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.

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Zach Hyman, HBO
10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories
Zach Hyman, HBO
Zach Hyman, HBO

Sesame Street has been on the air for almost 50 years, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this beloved children’s show. What kind of bird is Big Bird? What’s the deal with Mr. Noodle? And how do you actually get to Sesame Street? Fans have filled in these gaps with frequently amusing—and sometimes bizarre—theories about how the cheerful neighborhood ticks. Read them at your own risk, because they’ll probably ruin the Count for you.

1. THE THEME SONG CONTAINS SECRET INSTRUCTIONS.

According to a Reddit theory, the Sesame Street theme song isn’t just catchy—it’s code. The lyrics spell out how to get to Sesame Street quite literally, giving listeners clues on how to access this fantasy land. It must be a sunny day (as the repeated line goes), you must bring a broom (“sweeping the clouds away”), and you have to give Oscar the Grouch the password (“everything’s a-ok”) to gain entrance. Make sure to memorize all the steps before you attempt.

2. SESAME STREET IS A REHAB CENTER FOR MONSTERS.

Sesame Street is populated with the stuff of nightmares. There’s a gigantic bird, a mean green guy who hides in the trash, and an actual vampire. These things should be scary, and some fans contend that they used to be. But then the creatures moved to Sesame Street, a rehabilitation area for formerly frightening monsters. In this community, monsters can’t roam outside the perimeters (“neighborhood”) as they recover. They must learn to educate children instead of eating them—and find a more harmless snack to fuel their hunger. Hence Cookie Monster’s fixation with baked goods.

3. BIG BIRD IS AN EXTINCT MOA.

Big Bird is a rare breed. He’s eight feet tall and while he can’t really fly, he can rollerskate. So what kind of bird is he? Big Bird’s species has been a matter of contention since Sesame Street began: Big Bird insists he’s a lark, while Oscar thinks he’s more of a homing pigeon. But there’s convincing evidence that Big Bird is an extinct moa. The moa were 10 species of flightless birds who lived in New Zealand. They had long necks and stout torsos, and reached up to 12 feet in height. Scientists claim they died off hundreds of years ago, but could one be living on Sesame Street? It makes sense, especially considering his best friend looks a lot like a woolly mammoth.

4. OSCAR’S TRASH CAN IS A TARDIS.

Oscar’s home doesn’t seem very big. But as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland revealed, his trash can holds much more than moldy banana peels. The Grouch has chandeliers and even an interdimensional portal down there! There’s only one logical explanation for this outrageously spacious trash can: It’s a Doctor Who-style TARDIS.

5. IT’S ALL A RIFF ON PLATO.

Dust off your copy of The Republic, because this is about to get philosophical. Plato has a famous allegory about a cave, one that explains enlightenment through actual sunlight. He describes a prisoner who steps out of the cave and into the sun, realizing his entire understanding of the world is wrong. When he returns to the cave to educate his fellow prisoners, they don’t believe him, because the information is too overwhelming and contradictory to what they know. The lesson is that education is a gradual learning process, one where pupils must move through the cave themselves, putting pieces together along the way. And what better guide is there than a merry kids’ show?

According to one Reddit theory, Sesame Street builds on Plato’s teachings by presenting a utopia where all kinds of creatures live together in harmony. There’s no racism or suffocating gender roles, just another sunny (see what they did there?) day in the neighborhood. Sesame Street shows the audience what an enlightened society looks like through simple songs and silly jokes, spoon-feeding Plato’s “cave dwellers” knowledge at an early age.

6. MR. NOODLE IS IN HELL.

Can a grown man really enjoy taking orders from a squeaky red puppet? And why does Mr. Noodle live outside a window in Elmo’s house anyway? According to this hilariously bleak theory, no, Mr. Noodle does not like dancing for Elmo, but he has to, because he’s in hell. Think about it: He’s seemingly trapped in a surreal place where he can’t talk, but he has to do whatever a fuzzy monster named Elmo says. Definitely sounds like hell.

7. ELMO IS ANIMAL’S SON.

Okay, so remember when Animal chases a shrieking woman out of the college auditorium in The Muppets Take Manhattan? (If you don't, see above.) One fan thinks Animal had a fling with this lady, which produced Elmo. While the two might have similar coloring, this theory completely ignores Elmo’s dad Louie, who appears in many Sesame Street episodes. But maybe Animal is a distant cousin.

8. COOKIE MONSTER HAS AN EATING DISORDER.

Cookie Monster loves to cram chocolate chip treats into his mouth. But as eagle-eyed viewers have observed, he doesn’t really eat the cookies so much as chew them into messy crumbs that fly in every direction. This could indicate Cookie Monster has a chewing and spitting eating disorder, meaning he doesn’t actually consume food—he just chews and spits it out. There’s a more detailed (and dark) diagnosis of Cookie Monster’s symptoms here.

