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Inside the Mind of Serial Killer "Son of Sam"

David Berkowitz explains the allure of the “dark side.”

Key points

  • David Berkowitz, aka "Son of Sam," was sentenced to life in prison in 1977 for the murders of six people and wounding of seven others.
  • In an interview, Berkowitz implied he was the principal author of the "Son of Sam" legend through his own crimes and self-promotion.
  • Berkowitz has said people are fascinated with him because they are drawn to the "darker side of life."
  • Berkowitz became a born-again Christian in 1987, calling himself the "Son of Hope" and working with disabled inmates in prison as a spiritual advisor and friend.
Public Domain
NYPD Mugshot: David Berkowitz
Source: Public Domain

Over a period of two years, I corresponded and visited with the notorious "Son of Sam" serial killer in prison while conducting research for my book Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World's Most Savage Murderers. The gruesome and spectacular exploits of the man behind the Son of Sam moniker—David Berkowitz—are now legendary.

David Berkowitz is one of the most infamous serial predators and criminals of all time. He murdered six people and wounded seven others with a .44 Bulldog revolver during his reign of terror several decades ago in New York City. He ignited a public panic of epic proportions during the so-called Summer of Sam in 1977.

After the largest manhunt in New York history, Berkowitz was arrested without incident outside his apartment on August 10, 1977. As he was being taken into custody he mildly said, “Well, you got me. How come it took you such a long time?” Berkowitz received six consecutive life sentences for his crimes.

My personal interactions with David Berkowitz gave me a very different and far more nuanced understanding of the motives and actions of the Son of Sam than what is offered in mainstream media accounts of his crimes. During our prison visit together in 2013, he provided me with important new insights into his motives for killing as well as his own thoughts on why the public is fascinated with serial killers.

It is clear to me that Berkowitz relished his evil celebrity status and that he enjoyed terrorizing the city of New York throughout his murderous rampage. I believe that his criminal infamy boosted his otherwise fragile, disturbed ego and gave him a twisted sense of identity and purpose.

Of course, the results of his criminality are truly horrible. Berkowitz admits that he deliberately resisted authority following his capture. He tried to intimidate everyone in the courtroom during his trial and also in prison during the early days of his incarceration.

Of that time, he now says, “I was once an evil man. I truly believed that I was working for Satan and I embraced the mission.” His own words reveal that Berkowitz was the principal author of the Son of Sam legend through his own terrible crimes and aggressive self-promotion.

Berkowitz on the public's fascination with "Son of Sam"

As part of my research for a new book, I asked Berkowitz why the public seems to be so fascinated with serial killers. He told me that it has to do with a morbid attraction to the dark or pathological side of the human condition and the fact that everyone, in his opinion, has the potential to do terrible things under the right circumstances. He offered these powerful insights:

“In general, people are drawn to the darker side of life. With regard to why people are so fascinated by serial killers, mass murder, and violent crime, it could be that deep inside everyone is the desire to take out one’s anger and frustration upon someone else… Man can become violent and beast-like in a moment’s time… Concerning ‘evil,’ perhaps everyone has the potential, under the right conditions and circumstances, to do terrible, horrendous things… People want to understand why.”

Berkowitz also told me that the news media are complicit in fueling the public’s interest in the dark side of the human condition. He said:

“The media take a part in this, too, especially with serial crimes. Serial killers are very rare. All of the media attention makes them look more prevalent than they really are. In my opinion, this is part of the inner spiritual decline of Western society as we slowly slide towards anarchy.”

Berkowitz's words suggest that he has a rather apocalyptic view of the world. He told me that he believes the public is easily manipulated or “programmed” by the news media. He also believes that the news media deliberately misrepresented the Son of Sam story at the time of his crimes; particularly regarding his alleged Satanic cult affiliation and obedience to Harvey, a demonic dog, that supposedly ordered him to kill.

From "Son of Sam" to "Son of Hope"

Incredibly, the story of David Berkowitz has taken a dramatic and unexpected turn in prison. He became a born-again Christian in 1987 after having a self-proclaimed spiritual awakening one night in his cell at Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, NY.

Berkowitz now calls himself the “Son of Hope.” He believes he is redeemed but that his redemption has come at a price. He told me that God saved him so that he could provide help and service to others, to the best of his ability from behind bars, for the remainder of his time on Earth.

Since his self-proclaimed spiritual rebirth, he has worked with fellow inmates who are physically and mentally challenged as a peer mentor, spiritual advisor, and friend. Most days, he works as a mobility guide, helping disabled inmates get around and assists mentally ill inmates who may need a hand with daily activities or those who have difficulty reading or writing.

Do you believe that it is possible for someone like the former Son of Sam to be spiritually transformed, reformed, and born again? I'd like to hear your thoughts on this subject.