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Seven Horrifying Documentaries That are Scarier than Fiction

Reality is often far more frightening than fiction. Every day there are examples of people slipping into insanity or committing horrific murders. The following list is comprised of documentaries focusing on real-life horrors. These selections center on ghastly events that generate a poignant glimpse into the lives of all affected. Within each documentary, there are touching and inspiring moments that are outdone only by the insane and terrifying accounts relayed.

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Child of Rage

Beth Thomas and her younger brother, John, spent the first couple years of their lives in Hell. An unimaginable horror that one feels shame for even trying to picture as a young child’s reality. Even after the two youngsters left their volatile situation, they could not escape the horrific effects. This documentary focuses on Beth at about six-and-a-half years old. The interviewer asks the girl a series of questions. The viewer is left in shock as Beth responds in an unemotional voice about how she would enjoy killing her adoptive parents and younger brother. She speaks of the pets that she pokes with a pen. The necks of baby birds she has broken. The physical torture she has committed on her brother’s private parts. The large butcher knives she has taken out of the kitchen drawer. A true story about the chilling effects of abuse on a young child.

Out of Mind, Out of Sight

An in-depth look into the lives of patients from a mental institution located in Brookview, Ontario. The main thread focuses on a young man, Michael Stewart, who suffers from schizophrenia and was convicted of murdering his mother. The rest of the patients have myriad psychological problems. One woman, Carole, is depressed and withdrawn until she feels the need to punch holes in the wall. Another is prone to cutting up her arm when she feels isolated. The staff genuinely cares for the patients in the ward. Out of Mind, Out of Sight is a poignant observation of seemingly average people who have disturbing and violent issues underneath the surface.


In this 2009 documentary, Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio investigate into the true-life murders of children dating back to the 1970s. The backdrop is an abandoned mental institution called Willowbrook. The residents on Staten Island remain haunted by the missing children and the man accused of taking them. The man in question is named Andre Rand, and he has become the proverbial boogeyman to those living in the New York City borough. The two filmmakers interview people from all walks of life, both directly and indirectly involved with the case. A series of odd coincidences and metaphors emerge as the documentary unfolds.

Crazy Love

In the east Bronx, Linda Riss was a young woman who fell in love with a lawyer named Burt Pugach. After Riss discovered that Pugach was married with a family, she broke off the relationship. Pugach decided that since he was going to lose Riss, he would do all that he could to make sure she ended up alone. He proceeded to hire three men to throw lye in her face. This act permanently scarred Linda’s facial features. Pugach was sent to prison and when he was released, Riss decided to marry him. Pugach convinced Riss that only love could make him do what he did. And that is only the beginning of their life together. This documentary proves that ‘true love’ is stranger than fiction.  

Unforgotten: Twenty-Five Years after Willowbrook

Where Out of Mind, Out of Sight displayed a mental institution concerned about the care of its residents, Willowbrook was an asylum at the opposite end of the spectrum. Called out by Geraldo Rivera in his expose, Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace, residents were regularly experimented on in addition to being physically and sexually abused. They were forced to endure deplorable living conditions. These residents were developmentally disabled children left to grow up into neglected adults. As a follow-up, this documentary revisits clips from Rivera’s original piece, while at the same time functions to catch up with former residents.

Aileen: Life & Death of a Serial Killer

Co-directors Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill follow up on the former’s 1994 piece titled: Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer. Broomfield’s first documentary on Wuornos showed the ways those in her life used and discarded her for personal gain. These people range from her family to her lawyer. This documentary was released in 2003 and depicts Wuornos’ abusive early years all the way through until her execution in 2002. Broomfield uncovers a plethora of upsetting information and develops a personal connection with Wuornos. The final days of Wuornos depict a mentally unstable woman that feels betrayed by all those that wanted to make money off of her life.

Also See: Here’s the Problem With the Serial Killer Fandom

The Keepers

The murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik has haunted former students of Baltimore’s Archbishop Keough High School for the past fifty-years. Compiled from interviews and police documents, this seven-part documentary transitions from horrifying to bone-chilling. One succumbs to tears as the heartbreaking abuse is uncovered. These tears dry up to wide-eyed terror as each potential theory is put forth in trying to solve this mystery. Each theory is as plausible as the next and they all stem back to one sadistic priest named Joseph Maskell. Whether or not he had any direct involvement remains unclear; however, his abusive actions put Sister Cathy on a doomed path that forever impacted all the people in her life.

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Written by Justin Steele
Justin Steele is a graduate of Bowling Green State University. His focus was the representation of women and minorities in contemporary media. In addition to writing, he hosts the 411popCulture channel on YouTube. He enjoys Rep Theatre and once performed on Broadway. He currently resides in Cleveland, Ohio with his 15-year-old cat. He is a die-hard horror fan with a particular affinity for slasher films.
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