‘The Confession Killer’ Review: Morbid Superstar

Using Henry Lee Lucas as a case study, Netflix’s new series both fulfills and questions your serial killer fascination.

The Confession Killer — 
Henry Lee Lucas (center) being escorted by Ranger Bob Prince (left) and task force

Lovers of true crime are always confronting the intersections of exceptional and everyday violence. In some ways, we are attracted to aberrant cases of horror so that we don’t have to think about more mundane influences of crime. Henry Lee Lucas is an excellent embodiment of this tension. He created a serial killer persona in order to bask in the attention and power he accumulated during his confessions. The Confession Killer is a documentary series that debunks that persona. More particularly, it questions our desire to believe in a persona like his.

Lucas was arrested in 1983 by the storied Texas Rangers law enforcement agency, which quickly formed a task force when it appeared they had a rare predator. The five-part series outlines the arrest and hundreds (if not thousands — the number skyrockets) of murder confessions that followed. Heated political controversy winds through each episode, building toward a shattering of illusions. More than 200 cases were closed across 19 states, attributed to Lucas and his killing spree. Police and media flocked to Georgetown, Texas, where he held court in jail and described crimes, in heinous detail, often in exchange for milkshakes and television.

Netflix has quite the algorithmic hit with this series: it’s like Mindhunter and The Confession Tapes more obviously, but it’s also like Stranger Things, meaning there are synth-dread beats in the soundtrack and that 1980s nostalgic-yet-critical genre play. The Confession Killer is almost anti true crime in its indictment of our sick gullibility. Why do we want to hear these demented confessions that cannot be corroborated with any real evidence? Do we enjoy degrading and nauseating morbidity, at the expense of solving crime? Henry Lee Lucas’s charisma and entertainment value were always at the forefront of his persona.

Lucas wanted to be special, and “serial killers” were special and somewhat new. The first episode contextualizes the era via Life magazine’s influential expose on serial killers as a phenomenon. It had everyone profiling and abnormal-psychologizing. The most fascinating (and telling) footage of Lucas has him unpacking his own motivations and impulses using various popularized notions. He created incredible pathos and meaning; he acted his heart out. Later in the series, however, we understand how he doesn’t fit the profile, e.g. no consistent victim type, no consistent weapon choice or habits, no clustering of locations. And yet, he was every cop’s dream: a willing confessor, a case closer.

The Rangers task force didn’t investigate cases, just “facilitated” access to Lucas for other law enforcement jurisdictions. Journalists like Hugh Aynesworth didn’t have to do too much to unwind the serial narrative. Aynesworth features heavily in the series, along with his own documentary footage. He creates super satisfying timelines and maps and evidence chasms. Lucas was a career criminal and con man with a hefty paper trail. He was in and out of jail, documented there or working odd jobs and cashing checks, he couldn’t have been anywhere near many of the murder sites. By no means does this exclude him from criminal acts of violence or even murder in his lifetime. He did go to prison for killing his mother. But in the ’80s he was weaving an epic tale of overkill simply not born out by facts.

Linda Erwin of the Dallas Police created a fake murder file to test Lucas, he confessed to it immediately. But even with these various alarm bells and obvious fabrications, the Texas Rangers upheld their task force. Their belief in his serial killer status began to overlap with a certain reputation. Of course, cases continued to close. Acknowledging the hoax would upend too much. Police “refreshing” his memory on certain crime details to bolster confessions would also be questioned. Nonetheless, a Texas-sized political battle over the task force erupted. Then Lucas began to recant his confessions.

I found the series to be at its best in a discussion of archetypes: lawmen and restless criminals along with the newly constructed serial killer type. Typologies abound but are also destabilized. Lucas was instrumentalized as a serial killer, reinforced by those who wanted answers to arrive swiftly and easily. True-crime fans know that’s never the case! Lucas himself wanted simple pleasures and didn’t mind manipulating — and being manipulated — to get them. Ultimately there were unfriendly truths being buried: truths about ubiquitous violence, not singular aberrant motivation.

As of the doc’s creation, at least 20 of the cases attributed to Lucas have been disproved via DNA matches with other individuals or explained by other circumstances. Not one, but 20 reasons. Not one, but probably 200 separate acts of violence. Yet it’s still a struggle to reopen his cases. One morbid superstar is still convenient. Our willingness to entertain, and be entertained by, such ease is a worthy and imperative rumination for any true-crime series.

Katherine has a PhD in Film Studies from the University of Iowa and an enduring opinionated love for documentary. More of her reviews can be found on her blog: doctake.com