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: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (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.