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Truth is scarier than fiction: 11 terrifying documentaries to keep you up Halloween night

Get creeped out by true stories about cannibals, rats, and much, much more.

Watch out for rats!
Discovery Channel
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Looking for a scary movie to watch? Consider a documentary.

From true crime films to tales that exploit our ability to scare the hell out of ourselves without much prompting, there are few things creepier than a true story, especially one that feels like it could happen to you. So in honor of Halloween, we’ve collected 11 different docs — all of them terrifying in their own way — for you to spend the evening with.

All of them are currently streaming on various platforms (one of them is even available on good old YouTube!). And whether you choose one about murder, unsettling real-world phenomena, or a dark corner of history, they’re all guaranteed to send a chill down your spine as you settle in for a long evening of waiting out children begging for candy.

The Cheshire Murders

True crime documentaries are rarely day-brighteners, but this one is particularly grim. It follows a 2007 case in Cheshire, Connecticut, where two men broke into the home of a family of four, planning to rob them. The mother was able to contact the police, but while authorities set up a perimeter outside the family’s home, the criminals raped and killed three family members. The Cheshire Murders is a dark watch, but an essential look at how mistakes made by law enforcement can have terrible ripple effects.

Available on: HBO Go

The Creep Behind the Camera

Filmmaker Vic Savage had a dream — to make a monster movie that would star him. The resultant film, 1964’s The Creeping Terror, wasn’t very good, but it also led to Savage becoming the subject of this documentary, thanks to his knack for being an incredibly abusive asshole to family and friends during its production. Movies about the dark side of filmmaking are a dime a dozen, but this one turns its focus on the low-budget variety, where actions become more desperate and abuse much more horrific.

Available on: Amazon Prime


Where do urban legends come from? This movie grew out of an attempt by directors Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio to uncover the idea behind "Cropsey," an all-purpose term used in New York to refer to a violent criminal who means harm to children. But what if that term stems from something real, from a singular crime so horrifying that it marked itself in a city’s memory? That’s what Cropsey aims to uncover.

Available on: Netflix and Hulu

The Donner Party

You wouldn’t expect "scary" to intersect with "PBS documentary by Ken Burns’s brother," but this 1992 film from Ric Burns, which originally aired as part of American Experience, eerily captures the dark winter of 1846, when the titular group found itself trapped in the mountains with food supplies dwindling. You probably know the rest of the story, but this documentary brings it to grisly life.

Available on: YouTube

The Imposter

This is less a tale of terror than the story of a really strange occurrence. After a young Texas boy named Nicholas Barclay disappears in 1994, his family is distraught — which is why they’re so happy when he’s found in 1997 in Spain. But why have his hair and eye colors changed? And why does he seem so much older than 16, the age he should be? The Imposter is a great look at why we’re willing to fool ourselves in the name of something we desperately want to be true.

Available on: Netflix

In Search of Dracula

This 1975 documentary won’t keep you up at night, unless you find even the very idea of Dracula terrifying, but it features Christopher Lee — perhaps the greatest cinematic Dracula of all time — as Vlad the Impaler himself and is worth it if you’re interested in the roots of the horror genre. (Heavily edited footage from this doc aired on the classic '70s "true oddities" series In Search of — hence the title.)

Available on: Hulu

The Nightmare

If there’s one seemingly harmless condition I’m glad I don’t suffer from, it’s sleep paralysis — the mental state between wakefulness and sleep that typically involves hallucinating a strange figure (or something even scarier) in the room with you. You can’t move or speak, as the figure looms. This film presents an especially vivid vision of this phenomenon, one that might cause you to have trouble sleeping.

Available on: Netflix


Rats shouldn’t be that scary, right? The newest film on this list, it’s just about rats, the rodents who exist all over the place and live side by side with humanity. But Morgan Spurlock’s latest project will show you so many rats — vast, teeming hordes of them! — that you might support every vicious effort to eradicate them that you see depicted in the film. Just remember: As you read this, a rat is somewhere nearby, just lurking.

Available on: The Discovery Channel website

Room 237

Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror classic The Shining has become an obsession for a certain subset of horror fans, who plumb the depths of the film’s imagery for imagined themes and historical echoes. Would you believe the movie is about America’s slaughter of Native Americans? Or Kubrick faking the moon landing? Room 237 collects plenty of out-there theories, and it just might make you appreciate The Shining even more.

Available on: Netflix and Hulu


This true crime doc isn’t scary in a traditional sense, but it is really, really weird. Errol Morris, one of the best documentarians of all time, traces the story of a former beauty queen who kidnapped a Mormon missionary and held him captive in chains. Believe it or not, the whole thing gets stranger from there. Morris excels at getting people to reveal their truest selves, and that quality comes in handy in this odd little film.

Available on: Netflix and Hulu

Tales of the Grim Sleeper

This true crime documentary that digs just as deeply into the failures of the justice system as it does a horrific crime. The subject here is Lonnie David Franklin Jr., Los Angeles’s "Grim Sleeper" — a serial killer so named because he seemingly took a break from committing murder between 1988 and 2002. All but one of his victims were black women, and Tales delves into why the Los Angeles Police Department was so slow to act when it came to catching Franklin.

Available on: HBO Go