10 Haunting Documentaries That Are Stranger Than Fiction

YouTube
YouTube

Featuring serial killers, brutal maulings, and unsolved mysteries, documentaries can be far creepier than anything George Romero has ever imagined—because they depict things that really happened. These 10 films are impossibly disturbing, based on true events, and guaranteed to stick with you long after the end credits have rolled. 

1. GRIZZLY MAN (2005)

Grizzly Man is a nature documentary like none you’ve ever seen: Struggling actor and alcoholic Timothy Treadwell was always an eccentric who felt more comfortable among animals than he did people. One summer, Treadwell sold everything and moved up to Alaska to live in the wilderness among the grizzly bears, filming them and closely interacting with them. Directed by Werner Herzog, Grizzly Man takes Treadwell’s astonishing footage and pieces together his life during the 13 summers that Treadwell spent in exile. Until Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were attacked and killed by one of the animals he loved, while one of Treadwell’s cameras caught the audio of the attack.

Why it’s so creepy: Herzog chooses not to include the audio of Treadwell’s death in the final film, but the attack and what’s on the tape is discussed in graphic (and unsettling) detail. EHerzog surmises that the bear who ultimately killed Treadwell was likely one of the animals that he filmed, and loved. This puts the viewer in an uncomfortable position: Watching Treadwell film and play alongside the bears, knowing that he’s likely engaging with his future killer.

2. THERE’S SOMETHING WRONG WITH AUNT DIANE (2011)

From the movie’s offset, we know that something terrible has happened. The documentary opens with several harried calls to 911, describing a horrific crash off the Taconic State Parkway. The crash, which occurred in 2009, would later become known as the worst Westchester County traffic fatality in 30 years, killing eight people including the driver, Diane Schuler, her two-year-old daughter, and her three young nieces. The film documents the Schuler family and their quest to piece together Diane’s final moments: Why did Schuler, a responsible and devoted mom on her way home from a family camping trip, drive the wrong way down the Taconic Parkway?

Why it’s so creepy: There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane profiles a woman who seems to have everything under control. At the time of her death, Schuler had two adorable kids, a happy marriage, and a successful career with a six-figure income. So when the film reveals why Schuler drove nearly two miles down the Taconic Parkway in the wrong direction with five young children in tow, the reason is almost too terrible to believe. Aunt Diane compels viewers and, at the same time, mystifies us with the eternal question: How well can you really know another person?

3. BOY INTERRUPTED (2009)

When filmmaker Dana Perry’s son Evan turned five years old, she noticed that he had a strange preoccupation with death and dying. Perry immediately took Evan to a therapist, and she and her filmmaker husband Hart flipped on the camera to record his increasingly bizarre behavior. As Evan grows, the Perrys document Evan’s tumultuous struggle with depression and bipolar disorder, culminating in his suicide in 2005 at the age of 15. Boy Interrupted becomes the Perry’s loving tribute to a son who both mystified and terrified them.

Why it’s so creepy: Boy Interrupted shows that mental illness and suicide doesn’t discriminate. Filmmakers Hart and Dana Perry are obviously attentive, caring parents, and many times they literally uproot their lives to support Evan through his struggle. But bipolar disorder has a suicide rate of nearly 17 percent—and that’s an uncomfortable fact that the Perrys put in the forefront of their film. Watching their story unfold, and knowing that nothing can stop the slow decline into Evan’s suicide, will send shivers down your spine.

4. THE JINX (2015)

HBO’s The Jinx tells the story of Robert Durst, heir to one of the oldest real estate companies in New York City and the prime suspect in series of bizarre crimes, including the disappearance of his wife, Kathleen, in 1982. The Jinx is a documentary miniseries, one that takes six episodes to detail every bizarre crime in which Durst is involved. After his wife’s disappearance, Durst’s close friend Susan Berman is found murdered in 2000 when Kathleen’s case is reopened. Durst maintains his innocence in both crimes and flees to Galveston, Texas. But when police catch up to him one year later, Durst has been implicated in yet another murder (Durst is charged and pleads self-defense, by the way). Director Andrew Jarecki (who directed 2010’s All Good Things, a feature based on Durst) examines Durst’s alleged crimes, documents the trial for his most recent murder, and speculates whether Durst is actually guilty of all three crimes—or just one of the unluckiest men on the planet. 

