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.

10 Facts About Christopher Marlowe

A stone in memory of Christopher Marlowe at Kings School, Canterbury
A stone in memory of Christopher Marlowe at Kings School, Canterbury
John K Thorne, Flickr // Public Domain

Christopher Marlowe is more than a footnote in William Shakespeare’s life, even though that’s the position he’s most often relegated to, especially in fiction. It’s obvious why: Shakespeare is the most famous English playwright, and Marlowe is merely one of the most famous English playwrights. Plus, since Marlowe was a contemporary of Shakespeare's, he ends up bursting onto the scene in cameo appearances during tales focused on the Bard.

The other reason? We simply don’t know that much about him.

Born in 1564, Marlowe led a brief, extraordinary life even before you get to all the mythology and conspiracy theories that have grown up surrounding him. He offered a memorable poetic voice that paved the way for Shakespeare while crafting stories of outsized personalities forever flying too close to the sun (or the Devil).

Here are 10 facts about a man we should know more about.

1. Christopher Marlowe achieved a lot in a short time.

Rupert Everett was almost 40 when he portrayed Marlowe in Shakespeare in Love, but Marlowe only lived to age 29. Marlowe built on the work of Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville among others, and his unrhymed, iambic pentameter—specifically the wildly popular and oft-imitated Tamburlaine the Great—represented an evolution in style that became an accepted structure in Renaissance English theatre. It’s what Shakespeare used, and what you probably learned about in high school literature class.

2. Christopher Marlowe wasn’t going to graduate Cambridge until the government intervened.

A portrait of an unknown 21-year-old man said to be Christopher Marlowe, discovered at Cambridge in 1952
A portrait of an unknown 21-year-old man said to be Christopher Marlowe, discovered at Cambridge in 1952
Wikimedia // Public Domain

In 1587, Marlowe had the Elizabethan equivalent of too many absences from his master’s program at Cambridge University, and there were rumors that he was preparing to go to France to become a Catholic priest. Cambridge officials considered refusing to award his degree, but the Privy Council (Queen Elizabeth’s advisers) sent them a letter denouncing the rumor and explaining that Marlowe had been operating to “the benefit of his country” and had done “her Majesty good service.”

3. Christopher Marlowe might have been a spy.

The "good service" he was doing for Her Majesty? The Privy Council never explained. Nevertheless, the secretive work, the religious nature of the rumors during an era when England persecuted Catholics, and the fact that Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham, often recruited young men attending Cambridge, have created the foundation for the theory that Marlowe was part of a spy network. At the very least, Marlowe did some undisclosed work for the government, which got him a helping hand that explained his school absences.

4. Christopher Marlowe was arrested for counterfeiting coins in Holland.

In 1592, about five years after the wild success of Tamburlaine, Marlowe was arrested for counterfeiting coins in the Dutch town of Vlissingen. This was a crime punishable by death, but Marlowe seems to have walked away with no, or very light, punishment. Naturally, some think this supports the idea that Marlowe worked as a spy.

5. Christopher Marlowe translated ancient poetry.

In addition to his plays (he wrote at least four, and some say seven), Marlowe also wrote poetry—"The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" and "Hero and Leander" most notably. In the former, a shepherd woos a lover by glorifying nature, and the latter retells a Greek myth where a man swims a narrow sea to reach the woman he loves. Marlowe also translated ancient works, including the first book of the Pharsalia, a Roman epic by Lucan about Caesar facing Pompey the Great in battle, and Ovid’s books of love poetry, Amores.

6. Christopher Marlowe was arrested for holding heretical views.

In 1593, the English government had a largely welcoming attitude to Protestant immigrants, so authorities were livid when anti-immigrant tracts began being posted on the streets of London. One that was judged to "exceed the rest in lewdness" alluded to two of Marlowe’s plays and was signed “Tamburlaine.” As part of a sweep targeting suspicious characters, authorities arrested and then tortured Marlowe’s friend and fellow playwright Thomas Kyd, who asserted that an unorthodox religious tract found in his room belonged to Marlowe. A warrant was issued, and Marlowe presented himself to the Privy Council, who told him to check in with them every day with them until further notice. He died 10 days later.

7. Christopher Marlowe's death inspired conspiracy theories.

The official story is that Marlowe was killed on May 30, 1593 while arguing about money in a boarding house with an associate named Ingram Frizer, and that very well may be the truth. But the strange circumstances around the event are numerous: Marlowe had been arrested for being an "atheist" only 10 days prior but received no real punishment for it; Frizer (and the two other men there) had all been employed by spymaster Walsingham; and even contemporaries doubted the plausibility of the coroner’s report. The list of people who apparently might have had cause to want Marlowe dead is long (right up to the queen herself), but the most fanciful theory is that the whole event was faked so that Marlowe could escape a very real death if convicted for religious heresy.

