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Was David Berkowitz, the "Son of Sam," part of a Satanic cult?

Television

Was David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam,” part of a Satanic cult?

Looking at Netflix’s “The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness”

Netflix’s true crime docuseries, The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness, explores journalist Maury Terry’s claims, detailed in his 1983 book The Ultimate Evil, that David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam” killer, did not act alone in committing his crimes, but as a member of a devil-worshiping cult Terry calls “the Children.” Terry’s book was released at the height of what has come to be known as the Satanic Panic, a time in which mass hysteria around devil-worshiping cults was sweeping the U.S., and helped to popularize the baseless conspiracy theories that fueled the fear.

The official story of the New York City Police Department is that Berkowitz acted alone in committing his murders from 1976 to 1977, though at the time of his arrest on August 10, 1977, many doubted Berkowitz was really the killer. He was described by neighbors and coworkers as “a loner, a nice boy,” who “stayed by himself,” and “was always alone and never spoke to you more than to say hello.”

Berkowitz wanted poster

Then there were discrepancies between the multiple eyewitness accounts and the various composite sketches that were released by the NYPD. Some people described the killer as having curly hair, some claimed he had straight hair. Some claimed to have seen the killer fleeing the scene of the crime in a yellow Volkswagen when, in fact, Berkowitz drove a white Ford Galaxy. Terry seized on these details and began crafting a story.

Terry says he interviewed Yonkers locals who regaled him with tales of animal sacrifice and Black Masses conducted by “the Children” in nearby Untermeyer Park. When a teen brought Terry to the Old Croton Aqueduct behind where Berkowitz lived, and an old pumping station known locally as the “Devil’s Cave,” Terry claims to have found the station covered in “Satanic” graffiti and the remains of German Shepherds, which he believed to have been evidence of ritual sacrifice.

It’s important to note that such fears around animal mutilation were not new — throughout the 1970s and ’80s, there were widespread fears that recovered animal carcasses were the result of UFO abductions, devil-worshiping cults, and even secret government experiments. In 1980, retired FBI agent Kenneth M. Rommel Jr. and anthropologist Nancy Owen released a forensic analysis of animal mutilation cases, in which they concluded that untrained observers often can’t distinguish between the marks made by predators and scavengers, and those made by humans with tools. Simply put, Terry was not in a position to judge whether any animal remains were or were not the result of cult activity.

What about the discrepancies between the eyewitness accounts and the composite sketches? Psychologists have long known that eyewitness testimony, on its own, is notoriously unreliable. “Eyewitness testimonies can be a very unreliable source of evidence, as can attempted reconstructions by witnesses,” says Alan Baddeley, professor of psychology at the University of York. Similarly, Gary Wells, a psychologist from Iowa State University who specializes in the reliability of eyewitness identification, says, “If you get five sketches from different witnesses who all saw the same person, you will get five different sketches. Commonly, people asked to look at those sketches will conclude they are five different people.”

Berkowitz originally told police that his neighbor, Sam Carr, had a Labrador Retriever through which a demonic entity commanded him to kill. Berkowitz would change his story several times over the years, while never denying he was guilty. In 1979, in a letter to one of his court-appointed psychiatrists, David Abramson, Berkowitz confessed, “Sam Carr and the Demons … Yes, it was all a hoax, a silly hoax, well planned and thought out. I just never thought this ‘demon story’ would carry out so much.” Berkowitz contacted Terry in 1981 and told him, “I’m guilty of these crimes, but I didn’t do it all.”

The idea that Berkowitz could have operated as part of a cult contradicts both coworkers’ descriptions of him as a loner, and former FBI profiler John E. Douglas’ characterization of Berkowitz as an “introverted loner, not capable of being involved in group activity.” Abramson found Berkowitz was neither psychotic nor delusional — he didn’t suffer from schizophrenic hallucinations, and was able to carefully plan and execute his crimes while concealing his behavior and motivations so as not to arouse suspicion. Abramson said:

He had a character disorder with many hysterical traits mixed in, growing from a need to call attention to himself, to make himself more important than he is. David Berkowitz had created his demons as an alibi, an excuse for his murders. He could then say, ‘I didn’t kill, the demons did it,’ thereby lessening his guilt in the world’s eyes.

Was David Berkowitz, the "Son of Sam," part of a Satanic cult?

There aren’t any good reasons to believe that Berkowitz either had accomplices or was part of a devil-worshiping cult, and certainly not a “Satanic” one. Satanism, as codified by Anton LaVey with the 1969 publication of The Satanic Bible, has nothing to do with either devil worship or animal sacrifice. Satanism is an atheistic, individualist religion which celebrates people’s carnal nature and place within the animal kingdom. As such, harm of any kind to an animal, except for nourishment as food, is strictly forbidden.

A previous version of this article appeared on the website of Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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