9. THE COUNT EATS CHILDREN.

Can a vampire really get his kicks from counting to five? One of the craziest Sesame Street fan theories posits that the Count lures kids to their death with his number games. That’s why the cast of children on Sesame Street changes so frequently—the Count eats them all after teaching them to add. The adult cast, meanwhile, stays pretty much the same, implying the grown-ups are either under a vampiric spell or looking the other way as the Count does his thing.

10. THE COUNT IS ALSO A PIMP.

Alright, this is just a Dave Chappelle joke. But the Count does have a cape.

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iStock
17 Things to Know About René Descartes
iStock
iStock

The French polymath René Descartes (1596-1650) lived after the Renaissance, but he personified that age's interest in mathematics, philosophy, art, and the nature of humanity. He made numerous discoveries and argued for ideas that people continue to grapple with. (His dualist distinction between mind and the brain, for example, continues to be debated by psychologists.) Get to know him better!

1. NOBODY CALLED HIM RENÉ.

Descartes went by a nickname and often introduced himself as “Poitevin” and signed letters as “du Perron.” Sometimes, he went so far to call himself the “Lord of Perron.” That’s because he had inherited a farm from his mother’s family in Poitou, in western France.

2. SCHOOL MADE HIM FEEL DUMBER.

From the age of 11 to 18, Descartes attended one of the best schools in Europe, the Jesuit College of Henry IV in La Flèche, France. In his later work Discourse on the Method, Descartes wrote that, upon leaving school, “I found myself involved in so many doubts and errors, that I was convinced I had advanced no farther in all my attempts at learning, than the discovery at every turn of my own ignorance."

3. HIS DAD WANTED HIM TO BE A LAWYER.

Descartes’s family was chock-full of lawyers, and the budding intellectual was expected to join them. He studied law at the University of Poitiers and even came home with a law degree in 1616. But he never entered the practice. In 1618, a 22-year-old Descartes enlisted as a mercenary in the Dutch States Army instead. There, he would study military engineering and become fascinated with math and physics.

4. HE CHANGED CAREER PATHS THANKS TO A SERIES OF DREAMS.

In 1618, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Ferdinand II, attempted to impose Catholicism on anybody living within his domain. The result of this policy would be the Thirty Years' War. It would also prompt Descartes, a Catholic, to switch allegiances to a Bavarian army fighting for the Catholic side. But on his travels, he stopped in the town of Ulm. There, on the night of November 10, he had three dreams that convinced him to change his life’s path. “Descartes took from them the message that he should set out to reform all knowledge,” philosopher Gary Hatfield writes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

5. HE COULD BE EASILY DISTRACTED BY BRIGHT AND SHINY OBJECTS.

In 1628, Descartes moved to the Netherlands and spent nine months doggedly working on a theory of metaphysics. Then he got distracted. In 1629, a number of false suns—called parhelia, or “sun dogs”—were seen near Rome. Descartes put his beloved metaphysics treatise on the back burner and devoted his time to explaining the phenomenon. It was a lucky distraction: It led to his work The World, or Treatise on Light.

6. HE LAID THE GROUNDWORK FOR ANALYTIC GEOMETRY ...

In 1637, Descartes published his groundbreaking Discourse on the Method, where he took the revolutionary step of describing lines through mathematical equations. According to Hatfield, “[Descartes] considered his algebraic techniques to provide a powerful alternative to actual compass-and-ruler constructions when the latter became too intricate.” You might have encountered his system in high school algebra: They’re called Cartesian coordinates.

7. ... AND THE REST OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY.

Everybody knows Descartes for his phrase Cogito, ergo sum (which originally appeared in French as "Je pense, donc je suis"), or "I think, therefore I am." The concept appeared in many of his texts. To understand what it means, some context is helpful: At the time, many philosophers claimed that truth was acquired through sense impressions. Descartes disagreed. He argued that our senses are unreliable. An ill person can hallucinate. An amputee can feel phantom limb pain. People are regularly deceived by their own eyes, dreams, and imaginations. Descartes, however, realized that his argument opened a door for "radical doubt": That is, what was stopping people from doubting the existence of, well, everything? The cogito argument is his remedy: Even if you doubt the existence of everything, you cannot doubt the existence of your own mind—because doubting indicates thinking, and thinking indicates existing. Descartes argued that self-evident truths like this—and not the senses—must be the foundation of philosophical investigations.