Why it’s so creepy: Bob Durst is like that weird uncle you only see at Christmas: He’s quiet, mild-mannered, and even a little likeable at times. Watching him recount his friends’ deaths, completely emotionless, is chilling. And knowing that he likely could have killed several people in cold blood? Unsettling. (Also unsettling? His beady, black eyes.)

5. BLACKFISH (2013)

Have you ever seen those SeaWorld commercials where the dolphin trainers are talking about how much they love whales? Blackfish is the reason those commercials exist in the first place. It’s a riveting documentary that covers the story of Tilikum, a captive killer whale that mauled a SeaWorld trainer in 2010. What begins as an expose of Tilikum (who apparently has killed before) gradually turns into an indictment of SeaWorld as a whole.

Why it’s so creepy: If you have any childhood memories of SeaWorld, prepare to have them forever ruined. The whales appear happy when performing in front of a crowd—but according to Blackfish, that’s almost certainly a ruse. Seeing footage of Tilikum playing around with trainer Dawn Brancheau before her death, and knowing what will eventually happen between them, is eerie.

6. DEAR ZACHARY (2008)

Don’t Google this film. It’s best to go into Dear Zachary knowing as little about what happens as possible.

Without giving too much away, the gist is this: Dear Zachary is director Kurt Kuenne’s attempt to immortalize his best friend Andrew Bagby, a physician killed in cold blood by his estranged girlfriend, Shirley Turner. Kuenne seeks out friends and family to sing their praises of his late friend—and then the film takes a shocking turn. Turner, Bagby’s killer, announces while in police custody that she’s four months pregnant with Bagby’s child. And Kuenne’s film becomes something entirely different: A critique of the Newfoundland legal system, an exposé of the custody case between Turner and Bagby’s parents, and a letter to Zachary, Bagby’s son, about the man his father once was.

Why it’s so creepy: Not only is the viewer subjected to graphic details about Bagby’s murder, Kuenne also uses archival footage of Turner and Bagby during their brief relationship. Watching Turner interact on camera with Bagby, hearing about what she did in the hours after Bagby’s death, and seeing footage of her eventually mothering Bagby’s child will leave you with chills whenever she’s onscreen.

7. THE BRIDGE (2006)

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is one of the world's most popular tourist sites—and according to this film, it’s the most popular spot to commit suicide. Over the course of one year, filmmaker Eric Steel and his crew spent hundreds of hours filming footage of the Golden Gate Bridge, and managed to capture the deaths of nearly two dozen jumpers. Steel then interviews the families of some of the individuals and sets out to discover what draws so many people to the Golden Gate Bridge—and what compels some to end their lives there.

Why it’s so creepy: Several suicides are caught on film. Enough said.

8. PARADISE LOST (1996)

In 1993, the bodies of three mutilated children were discovered in a wooded area of West Memphis, Arkansas. Quickly, after one teen admits to being an accomplice, a trio of teenagers is arrested in connection with the crime, tried in a court of law, and found guilty. An open-and-shut case, right? Wrong. The film, which follows the families of the victims and the accused throughout the trial and its aftermath, is equal parts true crime documentary and an indictment of a small-town criminal justice system. Was the teenager’s confession coerced? Were the murderers ever really caught? 

Why it’s so creepy: If the opening footage of three mutilated kids isn’t creepy enough for you, the entire movie is replete with graphic retellings of the crime. But the more frightening part of watching the film is the growing realization that the three teenagers accused of the crime—Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin—might possibly be innocent. The Emmy-winning documentary was followed up two sequels, in 2000 and 2011—with the final film detailing the West Memphis Three's release from prison.

9. THE IMPOSTER (2012)

When 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay goes missing in 1994, his family gradually accepts that he may not be coming home. But three years later, in 1997, Barclay’s family gets a phone call that Nicholas has been found—alone and terrified—in Spain, thousands of miles from his Texas hometown. Stunned, his family joyfully welcomes him home. But it soon becomes clear that the boy who went missing three years prior is not the same person—literally—as the one who comes home.

Why it’s so creepy: Since the name of the documentary is The Imposter, it’s pretty obvious from the start that the person claiming to be Nicholas Barclay isn’t actually Nicholas Barclay. But what kind of person would impersonate a missing child? Director Bart Layton manages to snag one-on-one interviews with the man who pretended to be Barclay, and hearing him retell how he manipulated the Barclay family (often smiling and laughing good-naturedly while he recounts the story) will give you goosebumps.

