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The Best True Crime to Stream: Viral Stories With a Twist

These days, it’s common for a true crime story to go viral, but that interest often gathers momentum only after an investigation, documentary, podcast or online conversation brings to light a previously unfamiliar saga. For this streaming list, I wanted to look instead at stories that were, to some degree, viral already, and where that buzz was essential to the yarn itself — altering or shaping the unusual events. Here are four memorable offerings.

Documentary film

Caleb McGillvary, known as Kai, may have been among the first so-called milkshake ducks, a term for a noncelebrity who delights the internet, only to fall from grace.

In 2013, he was interviewed for an on-the-scene news segment in which he recounted how he had intervened to stop a crime while hitchhiking in Fresno, Calif. The video, where he is referenced as “Kai, the Homeless Hitchhiker With a Hatchet” quickly went viral, and McGillvary — a goofy, charismatic, eccentric vagabond — was hailed as a hero.

Quickly came a bonanza of memes and television appearances — including a segment on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” — as well as talks of his own reality show. But the good times didn’t last. A few months later, he was arrested on charges that he had killed a man in New Jersey.

This 2023 Netflix documentary, from the director Colette Camden, unpacks McGillvary’s internet fame, the subsequent fallout and his murder trial. It also serves as a time capsule of sorts, capturing the frenetic pace and fickle mood of American web culture in the mid-2010s.


Since April 2022, Laura Richards, a former New Scotland Yard criminal behavioral analyst and the host of the podcast “Crime Analyst,” has logged 22 episodes dedicated to the disappearance and murder of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old #vanlife influencer who was on a cross-country summer road trip in 2021 with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, when she disappeared.

Laundrie returned from the trip alone on Sept. 1 of that year; on Sept. 19, Petito’s remains were found. In October, Laundrie was found dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot; near his body was a notebook in which he confessed to the murder, according to the F.B.I.

Social media interest erupted in the window between her disappearance and the discovery of her body. Amateur detectives combed through the couple’s photos and videos on Instagram and YouTube for clues, and speculation ran rampant across TikTok, Instagram and Twitter. In this case, the interest may have helped lead authorities to Petito’s body.

Given the nature of the crime, Richards, an expert on domestic and sexual violence, is specifically qualified to elaborate on the issues that led to the murder — including the couple’s encounter that August with the police, which was captured on body cam footage, who were responding to a report of a “domestic problem.”

Documentary miniseries

There couldn’t have been a more notorious setting for this story than the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Built in the 1920s, its checkered past has spawned urban myths and tales of paranormal activity, as well as claims that the serial killer Richard Ramirez stayed there during his killing spree in the mid-1980s.

In January 2013, Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old Canadian woman, checked into the Cecil and disappeared shortly after. While she was still missing, the Los Angeles Police Department released unsettling hotel surveillance footage of her acting erratically and moving strangely before her disappearance — pushing multiple buttons in an elevator car, where she seemed to be hiding from someone or something. The recording quickly went viral and, as with Gabby Petito, it wouldn’t take long for scores of online sleuths to spin theories of what had happened.

Compounding the speculation was Lam’s active social media presence, which included a blog and a Tumblr page, on which she would share details about her struggles with mental illness. After her disappearance, her pages amassed followers determined to unravel the mystery.

This four-part 2021 Netflix series is not only about what happened in the hotel, but also about what can happen when our collective imagination runs wild.

Documentary miniseries

If you were even slightly plugged into the pop culture conversation in the mid-1990s, you probably remember hearing about the young man who was suing Pepsi for what could be described simply as false advertising.

In 1996, Pepsi aired a commercial to promote its Points program: collect points from products and trade them in for prizes, like a hat for 60 points. Only this ad showed a student landing a fighter jet on the lawn of his high school. Across the bottom of the screen, the words “Harrier fighter 7,000,000 Pepsi Points” appeared with no fine print.

Little did Pepsi know that John Leonard, an ambitious college student, was ready to do the math and enlist some serious help to make it happen. “I really saw this as an opportunity to change my world,” Leonard says in the film.

This lighthearted, four-part Netflix series from 2022 explores the legal battle, Leonard v. Pepsico, Inc., and the lengths that all sides went to make their cases. The tale is set against the backdrop of the era’s cola wars (even Cindy Crawford, whose 1992 Pepsi ad became legendary, appears in this documentary). It all may have happened a bit before the internet age, but this was as viral a story as any today, and one that forever altered advertising.

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