This book has bothered me for a long, long time. I picked it up at a secondhand bookstore on a whim and have read it several times over the past 12 years or so. As you can see, I paid tree fiddy for it. Even that might have been too much.
Because it’s a 30-year-old book and no one really cared, I’ve held my tongue. But now that Netflix has aired a docu-series about Maury Terry and The Ultimate Evil, directed by Cropsey creator Joshua Zeman (The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness), it’s time for a chapter-by-chapter takedown of the thing.
The tl;dr version of both the book and the series is that wannabe investigative journalist Maury Terry and a few of his associates were suckered by a serial killer into believing that he wasn’t really the violent incel he appeared to be. Rather, he was a reluctant assassin for a Satanic cult that wanted to unleash Hell on the world (or at least a few boroughs of NYC). According to Terry, this cult spanned the entire nation and may have engineered similar crimes (the Zodiac murders, the Manson Family murders).
We’ve seen this story before: Henry Lee Lucas, Wayne Williams and a number of other convicted killers claimed to be assassins for secretive organizations, in much the same way Richard “Iceman” Kuklinski cosplayed a Mafia hitman when he was really just your average murderer. Sitting in prison, killers have lots of time to spin fantasy histories for themselves. Their stories fall apart under any level of scrutiny, however, because these guys don’t do a lot of research.
But certain people fall for these tall tales, and circulate them through mass-market paperbacks, TV documentaries and conspiracy theories until we start to think, Hey, maybe Charlie Manson was a CIA plant. That’s not any crazier than the other stuff I’ve heard about him. After The Ultimate Evil was published in 1987, Terry attempted to link his cult to everything from the Atlanta child murders to the beating death of 6-year-old Lisa Launders by Joel Steinberg. Terry appeared on the most popular tabloid TV news of the day – Inside Edition, Geraldo – to share his “discoveries” with millions.
The Ultimate Evil has played a key role in Satanic hysteria, implausible conspiracy theories and true crime for several decades, and still enjoys a level of respectability that it certainly did not earn. Here are a few of the reasons we’ll be vivisecting it in this series:
- David Berkowitz shot 13 strangers, killing 6 and permanently injuring others. He devastated families and terrorized one of the world’s largest cities for a year. He alone planned and executed those crimes. The notion that he was tricked or coerced into killing strangers by a cult is not only absurd in the face of the overwhelming evidence against him, it gaslights survivors and allows Berkowitz to keep tormenting them. Over a year before the murders began, Berkowitz terrorized his neighbours in Yonkers. He targeted Craig Glassman and the Carr family, in particular, with everything from murder attempts to taunting letters. Then, with the help of Maury Terry, Berkowitz victimized all these people again by suggesting that they were homicidal cultists who dragged him over to the dark side. The Carr family has been so irreparably besmirched by Maury Terry that I wish they had sued him while he was alive. The cult story does nothing to further our knowledge of serial murder. Buying into Berkowitz’s weird fantasies about himself is a disservice to everyone.
- Terry exploited numerous other murders, suicides and accidental deaths by inserting them into his cult narrative. This is particularly egregious in the 1974 murder of teenager Arlis Perry, the case that opens the Ultimate Evil. We now know that her death had nothing to do with a cult.
- Nearly everything in this book is based on “clues” provided by Berkowitz, people close to Berkowitz, and people hoping to exploit the Son of Sam legend created by the media and Berkowitz. There are very few credible sources here. To further complicate matters, survivor Car Denaro has revealed in his recent book (The Son of Sam and Me: The Truth About Why I Wasn’t Shot By David Berkowitz) that Terry often amalgamated or even invented his sources. For example, some of the jailhouse informants who were supposedly relaying messages from Berkowitz to Terry were actually just Berkowitz. Terry had numerous jailhouse interviews with Berkowitz, which are not mentioned in Ultimate Evil.
- Berkowitz was a liar, and not even a good one. In the late ’90s, when he finally got around to naming the cult to which he supposedly devoted his life (possibly taking his cues from Terry), he got everything wrong. We’ll be exploring that in detail.
- One of the most appalling things about The Ultimate Evil is that Terry actually wrote himself into the story, first by declaring that people would probably die as a result of the book, then by trying to convince us that the Cotton Club murder case was actually all about his investigation. He claimed that Roy Radin was slaughtered in the desert because he had connections to the cult Terry was investigating, and the cult saw that Terry was closing in on Radin. They needed to silence him before he could spill any secrets. I have never seen a true crime writer try to attribute a murder to his own writing project. The hubris here is mind-blowing.
- The Ultimate Evil perpetuates myths that obscure the realities of a crime and creates a new, almost entirely unrelated narrative about Satanic and criminal megacults invading America – urban folklore that, by the time the book was published, was already wreaking havoc in numerous communities. This book contributed heavily to the “Satanic panic” milieu. The cult at the centre of the book, though it may never have existed in any form, is now so real to so many people that armchair detectives enamored by Terry’s work spend hours of their days trying to suss out its origins, membership and other crimes. This is what folklorists refer to as ostension – the performance or manifestation of folklore in the real world.
Because he was part of a larger trend that included many other intelligent and seemingly sensible people (social workers, reporters, educators, etc.), I’m not going to cast Maury Terry as a villain in this blog series. The Netflix series and Denaro’s memoir have persuaded me that while Terry was prone to being manipulative, sensationalistic and wrong-headed, he was essentially a true believer. He thought he had stumbled onto one of the biggest stories of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s – a killer cult that spanned America and carried out atrocious crimes in almost total secrecy. He dedicated most of his life to proving it existed.
But he was wrong, and in this series we’re going to learn why The Ultimate Evil did not prove anything. We are also going to explore subjects beyond the scope of Terry’s book; specifically, theories and ideas that he pursued after The Ultimate Evil was published, material that he did not discuss in the book but mentioned in passing (such as the supposed cult link between the Son of Sam cult and the Atlanta child murders), and things that he discussed in interviews. We’ll also touch on parts of the Sons of Sam Netflix series and its companion podcast.
It’s time for a takedown.
COMING THIS WEEK:
The Ultimate Takedown of The Ultimate Evil Part I: The Son of Sam Murders and How Maury Terry Got Involved with Them