10 Disturbing Documentaries That Are Stranger Than Fiction

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.

10 Fascinating Facts About Anne Boleyn

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Anne Boleyn was one of England’s most controversial queens. In 1533, King Henry VIII annulled his first marriage (to Catherine of Aragon) and was in the process of breaking with the Catholic Church to wed the charming noblewoman. But their happiness was not to last: Just three years later, Anne was executed. It’s a compelling story, one that’s been dramatized in plays, novels, movies, and TV shows. But today, we’re setting the pop culture depictions aside to take a look at the real Anne Boleyn.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s formative years were spent in France and Belgium.

Born in the early 16th century (possibly in 1501 or 1507), Anne was the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, an English diplomat. As a child, she went abroad to study in Margaret of Austria’s court, located in present-day Belgium, and later continued her education as a member of Mary Tudor’s elegant household in Paris. By the time she returned to her native England in the early 1520s, Boleyn had mastered the French language—and she carried herself like a Parisian, too. “No one,” wrote one of Boleyn’s contemporaries, “would ever have taken her to be English by her manners, but [instead] a native-born Frenchwoman."

  1. Anne Boleyn played the lute.

Even Boleyn’s harshest critics had to admit that she was a good dancer. She was also fond of music, and reportedly played the lute (a guitar-like instrument popular at Tudor gatherings) quite well. A songbook that bears her inscription can be found at London’s Royal College of Music. It’s unclear if Boleyn ever owned this book, but its selection of tunes is historically significant.

  1. Anne Boleyn almost married someone other than King Henry VIII.

In 1522, Thomas Boleyn and his cousin, Sir Piers Butler, were both trying to claim some Irish land holdings that had belonged to one of their mutual ancestors. To settle the dispute, Anne's uncle suggested marrying Anne to Butler’s son, James, so that the factions could be unified in the future. By the time Anne returned to England, the marriage was already in the works. King Henry VIII—whose mistress at that time was Anne's sister Mary—supported the match, but the marriage never went through. Anne also had a romantic relationship with one Henry Percy, a future Earl of Northumberland who wound up marrying the Lady Mary Talbot.

  1. Anne Boleyn was pregnant at her coronation.

King Henry VIII’s marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was annulled on May 23, 1533. He’d been courting Anne Boleyn for years; many of his love letters survive to this day. As the king’s infatuation grew, so did his desire for a healthy male heir—which Catherine never gave him. But Pope Clement VII refused to dissolve the royal marriage. So the Archbishop of Canterbury went ahead and annulled it. Henry VIII would soon be declared “Supreme Head of the Church of England,” severing its ties with the Vatican. Boleyn was crowned queen on June 1, 1533. Her first child, Princess Elizabeth, was born a little over three months later.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s emblem was a white falcon.

The Boleyns took a white falcon from the traditional Butler family crest. For Anne’s coronation ceremony, poet Nicholas Udall wrote a ballad that likened the new queen to this elegant bird of prey. “Behold and see the Falcon White!” declared one verse. “How she beginneth her wings to spread, and for our comfort to take her flight” [PDF]. The new queen also used a white falcon badge as her personal emblem; at some point, a graffitied version of this was carved into the Tower of London.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s religious views are hard to pin down, but she appeared to sympathize with reformers.

At a time when Latin-language Bibles were the norm in Catholic Europe, Boleyn consistently supported the publication of English translations—a controversial notion at the time. As queen, she and her husband arranged for the release of Nicholas Bourbon, a French humanist whose criticisms of saint-worship and other theological matters had landed him in jail. Bourbon went to England, where he tutored Boleyn’s nephew (at her request).

  1. Anne Boleyn was the first of Henry VIII’s queens to get beheaded.

Like Catherine before her, Anne Boleyn failed to deliver Henry VIII’s long-sought male heir. In 1536, she found herself on trial, accused of high treason, adultery, and incest. (Rumors circulated that she was having an affair with her brother, George.) Though many historians dismiss these allegations, they sealed her fate nevertheless. Boleyn was beheaded on May 19, 1536. Henry VIII wed his third wife, Jane Seymour, that same month. Two spouses later, history repeated itself when the king had queen number five—Catherine Howard—decapitated in 1542.

  1. It has been claimed that Anne Boleyn had 11 fingers.

When you replace a popular monarch and spur the change of the religious fabric of an entire country, you're bound to make enemies. One of Boleyn’s detractors claimed that she had a “devilish spirit,” while another famously called her a “goggle-eyed whore.”

