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You don't have to watch much prime-time television to come to the realization that America is obsessed with crime — in all its manifestations. So, it should come as no surprise that true crime documentaries have become a market unto themselves after the massive successes of The Jinx on HBO and Making a Murderer on Netflix. We've all seen them, or at least are familiar with them. Writing about them seems mute at this point — there are hundreds of articles on them.
For me, neither of those viral hits even crack the top 20 when thinking about the scariest true crime documentaries. For one thing, we don't even really know if Steven Avery is guilty or not, so that case and documentary needs a little time to settle — I shouldn't have to tell you it's far less scary if he actually committed the murder.
What is on this list? Of course, there is murder, but there are also cases of abuse of power and corruption that should be terrifying to us all. A societal fear of the outsider permeates many of the scariest true crime documentaries, linking them in some ways... you can't miss these stories.
'Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills'
In 1993, three second grade boys were brutally murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas, in what was thought to be a Satanic ritual. Three teenage boys — outcasts and loners — were convicted of killing the boys based on no evidence other than the fact that they wore black, listened to metal, and had no interest fitting into their small, hyper-religious community. The three convicted boys would become known as the West Memphis Three, and their horrifying story would become a case study in lazy police work and community bias. It is the first in a trilogy done by HBO — the West Memphis Three would spend decades in prison — and it's not only one of the scariest true crime documentaries, it very well may be the most compelling and frustrating documentary of all time, period.
'The Seven Five'
The Seven Five looks at police corruption, specifically Michael Dowd and his buddies at the 75th precinct in Brooklyn during the 80s. Maybe the dirtiest cop in NYPD history, Dowd's story reads more like a cartel king-pin. He stole from anyone, took bribes from killers, and ran with drug traffickers at such a high level it's almost unbelievable. The old saying that it's "just a few bad apples" didn't hold true in Dowd's days — making The Seven Five one of the scariest true crime documentaries.
The Witness is one of the most famous crimes in American history — the murder of Kitty Genovese. In 1964, she was violently murdered in her Queens neighborhood as 38 people stood by and watched until it was too late. It's a classic case of people passing the buck, and a disturbing meditation on apathy. The Witness is streaming on Netflix.
'Who Took Johnny'
A missing child is every parent's worst nightmare, and that is the terrifying plot of Who Took Johnny. Johnny just vanishes. His mother never gives up hope, and her fight to find her son is sad and inspirational at the same time. The most disturbing part of the case is the child sexploitation ring that is uncovered, much of it controlled by government officials and extremely wealthy donors. This revelation makes it one of the scariest true crime documentaries.
'The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer'
The Iceman was a mob-connected hitman who racked up a body count well into the hundreds during the 80s. The truly terrifying part of these conversations with Kuklinksi is his callousness and lack of remorse for anybody he killed. To hear him speak so frankly about his lack of regard for human life, and to think how we all have shared this big spinning rock with many of his ilk, makes it one of the scariest true crime documentaries.
'Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple'
Jim Jones was a cult leader who preyed on a bunch of devout people who wanted to be closer to God — through him. However, Jones was a dangerous and paranoid drug addict, who would take his followers to Guyana where they would all eventually pay the ultimate price. Nine hundred eighteen people would die there in a mass suicide event, making it the largest single event loss of American lives in modern history — until 9/11. They literally "drank the punch" and it's a terrifying tale on the dangers of religion and the power of groupthink.
'Audrie & Daisy'
Audrie & Daisy is incredibly frustrating to watch, and one of the scariest true crime documentaries you can sit through. The story is about sexual assault and social media, and the complete lack of support the victims received from the institutions that were supposed to protect them: universities, police, communities, etc. The film follows two high school girls, both victims of vicious bullying after their attacks, and the hole it rips in their entire lives as a result. If you have ever wondered why sexual assault goes largely underreported, this disturbing Netflix original is an eye-opener.
'Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer'
Women usually don't commit serial murders, and that's why Aileen Wuornos is one of the most famous killers in American history — and always will be. This documentary dives into Aileen's case, and her deteriorating mental state before her execution and her team's attempt to get the death sentence vacated. It features some truly disturbing interviews with Wuornos, and her attempts to grapple with her impending death are fascinating to watch.
Nicholas Barclay disappeared in 1994. Three years later, he turned up in Spain with a French accent and not exactly resembling his old self. The family, desperate to believe his story, is conned into believing the French drifter is their long lost son — they even bring him home.
The family's reasons for believing him may not be so innocent, and it's strongly suggested that they played some hand in his vanishing, ratcheting up the tension, and making this one of the scariest true crime documentaries in recent memory.
'Tales of the Grim Sleeper'
Lonnie Franklin is suspected of murdering dozens of women in South Central over several decades. How did he avoid detection for so long? It's heartbreaking to watch some of the interviews, and how many of the residents simply didn't trust the police enough to reach out with tips. Tales of the Grim Sleeper is available to stream on HBO.
The Staircase is about best-selling author Michael Peterson and his arrest for the murder of his wife Kathleen — who was found dead at the bottom of the stairs. The prosecution argues that Peterson was having multiple affairs, and beat his wife to death when she found out. Peterson claimed he has no idea how she died, and the subsequent eight-part documentary is all about him trying to prove his innocence. The entire town was desperate to convict him of murder, and the mob mentality makes this one of the scariest true crime documentaries.
'The Central Park 5'
Directed by powerhouse Ken Burns, this is one of the scariest true crime documentaries that deals with dangers of false confessions and racial prejudice. Five teenagers — four black and one Latino — were convicted in 1990 of brutally raping a woman in Central Park. The NYPD was able to get false confessions out of the boys that would later be retracted because of DNA evidence, but that didn't stop them from suffering in prison for years and having their reputations ruined — quite famously by a certain orange-haired elected official. The film raised some serious questions about police bias and tactics.