CLOSE
Original image
YouTube

10 Haunting Documentaries That Are Stranger Than Fiction

Original image
YouTube

Featuring serial killers, brutal maulings, and unsolved mysteries, documentaries can be far creepier than anything George Romero has ever imagined—because they depict things that really happened. These 10 films are impossibly disturbing, based on true events, and guaranteed to stick with you long after the end credits have rolled. 

1. GRIZZLY MAN (2005)

Grizzly Man is a nature documentary like none you’ve ever seen: Struggling actor and alcoholic Timothy Treadwell was always an eccentric who felt more comfortable among animals than he did people. One summer, Treadwell sold everything and moved up to Alaska to live in the wilderness among the grizzly bears, filming them and closely interacting with them. Directed by Werner Herzog, Grizzly Man takes Treadwell’s astonishing footage and pieces together his life during the 13 summers that Treadwell spent in exile. Until Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were attacked and killed by one of the animals he loved, while one of Treadwell’s cameras caught the audio of the attack.

Why it’s so creepy: Herzog chooses not to include the audio of Treadwell’s death in the final film, but the attack and what’s on the tape is discussed in graphic (and unsettling) detail. EHerzog surmises that the bear who ultimately killed Treadwell was likely one of the animals that he filmed, and loved. This puts the viewer in an uncomfortable position: Watching Treadwell film and play alongside the bears, knowing that he’s likely engaging with his future killer.

2. THERE’S SOMETHING WRONG WITH AUNT DIANE (2011)

From the movie’s offset, we know that something terrible has happened. The documentary opens with several harried calls to 911, describing a horrific crash off the Taconic State Parkway. The crash, which occurred in 2009, would later become known as the worst Westchester County traffic fatality in 30 years, killing eight people including the driver, Diane Schuler, her two-year-old daughter, and her three young nieces. The film documents the Schuler family and their quest to piece together Diane’s final moments: Why did Schuler, a responsible and devoted mom on her way home from a family camping trip, drive the wrong way down the Taconic Parkway?

Why it’s so creepy: There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane profiles a woman who seems to have everything under control. At the time of her death, Schuler had two adorable kids, a happy marriage, and a successful career with a six-figure income. So when the film reveals why Schuler drove nearly two miles down the Taconic Parkway in the wrong direction with five young children in tow, the reason is almost too terrible to believe. Aunt Diane compels viewers and, at the same time, mystifies us with the eternal question: How well can you really know another person?

3. BOY INTERRUPTED (2009)

When filmmaker Dana Perry’s son Evan turned five years old, she noticed that he had a strange preoccupation with death and dying. Perry immediately took Evan to a therapist, and she and her filmmaker husband Hart flipped on the camera to record his increasingly bizarre behavior. As Evan grows, the Perrys document Evan’s tumultuous struggle with depression and bipolar disorder, culminating in his suicide in 2005 at the age of 15. Boy Interrupted becomes the Perry’s loving tribute to a son who both mystified and terrified them.

Why it’s so creepy: Boy Interrupted shows that mental illness and suicide doesn’t discriminate. Filmmakers Hart and Dana Perry are obviously attentive, caring parents, and many times they literally uproot their lives to support Evan through his struggle. But bipolar disorder has a suicide rate of nearly 17 percent—and that’s an uncomfortable fact that the Perrys put in the forefront of their film. Watching their story unfold, and knowing that nothing can stop the slow decline into Evan’s suicide, will send shivers down your spine.

4. THE JINX (2015)

HBO’s The Jinx tells the story of Robert Durst, heir to one of the oldest real estate companies in New York City and the prime suspect in series of bizarre crimes, including the disappearance of his wife, Kathleen, in 1982. The Jinx is a documentary miniseries, one that takes six episodes to detail every bizarre crime in which Durst is involved. After his wife’s disappearance, Durst’s close friend Susan Berman is found murdered in 2000 when Kathleen’s case is reopened. Durst maintains his innocence in both crimes and flees to Galveston, Texas. But when police catch up to him one year later, Durst has been implicated in yet another murder (Durst is charged and pleads self-defense, by the way). Director Andrew Jarecki (who directed 2010’s All Good Things, a feature based on Durst) examines Durst’s alleged crimes, documents the trial for his most recent murder, and speculates whether Durst is actually guilty of all three crimes—or just one of the unluckiest men on the planet. 

Why it’s so creepy: Bob Durst is like that weird uncle you only see at Christmas: He’s quiet, mild-mannered, and even a little likeable at times. Watching him recount his friends’ deaths, completely emotionless, is chilling. And knowing that he likely could have killed several people in cold blood? Unsettling. (Also unsettling? His beady, black eyes.)