8. Christopher Marlowe pushed against anti-LGBT bigotry in his work.

Some scholars think Marlowe may have been gay, but (like so many other elements of his life) there is no conclusive evidence. However, there is concrete evidence that he treated same-sex relationships differently than other writers of the time. In other work of the same period, gay characters were usually villains, but Marlowe wrote about Edward II’s relationship with Piers Gaveston with humanity and beauty in Edward II. Some experts believe the play upheld conventional views on gay relationships by “punishing” Gaveston with death and killing Edward II in a way that evokes sodomy, but, even if so, Marlowe still covered the topic throughout the play with greater complexity and consideration than his contemporaries.

9. Westminster Abbey installed a window memorializing Christopher Marlowe in 2002.

The Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey is home to the graves of over 100 poets and writers, starting with Geoffrey Chaucer, who was buried there in 1400. Marlowe is buried in an unmarked grave in St. Nicholas's Church in Deptford, London, but shares a memorial in the form of a window at Poet's Corner with Elizabeth Gaskell, Oscar Wilde, and more. The space was donated by The Marlowe Society, who included a question mark next to his death date.

10. Shakespeare paid tribute to Christopher Marlowe in verse.

There would be no Shakespeare without Marlowe. Honoring the young trailblazer after his death, Shakespeare included one of Marlowe’s lines from Hero and Leander in As You Like It (“Who ever lov’d that lov’d not at first sight?”) and had a character possibly allude to Marlowe’s killing. There are also nods in Hamlet and Love’s Labour’s Lost. Of course, Shakespeare’s highest homage came in how often he echoed Marlowe’s poetic style and dramatic themes. (Though definitely not written by Shakespeare, there’s also a 1981 rock ‘n’ roll musical tribute to Marlowe that’s set in the 16th century but somehow also included miniskirts.)

10 Bold Breaking Bad Fan Theories

Bryan Cranston as Walter White and Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad.
Bryan Cranston as Walter White and Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad.
Ben Leuner, AMC

It’s been nearly six years since Breaking Bad went out in a blaze of gunfire, but fans still haven’t stopped thinking about the award-winning crime drama. What really happened to Walter White in the series finale? What’s the backstory on Gus Fring? And what did Jesse Pinkman’s doodles mean?

While El Camino, Vince Gilligan's new Breaking Bad movie, offers definitive answers to at least one of these questions, these fan theories offer some alternative answers—even if they strain the limits of logic and sanity along the way. Read on to discover the surprising source of Walt’s cancer diagnosis, and why pink is always bad news.

1. Walter White picks up traits from the people he kills.

Walter White is an unpredictable guy, but he’s weirdly consistent on one thing: After he kills someone, he kind of copies them. Remember how Krazy-8 liked his sandwiches without the crust? After Walt murdered him, he started eating crustless PB&Js. Walt also lifted Mike Ehrmantraut’s drink order and Gus Fring’s car, leading many fans to wonder if Walt steals personal characteristics from the people he kills.

2. Gus Fring worked for the CIA.

Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and Juan Bolsa (Javier Grajeda) in Breaking Bad
Giancarlo Esposito and Javier Grajeda in Breaking Bad.
Ursula Coyote, AMC

Who was Gus Fring before he became the ruthless leader of a meth/fried chicken empire? Well, we know he’s from Chile. We also know that any records of his time there are gone. And we know that cartel kingpin Don Eladio refused to kill him when he had the chance. Since Don Eladio has no qualms about eliminating the competition, Gus must have some form of protection. Could it be from the U.S. government? A detailed Reddit theory suggests that Gus was once a Chilean aristocrat who helped the CIA install the dictator Augusto Pinochet in power. Once Pinochet became a liability, Gus went to Mexico at the CIA’s behest to infiltrate a drug cartel. His alliance with U.S. intelligence kept him alive even as his work got more violent, and helped him bypass the normal immigration issues you'd typically encounter when you’ve murdered a bunch of people.

3. Madrigal built defective air filters that gave Walter white cancer.

Madrigal Electromotive is a corporation with varied interests. The German parent company of Los Pollos Hermanos dabbles in shipping, fast food, and industrial equipment … including air filters. According to one fan theory, Gray Matter—the company Walter White co-founded with Elliott Schwartz—purchased defective air filters from Madrigal and installed them while Walt still worked at the company. The filters ultimately caused Walt’s lung cancer, pushing him into the illegal drug trade and, eventually, business with Madrigal.

