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10 Disturbing Documentaries That Are Stranger Than Fiction

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Magnolia Pictures / Shoot the Moon Productions

Freddy Krueger’s metal fingernails and melted face might be scary, but he’s no match for some of the real-life people who have been featured in cinema’s most disturbing documentaries. We’ve written about some truly haunting documentaries before (see here and here); here are another 10 to add to your queue.

1. CRAZY LOVE (2007)

One sunny day in the Bronx, Burt Pugach met a girl. They fell in love, and soon made plans to get married. The only problem? He already had a wife.

After Linda Riss broke off their affair, Pugach became obsessive. He harassed her, threw rocks at her window, and threatened that if he couldn’t have her, no one else could. He wasn’t kidding: in 1959, he sent hired men to throw lye in her eyes, permanently scarring her face and almost completely blinding her. That didn’t stop Riss from marrying Pugach after he was released from jail in 1974. Crazy Love delves into this twisted romance, seeking to answer how Riss could wed a man who had so viciously attacked her.

Why it’s so creepy: Burt and Linda’s courtship is often presented as a sweet romance from a bygone era. The film mixes in Smokey Robinson tunes, pin-up photos, and Johnny Mathis footage as friends fondly reminisce about the pair’s meet-cute. This wholesome treatment only makes the real-life details more horrifying—especially since Linda, who passed away in 2013, likely viewed her marriage through this rosier, nostalgia-tinged lens.

2. JESUS CAMP (2006)

Jesus Camp follows children attending a Christian summer camp in Devils Lake, North Dakota. Only the young campers at Kids on Fire don’t make friendship bracelets or tell ghost stories around the campfire; instead, they fill their days with sermons preaching Islamophobia, homophobia, and a militant call to action against anyone opposing Christian beliefs. Kids on Fire received so many outraged calls and emails after this movie was released that camp director Becky Fischer had to shut it down. She didn’t quit, though; she just rebranded.

Why it’s so creepy: Watching brainwashed children recite hateful beliefs they can’t possibly understand is bad enough. But a cameo from disgraced pastor Ted Haggard will leave you feeling extra queasy.

3. MADNESS IN THE FAST LANE (2010)

This BBC documentary opens on a highly disturbing image: two women, standing on the highway shoulder with police officers, suddenly make a determined dash into oncoming traffic. Swedish sisters Ursula and Sabina Eriksson wreaked havoc on the London roads in May of 2008 when they repeatedly bolted across busy highways. After cops arrived on the scene, they fought them off to continue their suicidal runs. They were finally subdued and taken to an ambulance. But when Sabina was released a day later, she stabbed a man to death. The explanation for the twins’ bizarre behavior remains murky to this day, but this documentary attempts to make some sense of it all, with the help of criminal psychiatrist Dr. Nigel Eastman.

Why it’s so creepy: Those early images are terrifying, but so is the footage of Sabina in the police station after she’s been apprehended for her highway sprints. She’s chatty, friendly, almost flirty with the cops passing by. There’s no trace of the woman who just struck those same cops for trying to save her life—nor the woman who would murder a kind stranger the very next day.

4. KIDS FOR CASH (2013)

At the heart of this tale of corruption, greed, and wrongful imprisonment is Mark Ciavarella. The Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania judge was convicted of fraud (along with fellow judge Michael Conahan) for sending 3000 kids to juvenile detention centers in exchange for kickbacks. What crimes were these kids accused of committing? Making fake MySpace profiles and stealing DVDs from Wal-Mart.

Kids for Cash plays on real fears that will resonate with parents especially. One is that children’s lives can be irrevocably altered by a single youthful impulse. Another is that elected officials will do truly heinous things for money. But the most sobering is that you can’t completely trust the people who have sworn to judge you fairly in the eyes of the law.

Why it’s so creepy: Ciavarella is a natural villain, especially since he maintained throughout the trial that he was blameless. One highly upsetting scene where the mother of a teen boy he imprisoned confronts him outside the courtroom is bound to stay with you.

5. DREAMS OF A LIFE (2011)

Joyce Carol Vincent was a glamorous, ambitious woman who kept a social circle that included Stevie Wonder and Isaac Hayes. But when she died alone in her apartment in 2003, no one noticed for three years. Director Carol Morley was spurred to make a film about Vincent after learning about the discovery of her body—found decomposing in front of the television, surrounded by unopened Christmas gifts—and wanting to know more about the woman’s life. The question repeated again and again in the film is how could a person as vivacious and well-liked as Vincent end up so alone? Alternately eerie and heartbreaking, this documentary will make you wonder who would notice if you were gone.

