14 Most Disturbing Documentaries of All Time
The documentary format allows filmmakers to explore real-life events. They often interview those close to the situation and look at the subject from different angles. A documentary film or TV series can cover a wide range of topics, from historical concerts to tragic events. Many documentaries have a reputation for covering disturbing cases involving murder, cults, and mystery. Some movies look at a well-known serial killer who terrorized a city or a kidnapping that caught the world’s attention. Then there are films that cover subjects that receive little or no attention in hope of shining a light on them. Keep on reading and discover more about some of the most disturbing docos ever created.
1. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)
The disturbing and heartbreaking documentary, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About his Father, involves two tragic crimes. On November 5, 2001, Canadian Shirley Jane Turner murdered American Andrew Bagby in Pennsylvania after he broke up with her. She then fled back to her home in Newfoundland, Canada, giving birth to Bagby’s son Zachary in 2002. Eventually, Canadian authorities arrested Turner for Bagby’s murder, and Zachary stayed with Bagby’s parents.
While waiting for extradition back to the U.S., Turner managed to get out on bail and regain custody of Zachary. In 2003, Turner strapped one-year-old Zachary to her chest and jumped into the ocean in a murder-suicide.
Bagby’s childhood friend, director Kurt Kunnee began shooting Dear Zachary after Bagby’s murder. He hoped to give Zachary a glimpse of his father. The critically acclaimed documentary dives deep into the case, talking with family and friends. The documentary helped bring change to Canadian laws and the social services system.Watch on YouTube
2. Paradise Lost: The Children Murder at Robin Hood Hills (1996)
The critically acclaimed documentary, Paradise Lost: The Children Murder at Robin Hood Hills, follows the trials of three teenagers, Jessie Misskelley Jr., Damien Echols, and Jason Baldwin, for the murder and sexual assault of three boys in 1993. The shocking murders rocked the quaint neighborhood in West Memphis, Arkansas.
Authorities believed the three teens killed the boys in a Satanic ritual. The groundbreaking documentary examines the crimes, the forced confessions, and the suppressed evidence. After serving 18 years, the three men finally left prison when agreeing to alfred pleas. The director followed up with Paradise Lost 2: Revelations and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.Watch on Hulu
3. There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane (2011)
The chilling documentary, There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane, dives deep into the tragic 2009 Taconic State parkway crash in New York. On July 26, 2009, 36-year-old Diane Schuler traveled on the Taconic State Parkway in the wrong direction, colliding head-on with an oncoming SUV. The crash killed Schuler, her daughter, her son, three nieces, and the three passengers in the SUV. The toxicology reports indicate Schuler had been drinking alcohol and smoking cannabis excessively.
Schuler’s husband denies his wife had been drinking or smoking that morning. They were returning from a camping trip with her husband driving back in a pickup truck. From that point, Diane was driving aggressively, swerving, and vomiting on the side of the road. Nine-year-old Emma Hance phoned her father, speaking her last words, “There’s something wrong with Aunt Diane.”Watch on HBOMax
4. Cleveland Kidnappings (2021)
The creepy documentary Cleveland Kidnappings examines the kidnappings and captivity of three women. Ariel Castro abducted Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Georgina DeJesus between 2002 and 2004. He held them imprisoned for over ten years in his home.
In 2013, Berry and her six-year-old daughter managed to escape and contacted the police to rescue Knight and DeJesus. The disturbing documentary deals with the abduction, the girl’s harrowing escape, and the failure of law enforcement to track them down.Watch on Prime
5. Who Took Johnny (2014)
In the early morning of September 5, 1982, Johnny Gosch disappeared while on his paper route. His mysterious vanishing gained national interest, making him one of the first three missing children who appeared on the side of milk cartons. The gripping 2014 documentary Who Took Johnny examines the case, the parent’s search for their son, and the inadequate police response. After his disappearance, there were Johnny sightings throughout Des Moines and the rest of America.
Johnny’s mother, Noreen, claims her then-27-year-old son visited her one night in 1997. According to Noreen, Johnny explained an organized pedophile ring abducted him, but he managed to escape and live under a fake name. Some people doubt Noreen’s account, while others believe someone was posing as Johnny. The compelling documentary attempts to unravel the strange mystery.Watch on Prime
6. The Keeprs (2017)
In November 1969, sister Catherine Cesnik mysteriously disappeared. At the time, she was a drama and English teacher at the all-girls Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore. In early 1970, a hunter and his son discovered Cesnik’s body in a landfill.
