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10 Haunting Documentaries That Are Stranger Than Fiction

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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.

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Report: Police Have Arrested a Suspect in California's Golden State Killer Case
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From 1976 to 1986, a serial killer now known as the Golden State Killer committed a staggering number of crimes in California ranging from burglaries to rapes to 12 known homicides. Like the Zodiac killer, the individual’s ability to escape detection and capture led to a public fascination over the decade-long spree. Now, it appears authorities may have finally closed in on the person responsible.

According to The Daily Beast, Sacramento police are expected to announce Wednesday afternoon that an arrest has been made in connection with the 120 burglaries, 45 sexual assaults, and murders that ended more than 30 years ago. Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, has reportedly been arrested on two counts of murder, with authorities expected to confirm he is a suspect in the Golden State Killer cases. DeAngelo is a former police officer who worked just outside of Sacramento in the 1970s.

The Golden State Killer is the topic of a recent best-selling true crime book, Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer. McNamara, who spent five years researching the case, passed away suddenly in 2016, when she was only halfway done with the project. Her husband, comedian/actor Patton Oswalt, hired investigative reporter Billy Jensen to complete her work. The book, which is currently being turned into an HBO docuseries, is being credited with renewing both public and law enforcement interest in the case, which may have led to DeAngelo’s arrest.

The killer was active in the Sacramento suburbs of Rancho Cordova and Carmichael, as well as other parts of Southern California. He was also given the labels East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker, and the Diamond Knot Killer. His last suspected crime was the murder of an 18-year-old girl in Irvine, California in 1986.

[h/t: The Daily Beast]

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20 Best Docuseries You Can Stream Right Now
A scene from Wild Wild Country (2018)
A scene from Wild Wild Country (2018)
Netflix

If your main interests are true crime and cooking, you’re in the middle of a Renaissance Age. The Michelangelos of nonfiction are consistently bringing stellar storytelling to twisty tales of murder and mayhem as well as luxurious shots of food prepared by the most creative culinary minds.

But these aren’t the only genres that documentary series are tackling. There’s a host of history, arts, travel, and more at your streaming fingertips. When you want to take a break from puzzling out who’s been wrongfully imprisoned, that is.

Here are the 20 best docuseries to watch right now, so start streaming.

1. WILD WILD COUNTRY (2018)

What happens when an Indian guru with thousands of American followers sets up shop near a small town in Oregon with the intent to create a commune? Incredibly sourced, this documentary that touches on every major civic issue—from religious liberty to voting rights—should be your new obsession. When you choose a side, be prepared to switch. Multiple times.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. FLINT TOWN (2018)

If your heart is broken by what’s going on in Flint, Michigan, be prepared to have that pain magnified and complicated. The filmmakers behind this provocative series were embedded with police in Flint to offer us a glimpse at the area’s local struggles and national attention from November 2015 through early 2017.

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. MAKERS: WOMEN WHO MAKE AMERICA (2013)

Narrated by Meryl Streep, this three-part series covers a half-century of American experience from the earliest days of second-wave feminism through Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination in the 1990s. Ellen DeGeneres, Condoleezza Rice, Sally Ride, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and more are featured, and the series got six more episodes in a second season.

Where to watch it: Makers.com

4. THE JINX (2015)

After the massive success of Serial in 2014, a one-two punch of true crime docuseries landed the following year. One was the immensely captivating study of power, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which chronicled the bizarre, tangled web of the real estate mogul who was suspected of several murders. The show, which could be measured in jaw-drops per hour, both registered real life and uniquely affected it.

Where to watch it: HBO

5. MAKING A MURDERER (2015)

The second major true crime phenom of 2015 was 10 years in the making. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos uncovered the unthinkable story of Steven Avery, a man wrongfully convicted of sexual assault who was later convicted of murdering a different woman, Teresa Halbach. Not just a magnifying glass on the justice system and a potential small town conspiracy, it’s also a display of how stories can successfully get our blood boiling.

Where to watch it: Netflix

6. WORMWOOD (2017)

Speaking of good conspiracies: documentary titan Errol Morris turns his keen eye to a CIA project that’s as famous as it is unknown—MKUltra. A Cold War-era mind control experiment. LSD and hypnosis. The mysterious death of a scientist. His son’s 60-year search for answers. Morris brings his incisive eye to the hunt.

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. FIVE CAME BACK (2017)

Based on Mark Harris’s superlative book, this historical doc features filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro discussing the WWII-era work of predecessors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. Also narrated by Meryl Streep, it looks at how the war shaped the directors and how they shaped the war. As a bonus, Netflix has the war-time documentaries featured in the film available to stream.

Where to watch it: Netflix

8. THE STORY OF FILM: AN ODYSSEY (2011)

If you can’t afford film school, and your local college won’t let you audit any more courses, Mark Cousins’s 915-minute history is the next best thing. Unrivaled in its scope, watching it is like having a charming encyclopedia discuss its favorite movies. Yes, at 15-episodes it’s sprawling, so, yes, you should watch it all in one go. Carve out a weekend and be ready to take notes on all the movies you want to watch afterward.