Why it’s so creepy: This isn’t some sketch of a stranger. Through interviews with Vincent’s friends and former lovers, she becomes a fully-drawn human being. This is also aided by Zawe Ashton, the actress who plays the fictionalized version of Vincent in several sequences. Once she becomes real, the sinking feeling that this could happen to anyone really takes hold.

6. TITICUT FOLLIES (1967)

Thought American Horror Story: Asylum was scary? Then you won’t be able to sleep after seeing this true-life look at a Massachusetts mental institution. Frederick Wiseman’s unflinching documentary of abuse shows naked patients being mocked, force-fed, and generally treated like animals. Roger Ebert called it “one of the most despairing documentaries” he had ever seen in 1968—and he was one of the few who had even seen it at that time. The documentary was banned for 24 years over an injunction filed by the Massachusetts state government, citing concerns over the patients’ privacy. By the time it was lifted in 1991, Titicut Follies had already helped close several psychiatric wards.

Why it’s so creepy: The starkness of the footage is what makes Titicut Follies so unsettling. Shot in black-and-white, this documentary features no narration and no sympathetic onscreen presence to guide you through the horrors of Bridgewater State Hospital. You’re essentially locked up with the patients, and no one is coming to help.

7. GOING CLEAR (2015)

Scientology has been the butt of jokes ever since its posterboy Tom Cruise bounced off Oprah’s yellow couch. But this HBO documentary makes one thing clear: you shouldn’t be laughing at Scientology. You should be disturbed by it.

Over the course of two hours, director Alex Gibney paints a picture of a cult that threatens its members, drains their bank accounts, and exiles them from their families should they dare complain. Although Scientology is secretive by nature, Gibney managed to unearth tons of clips that reveal the disturbing dynamics of the community—plus all their awful ‘90s sweaters.

Why it’s so creepy: Have you ever listened to someone who escaped a cult tell his or her story? It’s really upsetting, and it happens over and over again in Going Clear. Through interviews with ex-members and archival footage, Gibney makes the specter of Scientology leader David Miscavige loom large.

8. THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE (2012)

The so-called Central Park jogger case electrified New York City in 1989. After Trisha Meili was raped and beaten in the middle of her nighttime run in the park, the NYPD moved quickly to put the perpetrator behind bars. Too quickly, it turns out. Five juveniles were charged on faulty evidence and sentenced to prison. They would remain trapped behind bars until 2002, when the real culprit confessed and cleared the boys (by then, men) with his DNA match. In covering the case, The Central Park Five isn’t just interested in exposing the horrors of the judicial system. It also digs into the racism and media bias that convinced the courts a group of black and Hispanic boys had to be guilty.

Why it’s so creepy: It’s a somber reminder of the precarious position minorities live in each day. In an eerie case of deja vu, Donald Trump is also involved, giving offensive statements to the press.

9. CATFISH (2010)

The documentary that launched an MTV series and a fun new term for conning people online, Catfish examines an Internet flirtation gone wrong. Nev Schulman (whose brother Ariel co-directs) believes he’s chatting with a young dancer named Megan. She has a Facebook network of parents, siblings, and other friends who seemingly back up her identity. But “Megan” is actually a cover for a very different person, whom Nev unmasks in the movie’s climax.

Some critics—including Morgan Spurlock—believe that Catfish was dramatized. But as anyone who’s been on social media for five seconds knows, it’s alarmingly easy to pretend you’re somebody else.

Why it’s so creepy: Millions of people rely on dating apps and websites to meet their future partners. The thought that they might be talking to an avatar is horrifying. Nev drives that point home during the scenes featuring his more, uh, intimate encounters with Megan.

10. ROOM 237 (2012)

Room 237 is ostensibly about The Shining, Stanley Kubick’s mega-famous horror movie. But it isn’t Jack Nicholson’s crazed grin that gives this documentary its frights. Several Shining obsessives spend their screentime detailing theories about what the movie really means—and their explanations range from reasonable to “the moon landing was fake.” (No seriously, one of them connects The Shining to that.) As their narrations go on, you can feel their minds descend into a madness not unlike Jack Torrance’s.

Why it’s so creepy: You never see any of the commentators onscreen, but you can hear their voices catch as they describe the amount of time and resources they’ve wasted chasing a crazy thought. These people have an unhealthy obsession, and what starts as a farcical look at fandom grows troublesome by the end.