And then there’s Catholic propagandist Nicholas Sander, who wrote an unflattering description of the former queen many years after she died. According to him, Boleyn had “a large wen [wart or cyst] under her chin,” a “projecting tooth under the upper lip” and “six fingers” on her right hand. But his claims are highly suspect. There’s no proof that Sander ever laid eye on Boleyn—plus, her contemporaries didn’t mention any of these physical traits in their own writings about the queen. At worst, she might have had a second nail on one finger—which is a far cry from saying she possessed an extra digit.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, ruled England for decades.

Coronated at age 25 on January 15, 1559, Queen Elizabeth I defeated the Spanish Armada, promoted exploration, and foiled multiple assassination plots during her 44-year reign. She held the throne right up until her death in 1603.

  1. There’s only one surviving portrait of Anne Boleyn (that we know of).

When Henry VIII executed her, most Anne Boleyn likenesses were intentionally destroyed—and now, there's just one contemporary image of the queen known to exist: a lead disc—crafted in 1534—with Boleyn’s face etched on one side, which is held at the British Museum in London. It’s the only verified portrait of the former queen that was actually produced during her lifetime.

But there may be at least one more image of the queen out there: In 2015, facial recognition software was used to compare the image on the disc to a 16th-century painting currently housed at the Bradford Art Galleries and Museums. The picture’s subject, a young woman, has never been identified, but according to the program, the figure looks an awful lot like Boleyn’s portrait in that lead disc—though the researchers cautioned that their results were inconclusive due to insufficient data.

6 Strange Maritime Mysteries

Neville Mountford-Hoare/iStock via Getty Images
Neville Mountford-Hoare/iStock via Getty Images

The oceans cover over 70 percent of our planet, so it's little wonder that their seemingly impenetrable depths have provided a series of fascinating mysteries, from missing ships to eerie monsters. Below are six mysteries of the deep—some of which scientists think they've at least partly explained, while others remain truly puzzling.

  1. The Mary Celeste

On December 5, 1872, the crew of the British ship the Dei Gratia spotted a vessel bobbing about 400 miles off the coast of the Azores. They approached the Mary Celeste to offer help, but after boarding the ship were shocked to find it completely unmanned. The crew had disappeared without a trace, their belongings still stowed in their quarters, six months' worth of food and drink untouched, and the valuable cargo of industrial alcohol still mostly in place. The only clues were three and a half feet of water in the hold, a missing lifeboat, and a dismantled pump. It was the beginning of an enduring mystery concerning what happened to the crew, and why they abandoned a seemingly sea-worthy vessel.

Numerous theories have been suggested, including by crime writer Arthur Conan Doyle, who penned a short story in 1884 suggesting the crew had fallen victim to an ex-slave intent on revenge. A more recent theory has pointed the finger at rough seas and the broken pump, arguing they forced the captain to issue an order to abandon ship. Since the missing crew have never been traced, it seems unlikely that there will ever be a satisfying answer to the enigma.

  1. The Yonaguni Monument

An underwater area known as the Twin Megaliths at the Yonaguni Monument
An area known as the Twin Megaliths at the Yonaguni Monument
Vincent Lou, Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0

In 1986, a diver looking for a good spot to watch hammerhead sharks off the coast of the Ryukyu Islands in Japan came across an extraordinary underwater landscape. The area reportedly looked like an ancient submerged village, with steps, holes, and triangles seemingly carved into the rocks. Ever since it was first discovered, controversy has surrounded the site that's become known as the Yonaguni Monument, with some researchers—such as marine geologist Masaaki Kimura—arguing it is a clearly manmade environment, perhaps a city thousands of years old and sunk in one of the earthquakes that plagues the region. Others believe it's a natural geological phenomenon reflecting the stratigraphy (layers) of sandstone in an area with tectonic activity. The area is open to scuba divers, so the really curious can strap on air tanks and decide for themselves.

  1. The Bermuda Triangle

The Bermuda Triangle has probably spawned more wild theories, column inches, and online discussion than any other ocean mystery—more than 50 ships and 20 aircraft are said to have vanished there. Although the triangle has never officially been defined, by some accounts it covers at least 500,000 square miles and lies between Bermuda, Florida, and Puerto Rico.