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

9. UGLY DELICIOUS (2018)

David Chang, the host of the first season of The Mind of a Chef, has returned with a cultural mash-up disguised as a foodie show. What does it mean for pizza to be “authentic”? What do Korea and the American South have in common? With his casual charm in tow, Chang and a variety of special guests explore people through the food we love to eat as an artifact that brings us all together.

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. JAZZ (2000)

A legend of nonfiction, Ken Burns has more than a few docuseries available to stream, including long-form explorations of the Civil War and baseball. His 10-episode series on jazz exhaustively tracks nearly a century of the formation and evolution of the musical style across the United States. You’ll wanna mark off a big section of the calendar and crank up the volume.

Where to watch it: Amazon

11. THE STAIRCASE (2004)

In 2001, author Michael Peterson reported to police that his wife had died after falling down a set of stairs, but police didn’t buy the story and charged him with her murder. Before the current true crime boom, before Serial and all the rest, there was Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Peabody Award-winning docuseries following Peterson’s winding court case. The mystery at the heart of the trial and the unparalleled access Lestrade had to Peterson’s defense make this a must-see. (Netflix just announced that it will be releasing three new episodes of the series this summer.)

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

12. PLANET EARTH II (2016)

The sequel to the 2006 original is a real stunner. Narrated (naturally) by Sir David Attenborough, featuring music from Hans Zimmer, and boasting gorgeous photography of our immeasurably fascinating planet, this follow-up takes us through different terrains to see the life contained within. There are snow leopards in the mountains, a swimming sloth in the islands, and even langurs in our own urban jungle. Open your eyes wide to learn a lot or put it on in the background to zen out.

Where to watch it: Netflix

13. THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA’S BEST IDEA (2009)

The cheapest way to visit Yosemite, Yellowstone, Muir Woods, and more. This Emmy-winning, six-part series is both a travelogue and a history lesson in conservation that takes up the argument of why these beautiful places should be preserved: to quote President Roosevelt, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Where to watch it: Amazon

14. CONFLICT (2015)

Experience the too-often-untold stories of conflict zones through the lenses of world class photographers like Nicole Tung, Donna Ferraro, and João Silva. This heart-testing, bias-obliterating series is unique in its views into dark places and eye toward hope.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. LAST CHANCE U (2016)

Far more than a sports documentary, the story of the players at East Mississippi Community College will have you rooting for personal victories as much as the points on the scoreboard. Many of the outstanding players on the squad lost spots at Division I schools because of disciplinary infractions or failing academics, so they’re seeking redemption in a program that wants them to return to the big-name schools. There are two full seasons to binge and a third on the way.

Where to watch it: Netflix

16. VICE (2013)

Currently in its sixth season, the series is known for asking tough questions that need immediate answers and giving viewers a street-level view of everything from killing cancer to juvenile justice reform. Its confrontational style of gonzo provocation won’t be everyone’s cup of spiked tea, but it’s filling an important gap that used to be filled by major network investigative journalists. When they let their subjects—from child soldiers suffering PTSD after fighting for ISIS to coal miners in Appalachia—tell their stories, nonfiction magic happens.

Where to watch it: HBO

17. CHEF’S TABLE (2015)

From David Gelb, the documentarian behind Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this doc series is a backstage pass to the kitchens of the world’s most elite chefs. The teams at Osteria Francescana, Blue Hill, Alinea, Pujol, and more open their doors to share their process, culinary creativity, and, of course, dozens of delicious courses. No shame in licking your screen.

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. NOBU’S JAPAN (2014)

For those looking to learn more about culture while chowing down, world-renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa guides guest chefs to different regions of Japan to ingest the sights, sounds, and spirits of the area before crafting a dish inspired by the journey. History is the main course, with a healthy dash of culinary invention that honors tradition.

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

19. THE SYSTEM (2014)

Should a jury decide if a child is sentenced to life in jail without parole? How can you go to jail for 20 years for shooting your gun inside your own home to deter thieves? These are just two of the questions examined by this knockout series about the conflicts, outdated methods, and biases lurking in America’s criminal justice system. Insightful and infuriating, it makes a strong companion to Ava DuVernay’s 13th.

Where to watch it: Al Jazeera and Sundance Now

20. BOBBY KENNEDY FOR PRESIDENT (2018)

It won’t be available until April 27 (so close!), but it’s well worth adding to your queue. This four-part series utilizes a wealth of footage, including unseen personal videos, to share the tragic story of Robert F. Kennedy’s run for president in the context of an era riven by racial strife. Watching this socio-political memorial told by many who were there (including Marian Wright and Congressman John Lewis), it will be impossible not to draw connections to the current day and wonder: What if?

Where to watch it: Netflix

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