4. Color is a crucial element in the series.

Marie Schrader (Betsy Brandt) and Hank Schrader (Dean Norris)
Betsy Brandt and Dean Norris as Marie and Hank Schrader in Breaking Bad.
Ben Leuner, AMC

Color is a code on Breaking Bad. When a character chooses drab tones, they’re usually going through something, like withdrawal (Jesse) or chemo (Walt). Their wardrobe might turn darker as their stories skew darker—like when Marie ditched her trademark purple for black while she was under protective custody. Also, pink signals death, whether it’s on a teddy bear or Saul Goodman’s button down shirt.

5. Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead exist in the same universe.

Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead both aired on AMC, but according to fans, that’s not all they have in common. There’s an exhaustive body of evidence connecting the two shows—and one of the biggest links is Blue Sky. The distinctively-colored crystal meth is Walt and Jesse’s calling card on Breaking Bad, but it’s also Merle Dixon’s drug of choice on The Walking Dead. Coincidentally, his drug dealer (“a janky little white guy” who says “bitch”) sounds a lot like Jesse.

6. Walter white froze to death and hallucinated Breaking Bad's ending.

Bryan Cranston in the 'Breaking Bad' series finale
Ursula Coyote, AMC

In her review of the Breaking Bad series finale “Felina,” The New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum suggested an alternate ending in which Walt died an episode earlier, as the police surrounded his car in New Hampshire. He could’ve frozen to death “behind the wheel of a car he couldn’t start,” she theorized, and hallucinated the dramatic final shootout in “Felina” in his dying moments. This reading has gained traction with multiple fans, including SNL alum Norm Macdonald.

7. Jesse’s superheroes are a peek into his inner psyche.

In season 2 of Breaking Bad, we discover that Jesse Pinkman is a part-time artist. He sketches his own superheroes, including Backwardo/Rewindo (who can run backwards so fast he rewinds time), Hoverman (who floats above the ground), and Kanga-Man (who has a sidekick in his “pouch”). The characters are goofy, just like Jesse, but they may also reveal what’s going on in his head. Backwardo represents Jesse’s tendency to run from conflict. Hoverman reflects his lack of direction or purpose, while Kanga-Man hints at his codependency.

8. Madrigal was founded by Nazi war criminals.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen) in 'Breaking Bad'
Bryan Cranston and Michael Bowen in Breaking Bad.
Ursula Coyote, AMC

This might be one of the wilder Breaking Bad theories, but before you write it off, consider Werner Heisenberg: The German physicist, who helped pioneer Hitler’s nuclear weapons program, is the obvious inspiration for Walt’s meth kingpin moniker. While Heisenberg only appears in name, there are plenty of literal Nazis on the show. Look no further than Uncle Jack and the Aryan Brotherhood, who served as the Big Bad of season 5. At least one Redditor thinks all these Nazi references are hinting at something bigger, a conspiracy that goes straight to the top. The theory starts in South America, where many Nazis fled after World War II. A group of them supposedly formed a new company, Madrigal, through their existing connections back in Germany. Eventually, a young Chilean named Gus Fring worked his way into the growing business, and the rest is (fake) history.

9. Walter white survived, but paid the price.

Lots of Breaking Bad theories concern Walt’s death, or lack thereof. But if Walt actually lived through his seemingly fatal gunshot wound in “Felina,” what would the rest of his life look like? According to one Reddit theory, it wouldn’t be pretty. The infamous Heisenberg would almost certainly stand trial and go to prison. Although he tries to leave Skyler White with information to cut a deal with the cops, she could also easily go to jail—or lose custody of her children. The kids wouldn’t necessarily get that money Walt left with Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz, either, as they could take his threats to the police and surrender the cash to them. Basically it amounts to a whole lot of misery, making Walt’s death an oddly optimistic ending. (This is one theory El Camino addresses directly.)

10. Breaking Bad is a prequel to Malcolm in the Middle.

Bryan Cranston in the series premiere of 'Breaking Bad'
Bryan Cranston in the series premiere of Breaking Bad.
Doug Hyun, AMC

Alright, let’s say Walt survived the series finale and didn’t stand trial. Maybe he started over as a new man with a new family. Three boys, perhaps? This fan-favorite theory claims that Walter White assumed a new identity as Malcolm in the Middle patriarch Hal after the events of Breaking Bad, making the show a prequel to Bryan Cranston’s beloved sitcom. The Breaking Bad crew actually liked this idea so much they included an “alternate ending” on the DVD boxed set, where Hal wakes up from a bad dream where "There was a guy who never spoke! He just rang a bell the whole time! And then there was another guy who was a policeman or a DEA agent, and I think it was my brother or something. He looked like the guy from The Shield."

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER