20 Disturbing Nonfiction Books You Won't Be Able To Put Down — Even If You Want To
These true stories of murder, paranoia, and grisly histories prove reality is scarier than fiction.
Halloween is just around the corner, which means it’s the perfect time to embrace all things spooky. And while horror novels and audiobooks definitely satisfy a reader’s macabre interests, these nonfiction books reach a higher level of unsettling creepiness because these ghastly tales are about real people, real places, and real events. Below are 20 true stories guaranteed to keep you up at night:
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
This harrowing true crime tale describes the hunt for one of California’s most notorious and elusive serial killers through the eyes of a true crime journalist determined to crack the case. Michelle McNamara, the creator of TrueCrimeDiary.com, became fixated on figuring out the identity of the Golden State Killer, a violent predator who committed at least 10 murders and 50 rapes throughout California from 1973 and 1986. Before he disappeared, his attacks seemed to follow a pattern: he wore a mask, he would do a “dry run” of a house while no one was there to master the layout, and while attacking, he always spoke in a menacing whisper. It’s the small, chilling details that McNamara includes throughout this book that truly shake you to your core. You’ll be extra careful to lock your doors and windows after reading this one.
This might be the only true crime book on this list that’ll make you actually want to visit where the crimes take place. Berendt started writing this book to tell the story of the murder of Danny Hansford, a handyman who was killed in Savannah, Georgia, in the early 1980s. But as he started to research the Southern city, he discovered a storied past full of eccentric characters. Savannah has a long, haunted history and the Mercer House — the site of the alleged murder — is just one stop on the city's many ghost tours. After reading all about it, you’ll want to hop on a plane to explore the Spanish moss-lined streets yourself.
A 13-year-old murderer seems like the stuff of legends, but in The Wicked Boy, you’ll learn about the true story of Robert Coombes, a London boy found guilty of murdering his own mother in the summer of 1895. Summerscale takes you through her research into how Robert roped his 12-year-old brother into planning and committing the crime with him, and you’ll be chilled to the bone as she describes Robert’s trial, sentencing, and his time spent in Broadmoor, one of England's most infamous criminal asylums.
Yes, this story is as crazy as the book’s title suggests. You don’t often hear about female serial killers, but Belle Gunness is a terrifying exception. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it’s believed that Belle murdered at least 14 people, many of whom were men she lured to her farm promising to marry them. She would often collect the men’s life insurance once they “mysteriously” died. Anyone who listens to true crime podcasts has probably heard at least one episode about Belle, but this book adds an extra terrifying layer to this mysterious woman with court records and word-of-mouth accounts from the time period.
Being able to communicate with the dead is something you often see on TV shows or horror movies, but this real group of women in Maine feel like they actually can reach the realm of the afterlife. In The In-Betweens, the author first takes us through a history of spiritualism and mediums in the United States, and then walks us through her experience immersing herself in the community of Camp Etna, where she goes on ghost hunts and witnesses women trying to release trapped spirits.
On the surface, you might think this book is about the history of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and think to yourself, “What’s so scary about that?” And then you’ll realize you’re about to be forever haunted by H.H. Holmes, a truly disturbed man who constructed the World’s Fair Hotel as a way to lure potential victims who were oblivious to the terror that lay inside. The hotel had soundproof rooms, hallways that went nowhere, and chutes that went straight down to the basement that was really a crematorium. Let’s just say anyone who checked into this hotel never actually made it out.
Imagine waking up one day strapped to a hospital bed, unable to speak, and with no memory of how you got there. For 24-year-old Susannah Cahalan, that nightmare was her reality. For the month before her hospitalization, Susannah’s brain seemed to be rebelling against her: She had strong mood swings, she became hypersensitive to light and sound, and she was constantly paranoid. As frustrating as it is terrifying, Susannah’s journey of searching for a diagnosis of this mystery illness is a stark reminder of how maddening it can be to be tortured by your own body.
In 1969, a 23-year-old graduate student at Harvard named Jane Britton was found bludgeoned to death in her apartment. More than 40 years later, her death remained unsolved, and current Harvard student Becky Cooper becomes intrigued when she hears rumors and whispers about the murder on campus. Through her own investigation and research, Cooper begins to uncover a disturbing reality about Harvard in the 60s: gender inequality, a “boys’ club” culture, and the way prestigious institutions can silence what they don’t want to be heard.
This true crime book delves into the mind of a compulsive liar, and the five detectives determined to make him tell the truth. In the '70s, two young sisters disappeared from a shopping mall in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The case remained unsolved until 2013, when a cold case squad unearthed new evidence that suggested Lloyd Welch, a man serving time for molestation in Delaware, might be involved in the disappearance. The Last Stone is an accurate, detailed account of the agonizing lengths criminal investigators must go to to bring justice to long-forgotten victims, and the discoveries they reveal about Welch’s disturbing past will haunt you long after the book reaches its conclusion.
