One of the well-worn tropes of horror is that the story you’re about to watch is "based on a true story". But with these utterly terrifying true crime documentaries, there’s only truth. You’ll unearth the facts behind brutal serial killers, wrongly convicted teens, and horrifying psychopaths.
1. The Cheshire Murders
A horrifying home invasion. A brave cry for help. Then, a string of police failures that led to tragedy. Joshua Komisarjevsky spotted Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her 11-year old daughter in a grocery store and followed them home. He and his accomplice, Steven Hayes, claimed they only planned to rob the family. But before it was over, Jennifer and both of her daughters had been raped and murdered. Her husband, Dr. William Petit, was left injured. During the ordeal, the killers took Jennifer to a bank to withdraw money. She managed to alert a teller who called police, but, tragically, it was not enough to save the family.
2. The Jinx
Murder among the rich and famous. Kathie Durst, wife of real estate scion Robert Durst, disappeared in 1982. Her body has never been found. Then, in 2000, Durst’s close friend Susan Berman, who seemed to know something about the strange disappearance, was also murdered. And, just one year later, Durst’s neighbor is found dismembered. Amazingly, Durst manages to escape justice right until the end, when he gives himself away to the filmmakers with a stunning mistake.
3. Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer
Aileen Wuornos was one of just a handful of female serial killers. Charlize Theron won an Oscar for her portrayal of Wuornos in the film Monster. But you get to meet the woman herself in this documentary. Wuornos claimed all of the seven men she killed raped her, or at least tried to. She was executed by lethal injection in 2002.
(Contrary to rumor, John Waters’ campy film Serial Mom starring Kathleen Turner is not a true story of another female serial killer, but it’s still worth seeing.)
4. Capturing the Friedmans
Director Andrew Jarecki (also responsible for The Jinx) was trying to make a very different film when he began working on his documentary about a man named David Friedman who worked as a clown for children’s birthday parties. But during the filming, Friedman’s brother and father were accused of child sex abuse. Did they really do it, or was this a case of hysterical accusations spinning out of control? The tale, currently available to HBO subscribers, never heads where you expect.
5. Paradise Lost Trilogy
In 1993, the naked bodies of three young boys were found in the woods, hogtied with their shoelaces. Rumors spread of a Satanic cult and suspicion soon fell on three local teens known for their interest in heavy metal, black clothing, and the occult. But was there any real evidence? This three-part documentary, currently available on Amazon Prime, follows the long, tortuous journey of Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin through the legal system.
6. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
Director Kurt Kuenne got great reviews for this documentary about his murdered friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby. The documentary is offered as a gift for Bagby’s orphaned young son, so he can know something of the father he lost. But it is also a fascinating exploration of how a much-loved physician and father could be murdered. The suspect turns out to be someone very close to the family.
7. There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane
The title comes from the frantic phone call made from a cell phone in an SUV: “There’s something wrong with Aunt Diane!” The call was from Diane Schuler’s niece to her father. Schuler was behind the wheel with five children in her SUV. The tragic ride ended with Schuler and her captives racing 85 miles per hour down the wrong side of a divided highway, her blood alcohol level through the roof. The inevitable crash killed Schuler, her two-year-old daughter, her three nieces (including the girl who made the panicked call) and three men in the car she hit. Her five-year-old son was the only survivor. But there’s much more to this story than you may think.
8. The Staircase
On December 9, 2001 novelist Michael Peterson called 911 to report his wife Kathleen had fallen down the stairs. But when police arrived they found a scene that looked more like a murder than an accident. The coroner determined Kathleen had bled to death from numerous injuries over a period of two hours. This 13-part series, now available on Netflix, follows the trial through numerous twists and turns, including three recently released episodes that complicate the narrative once again.
9. The Imposter
A 13-year-old boy disappears from Texas. Three years later, he reappears in Spain with a terrifying story of abduction and torture. His family are overjoyed, but something is wrong. Could a loving family be so blinded by grief that they would accept an imposter in their midst? It may sound like fiction, but every bit really happened.
Featured promotional still from "The Cheshire Murders" via HBO Documentary Films