10 (More) Haunting Documentaries That Are Stranger Than Fiction

Documentaries aren't movies you'd usually think of when rattling off a list of horror films, but because documentaries depict things that really happened, they can actually be pretty terrifying. If our first 10 haunting documentary picks didn't give you nightmares—or if they left you wanting more—here are 10 more stranger-than-fiction documentaries to add to your movie-watching queue.

1. THE WOMAN WHO WASN'T THERE (2012)

The Woman Who Wasn't There profiles a New York City woman and 9/11 survivor named Tania Head, who managed to escape from the 78th floor of the World Trade Center, badly injured, and eventually became one of the founding members of the World Trade Center Survivors' Network. Head's story is a compelling one—even more so once you learn that none of it ever happened. Tania, whose real name is Alicia Esteve Head, fooled hundreds of people over a period of several years, pretending to be a 9/11 survivor and the widow of a man who was killed in one of the towers. Available for streaming on Hulu, The Woman Who Wasn't There profiles Head, her story, and the shocking manner in which it all unraveled.

Why it’s so creepy: In archival footage, Head is shown recounting her tale of survival—in sordid detail—to cameras and survivors alike. Viewers will be chilled to the bone to witness how manipulative Head acts, and how convincing a liar she is. 

2. CROPSEY (2009)

For decades, kids growing up in New York State heard the legend of "Cropsey," an enigmatic killer who preyed upon misbehaving children. Directors Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio (who grew up in New York themselves and heard the legends firsthand) take to the streets to find the origins of this childhood fable. But what they end up finding is even more frightening than the legends.

Why it's so creepy: Viewers go into Cropsey fully believing it's nothing more than an urban legend. But when the filmmakers find the child killer who is suspected of being the man behind the legend, viewers realize there might be some truth to this fiction.

3. CHILD OF RAGE (1990)

Beth Thomas was a darling and seemingly normal little girl when Child of Rage premiered on HBO in 1990. With round cheeks and big, innocent eyes, Thomas describes her home life to the therapist interviewing her on camera—and what comes out of her mouth is beyond disturbing.

A victim of sexual molestation at an early age, Thomas and her younger brother were removed from their childhood home and placed with a loving adoptive family shortly before she turned two years old. But the long-term effects of her abuse are astounding: Thomas relays, in cold detail, how she often feels a murderous anger toward the people who love her the most—and details the violence she now inflicts on her family members. The film follows Thomas as she undergoes "attachment therapy" to treat her violent rage.

Why it’s so creepy: There's definitely something chilling about a cherubic eight-year-old admitting that she needs to be locked in her room at night so she won't succeed in killing her brother. (Viewers will be relieved to know that Thomas successfully completed treatment and currently works as a neonatal nurse in Arizona.)

4. CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (2003)

Before his 2015 smash hit The Jinx, Andrew Jarecki directed another true crime documentary that left audiences stunned. Capturing the Friedmans is a profile of a seemingly typical upper-middle-class family in 1980s suburban New York: parents Arnold and Elaine, and their three sons Seth, David, and Jesse. In 1987, Arnold Friedman is caught with child pornography and police quickly open an investigation to determine whether Arnold, a computer teacher, could possibly be molesting his students. Eventually, Arnold—along with his son, Jesse—are both accused of molesting several underaged boys in their care, and the documentary follows the Friedman family as they await trial together in their suburban home.

Why it’s so creepy: At first glance, the Friedmans look like a typical family. Watching their happy home videos, it's hard to believe that Arnold or Jesse would be capable of committing the crimes of which they were accused. As the film nears its conclusion, viewers are forced to reconcile the painful difference between perception and the truth.

5. THE COVE (2009)

The Cove won an Academy Award in 2010 for Best Documentary—and it's easy to see why. In the film, viewers are taken to the coastal village of Taiji, Japan, where dolphins are brutally killed and captured for profit, all within one hard-to-locate and highly protected cove. Director Louie Psihoyos and his crew penetrate the mysterious cove with hidden cameras, and what they find is truly disturbing. Armed with the footage, Psihoyos and his crew try to expose the barbaric dolphin hunts inside the cove, and speak out against the dolphin capture industry as a whole.

