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 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

Buy it: Amazon

3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

Buy it: Amazon

4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

31 Facts About Sharks

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash
Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Whether you're a Jaws fanatic or just want to live every week like it's Shark Week, you'll want to read up on these fascinating facts about sharks, adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.

1. There are more than 500 types of sharks.

They range in size from 8 inches to 40 feet long.

2. The cookie cutter shark grows to up to 22 inches.

The cookie cutter shark uses its suction-cup-like lips to attach itself to prey. Once it’s firmly stuck on there, the shark spins its body, using its bottom row of serrated teeth to take out a cone-shaped chunk of flesh. Typically, cookie cutters feed off of sea creatures much bigger than them, but they’ve also taken bites out of a couple of humans … and they’ve been known to leave their mark on submarines, too.

3. Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel Jaws was inspired by a fisherman who caught a 4500-pound behemoth in Montauk in 1964.

The novel wasn’t always going to be called Jaws: Alternate titles included “The Stillness in the Water,” “The Silence of the Deep,” “Leviathan Rising,” and “The Jaws of Death."

4. Peter Benchley later became a shark conservationist.

He used his pen to tackle misconceptions about the fish. In 2006, he said, “I could never write that book today. Sharks don’t target human beings and they certainly don’t hold grudges.” Fun fact: Benchley makes a cameo in Steven Spielberg’s 1975 movie adaptation of his novel. He plays a TV news reporter.

5. Shark attacks are very rare.

In 2018, there were 66 confirmed unprovoked attacks. In America, the risk of dying from a shark attack is 1 in 3,748,067. You’re more likely to be killed by fireworks, a train crash, or MRSA—that antibiotic-resistant bacteria—than you are by sharks. Worldwide, the risk is even lower.

6. Sharks have been around for a while.

Thanks to fossils, we know that they’ve been swimming the seas for at least 400 million years.

7. Some species of shark can live to be incredibly old.

Researchers in 2016 used radiocarbon dating on the eyes of 28 Greenland sharks and determined that one female might have been around 400 years old.

8. Greenland shark meat is a delicacy in Iceland called hákarl.

The shark’s meat is toxic when fresh, so it has to go through a fermentation process that involves burying the shark’s body in sand under rocks for six to 12 weeks. The meat is then cut up and hung to dry. The finished product has a strong scent of ammonia. Anthony Bourdain called it "the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing" he’d ever eaten.

9. Great white sharks have a man-eating reputation, but they’re much more interested in seals and sea lions.

Great whites have a 40 to 55 percent accuracy rate in catching their seal prey, according to research. The hunting process also often involves the sharks coming fully out of the water, which is called breaching.

10. Great whites are fast.

They can swim at 35mph for short bursts.

11. Many shark researchers think the old tale of “great whites attack humans because they think we’re seals” is a myth.

Great white shark attacks on humans are much less vicious than the way sharks attack prey like seals and sea lions—one study reported that in 76 percent of attacks on surfers the force would not have stunned a pinniped. In most cases they’re probably just curious—though still potentially deadly. One expert told Discovery that if you do see a shark, the safest thing to do is to remain calm and try to slowly and calmly get back to safety.

12. Great white sharks typically aren’t found in aquariums—though not for lack of trying.

Since the 1970s, aquarium workers who have tried to keep the sharks in captivity have been having basically the same tragic experience: finding a captive great white shark sick, then dead, within a week. While in enclosures, the sharks can't swim at the high speeds or over the distances they're supposed to, so they bump into the glass and get hurt or just stop swimming and die. Younger sharks have tended to do better: The Monterey Bay Aquarium was able to keep a young great white for 198 days, but released her after she started going after other sharks.

13. Tiger sharks and sand tiger sharks aren't the same.

Another shark you probably won’t see in captivity these days is the tiger shark—not to be confused with the sand tiger shark, which is a completely different species found in aquariums around the world.

14. Female tiger sharks have many, many pups.

After 13 to 16 months of pregnancy, a female might give birth to between 10 and 82 little shark babies. The average is around 30.

15. It’s not unusual for a female shark to give birth to her pups in the place where she herself was born.

One study, which began in 1995 and concluded in 2012, found this to be the case with lemon sharks in the Bahamas.

16. Female mako sharks stay away from male makos.

In research that lasted for four months, a biologist and his team recorded 264 male and 132 female mako sharks in the Easter Island area. They found that there was a clear divide between where males resided versus females. They were baffled as to why. One of them suggested that it might have to do with the fact that males often bite their intended mate, so maybe the females were trying to avoid that whole situation. Fun fact: Biting is often a part of shark copulation, because the males have to hang on to something.