10. ALBERT FISH: IN SIN HE FOUND SALVATION (2007)

Albert Fish was one of the country’s most depraved serial killers—and considering that serial killers are pretty depraved to begin with, that’s saying something. Fish suffered from extreme mental illness from an early age and began experimenting with extreme taboos as a young adult, eventually moving on to prostitution, child molestation, and murder. This documentary goes into graphic detail about the hundreds of murders Fish was linked to—and the hideous way he disposed of the bodies afterward.

Why it’s so creepy: Fish was extremely candid about his crimes, and kept detailed, first-person accounts of them which are read throughout the documentary. At one point, Fish actually details the murder of one young girl in a letter and then mails the letter to her mother. It’s almost impossible to listen to what Fish did—or see reenactments of Fish walking hand-in-hand with his victims—and not feel chills.

15 Convenient Products That Are Perfect for Summer

First Colonial/Lunatec/Safe Touch
First Colonial/Lunatec/Safe Touch

The Fourth of July is the epitome of summer—and after several months spent indoors, you need some outdoor fun more than anything. Check out these 15 summer must-haves while they’re on sale and save an extra 15 percent when you spend $50 or more with the code JULYFOURTH15.

1. CARSULE Pop-Up Cabin for Your Car; $300 (20 percent off)

Carsule tent from Mogics.
Mogics

This tent connects to your hatchback car like a tailgate mobile living room. The installation takes just a few minutes and the entire thing stands 6.5 feet tall so you can enjoy the outdoors from the comfort of your car.

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2. Mosquito Killer Lamp; $30 (25 percent off)

Mosquito-killing lamp.
Kinkoo

If you just so happen to be one of those unlucky souls who attracts a suspicious amount of mosquitos the second you step outside, you need this repellent lamp to help keep your arms and legs bite-free. It uses a non-toxic combination of LED lights, air turbulence, and other methods to keep the pests at bay.

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3. Super Shield Mosquito Repellent Electronic Watch Band; $17 (57 percent off)

Mosquito repeller watch.
Safe Touch

While a lamp is a great non-toxic solution for keeping bugs at bay, active individuals need a bug repellent that can keep up with their lifestyle. This wrist wearable keeps you safe from mosquitoes anywhere by using ultrasonic sounds to drive them away.

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4. ZeroDark 3-Piece Tactical Set: Flashlight, Lantern, and Headlamp; $20 (66 percent off)

Aduro flashlight set.
Audro

If you want your summer to be lit, this set will do the trick. All puns aside, this trio of LED brightness is perfect for camping fun and backyard parties, or it can be stored in the car for emergencies.

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5. Outdoor Collapsible Cooler and Camp Table Set; $64 (27 percent off)

First Colonial cooler.
First Colonial

Cookouts are easy with this cooler and table set that chills your drink until you're ready to pop it into one of the four convenient cupholders. Bring this set camping or out by the pool for convenience anywhere.

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6. Trident: Underwater Scooter; $550 (21 percent off)

Trident underwater scooter.
Geneinno

If you’ve ever dreamed of better mobility while exploring the water, you’re not alone. The Trident underwater scooter, which raised over $82,000 on Indiegogo, can propel you through the water at up to nearly 6 feet per second, which isn't that far off from how fast Michael Phelps swam in his prime. The battery on it will last 45 minutes, allowing you to traverse with ease.

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7. Go Portable Solar Oven; $119 (14 percent off)

GoSun solar grill.
GoSun

Bake, roast, steam, or broil anywhere you bring this portable oven. Measuring in at just over a foot long and weighing only two pounds, the oven will work in most daytime weather conditions and can hold around 13 ounces of food.

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8. 3-in-1 Waterproof Bug Zapper Lantern; $25 (50 percent off)

3P Experts bug zapper.
3P Experts

Mosquitoes tend to be a big problem at night, partly because it's hard to swat in the dark. This lantern will light the area and zap mosquitos from nipping at you in the process.

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9. Urban E-Skateboard: Basic Version (Orange); $120 (73 percent off)

Urban Rover E-Skateboard
Urban Rover

This e-skateboard is perfect for getting around during the summer. You'll catch a breeze while you’re cruising on the battery-powered platform and won’t break a sweat when you pop the compact board in your bag.