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30 Memorable Quotes from Carrie Fisher
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Just days after suffering a heart attack aboard a flight en route to Los Angeles, beloved actress, author, and screenwriter Carrie Fisher passed away at the age of 60 on December 27, 2016. Though she’ll always be most closely associated with her role as Princess Leia in Star Wars, Fisher’s life was like something out of its own Hollywood movie. Born in Beverly Hills on this day in 1956, Fisher was born into show business royalty as the daughter of singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds.

In addition to her work in front of the camera, Fisher built up an impressive resume behind the scenes, too, most notably as a writer; in addition to several memoirs and semi-autobiographical novels, including Wishful Drinking, Surrender the Pink, Delusions of Grandma, The Best Awful, Postcards from the Edge, and The Princess Diarist (which was released last month), she was also an in-demand script doctor who counted Sister Act, Hook, Lethal Weapon 3, and The Wedding Singer among her credits.

Though she struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness, Fisher always maintained a sense of humor—as evidenced by the 30 memorable quotes below.

ON GROWING UP IN HOLLYWOOD

“I am truly a product of Hollywood in-breeding. When two celebrities mate, someone like me is the result.”

“I was born into big celebrity. It could only diminish.”

“At a certain point in my early twenties, my mother started to become worried about my obviously ever-increasing drug ingestion. So she ended up doing what any concerned parent would do. She called Cary Grant.”

“I was street smart, but unfortunately the street was Rodeo Drive.”

“If anything, my mother taught me how to sur-thrive. That's my word for it.”

ON AGING

“As you get older, the pickings get slimmer, but the people don't.”

ON INSTANT GRATIFICATION

“Instant gratification takes too long.”

ON THE LEGACY OF STAR WARS

“People are still asking me if I knew Star Wars was going to be that big of a hit. Yes, we all knew. The only one who didn't know was George.”

“Leia follows me like a vague smell.”

“I signed my likeness away. Every time I look in the mirror, I have to send Lucas a couple of bucks.”

“People see me and they squeal like tropical birds or seals stranded on the beach.”

“You're not really famous until you’re a Pez dispenser.”

ON THE FLEETING NATURE OF SUCCESS

“There is no point at which you can say, 'Well, I'm successful now. I might as well take a nap.'”

ON DEALING WITH MENTAL ILLNESS

“I'm very sane about how crazy I am.”

ON RESENTMENT

“Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die."

ON LOVE

“Someone has to stand still for you to love them. My choices are always on the run.”

“I've got to stop getting obsessed with human beings and fall in love with a chair. Chairs have everything human beings have to offer, and less, which is obviously what I need. Less emotional feedback, less warmth, less approval, less patience, and less response. The less the merrier. Chairs it is. I must furnish my heart with feelings for furniture.”

“I don’t hate hardly ever, and when I love, I love for miles and miles. A love so big it should either be outlawed or it should have a capital and its own currency.”

ON EMOTIONS

“The only thing worse than being hurt is everyone knowing that you're hurt.”

ON RELATIONSHIPS

“I envy people who have the capacity to sit with another human being and find them endlessly interesting, I would rather watch TV. Of course this becomes eventually known to the other person.”

ON HOLLYWOOD

“Acting engenders and harbors qualities that are best left way behind in adolescence.”

“You can't find any true closeness in Hollywood, because everybody does the fake closeness so well.”

“It's a man's world and show business is a man's meal, with women generously sprinkled through it like overqualified spice.”

ON FEAR

“Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.”

ON LIFE

“I don’t want life to imitate art. I want life to be art.”

“No motive is pure. No one is good or bad-but a hearty mix of both. And sometimes life actually gives to you by taking away.”

“If my life wasn't funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.”

“I shot through my twenties like a luminous thread through a dark needle, blazing toward my destination: Nowhere.”

“My life is like a lone, forgotten Q-Tip in the second-to-last drawer.”

ON DEATH

“You know what's funny about death? I mean other than absolutely nothing at all? You'd think we could remember finding out we weren't immortal. Sometimes I see children sobbing at airports and I think, 'Aww. They've just been told.'”

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12 Admissible Facts About Judge Judy
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Judge Judith Sheindlin was 54 years old when her namesake TV show premiered on September 16, 1996. Two years later the diminutive (5’1”) adjudicator was trouncing the powerhouse Oprah Winfrey Show in the Nielsen ratings. Today, she is one of the highest paid TV celebrities, earning $47 million per year—which she will continue to do through 2020, thanks to a new extended contract.