17. It’s not just biologists who have taken an interest in sharks.

In 2002, software programmer Jason Holmberg went scuba diving on vacation and spotted the rare whale shark. He wanted to make the spotted sharks less mysterious, so he teamed up with an astrophysicist and a marine biologist. They were able to adapt an algorithm that had been created for the Hubble Space Telescope program and use it to start identifying sharks. The algorithm was initially for star mapping, so it made sense as an algorithm for shark spot mapping. They’ve since created a database with 32,000 pictures of whale sharks. The database has helped them track the animals’ locations, which means they can learn more about the whale shark lifestyle.

18. The shape of hammerhead sharks' heads might help with hunting.

Sharks are able to sense electric fields in water, which allows them to determine if they’re in the vicinity of prey. One theory is that hammerhead sharks have more of those sensory organs in their heads, so they can find prey better. Their eyes being so far apart helps too—they have better binocular vision.

19. Shark embryos can sense predators.

In addition to using electric fields to sense prey, sharks also use them to sense predators. Even shark embryos have that ability. In a study published in 2013, a group studying brownbanded bamboo shark embryos found that when the embryos were in the electric field of a predator, their gills would stop moving.

20. Sharks sometimes like to rest in groups.

Nurse sharks and whitetip reef sharks have been observed gathering in groups of 2 to 40, usually in a safe place like a crevice, often just napping.

21. A basking shark looks very weird when it decomposes.

It quickly loses parts of its jaw and tail. So it’s not unusual for people who spot a decomposing basking shark on the shore to believe that they’ve found a sea monster. This happened in 1970 in Massachusetts.

22. A tiger shark once puked up evidence of a murder.

During the 1930s, a tiger shark at Coogee Aquarium in Australia vomited a human arm, evidence that became part of a murder trial. Thanks to a tattoo on the arm, the person it belonged to, James Smith, was identified. It turned out that he was missing—and the shark hadn’t bitten the arm off, it was cut off with a knife. There was a suspect, Patrick Brady, and a man willing to testify that Brady was responsible. But that witness was shot before the trial. Brady’s lawyer claimed that for a homicide, there needed to be a body and all they had was an arm. Brady went free. The shark unfortunately died.

23. The goblin shark eats using "slingshot feeding."

The deep-sea-dwelling goblin shark has a jaw that shoots outward to grab prey in what scientists have dubbed “slingshot feeding,” so it’s no wonder they often get compared to monsters. The goblin shark can deploy its jaw at 10.1 feet per second—roughly twice the speed that New York City pedestrians walk.

24. The goblin shark is named after a Japanese demon.

Japanese fishermen named the sharks tengu-zame. Tengu is a demon with a long nose that sometimes steals children. And zame means “shark.” That’s how we got our English translation: goblin shark.

25. Not all sharks are ferocious carnivores.

The bonnethead shark has long been observed to eat seagrass—up to 62.1 percent of gut content mass. Until recently it was unclear if they were digesting it. But in 2018 it was confirmed through stable isotope analysis that they actually were, making them the first known omnivorous shark.

26. There are multiple types of lantern sharks, including a dwarf lantern shark that doesn’t grow larger than 8 inches.

These sharks have bellies and fins that glow. So it’s thought that when there’s a predator swimming beneath them, the predator doesn’t know the difference between the shark and the light coming into the ocean from the sun.

27. Not all sharks are strictly ocean dwellers.

Bull sharks are unusual in that they can tolerate fresh water. Most sharks have to be in salt water because that’s what their bodies can handle—put them in fresh water and they’ll lose too much salt. But bull sharks are better able to retain salt in their bodies, so they can travel in fresh water. And in fact, in 1937, one was caught in Alton, Illinois, 1000 miles up the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico, where you wouldn’t typically expect to encounter a shark.

28. Megalodon sharks were huge—maybe about 50 feet long.

But there are now theories that the measly great white shark, at less than half that size, may have caused them to go extinct. It was previously believed that megalodons went extinct around 2.6 million years ago, but when a group of paleontologists and geologists went back through the fossils and data, they pegged it at 3.6 million years ago—which just so happened to be the time that great white sharks were emerging. They were probably able to go head-to-head with younger megalodons and out-compete them for food.

29. Megalodon shark teeth could be around 7 inches long.

And in fact, you might want to be on the lookout for them. In 2018, a couple found a fossilized megalodon tooth on a beach in North Carolina.

30. An American president had a megalodon tooth.

Thomas Jefferson loved fossils and even kept some on display at the entrance of Monticello. Today, his megalodon tooth is at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Of course, he signed it.

31. The song "Baby Shark" used to be sung by kids at camps.

Before Pinkfong’s version of “Baby Shark” became one of the most viewed YouTube videos of all time, it was a common song for kids to sing at camps. But when Johnny Only turned it into the bop that we all get stuck in our heads today, he did change some things. In the original lyrics, the sharks attack people and even kill them. Peter Benchley would not approve.