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.

8 Great Gifts for People Who Work From Home

A growing share of Americans work from home, and while that might seem blissful to those trapped in long commutes, it's not always easy to live, eat, and work in the same space. Here are some useful tools and sweet surprises to help make a telecommuter's life a little easier.

1. Folding Book Stand; $7

A foldable metal book stand holding paper
Hatisan / Amazon

Useful for anyone who works with books or documents, this thick wire frame is strong enough for heavier textbooks or tablets. Best of all, it folds down flat, so you can slip it into your backpack or laptop case and take it out at the library or wherever you need it. The stand does double-duty in the kitchen as a cookbook holder, too.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Duraflame Electric Fireplace; $210

Duraflame electric fireplace
Duraflame / Amazon

Nothing says cozy like a fireplace, but not everyone is so blessed—or has the energy to keep a fire going during the work day. This Duraflame electric fireplace can help keep a workspace warm by providing up to 1000 square feet of comfortable heat, and has adjustable brightness and speed settings. You can even operate it without heat if you just crave the ambiance of an old-school gentleman's study (leather-top desk and shelves full of arcane books cost extra).

Buy It: Amazon

3. Sips By Subscription Tea Service; $15/month

Assorted teas and Sipsby tea subscription service packaging
Sips By

A steady stream of hot beverages is key to productivity, and Sips by is a lovely way to keep the tea chest replenished. (Plus, who doesn't love getting presents in the mail each month?) Your giftee can fill out a personalized tea profile, and each month selections of four different kinds of premium tea will arrive. Each batch makes enough for 15-plus cups, and there are cute reusable bags provided for the loose-leaf teas, which also makes them portable for on-the-go days.

Buy It: Sips by

4. Solstice Beeswax Aromatherapy Candles; $35

Solstice Naturals Lavender 100% Pure Beeswax Aromatherapy Candle
Solstice / Amazon

People who work at home all day, especially in a smaller space, often struggle to "turn off" at the end of the day. One way to unwind and signal that work is done is to light a candle. Burning beeswax candles helps clean the air, and essential oils are a better health bet than artificial fragrances. Lavender is especially relaxing. (Just use caution around essential-oil-scented products and pets.)

Buy It: Amazon

5. HÄNS Swipe-Clean; $15

HÄNS Swipe being used on a tablet
HÄNS / Amazon

If you're carting your laptop and phone from the coffee shop to meetings to the co-working space, they're going to get gross—fast. HÄNS Swipe is a dual-sided device that cleans on one side and polishes on the other, and it's a great solution for keeping germs at bay, especially in cold and flu season. It's also nicely portable, since there's nothing to spill. Plus, it's refillable, and the polishing cloth is washable and re-wrappable, making it a much more sustainable solution than individually wrapped wipes.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Laptop Side Table; $100

Oversized Wood and Metal Laptop Table
World Market

Sometimes you don't want to be stuck at a desk all day long. This industrial-chic side table can act as a laptop table, too, with room for your computer, coffee, notes, and more. It also works as a TV table—not that you (or your giftee) would ever watch TV during work hours.

Buy It: World Market

7. Moleskine Classic Notebook; $12

Moleskine Classic Notebook in black
Moleskin / Amazon

Plenty of people who work from home (well, plenty of people in general) find paper journals and planners essential, whether they're used for bullet journaling, time-blocking, or just writing good old-fashioned to-do lists. However you (or your intended recipient) organize their life, there's a journal out there that's perfect, but for starters it's hard to top a good Moleskin. These are available dotted (the bullet journal fave), plain, ruled, or squared, and in a variety of colors. (You can find other supply ideas for bullet journaling here.)

Buy It: Amazon

8. Nexstand Laptop Stand; $34

Nextstand Portable Laptop Stand
Nexstand / Amazon

For the person who works from home and is on the taller side, this portable laptop stand is a back-saver. It folds down flat so it can be tossed into the bag and taken to the coffee shop or co-working spot, where it often generates an admiring comment or three. It works best alongside a portable external keyboard and mouse.

Buy It: Amazon

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

7 Things We Know (So Far) About Baby Yoda, the Breakout Star of The Mandalorian

© Lucasfilm
© Lucasfilm

From the moment he appeared onscreen in the closing moments of the premiere episode of the new Disney+ series The Mandalorian on November 12, the creature referred to as Baby Yoda has become an internet sensation not seen since the likes of the IKEA monkey. The Rock has displayed his affection for the cooing green infant on Instagram; a man purportedly got a tattoo of Baby Yoda holding a White Claw seltzer and insists it’s permanent; and a Change.org petition is underway demanding a Baby Yoda emoji.