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10. H2 Headlamp: Waterproof, Rechargeable LED Wide 180° Angle Headlight; $37 (26 percent off)

Headlamp from One80Light
One80Light

Camping, car troubles, and sports all pose a problem at night. This LED headlight will light up your surroundings across a 180-degree radius for prime visibility, meaning your outdoor activities won't have to stop when the sun sets.

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11. Whirlwind Cool Bladeless Mini Fan; $22 (63 percent off)

Bladeless fan
Whirlwind

This portable fan comes in a powerful handheld size so you can keep cool while on the move. Unlike other portable fans, this one has a sleek, bladeless design and features three different speeds.

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12. Bladeless Personal Fan; $22 (63 percent off)

Bladeless fan
3P Tech

This bladeless fan won't just keep you cool while you work on your laptop—it also has a built-in rechargable battery that you can use to charge your phone.

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13. MOGICS Coconut: Portable Waterproof Light; $37 (24 percent off)

Mogics portable lamp.
Mogics

This portable light is designed to adapt to your lighting preference. It self-inflates in a few seconds and can bounce, get wet, and set the mood.

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14. Lunatec 1L Hydration Spray Water Bottle; $25 (21 percent off)

Lunatec spray water bottle.
Lunatec

A water bottle can do more than hydrate you. This one has a spray nozzle that can create shower, stream, and mist patterns for doing dishes while camping, sharing a sip without sharing germs, and washing off those muddy shoes after a long hike.

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15. Sport Force Hydration Backpack; $25 (68 percent off)

Hydration backpack.
It's All Goods

Hiking enthusiasts know how important it is to stay hydrated, but carrying around awkward jugs of water is a hassle. This unique hydration backpack can be filled with two liters of water and features a convenient drinking nozzle that extends to the user's mouth. Now, you can replenish those fluids without breaking stride.

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This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. If you haven't received your voucher or have a question about your order, contact the Mental Floss shop here.

10 Fascinating Facts About Fleabag

Phoebe Waller-Bridge stars in Fleabag.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge stars in Fleabag.
Amazon Studios

In just two short seasons, British sitcom Fleabag has made a lasting mark on television. The series centers around Fleabag, a 30-year-old Londoner—played by the effortlessly funny Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who also created the show—who is caught up living a life of late nights filled with booze and promiscuity in the wake of her mother’s death.

At first Fleabag appeared to be a simple half-hour comedy following the often naughty exploits of its quirky main character. Yet, as the series progressed, it quickly proved itself to be a truly masterful piece of work with each episode adding more complicated layers and darker themes to which many viewers can relate. Here are some facts about the groundbreaking comedy.

1. Fleabag began as a one-woman stage play.

It’s hard to imagine what Fleabag might look like if it were stripped of all its chaotic characters and performed as a solo show, but that’s exactly how it started. Before there was a TV show, creator/star Phoebe Waller-Bridge staged Fleabag as a one-woman play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival back in 2013. The title character addressed the audience in an hour-long, sexcapade-filled monologue, which was generally met with praise by theater critics. The TV show was created soon after, and originally premiered on BBC Three in July 2016.

2. The title of the show refers to more than just the main character.

The title Fleabag comes from a nickname given to Phoebe Waller-Bridge by her family. “It was my family nickname as far back as I can remember,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2019. Speaking to This Morning in April 2020, Waller-Bridge also revealed a deeper meaning for the name choice (which is never actually spoken in the show).

“A fleabag motel is something that's a bit rough around the edges,” Waller-Bridge explained. "I wanted to call her that because I wanted her persona and her outside aesthetic to give the impression that she was completely in control of her life, when actually, underneath, she's not."

3. Phoebe Waller-Bridge co-founded a theater company before penning Fleabag.


L to R: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Vicky Jones, and Tuppence Middleton at London's Soho Theatre.
David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images

In 2007, several years before Fleabag was born, Waller-Bridge was fed up with not being able to find work, despite having graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art two years earlier. So she co-founded her own theater company, DryWhite, with her best friend Vicky Jones. DryWhite paved the way for Waller-Bridge’s 2008 debut stage performance in Roaring Trade at London’s Soho Theatre, which led to two other successful plays—Crashing and, of course, Fleabag—both of which were created by and starred Waller-Bridge, and both of which were turned into television series. DryWhite is still going strong today, bringing fresh talent out in new productions every year.

