10 (More) Haunting Documentaries That Are Stranger Than Fiction
By Sarah Watts
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.