Why it’s so creepy: At several points throughout the movie, the viewers witness hundreds of dolphin families being killed en masse by fishermen.

6. INTERVIEW WITH A CANNIBAL (2011)

In 1981, Japanese-born Issei Sagawa was living in Paris and studying at the Sorbonne when he brutally murdered one of his classmates, a 25-year-old Dutch woman named Renée Hartevelt. But that was only the beginning: After Hartevelt's murder, Sagawa raped and dismembered Hartevelt's corpse and cannibalized it over a two-day period. Interview With a Cannibal is exactly what you'd expect: a personal interview with Sagawa about his lurid crime and why he did it.

Why it’s so creepy: Hearing Sagawa retell how he lured Hartevelt to her death is creepy enough. But even more bone-chilling? Sagawa was actually deported back to his home country after being deemed mentally unfit to stand trial. He was briefly committed to a mental institution but, amazingly, checked himself out in 1986 and has been free ever since. Somewhat of a minor celebrity, Sagawa lives a quiet and unassuming life in Japan today.

7. SUICIDE FOREST (2011)

Japan has hundreds of tourist attractions that draw people from all over the globe. Aokigahara, a patch of forest at the base of Mt. Fuji, is a popular destination for many as well—but not for the reason you'd think. Instead of visiting Aokigahara for its scenery, several dozen Japanese citizens commit suicide there annually, most commonly from overdose or hanging. In a haunting documentary from VICE, filmmakers explore the woods—and discover some grisly things along the way.

Why it’s so creepy: Several times throughout the film viewers see suicide victims, some skeletonized, others still hanging from trees.

8. THE ACT OF KILLING (2012)

Between 1965 and 1966, approximately one million Indonesians were killed in an anti-communist purge following a new governmental regime. One man in particular, Anwar, led the most powerful killing squad in Sumatra, personally killing an estimated 1000 people. Decades later, directors Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn revisit the killings and talk to Anwar—now a celebrated military figure—about his murderous past, and whether he has any regrets.

Available for streaming on Netflix, The Act of Killing—which was nominated for an Oscar in 2014—challenges Anwar and other mass murderers to reenact their crimes in the style of a western or a musical movie. In a stunning twist, after the killers recreate their murders, they're asked to switch places with the actors and play the part of their victims. What follows is truly unexpected and difficult to watch.   

Why it’s so creepy: Hannah Arendt first coined the term "the banality of evil," and there's no phrase more fitting to describe The Art of Killing and the individuals it profiles. With shocking nonchalance, viewers watch former killers describe their acts with impunity and sometimes even glee. The disconnect is disturbing.

9. THE CHESHIRE MURDERS (2013)

On a bright summer day in July 2007, Dr. William Petit's life changed forever. As Petit dozed in the sunroom of his family home, two intruders—Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky—broke in. After beating Petit and tying him up to a pole in the basement, the two ex-cons ransacked the house, raped his wife and two adolescent daughters, and set the house ablaze, leaving them all for dead. Petit, however, was able to break free shortly before the blaze erupted and crawl to his neighbor's house for help, becoming the sole survivor in one of the most horrifying home invasions in the nation's history. In chilling detail, directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner recount the harrowing, seven-hour ordeal.

Why it’s so creepy: The only thing worse than listening to the graphic depictions of what Hayes and Komisarjevsky did in the Petit family home is hearing how they stalked their victims beforehand.

10. IN A TOWN THIS SIZE (2011)

In the 1960s and '70s, Bartlesville, Oklahoma was a picturesque family town where everyone knew each other. More importantly, everyone knew the town doctor, a prominent pediatrician named Dr. Bill Dougherty who, over the span of several decades, sexually molested hundreds of his patients—or, in the words of one of his victims, "murdered children's souls." The victims tell their stories on camera, and share how easy it was for Dougherty to gain, and abuse, his patients' trust.