4. Isobel Waller-Bridge, Phoebe's sister, composed the Fleabag soundtrack.

The badass guitar chords played after every episode of Fleabag are composed by Isobel Waller-Bridge, Phoebe’s very talented sister. Isobel earned a bachelor's degree in Music at Edinburgh University followed by a master's degree at King's College London then additional study at the Royal Academy of Music.

Isobel has firmly established herself in the music world. Like her sister, Isobel has received several awards, including Best Composer at the Underwire Film Festival. She also composed the chorused background music for Fleabag’s second season, which perfectly fit the religious theme. Her impressive work can be heard on her SoundCloud.

5. The fourth wall breaks in Fleabag aren’t just there for comedic effect.

Fleabag’s hilarious fourth wall breaks actually serve a deeper purpose for the character, which is realized by the end of season 1. Fleabag, who is deeply suppressing grief from the loss of her mother and best friend, uses these breaks to escape her troubled reality.

By season 2, the fourth wall breaks became less of a crutch as the character became more engaged in her real life and even fell in love. By the end of the show (spoiler!), Fleabag retires from the audience altogether as she decides to face her reality going forward.

6. The “Hot Priest” role was written specifically for Andrew Scott.

Waller-Bridge worked with Irish actor Andrew Scott years before she cast him to play the role of The Priest—a.k.a. “The Hot Priest”—in Fleabag’s second season. Speaking to IndieWire in 2019, Waller-Bridge praised Scott’s acting style, saying, “there’s something really dangerous about how truthful he is as an actor … he just comes with so much complexity that your characters instantly become interesting.” Waller-Bridge wrote the part once Scott agreed to it and their perfectly tragicomic love story was born.

7. Had Andrew Scott turned the part down, a second season of Fleabag might never have happened.

Waller-Bridge was so set on getting Andrew Scott to sign on to play The Priest that she admitted a second season might not have happened if he had said no. She told IndieWire:

"Religion was already a theme in my mind from very, very early on, but I didn’t know how to distill that until I had decided on The Priest. I worried it would be too much of an obvious sort of comedy idea, that Fleabag, who you can’t imagine has ever stepped foot in a church before, that she should come up against a man of the cloth. It seems almost too comedic, too sitcom.

"But then the moment I imagined Andrew Scott in that role, and making this man complex and three-dimensional, and sort of a match for Fleabag, then I was like ‘I’ve got the show now.’ It’s all about these two and how they affect each other’s lives. I called him up before I’d even written it to see if he’d be interested in doing it, and I pitched him the idea because I think if he’d said no, I don’t know if I would have actually been able to write that part."

8. The Priest notices something about Fleabag that no other character in the show is able to see.

Andrew Scott in Fleabag (2016)
Andrew Scott stars in Fleabag.
Amazon Studios

Fleabag often breaks the fourth wall mid-conversation with characters to address the audience, until she is eventually caught in the act of doing it by The Priest—much to her, and the viewer's, surprise. Whenever things get too intense for Fleabag, she switches off, which is something the Priest notices almost right away. In a 2019 interview with IndieWire, Waller-Bridge discussed the significance of this moment between the two characters: “[S]peaking to the audience concerns the theme of loneliness, and I think that he’s able to recognize that because he’s actually able to see her.”

9. Fleabag had an alternate ending.

In 2019, Waller-Bridge revealed to The Guardian that there was an alternate ending for Fleabag, but she remained tight-lipped on what it was. At the beginning of season 2, Fleabag tells audiences this is “a love story” which, despite ending rather tragically, remains hopeful by the end as Fleabag leaves audiences behind to move forward in her own life. So Waller-Bridge can keep her alternate ending—the one viewers saw was perfect.

10. No, there will not be a third season of Fleabag.

Sian Clifford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge in 'Fleabag'
Sian Clifford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag.
Hal Shinnie/Amazon Studios

Though Fleabag dominated the most recent awards season, winning two Golden Globes (including Best Television Series - Musical or Comedy) and six Emmy Awards (including Outstanding Comedy Series), Waller-Bridge has made it clear that there will not be a third season. Even after the second season won so many awards, Waller-Bridge said, “I haven’t changed my mind about season 3. It feels more and more about being the right decision. [These awards shows] are just beautiful goodbyes."