Fervent fans are familiar with Judge Judy’s more outrageous cases, like The Tupperware Lady and the eBay Cell Phone Scammer, but they might not know some of these fun facts about both the show and the woman behind it, who turns 75 years old today.

1. THAT GRUFF, NO-NONSENSE STYLE OF JURISPRUDENCE IS NOT AN ACT.

Judge Judy spent a little over 20 years in New York City’s family court system, where she earned a reputation early in her career for being blunt, impatient, and tough-talking. “I can’t stand stupid, and I can’t stand slow,” was one of her oft-repeated “Judyisms” at that time. She also frequently warned attorneys appearing before her: "I want first-time offenders to think of their appearance in my courtroom as the second-worst experience of their lives ... circumcision being the first." 60 Minutes filmed her in action as part of a 1993 profile, and while her hair color and eyebrows have softened since then, her impatient rants and verbal smackdowns haven’t changed a bit.

2. SHE BEGAN WEARING HER TRADEMARK LACE COLLAR AS SOON AS SHE WAS APPOINTED AS A JUDGE.

New York City Mayor Ed Koch appointed Judith Sheindlin to the bench in 1982, and to celebrate she and her husband Jerry—both civil servants at the time—took a $399 package trip to Greece for two weeks. While passing by a row of street kiosks with various locally made crafts for sale, she impulsively purchased a white lace collar from a vendor. She explained to her husband that male judges wore stiff-collared white dress shirts and colorful neckties that peeped out of the top of their robes, so that they had a nice colorful “buffer” between the austere black gown and their face. Female judges, however, had nothing but neck peeping out of their robes and the unforgiving black color revealed every minute of sleep deprivation as well as any skin tone irregularities. The white lace collar, she decided, would not only perk up her face but would also be a bit disarming for litigants—she could picture them thinking “That nice little lady with the lace collar sitting behind the bench couldn’t hurt a fly!”

3. DESPITE THOSE NEW YORK CITY SCENES ON THE COMMERCIAL BUMPERS, JUDGE JUDY IS TAPED IN CALIFORNIA.

Sheindlin spends 52 days per year taping her show. She flies to California via private jet every other Monday and hears cases on Tuesday and Wednesday (occasionally Thursday if there are production delays). One full week’s worth of shows are filmed each day. Many viewers, however, are fooled into thinking Judy is holding court in her native New York, thanks to the scenic Manhattan footage in between station breaks and the New York state flag behind her chair. That is, until something oh-so-unique to the west coast—like an earthquake—occurs on-camera. (Note that in the clip below, Judge Judy quickly ducks beneath her bench once the room begins to tremble.)

4. SHE IS BRIEFED ON THE CASES BEFORE SHE ARRIVES ON THE SET.

Judge Sheindlin does not go to the studio unprepared; producers FedEx the sworn statements and relevant information on each upcoming case to her home (Naples, Florida in the winter; Greenwich, Connecticut in the spring and summer) and she familiarizes herself with enough details to have some background, but not enough so that the case doesn’t appear “fresh” when she questions the litigants during filming.

5. THE CASES REALLY ARE REAL.

The production company has a staff of 60-plus researchers across the country who spend their days poring over lawsuits filed in local small claims courts. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, they are able to photocopy cases that they think might make for interesting television and those copies are forwarded to the show’s producers. Any cases that make it to the next stage (about three percent) involve contacting the litigants involved and asking them if they’d like to forego their civil court hearing in exchange for a free trip to Los Angeles, an $850 appearance fee, and a per diem of $40 (as of 2012). An added incentive is that any judgments awarded are paid by the show, not by the plaintiff or defendant. The best cases, according to the executive producer, are those that involve litigants with a prior relationship—mother/daughter, father/son, boyfriend/girlfriend, etc. Such cases engage the audience because it’s an emotional tie that’s been broken (the recurring plot on many soap operas).

