15 Terrifying Nonfiction Books That Read Like Horror
If you’re a fan of reading horror, you’re already familiar with the qualities of a great horror novel: surprise, suspense, shock, maybe even a little disgust here and there for some "ick" factor. It definitely needs to be scary. But one of the keys to truly horrifying horror (at least, in my opinion) is that the story make some sort of comment on the larger culture or society: horror should not only be a reader’s greatest fears realized, but a society’s greatest fears (or failings) realized as well. Classics like and Dracula and Frankenstein all stand to represent some of the darkest and most base elements of humanity: violence, consumption, the primal battle between our animal instincts and our human selves.
And then there’s the horror that’s not actually so fictional after all. True crime, science writing, even some especially dark memoirs can all read like horror novels — except their horrors have come to life. From murder and mayhem to disease and destruction, there are plenty of true stories that take their cues from the horror genre… or maybe, it’s always been the other way around.
Here are 15 nonfiction books that read like horror — you’ll definitely be keeping your nightlight on for weeks to come.
'The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder' by Charles Graeber
Three hundred murders, nine different hospitals, and a killer who went undetected for 16 years. The story of registered nurse-turned-serial killer Charlie Cullen will definitely haunt your next doctor’s visit.
‘The Trials of Nina Mccall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison Promiscuous Women’ by Scott W. Stern
Think the horror of The Handmaid's Tale come to life. The Trials of Nina Mccall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison Promiscuous Women documents the false diagnoses and subsequent illegal imprisonment, hard labor, exploitation, and forced mercury injections of many thousands of American women, for no other crime than being "promiscuous."
'The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer' by Kate Summerscale
You know things didn’t end well when a crime is discovered because the neighbors start complaining about the smell. In the (notably hot) summer of 1895, 13- and 12-year-old brothers Robert and Nattie Coombes murdered their mother, then took themselves on a holiday and shopping spree while her body decomposed in their house. Wicked indeed.
‘Hell's Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men’ by Harold Schechter
Belle Gunness was the proprietor of what became known as a “murder farm”. Need I say more? Profiling the female psychopath and serial killer — a rarity in the world of horrifying crimes — Hell's Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men highlights why Gunness’s crimes were particularly horrifying: she didn’t just poison her victims, she butchered them too.
‘The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus’ by Richard Preston
There’s nothing like the horror of a virus outbreak to get a germaphobe's (or, let’s be honest: just about anyone’s) hair to stand on end. The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus looks at how one of the most infectious and deadly (and uncured) diseases on earth jumped continents and has been killing people around the globe for years.
‘The Stranger Beside Me: Ted Bundy: The Classic Story of Seduction and Murder’ by Ann Rule
Think of your favorite co-worker — your “work spouse”, if you will. Now imagine finding out they’re actually a serial killer; and not just a serial killer, but one of the most notorious serial killers in American history. That’s what happened to Ann Rule, and she tells you all about it in The Stranger Beside Me: Ted Bundy: The Classic Story of Seduction and Murder.
‘The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America's First Serial Killer’ by Skip Hollandsworth
Did infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper actually get his start in Austin, Texas? That’s the question Skip Hollandsworth’s The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America's First Serial Killer seeks to answer. After a vicious, year-long killing spree, Austin’s serial killer disappeared… only to seemingly turn up again in London — where he (?) was also never found.
‘The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World’ by Sarah Weinman
Bet’cha didn’t know Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was based on a true story. (I didn’t.) In fact, the classic (and cringe-worthy) novel was based on the real-life 1948 abduction of eleven-year-old Sally Horner. Out in September, The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World documents the horror of a real-life Lolita, while restoring Horner’s voice back into her own story.
‘Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic that Remains One of Medicine's Greatest Mysteries’ by Molly Caldwell Crosby
Have you ever had one of those nightmares about falling asleep and not being able to wake up? Turns out, that “sleeping sickness” was a real disease — one that mysteriously ravaged Europe from 1918 to 1927, disappearing just as quickly as it arrived and leaving MILLIONS of victims dead or institutionalized. Think about that before you go to bed tonight. (Or, don't.)
'People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up' by Richard Lloyd Parry
Don’t read this one before your next study abroad or vacation. After going missing in Tokyo in the summer of 2000, 21-year-old Lucie Blackman’s dismembered remains were discovered buried in a seaside cave. The man accused of killing her, Joji Obara, would later be described by his judge as "unprecedented and extremely evil."
‘Woman at the Devil's Door: The Untold Story of the Hampstead Murderess’ by Sarah Beth Hopton
Another work of investigative reporting that explores the origins of the infamous Jack the Ripper, Woman at the Devils Door: The Untold Story of the Hampstead Murderess looks at the heinous crimes of 24-year-old Mary Eleanor Pearcey, who inspired the speculation that one of the most speculated-about serial killers in history was actually a woman. You won’t want to miss this one.
'The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple’ by Jeff Guinn
If you’ve ever seen the photographs of the Jonestown Massacre, then you know the scene is one that could only take place in a horror novel — except, the largest murder-suicide in American history actually happened in real life. The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple is a profile of the criminal mastermind behind the agonizing massacre of more than 900 people, including 300 infants and children.
'The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride' by Daniel Brown
Anyone who played Oregon Trail as a kid knows the horrors that befell the Donner Party — trapped by unseasonably early snowfall in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, stories surrounding the traveling pioneers’ reported cannibalistic murders became the stuff of American (horror) legend. Newlywed Sarah Graves was just one of the travelers, and The Indifferent Stars Above is her story.
‘The Spider and the Fly: A Reporter, a Serial Killer, and the Meaning of Murder’ by Claudia Rowe
Here’s what you need to know about this one: 27-year-old college student-turned-serial-killer Kendall Francois’ entire family: himself, his parents, and a younger sister, spent two years living in a house filled with the rotting corpses of Francois’ victims and DIDN’T KNOW IT.
‘Murder in the Bayou: Who Killed the Women Known as the Jeff Davis 8?’ by Ethan Brown
To me, it's the unsolved crimes that are definitely the creepiest — and this is one that’ll keep you up at night. After dead sex workers began appearing in Jennings, Louisiana, the police blamed a serial killer. Instead, investigative reporter Ethan Brown argues that the murders were, in fact, linked to local drug dealings and concealed by corrupt police officers.