The chilling Netflix documentary, The Keepers, explores Cesnik’s disappearance and murder while uncovering the high school’s dark secret. Cesnik mysteriously disappeared after she discovered one of the priests, A. Joseph Maskell was sexually abusing the young girls. The series features interviews with the girls while re-examining vital evidence.Watch on Netflix
7. Abducted in Plain Sight (2017)
As a child, actress Jan Broberg was kidnapped twice by her neighbor and family friend, Robert Berchtold. The disturbing Netlifx documentary, Abducted in Plain Sight details Berchtold abducting Broberg when she was 12 years old.
After returning to her family, Berchtold kidnapped Broberg a second time when she was 14. Based on Stolen Innocence: The Jan Broberg Story, the creepy and unsettling documentary looks closely at this disturbing case from the 1970s.Watch on Netflix
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8. Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019)
Ted Bundy is one of America’s most notorious serial killers. Between 1974 and 1978, Bundy abducted, raped, and killed 30 women. He lured unsuspecting women to secluded locations using his charm and good looks or by faking an injury. Bundy would return to the decomposing body to engage in further disturbing sexual acts.
The unsettling Netflix series, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, features hours of interviews with Bundy, archival footage, and news reports detailing his crimes, escapes, arrests, and execution.Watch on Netflix
9. Jesus Camp (2006)
The critically acclaimed 2006 documentary Jesus Camp is an in-depth look into the charismatic Christian summer camp Kids on Fire School of Ministry. It features controversial interviews with founder Becky Fisher and follows three children at the camp; Levi, Rachael, and Tory. Fisher ran the camp at Devil’s Lake in North Dakota for several years.
In 2004, filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady approached her about shooting the film. The film generated controversy, with some criticizing Fisher and others attacking the filmmakers. Despite the controversy, Fisher refused to disavow the movie. Instead, she used it to promote her work before eventually discontinuing the summer camp due to the controversy it stirred up.Watch on Watch Documentaries
10. Conversations With a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes (2022)
From 1979 to 1991, serial killer Jeffery Dahmer sexually assaulted, dismembered, and murdered 17 men. After his capture, his legal team had in-depth conversations with Dahmer, featured in the Netflix series Conversations with a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes.
With archival footage and news reports, Dahmer discusses his crimes that evolved into necrophilia, cannibalism, and conserving body parts.Watch on Netflix
11. Vatican Girl: The Disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi (2022)
The Netflix series, Vatican Girl: The Disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi, brought renewed attention to the famous missing person’s case. The series examines Orlandi’s disappearance on June 22, 1983, after a music lesson in Vatican City.
Her mysterious disappearance led to several theories, including the involvement of organized crime, the KGB, and the Vatican sex scandal. The Netflix series dives deep into each therapy, focusing on the scandal. In 2023, Pope Francis ordered a new investigation into the disappearance.Watch on Netflix
12. Mommy Dead and Dearest (2017)
HBO’s Mommy Dead and Dearest is a disturbing and earth-shattering story. The plot revolves around the brutal murder of Dee Dee Blanchard, orchestrated by her daughter, Gypsy Rose. However, the documentary unravels this strange mystery that began when Gypsy was still a child.
Blanchard convinced professionals and Gypsy that she had muscular dystrophy, leukemia, and the mental capacity of a child due to premature birth. However, it was all a lie. Tired of her mother’s abuse, Gypsy uncovered the truth and enlisted her boyfriend to kill her mother. The documentary details Gypsy’s life, the murder, and the aftermath.Watch on HBOMax
13. Nightstalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer (2021)
The chilling Netflix true crime series, Nightstalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, is a disturbing documentary examining one of America’s most infamous killers. Serial killer Richard Ramirez began his crime spree by burglarizing homes to pay for his drug addiction. Soon, his crimes evolved to rape and murder.
From 1984 to 1985, Ramirez terrorized the people of Los Angeles and San Francisco. The series details his violent crimes and the hunt to bring him to justice.Watch on Netflix
14. Titicut Follies (1967)
Directed by Frederick Wiseman, Titicut Follies follows the patient-inmates at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. The Massachusetts government prevented the film from being released due to the terrible treatment of the patients. The government felt it made them look bad, with the doco showing staff to be either indifferent or not caring about patients’ well-being.
The patients stayed in cells with the bare minimum and rarely took a bath. The government kept the movie from the public for fear of backlash. In one scene, a staff member mocks a sick and naked inmate. After the deaths of several patients, the general public could finally see the movie in 1992 at the urging of the patient’s families.Watch on Internet Archive
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