6. THE AUDIENCE, HOWEVER, IS NOT SO REAL.

Regular viewers will note that the same faces seem to pop up in the audience regularly. Those folks in the spectator seats are paid extras (often aspiring actors) who earn $8 per hour to sit and look attentive. Prospective audience members apply for the limited amount of seats by emailing their contact information along with a clear headshot to one of Judge Judy’s production coordinators (sorry, we cannot provide that info). If chosen, the spectator must dress appropriately (business casual or better) and arrive promptly for the 8:30 a.m. call time. Audience members must pass through metal detectors on their way in and are not allowed to bring cell phones or any electronic devices with them, and food, drinks and chewing gum are also verboten. Spectators are rearranged after each case so it’s not as obvious that it’s the same group of people, and the most attractive folks are always seated in the front row (it’s Hollywood, after all). The audience is instructed to talk animatedly amongst themselves in between each case so that Officer Byrd’s “Order in the court!” admonition has more impact. Bad behavior is grounds for immediate expulsion (in front of 10 million viewers, as Judge Judy likes to remind us).

7. JUDGE JUDY DRESSES CASUALLY FOR THE JOB.

Sheindlin has been known to publicly chastise litigants who come to her courtroom in skimpy clothing or “beach attire,” but behind that bench and under that robe she is usually sporting jeans and a tank top or T-shirt.

8. OFFICER BYRD IS A REAL BAILIFF.

Brooklyn native Petri Hawkins Byrd earned his B.Sc. degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 1989 and started working in the Brooklyn Family Court system. He first worked with Judge Sheindlin when he transferred to the Manhattan Family Court. “We [the court officers] used to call her the Joan Rivers of the judicial system,” he recalled in a 2004 interview. “She was just hilarious.” Byrd relocated to San Mateo, California in 1990 to work as a Special Deputy U.S. Marshal and a few years later he read an item in Liz Smith’s gossip column about Sheindlin’s upcoming TV show. He sent his old colleague a congratulatory letter and added, “If you need a bailiff, I still look good in uniform.”

9. DESPITE HIS SOMETIMES IMPOSING COURTROOM DEMEANOR, OFFICER BYRD IS ALSO A VERY FUNNY GUY.

He is a talented impressionist, but his sense of humor almost cost him his job—or so he thought at the time. Once, back when he was working with the feisty Judge Sheindlin in New York, he donned her robe and reading glasses to entertain his co-workers with a barrage of Judyisms. Of course, as always seems to happen when one mocks the boss in the workplace, he was caught in the act.

10. THE OCCASIONAL CELEBRITY RELIES ON JUDGE JUDY’S BRAND OF JUSTICE.

Depending upon your own definition of “celebrity”, of course. Actress Roz Kelly (Pinky Tuscadero on Happy Days) appeared on the show in 1996 as the plaintiff, suing her plastic surgeon for a leaky breast implant that was impeding her acting career. One year later, former Sex Pistol John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten) appeared as a defendant when drummer Robert Williams, who was hired to support Lydon on a solo tour, sued the singer for lost wages and an assault. Despite Lydon’s occasional bad courtroom behavior, the decision was made in his favor.

11. THE STAR ORIGINALLY DIDN’T WANT THE SHOW NAMED AFTER HER.

Sheindlin first envisioned calling her show Hot Bench, a term used frequently in the appellate court, but the producers wisely advised her that the term was meaningless to TV viewers who didn’t work in the legal system. Her next thought was Judy Justice, since she’d overheard her court officers warning deadbeat parents who were delinquent in child support payments that they were in for a load of "Judy Justice" if they weren’t prepared to cough up some money. In retrospect, Sheindlin realized the wisdom in calling the show Judge Judy: She couldn’t be easily replaced, as the various judges had been on The People’s Court. However, after 19 years on the air, she still does not refer to herself by that sobriquet; whether introducing herself to someone or advertising her show in a promotional clip, she is always either “Judge Sheindlin” or “Judge Judy Sheindlin.”

12. JUDGE SHEINDLIN INHERITED HER SENSE OF HUMOR FROM HER FATHER.

Murray Blum, Judy’s beloved father, was a dentist whose office was in the family home. In those days—before sedation dentistry was an option—a dentist’s best tool to distract nervous patients was the gift of gab, and Murray became a master storyteller out of necessity. Years of listening to her father at the dinner table and at family gatherings taught Judy how to deliver a punchline. One evening outside of a hotel in Hollywood, Sheindlin was approached by a woman who introduced herself as Lorna Berle. She told the judge that her husband Milton was a huge fan and asked if she would mind talking to him for a moment. The elderly comic slowly emerged from a limo and Judy greeted him by singing the theme song to Texaco Star Theater, her favorite TV show as a child. Milton Berle complimented her in return, saying “Kid, you’ve got great comic timing.”

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