Why it’s so creepy: In a Town This Small is a movie that's more sad than scary. Nonetheless, hearing Dr. Dougherty's crimes from the victims themselves will have any parent cringing in horror.

14 Things You Might Not Have Known About James K. Polk

Matthew Brady/Getty Images
Matthew Brady/Getty Images

James K. Polk may have served just one term, but he was one of history’s most consequential U.S. presidents. Polish up on Young Hickory, America's 11th Commander in Chief.

1. James K. Polk had surgery to remove urinary bladder stones when he was 16.

Born on November 2, 1795, James Knox Polk was the oldest of 10 children born to Samuel Polk, a farmer and surveyor, and his wife, Jane. When James was 10, the family moved to Tennessee and settled on a farm in Maury County. As a child, James was too ill to attend formal school; just before he turned 17, he had urinary bladder stones surgically removed by Ephraim McDowell, a prominent Kentucky surgeon. Anesthesia wasn’t available at that time, so the future president reportedly dulled the pain with brandy. The surgery allowed the formerly ill Polk to attend formal schooling for the first time. He entered the University of North Carolina as a sophomore after just 2.5 years of formal schooling. According to Britannica, "as a graduating senior in 1818 he was the Latin salutatorian of his class—a preeminent scholar in both the classics and mathematics." After graduation, he returned to Tennessee to study law and eventually opened up his own practice.

2. James K. Polk won a seat on the Tennessee Legislature at 27, and the U.S. House of Representatives at 29.

During his time in the state legislature, he met—and befriended—future president Andrew Jackson. He also began courting his future wife, Sarah Childress. The daughter of a prominent planter, she had been educated at the prestigious Moravian Female Academy in Salem, North Carolina, and was an eager and active participant in his political campaigns. Polk and Sarah married in 1824. In 1825, Polk was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives; he was speaker of the House from 1835 until he left in 1839 to become governor of Tennessee.

3. James K. Polk's nomination for president surprised everyone—including himself.

Months before the democratic national convention of 1844, Polk was at a low point. He had just lost his bid to be re-elected governor of Tennessee (he had been voted out of office in 1841 and tried—and failed—to be elected again in 1843). But when the delegates at the convention couldn’t agree on a nominee—the party was deadlocked between Martin Van Buren and Lewis Cass—they eventually decided to compromise by picking a “dark horse” candidate: Polk.

4. Everyone thought James K. Polk would lose his bid for the presidency.

Despite being a seven-time congressman, a former Speaker of the House, and an ex-governor, Polk was a relative nobody. His opponent Henry Clay lamented that Democrats had failed to choose someone “more worthy of a contest.” Despite the doubts, Polk won the popular vote by nearly 40,000 and the Electoral College 170-105.

5. During James K. Polk's White House "office hours," any American could stop by.

During Polk’s day, anybody was permitted to visit the White House for “office hours.” For two days every week, concerned citizens and lobbyists could drop by to vouch for a cause or ask for political favors. “Job seekers were the worst, in Polk’s view, and he found their incessant interruptions far more annoying than his Whig opponents in Congress,” writes Walter R. Borneman in his book Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America.

6. James K. Polk was remarkably boring.

Polk had as much charisma as a puddle of mud. He was straight-laced, somber, and humorless. As Speaker, an editor in Washington called him the "most unpretending man, for his talents, this, or perhaps any country, has ever seen." Some attributed Polk’s boringness to his refusal to drink socially. The politician Sam Houston supposedly called him “a victim of the use of water as a beverage.” (Sarah banned hard liquor—and dancing—from the White House.)

7. James K. Polk worked 12 hour days and didn't take much time off from the presidency.

Polk regularly spent 12 hours a day at the office. He rarely left Washington, took advice, or delegated. When he wanted to lobby for policy, he’d visit Congress and do it himself. Over the course of his single term, Polk took a total of just 27 days off. “No President who performs his duty faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure,” Polk wrote.