8. HE'S THE REASON YOUR MATH TEACHER MAKES YOU CHECK YOUR WORK.

Descartes was obsessed with certainty. In his book Rules for the Direction of the Mind, “he sought to generalize the methods of mathematics so as to provide a route to clear knowledge of everything that human beings can know,” Hatfield writes. His advice included this classic chestnut: To solve a big problem, break it up into small, easy-to-understand parts—and check each step often.

9. HE LIKED TO HIDE.

Descartes had a motto, which he took from Ovid: “Who lives well hidden, lives well.” When he moved to the Netherlands, he regularly changed apartments and deliberately kept his address a secret. Some say it's because he simply desired privacy for his philosophical work, or that he was avoiding his disapproving family. In his book titled Descartes, philosopher A. C. Grayling makes another suggestion: "Descartes was a spy."

10. HE WASN'T AFRAID OF CRITICS. IN FACT, HE RE-PUBLISHED THEM.

When Descartes was revising his Meditations on First Philosophy [PDF], he planned to send the manuscript to “the 20 or 30 most learned theologians” for criticism—a sort of proto-peer review. He collected seven objections and published them in the work. (Descartes, of course, had the last word: He responded to each criticism.)

11. HE COULD THROW SHADE WITH THE BEST OF THEM.

In the 1640s, Descartes’s pupil and friend Henricus Regius published a broadsheet that distorted Descartes’s theory of the mind. (Which, put briefly, posits that the material body and immaterial mind are separate and distinct.) The two men had a falling out, and Descartes wrote a rebuttal with a barbed title that refused to even acknowledge Regius’s manifesto by name: It was simply called “Comments on a Certain Broadsheet.”

12. HE NEVER BELIEVED MONKEYS COULD TALK.

There’s a “fun fact” parading around that suggests Descartes believed monkeys and apes could talk. He believed no such thing. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Descartes denied that animals were even conscious, let alone capable of speech. The factoid comes from a misreading of a letter Descartes had written in 1646, in which he attributed the belief to “savages.”

13. HE TOTALLY HAD THE HOTS FOR CROSS-EYED WOMEN.

In a letter to Queen Christina of Sweden, Descartes explained that he had a cross-eyed playmate as a child. “I loved a girl of my own age ... who was slightly cross-eyed; by which means, the impression made in my brain when I looked at her wandering eyes was joined so much to that which also occurred when the passion of love moved me, that for a long time afterward, in seeing cross-eyed women, I felt more inclined to love them than others.”

14. WHEN HE MET BLAISE PASCAL, THEY GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT ... ABOUT VACUUMS.

In 1647, a 51-year-old Descartes visited the 24-year-old prodigy and physicist Blaise Pascal. Their meeting quickly devolved into a heated argument over the concept of a vacuum—that is, the idea that air pressure could ever be reduced to zero. (Descartes said it was impossible; Pascal disagreed.) Later, Descartes wrote a letter that, depending on your translation, said that Pascal had “too much vacuum in his head.”

15. HIS WORK WAS BANNED BY THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.

Back in the late 1630s, the theologian Gisbert Voetius had convinced the academic senate of the University of Utrecht to condemn the philosopher’s work. (Descartes was Catholic, but his suggestion that the universe began as a “chaotic soup of particles in motion,” in Hatfield's words, was contrary to orthodox theology.) In the 1660s, his works were placed on the church’s Index of Prohibited Books.

16. HE REGULARLY SLEPT UNTIL NOON (AND TRYING TO BREAK THE HABIT MIGHT HAVE KILLED HIM).

Descartes was not a morning person. He often snoozed 12 hours a night, from midnight until lunchtime. In fact, he worked in bed. (Sleep, he wisely wrote, was a time of “nourishment for the brain.”) But according to the Journal of Historical Neuroscience, he may have had a sleep disorder that helped end his life. A year before his death, Descartes had moved to Stockholm to take a job tutoring Queen Christina, a devoted early-riser who forced Descartes to change his sleep schedule. Some believe the resulting sleep deprivation weakened his immune system and eventually killed him.

17. HIS SKELETON HAS TRAVELED FAR AND WIDE.

Descartes died in Stockholm in 1650 and was buried outside the city. Sixteen years later, his corpse was exhumed and taken to Paris. During the French Revolution, his bones were moved to an Egyptian sarcophagus at the Museum of French Monuments. Decades later, when plans were made to rebury Descartes in an abbey, officials discovered that most of his bones—including his skull—were missing. Shortly after, a Swedish scientist discovered a newspaper advertisement attempting to sell the polymath’s noggin [PDF]. Today, his head is in a collection at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

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