5. BLACKFISH (2013)

Have you ever seen those SeaWorld commercials where the dolphin trainers are talking about how much they love whales? Blackfish is the reason those commercials exist in the first place. It’s a riveting documentary that covers the story of Tilikum, a captive killer whale that mauled a SeaWorld trainer in 2010. What begins as an expose of Tilikum (who apparently has killed before) gradually turns into an indictment of SeaWorld as a whole.

Why it’s so creepy: If you have any childhood memories of SeaWorld, prepare to have them forever ruined. The whales appear happy when performing in front of a crowd—but according to Blackfish, that’s almost certainly a ruse. Seeing footage of Tilikum playing around with trainer Dawn Brancheau before her death, and knowing what will eventually happen between them, is eerie.

6. DEAR ZACHARY (2008)

Don’t Google this film. It’s best to go into Dear Zachary knowing as little about what happens as possible.

Without giving too much away, the gist is this: Dear Zachary is director Kurt Kuenne’s attempt to immortalize his best friend Andrew Bagby, a physician killed in cold blood by his estranged girlfriend, Shirley Turner. Kuenne seeks out friends and family to sing their praises of his late friend—and then the film takes a shocking turn. Turner, Bagby’s killer, announces while in police custody that she’s four months pregnant with Bagby’s child. And Kuenne’s film becomes something entirely different: A critique of the Newfoundland legal system, an exposé of the custody case between Turner and Bagby’s parents, and a letter to Zachary, Bagby’s son, about the man his father once was.

Why it’s so creepy: Not only is the viewer subjected to graphic details about Bagby’s murder, Kuenne also uses archival footage of Turner and Bagby during their brief relationship. Watching Turner interact on camera with Bagby, hearing about what she did in the hours after Bagby’s death, and seeing footage of her eventually mothering Bagby’s child will leave you with chills whenever she’s onscreen.

7. THE BRIDGE (2006)

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is one of the world's most popular tourist sites—and according to this film, it’s the most popular spot to commit suicide. Over the course of one year, filmmaker Eric Steel and his crew spent hundreds of hours filming footage of the Golden Gate Bridge, and managed to capture the deaths of nearly two dozen jumpers. Steel then interviews the families of some of the individuals and sets out to discover what draws so many people to the Golden Gate Bridge—and what compels some to end their lives there.

Why it’s so creepy: Several suicides are caught on film. Enough said.

8. PARADISE LOST (1996)

In 1993, the bodies of three mutilated children were discovered in a wooded area of West Memphis, Arkansas. Quickly, after one teen admits to being an accomplice, a trio of teenagers is arrested in connection with the crime, tried in a court of law, and found guilty. An open-and-shut case, right? Wrong. The film, which follows the families of the victims and the accused throughout the trial and its aftermath, is equal parts true crime documentary and an indictment of a small-town criminal justice system. Was the teenager’s confession coerced? Were the murderers ever really caught? 

Why it’s so creepy: If the opening footage of three mutilated kids isn’t creepy enough for you, the entire movie is replete with graphic retellings of the crime. But the more frightening part of watching the film is the growing realization that the three teenagers accused of the crime—Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin—might possibly be innocent. The Emmy-winning documentary was followed up two sequels, in 2000 and 2011—with the final film detailing the West Memphis Three's release from prison.

9. THE IMPOSTER (2012)

When 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay goes missing in 1994, his family gradually accepts that he may not be coming home. But three years later, in 1997, Barclay’s family gets a phone call that Nicholas has been found—alone and terrified—in Spain, thousands of miles from his Texas hometown. Stunned, his family joyfully welcomes him home. But it soon becomes clear that the boy who went missing three years prior is not the same person—literally—as the one who comes home.

Why it’s so creepy: Since the name of the documentary is The Imposter, it’s pretty obvious from the start that the person claiming to be Nicholas Barclay isn’t actually Nicholas Barclay. But what kind of person would impersonate a missing child? Director Bart Layton manages to snag one-on-one interviews with the man who pretended to be Barclay, and hearing him retell how he manipulated the Barclay family (often smiling and laughing good-naturedly while he recounts the story) will give you goosebumps.

10. ALBERT FISH: IN SIN HE FOUND SALVATION (2007)

Albert Fish was one of the country’s most depraved serial killers—and considering that serial killers are pretty depraved to begin with, that’s saying something. Fish suffered from extreme mental illness from an early age and began experimenting with extreme taboos as a young adult, eventually moving on to prostitution, child molestation, and murder. This documentary goes into graphic detail about the hundreds of murders Fish was linked to—and the hideous way he disposed of the bodies afterward.

Why it’s so creepy: Fish was extremely candid about his crimes, and kept detailed, first-person accounts of them which are read throughout the documentary. At one point, Fish actually details the murder of one young girl in a letter and then mails the letter to her mother. It’s almost impossible to listen to what Fish did—or see reenactments of Fish walking hand-in-hand with his victims—and not feel chills.

Original image
iStock
arrow
History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
Original image
iStock

Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

Original image
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
arrow
History
Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
Original image
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios