the many attempts to stop him from killing again.

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The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst

It’s undeniable that Robert Durst is a fascinating documentary subject with an unbelievable story to tell. Your jaw will drop as director Andrew Jarecki gains unprecedented access to to Durst, and explores unsolved murders and strange coincidences that appear to lie in the real estate mogul’s wake. Not many documentaries uncover key crime evidence, and viewers won’t be disappointed by HBO’s seven-parter.

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The Yorkshire Ripper terrorized women in West Yorkshire and Manchester between 1975 and 1980, murdering 13 and attacking many more. Netflix’s The Ripper explores how intense sexism, particularly against sex workers, let the police investigation falter, failing women across the North of England and beyond. It includes interviews with survivors of Peter Sutcliffe’s attacks and details of his eventual arrest.

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HBO’s The Vow is a deep-dive into the world of NXIVM, a self-help organization dubbed a “sex cult” by the press, and overshadowed by the involvement of celebrities such as Smallville‘s Allison Mack. However, the truth is much more complicated, and led to leader Keith Raniere being found guilty of sex trafficking, racketeering, conspiracy, and sexual exploitation.

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Don’t F**k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer

Catfish meets animal lovers meets true crime connoisseurs. Don’t F**k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer tracks the incredible community investigation into a killer who posted videos featuring acts of animal cruelty online before graduating to murder. Examining the astounding abilities of Internet crowdsourcing, the documentary proves that people power can often aid in solving crimes.

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I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter

I Love You, Now Die tracks the well-publicized case of Michelle Carter and the investigation into her involvement in the death of Conrad Roy III. Roy died by suicide in 2014, but his girlfriend Carter was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter after allegedly encouraging Roy’s death via text messages and phone calls. The documentary interviews Roy’s family, and examines Carter’s potential state of mind leading up to the infamous incident. WATCH NOW

The Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness

David Berkowitz pled guilty to a string of brutal murders that took place in New York City in the ’70s. Also known as the Son of Sam and .44 Caliber Killer, Berkowitz claimed to act alone in the slayings, which often targeted couples parked in cars late at night. The Netflix documentary explores an alternate theory that Berkowitz may have been part of a Satanic cult, and didn’t, in fact, carry out the killings alone. WATCH NOW

Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel

At times, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel crosses the line from true crime to supernatural scaremongering, while incorporating ableist notions of mental health. However, the show’s relentless quest to discover what really happened to Elisa Lam explores the important issue of the safety of women traveling solo, and the lack of understanding regarding invisible health conditions and their real-world effects. WATCH NOW

If you thought HBO’s Big Love was pure fantasy, think again. Netflix’s Murder Among the Mormons revisits the story of forger Mark Hofmann, who conned almost everyone with his artifacts related to the Latter Day Saints. The documentary explores how forging turned into bomb-making, and a deadly series of events hit the church. WATCH NOW

In 2001, Michael Peterson’s wife, Kathleen, died after falling down the stairs in their home. What followed was an extensive court case attempting to determine whether or not Michael was somehow involved in her death. With the documentary team returning to interview its subject on multiple occasions, The Staircase is an unusual example of following a case in what feels like real time. A dramatized version of the story starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette is heading to HBO Max, so it’s the perfect time to brush up on the case that’s captivated the world for two decades.

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Ken Burns’ documentary covers the Central Park jogger case, which saw the arrest, coercion, and conviction of five Black and Latino young people for the alleged rape and assault of a woman in Manhattan in 1989. Those convicted maintained their innocence while serving prison sentences, and their convictions were eventually vacated when another inmate confessed to the crime. In 2014, a $41 million settlement was reached.

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Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady decided to make a documentary about Richard Scott Smith, a con man on the run after marrying and extorting multiple women. While interviewing Smith’s victims, the directors decided to throw Showtime’s resources behind the search for the on-the-run criminal, making for some compulsive viewing.

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Tiger King literally needs no introduction, and with the recent release of Season 2, Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin’s drama is occupying the zeitgeist once again. Also worth watching is Carole Baskin’s Cage Fight on Discovery+, for a look at the much-maligned woman pitched as Exotic’s nemesis.

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Much like Tiger King, Making a Murderer is a much-referenced crime documentary series that probably needs no introduction. While Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey remain in prison convicted of murder, Avery’s new lawyer Kathleen Zellner continues the search for justice in the death of Teresa Halbach.

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Showtime’s true crime series, based on the book of the same name, examines the unsolved murders of eight women in Louisiana. Known as the Jeff Davis 8, police initially pursued a serial killer theory, after the women’s bodies were found in canals and ponds in the Jennings area. However, digging deeper showed a town tainted by alleged institutional corruption, and an unexpected political link to a motel called the Boudreaux Inn.

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Tales of the Grim Sleeper

Filmmaker Nick Broomfield examines the case of the Grim Sleeper, who spent 23 years terrorizing South Central Los Angeles. In 2016, serial killer Lonnie David Franklin Jr. was found guilty of the murders of 10 women, but the cases remained unsolved until the 2000s when DNA and ballistics linked him to the crimes. Tales of the Grim Sleeper also explores the racial prejudices that impinged on the murders of multiple women of color, leading to their deaths remaining unsolved for decades.

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American Murder: The Family Next Door

Netflix’s American Murder: The Family Next Door pieces together the moments leading up to the disappearances of Shanann Watts and her two daughters. News footage, social media posts, texts messages, doorbell cams, and personal photographs piece together a terrifying timeline of deceit, and ultimately attempt to explain why Chris Watts did what he did.

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Abdur-Rahman Muhammad investigates the assassination of Malcolm X in this docu-series, which led to the reopening of the investigation regarding the civil rights leader’s murder. Two of the men previously convicted of the assassination have since been exonerated, proving that media pressure can sometimes impact a case.

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