8. James K. Polk acquired America's first patch of Pacific coastline.

In the early 19th century, the Pacific Northwest was jointly occupied by British and American settlers. But as the century progressed, Americans began to outnumber the British, and they increasingly felt like the rightful owners of the “Oregon Country.” Thankfully, neither country was interested in battling over the land. In 1846, Polk and the British drew a border at the 49th parallel (with some adjustment for Vancouver Island)—what is now Washington State’s boundary with Canada. With that, the United States obtained its first uncontested patch of Pacific coastline.

9. James K. Polk waged a controversial—and consequential—war with Mexico.

In the 1840s, Mexico’s border encompassed California, the American southwest, and even parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Polk wanted this land. In 1845, he offered to buy some disputed territory near the Texas-Mexico border, as well as land in California; when Mexico refused, Polk sent troops into the disputed territory. Mexico retaliated. Polk then requested Congress to declare war. His critics (including a young Abraham Lincoln) complained that Polk had deliberately provoked Mexico. Whatever Polk’s motivations, the United States lost 13,000 men and approximately $100 million in the ensuing war—but succeeded in taking one-third of Mexico’s land.

10. James K. Polk is the reason the United States stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

In the course of just one term, Polk oversaw one of the greatest territorial expansions of any president—an increase of 1.2 million square miles. His administration extended the United States boundary to the Pacific Ocean and laid the groundwork for states such as California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Montana.

11. James K. Polk's ambivalence toward the issue of slavery may have sparked the Civil War.

When Polk’s administration began pushing westward, debate raged over how these new territories could alter the power balance between free and slave states. Polk, who considered slavery a side issue, refused to give the rancor much time or attention. (No doubt because of his own relationship with slavery. He owned more than 20 enslaved people and brought them to the White House.) Polk’s ambivalence helped sow so much discord that historians now consider his rapid expansion westward as the first steps toward the Civil War.

12. James K. Polk signed bills that reshaped Washington, D.C.

Polk accomplished a lot in just four years. During his tenure, he signed the Smithsonian Institution into law. He was instrumental to the construction of the Washington Monument and helped establish the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He also re-established an independent U.S. Treasury, which was partly intended to reduce the role of speculation in the economy.

13. James K. Polk's administration introduced Americans to the postage stamp.

One of Polk’s unofficial campaign managers was a Nosferatu-lookalike named Cave Johnson, who Polk rewarded with a job as Postmaster General. It was a tough gig. The post office’s budget was swimming in red ink. (At the time, mail recipients paid postage: If a mail carrier failed to find a recipient, no money was made. This happened a lot.) Johnson fixed the financial problem by introducing the prepaid postage stamp, which flipped the responsibility of paying to senders. According to historian C. L. Grant, in 1845, Johnson estimated that the department would have a deficit of over a million dollars. By the time he left that was down to $30,000.

14. The location of James K. Polk's grave is causing a stir in Tennessee.

Polk died, likely of cholera, in 1849, just months after leaving office. Because he died of an infectious disease, the president was hastily buried in a city cemetery near the outskirts of Nashville. Months later, he was re-interred near his Nashville mansion, Polk Place. In 1893, his tomb was moved again to the state Capitol grounds. Today, Tennessee legislators are actively debating whether to move Polk’s bones a fourth time, this time to his old family home in Columbia, Tennessee.

10 Complicated Facts About Shaft

Richard Roundtree stars in Shaft (1971).
Richard Roundtree stars in Shaft (1971).
MGM

On July 2, 1971, moviegoers caught their first glimpse of John Shaft, the "black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks." Today, Shaft is considered one of the grandfathers of the blaxploitation genre—and it’s got one of the most recognizable soundtracks of all time. While Samuel L. Jackson has taken on the role for a new generation here are some interesting facts about the original film's creation and release. If you picked up on why Shaft and his associates call everyone "mother," you’re smarter than at least one unfortunate reporter.

1. A white newspaper reporter created Shaft.

John Shaft made his debut in Shaft, a novel by Ernest Tidyman. Tidyman was a reporter for The Cleveland News, The New York Post, and The New York Times before he began writing the Shaft series, which included seven detective stories. Along with John D.F. Black, he adapted his first Shaft book into the screenplay for the first film. He would later go on to write the screenplays for The French Connection (1971) and High Plains Drifter (1973) as well as Shaft’s Big Score! (1972) and the Shaft TV series (1973-1974). His work earned him an NAACP Image Award.