This book is about a lampshade made from actual human skin. If that doesn’t send a shiver down your spine, I’m not sure what will. Journalist Mark Jacobson explains how he came in possession of this truly heinous object and sets out to uncover the history of something so vile. Tracing its origin to the Holocaust, Jacobson reveals that this lampshade is a symbol of human cruelty, and you’ll be gripped with terror the more you read about this creepy object.
This classic true crime book redefined the genre when it was published in 1980, and it still remains one of the most chilling accounts of a serial killer ever written. Ann Rule tells of her relationship with a friendly coworker at a crisis hotline. This coworker was Ted Bundy, who would eventually confess to killing at least 36 women across the United States. One of the most terrifying details of this book is that when Ann was working with Bundy, she was researching a true crime book about the very murders he was committing. Knowing the extent of Bundy’s crimes today, Ann’s description of Bundy as a charismatic and attractive law student will frighten you to your core — and it will make you wonder if you’d be able to recognize if a monster lived among you now.
What makes people follow a cult leader? That’s the question this book about Jim Jones, the person behind the infamous Jonestown Massacre, tries to answer. Using FBI files, interviews with people who knew Jones, and extensive first-hand research, the author paints a complete portrait of a man who used his charismatic leadership skills to woo nearly a thousand people to participate in the biggest murder-suicide in U.S. history. You’ll be mesmerized and horrified at the same time as you learn how Jones’ increasing power fueled his ego and created a narcissistic monster.
It’s hard to believe the bizarre medical tales in this book aren’t a work of fiction, but each odd story, such a man who swallowed 27 knives and survived, are somehow all from real medical journal entries. Medical historian Thomas Morris takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to explaining these sometimes revolting but always fascinating medical mysteries that have shocked Western doctors for centuries.
Journalist Robert Graysmith takes the reader through his frustrating attempt to help bring the terrifying serial killer who haunted Northern California in the late 1960s to justice. Dubbed the Zodiac killer, the still unidentified man sent taunting letters and riddles to the press and the authorities, all while continuing to torture and murder young couples. In this book, you’ll read the complete text of the letters — and looking at the actual words of a mysterious killer will leave even the bravest of true crime readers uneasy.
The best ghost stories are the ones rooted in history, as evidenced by this comprehensive guide of the most haunted places in America. The author takes us on a road trip as he researches the true stories of abandoned prisons, spooky hospitals, and creepy hotels with ghoulish pasts. He debunks several myths about these places and instead focuses on uncovering the meanings behind why these legends have persisted through our history. Even the most knowledgeable ghost enthusiast might learn something new.
This disturbing book recounts the unimaginable abuse and torture three sisters Nikki, Sami, and Tori Knotek endured from their own mother, Shelly. The author includes interviews with Shelly’s stepmother, her husband, and even the sisters themselves. While the details of the terror the sisters went through aren’t easy to read, the strong bond they form to survive and defy their mother’s sadistic tendencies is inspiring.
You’ve heard of serial killers like John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Jack the Ripper, but you might be unfamiliar with Charles Cullen, a registered nurse who was involved in the murder of over 300 patients, making him the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history. Over 16 years and across nine hospitals, Cullen was able to operate a reign of terror — and through police records, wire-tap recordings, and even a jailhouse interview with Cullen himself, the author reveals how this nurse, dubbed the “Angel of Death” by the media, could kill unchecked for so long in America’s healthcare system.
Hiroshi Ouchi was a worker at a uranium processing facility in Tokaimura, Japan, and on September 30, 1999, he was exposed to an extreme amount of radiation, plunging him into tortuous radiation poisoning. For 83 days, Ouchi slowly deteriorated, and the shocking details of his painfully slow demise will give you full body chills. But it’s a fascinating (albeit hard-to-read) firsthand account of the true effects of radiation poisoning.
Ever wondered what it’s like to work in a crematorium? Caitlin Doughty has always had a morbid fascination with the profession, so she decides to take a job at a crematory to eventually become a licensed mortician. With unexpected humor (this book might be a good place to start if you want something morbid but not too disturbing) Caitlin shares what she learns caring for the dead while also explaining the bizarre history of cremation and the different ways cultures bury their dead. Despite the creepy subject matter, this book will give you a lot of eye-opening knowledge about what happens to us after we die.
As evidenced by this list, the public's fascination with true crime has never been more prominent. But why exactly are we all so drawn to these stories, and why do they always send a shiver down our spine? In Unspeakable Acts, editor Sarah Weinman has selected not only some of the most chilling, disturbing, and thought-provoking true crime writing being published today, but also essays that make the reader really examine our cultural obsession with true crime — a genre that has a tendency to focus on young, white, female victims.