That Baby Yoda has gripped the imagination of the country is no small feat, as precious little has been revealed about his origins other than that he appears to be a member of the same unnamed species as Jedi master Yoda, which has traditionally been shrouded in secrecy. More will be revealed as The Mandalorian continues its weekly run through December 27. In the meantime, here’s what we know so far about the alarmingly adorable creature canonically known as “The Child.”

1. Baby Yoda is 50 years old, but he still seems a bit behind developmentally.

Owing to the long lifespan of Yoda’s species—Yoda himself lived to be roughly 900 years old before expiring in 1983’s Return of the Jedi, set five years prior to the events of the Disney+ series—it makes sense that the “baby” in the show is the human equivalent of someone about to subscribe to AARP: The Magazine. We learn Baby Yoda’s age in the first episode, where Mando is told he’s being tasked with finding a target that age. It’s a clever bit of misdirection that sets up the climactic reveal that the bounty hunter is after an infant.

And though his habits—tasting space frogs and playing with spaceship knobs—seem developmentally accurate, child experts told Popular Mechanics that such curiosity is more in line with a 1-year-old, not the 5-year-old Baby Yoda might be analogous to in human years. He’s also not terribly verbose, putting him behind what one might expect of a person his relative age.

2. Baby Yoda is male.

After rescuing Baby Yoda from an untimely demise at the hands of bounty hunter IG-11 in the debut episode, the titular Mandalorian takes off with his young bounty to deliver him to his Imperial employer known as the Client (Werner Herzog). In episode 3, the Client receives the baby; his underling, Doctor Pershing, (Omid Abtahi) refers to the character as “him.” A pre-order page for a Mattel plush Baby Yoda also refers to the character as a "he." We have, however, seen a female member of Yoda’s species before. In 1999’s Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace, a green-skinned Yaddle sits wordlessly on the Jedi Council.

3. Baby Yoda’s genetics are of great interest to what’s left of the Empire.

Why was Mando sent to fetch Baby Yoda? From what we could gather in episode three, the Client was desperate to gather knowledge from the creature, with Doctor Pershing told to extract something from his tiny body. That motive has yet to be revealed, but thanks to The Phantom Menace, we know Force-sensitive individuals can carry a large number of Midi-chlorians, or cells that can attenuate themselves to the Force. One fan theory speculates that these cells can be harvested, creating people with greater capabilities to wield Jedi powers.

4. Using the Force really tires Baby Yoda out.

In episode 2, a battle-weary Mando is in real danger of being trampled by a Mudhorn, a savage beast. Channeling his (presumed) Force abilities, Baby Yoda is able to dispatch of the threat, but the effort seems to exhaust him, and he spends most of the rest of the episode sound asleep.

5. Baby Yoda might become a Jedi Master in a hurry.

Despite his infantile status, it seems like it won’t be long, relatively speaking, before Baby Yoda achieves the Zen-like mindset and formidable skills of a Jedi Master. It’s been pointed out that Yoda achieved that rank at the age of 100, at which point he began training Jedis. That would mean Yoda’s species is capable of some pretty rapid development between the ages of 50 and 100.

6. Werner Herzog has a soft spot for Baby Yoda.

Herzog, the famously irascible director of such films as 2005’s documentary Grizzly Man and 1972's Aguirre: The Wrath of God, portrays the man known as the Client, out to capture Baby Yoda. Interacting with the puppet on set was apparently a source of amusement for the part-time actor, who sometimes addressed Baby Yoda as though he were not made of rubber. "One of the weirdest moments I had on set, in my life, was trying to direct Werner with the baby,” series director Deborah Chow told The New York Times. “How did I end up with Werner Herzog and Baby Yoda? That was amazing. Werner had absolutely fallen in love with the puppet. He, at some point, had literally forgotten that it wasn’t a real being and was talking to the child as though it was a real, existing creature.”

Herzog was so emotionally invested in Baby Yoda that he reacted harshly when The Mandalorian creator Jon Favreau and producer and director Dave Filoni spoke of wanting to shoot some scenes without the puppet so they could add him as a computer-generated effect later in case the live-action creature wasn’t convincing. “You are cowards,” Herzog told them. “Leave it.”

7. Baby Yoda bootleg merchandise has become a force.

When Favreau decided to keep Baby Yoda under tight wraps before the premiere of The Mandalorian, it forced Disney to postpone plans for tie-in merchandising, which can often leak plot points from film and television projects in retailer solicitations months in advance. As a result, precious little Baby Yoda merchandise is available, save for some hastily-assembled shirts and mugs on the Disney Store website. That leaves craftspeople on Etsy and other outlets to fabricate bootleg Baby Yoda plush dolls and other items.

The shortage runs parallel to the predicament faced by toy maker Kenner upon the release of the original Star Wars in 1977. Faced with a huge and unexpected holiday demand for action figures, the company was forced to sell consumers an empty box with a voucher for the toys redeemable the following year.

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