1. Is Scientology Self Destructing? — Alex Klein
Scientology leader David Miscavige has been trumpeting his church’s “milestone year,” but the mysterious religion is alienating scores of its most faithful followers with what they call a real estate scam. With anger mounting and defectors fleeing, this may be more than a fleeting crisis; it may be a symptom of an institution in decline.
3. Talon Show: How Golden Eagle Snatches Kid Ruled the Internet — Chris Stokel-Walker
Four Canadian film students were assigned a project: Create a YouTube hoax video that gets 100,000 views. They got nearly 42 million instead. Here’s the definitive behind-the-meme look at how — and why — their homework snowballed into one of the most popular and rapidly spread videos ever.
4. The Harvest: Dispatches from the Front Line of Florida’s Wild Python Hunt — Amanda Petrusich
The monthlong Python Challenge in the Everglades is part controversial preservationist initiative, part sensationalistic media stunt, and all slinking through swamps trying to kill giant deadly reptiles.
5. Noise Kills: When Everyday Sound Becomes Torture — Joyce Cohen
The most hellish thing about hyperacusis is that it renders the slightest mundane sound so unbearably loud that suicide seems like the only relief. The second most is convincing people that this condition is real.
6. The Ghosts of Jonesboro: Fifteen Years After A School Shooting, A Small Town Is Still Recovering — David Peisner
On March 24, 1998, two children shot up a middle school near Jonesboro, Arkansas, killing five, wounding ten, and setting the benchmark for a horrifying trend in America. This is the story of how the close-knit rural community healed — and didn’t — and what places like Newtown can learn from its example.
7. The Last Rock Star: David Lee Roth Will Not Go Quietly — Steve Kandell
The once and future Van Halen frontman has parlayed the sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll of his youth into a wild middle age, and he wants to teach us all about it. Drinking, smoking, and swinging swords on a Saturday night at home with the last true rock star.
8. Live Shot: Why Did Jodon Romero Kill Himself on Live Television? — Jessica Testa
Last September, a car chase through Arizona turned from afternoon diversion to tragedy to referendum on media ethics, but lost in the noise was any sense of who was on the run or why. This is the story behind the spectacle.
9. “Passing the Note is the Bang”: How a War Hero Became a Bank Robber — Scott Johnson
Army medic Nicholas Walker returned home from Iraq after 250 combat missions, traumatized and broken. His friends and family couldn’t help him. Therapy couldn’t help him. Heroin couldn’t help him. Pulling bank heists helped him.
10. From Here to Eternity: Inside the Immortality Business — Josh Dean
Thanks to a small but devoted core of true believers and an infusion of Silicon Valley research funds, the once-revered, much-reviled science of cryopreservation may itself be coming back from the dead. Welcome to Alcor, where death is merely a temporary setback.
11. Table for One: Takeru Kobayashi’s Declaration Of Independence — Emily Fleischaker
For the fourth year in a row, the Nathan’s 4th of July hot dog-eating contest was without its original superstar thanks to an ongoing, bilious contract dispute. It’s hard to prove you’re still the champ when you don’t have any opponents, and it’s hard to plan your future when your golden opportunity implodes in scandal.
12. Wildcatting: A Stripper’s Guide to the Modern American Boomtown — Susan Elizabeth Shepard
Nothing is more emblematic of the American dream than chaotic mining and drilling towns such as Williston, North Dakota, and the people who flock to them in search of fortune. And no one knows better how these communities work — and don’t — than the traveling topless dancer.
13. Breaking Bland: The Notorious MSG’s Unlikely Formula for Success — John Mahoney
The “umami” craze has turned a much-maligned and misunderstood food additive into an object of obsession for the world’s most innovative chefs. But secret ingredient monosodium glutamate’s biggest secret may be that there was never anything wrong with it at all.
14. “Something Terrible Has Happened Here”: The Crazy Story Of How Clue Went From Forgotten Flop To Cult Triumph — Adam B. Vary
That a high-concept, fast-talking farce based on a board game was a box office bomb in 1985 is no huge mystery. But figuring out how it became an enduring favorite is a Hollywood whodunit for the ages. (The prime suspect: you, in the living room, with the remote control.)
15. The Eel World: Inside Maine’s Wild Elver Turf War — Peter Andrey Smith
In an economically depressed Maine county, Bill Sheldon is the kingpin of a $40 million baby-eel industry that may be doomed to extinction. Find out what happens when a community full of armed fishermen and elver dealers stop being polite and start getting real.
16. Gone: Was An American College Student Kidnapped By North Korea? — Leslie Anne Jones
In 2004, David Sneddon disappeared while hiking in China. But what seemed at first like a tragic accident may be something far more sinister: His family believes he is among the thousands of civilians who have been mysteriously abducted and imprisoned by North Korean agents.
17. Why I Stay Closeted in Asia — Connor Ke Muo
Though I’ve lived and been out in San Francisco for years, my parents are still in Taiwan and conservative — and homophobic — as the culture around them. When I was nearly “outed” me while I was there to celebrate my mother’s birthday, I didn’t want to take the opportunity to come clean.
18. Leo Rising: How Melissa Leo Became an Overnight Sensation in Just 30 Years — Doree Shafrir
Self-styled (literally) movie star Melissa Leo has, over the course of three decades of work, carved out an almost impossible career path for an actress: peaking in her fifties, simultaneously courting and trolling Hollywood, and not giving a shit how any of that makes her look.
Born in Germany but raised in Missouri, “Wild Bill” Suess served in the Army, then did time for various crimes. But he didn’t know what prison really was until strict immigration laws left him to fend for himself at a grim shelter in a foreign country he was now forced to call home.
21. “That Dead Girl”: A Family and a Town After a Cyberbullied 12-Year-Old’s Suicide — Ryan Broderick
In September, after a year of being bullied online, Rebecca Sedwick threw herself off a three-story cement silo, sparking an international freak-out over the responsibility social media networks like Ask.fm have in fostering this kind of harassment. But for Rebecca’s family, friends, and neighbors, the problem isn’t technology or opportunistic startups — it’s people.
After having lived in the United States, going back home to India in 2013 means readjusting to more than modest dress and unwanted stares. It means confronting a past I’d rather forget.
23. The AIDS Granny in Exile — Kathleen McLaughlin
In the ’90s, a gynecologist named Gao Yaojie exposed the horrifying cause of an AIDS epidemic in rural China — and the ensuing cover-up — and became an enemy of the state. Now 85, she lives in New York without her family, without her friends, and without regrets.
24. Behold! The Heartbreaking, Hair-Raising Tale Of Freak Show Star Julia Pastrana, Mexico’s Monkey Woman — Tim Stelloh
Julia Pastrana was born in the 1830s in Mexico, severely deformed and covered in hair, then became an international sensation. After she died in 1860, her mummified remains became an equally public curiosity, and only now, 153 years later, is she finally resting in peace.