The mystery first caught the public imagination in December 1945 when Flight 19, consisting of five U.S. Navy TBM Avenger torpedo bombers and their 14 crewmembers, were lost without a trace during a routine training operation in the area. Interest was further piqued when it was later reported that one of the search-and-rescue planes dispatched to find the missing team had also disappeared. Articles and books such as Charles Berlitz’s The Bermuda Triangle, first published in 1974 and having since sold over 20 million copies in 30 languages, have served to keep the mystery alive, providing potential theories both natural and supernatural. Scientists—and world-renowned insurers Lloyd’s of London—have attempted to debunk the myth of the Bermuda Triangle, offering evidence that the rate of disappearance in the vast and busy triangle is no higher than other comparable shipping lanes, but such is the power of a good story that this is one story that seems likely to continue to fascinate.

  1. The Kraken

A model of a giant squid on display at the Natural History Museum in London in 1907
A model of a giant squid on display at the Natural History Museum in London in 1907
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

For hundreds of years, sailors told tales of an enormous sea creature with huge tentacles known as the Kraken. Stories around the mythical kraken first started appearing in Scandinavia in the 12th century, and in 1555 Swedish cartographer Olaus Magnus provided an account of a sea creature with “sharp and long Horns round about, like a Tree root up by the Roots: They are ten or twelve cubits long, very black, and with huge eyes.” The stories persisted, often mentioning a creature so large it resembled an island. In his 1755 book The Natural History of Norway, Danish historian Erik Ludvigsen Pontoppidan described the kraken as “incontestably the largest Sea monster in the world."

Scientists have proposed that these stories might derive from sightings of giant squid (Architeuthis dux), although evidence for an even larger, yet extremely elusive, colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) has also come to light. The colossal squid is found in the deepest part of the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica, and is thought to be up to 46 feet long and 1100 pounds. The problem is that the animal is so rare very few specimens have been found intact, and no live specimen has ever been observed, which means that estimating its exact size is difficult. Researchers have also noticed that sperm whales have been observed with large scars, and have suggested that these could be the result of violent encounters with the colossal squid, which is known to have sharp rotating hooks on the ends of their tentacles.

  1. The Treasure of the Merchant Royal

The remains of the Merchant Royal are known as one of the richest shipwrecks ever. The ship set sail from the New World in 1641 laden with 100,000 pounds of gold, 400 Mexican silver bars, and thousands of precious gems—in total, a haul thought to be worth $1.3 billion today. The ship got caught in a storm and was thought to have gone down somewhere off the coast of Cornwall, England. The lost wreck became known as the “el Dorado of the seas” due to the enormous value of its cargo, and over the years numerous treasure hunters have searched fruitlessly for its final resting place, which remains undiscovered. In 2019 fishermen snagged what is thought to be the anchor from the Merchant Royal, but to date the dangerous conditions and extreme depths at which the wreck is thought to lie have meant it has remained unclaimed.

  1. Attack of the Sea Foam

In December 2011, residents of Cleveleys, England, awoke to what appeared to be a soft blanket of snow. But as locals ventured out into the streets it soon became clear that this was no snowstorm, but instead something far more puzzling. Trees, cars, roads, and houses were all wrapped in a thick, white layer of foam. The Environment Agency were quickly deployed to take samples of the sea foam, since residents were understandably concerned as to the origin of the strange, gloopy substance, fearing it might be caused by pollutants.

The dramatic images of the foam-soaked town soon had journalists flocking to the region to investigate the phenomena, but as quickly as it appeared the foam disappeared, leaving behind only a salty residue. Scientists analyzing the foam confirmed it was not caused by detergents, and instead suspected that it was caused by a rare combination of decomposing algae out at sea and strong winds, which whipped up the viscous foam and blew it into land. The phenomena has apparently occurred at other times before and since, and researchers are now working to try and understand the exceptional conditions that cause it to form so that residents can be warned when another thick blanket is set to descend.

Bonus: The Bloop—Mystery Solved

Over the years, the oceans have produced a number of eerie and often unexplained sounds. In 1997, researchers from NOAA listening for underwater volcanic activity using hydrophones (underwater microphones) noticed an extremely loud, powerful series of noises in the Pacific Ocean. The unusual din excited researchers, who soon named it “The Bloop” in reference to its unique sound.

Theories abounded as to the origin of the bloop—secret military facility, reverberations from a ship’s engine, or an enormous sea creature. The most fanciful suggestion stem from H. P. Lovecraft fans who noticed that the noise came from an area off South America where the sci-fi writer’s fictional sunken city of R’lyeh was supposed to be. They proposed that the bloop might have originated from Lovecraft’s “dead but dreaming” sea creature, Cthulhu. In 2005, however, scientists found that the mysterious sound was in fact the noise made by an icequake—or an iceberg shearing off from a glacier.

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