2. The studio wanted to shoot Shaft in Los Angeles.

Shaft was filmed entirely in New York City, which is clearly illustrated by the shots of Times Square and Greenwich Village. But it nearly wasn’t. In his autobiography, Voices in the Mirror, director Gordon Parks recalled how he received word from MGM mere hours before he was set to commence filming that he was to return to Los Angeles and shoot the movie there. Apparently it was a budgetary issue, but Parks wasn’t having it. He flew back to the West Coast and essentially told the studio heads he would quit if he couldn’t shoot in Manhattan. "It has to have the smell of New York," Parks insisted. The director won out, and his nightmare of a Harlem in Hollywood was never realized.

3. Shaft's mustache was non-negotiable.

The Los Angeles fiasco was behind him, but Parks immediately faced another scare when he spied his star, Richard Roundtree, heading to the bathroom with a towel and razor. Producer Joel Freeman had asked him to get rid of his soon-to-be legendary mustache. Parks told Roundtree emphatically, “Shave it off and you’re out of a job.” And with that, the ‘stache stayed in the picture.

4. Gordon Parks put his magazine in the movie.

In the movie’s opening sequence, Shaft stops to talk to a blind newsstand vendor. The magazine Essence is prominently displayed—and that’s no accident; Parks helped found the publication and served as its editorial director for its first three years in print.

5. Bumpy Jonas was based on a real mobster.

Shaft spends most of the movie tracking down a kidnapped girl. She’s the daughter of Harlem crime kingpin Bumpy Jonas, and Bumpy was not a Hollywood invention. He was based on Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, who ruled the Harlem crime scene from the 1930s through the 1960s. He had ties to the infamous murder of Dutch Schultz and mentored Frank Lucas, the notorious heroin dealer Denzel Washington played in American Gangster. Fictionalized versions of Johnson have also appeared in movies like The Cotton Club and Hoodlum.

6. Gordon Parks made a cameo.

Parks appears briefly in the montage of Shaft searching for Ben Buford. He’s the landlord with the pipe, who complains that he’s also looking for Buford, who owes him six months of rent.

7. Muhammad Ali's trainer had a bit role.

Drew Bundini Brown was a well-known member of Muhammad Ali’s entourage. He worked as an assistant trainer, and was famous for the “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” bit he performed with Ali for the cameras. But when he wasn’t in Ali’s corner, Brown was busy racking up movie credits. His first was Shaft, where he played one of Bumpy Jonas's men.

8. "Skloot Insurance" was a nod to a crew member.

Shaft’s office is sandwiched in between Acme Imports Exports Inc. and Skloot Insurance. The latter is a reference to Steven P. Skloot, the movie’s unit production manager.

9. Parks had to explain what "shaft" and "mother" meant to a reporter.

When Parks flew to London to do publicity for the film, he ended up giving an impromptu vocabulary lesson. At a press screening, a confused British reporter asked the director what “shaft” really meant. Parks replied by smiling and sticking his middle finger up in the air, explaining that was “the most honest answer” he could give. But the reporter was persistent and followed up by asking why the characters called each other “mother.” Parks really didn’t know how to answer that one, but luckily, a woman in the audience swooped in. “You’ve heard of Smucker’s jam, young man,” she said. “Just snip out the first two letters and add an ‘f’ and you’ll get the message.”

10. Isaac Hayes was the first black composer to win an Oscar.

Isaac Hayes’s ubiquitous “Theme from Shaft” earned him a 1972 Academy Award for Best Original Song. This win was historic for many reasons: For one, Hayes was the first black composer to score an Oscar. But he was also only the third African American to win an Oscar, period. Prior to 1973, the only other black Academy Award winners were Hattie McDaniel (Best Supporting Actress for Gone with the Wind) and Sidney Poitier (Best Actor for Lilies of the Field).

This story has been updated for 2019.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER