Truth Can Be Scarier Than Fiction: 6 Scary Nonfiction Books

Kim Ukura

Staff Writer

Kim Ukura is a book lover, recovering journalist, library advocate, cat mom, and lover of a good gin cocktail. In addition to co-hosting Book Riot’s nonfiction podcast, For Real, and co-editing Book Riot’s nonfiction newsletter, True Story, Kim spends her days working in communications at a county library system in the Twin Cities area. Kim has a BA in English and journalism from a small liberal arts college in Minnesota, and a master’s in journalism from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. When not getting to bed before 10 p.m., Kim loves to read nonfiction, do needlework projects, drink tea, and watch the Great British Baking Show. Instagram: @kimthedork Twitter: @kimthedork


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Truth is stranger than fiction, and it can often be scarier too! The list below offers up some scary nonfiction books that are perfect reads this haunted season—books that share the true stories behind frightening things, books that make sense of the stories we tell ourselves about scary things, and books that chronicle some of the truly scary things in our lives. 

Scary Nonfiction Books

The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece by Roseanne Montillo

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of my favorite horror novels, so of course a modern look at that story was going to make this list. Roseanne Montillo explores the science and real-life horrors that may have inspired Shelley’s famous story—body snatching, cutting up dead bodies, alchemy and more. She also shares Shelley’s story, connecting her to other authors and thinkers of the time to contextualize her story even more.

Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica by Zora Neale Hurston

Although we tend to think first about Zora Neal Hurston’s famous novels, she was also an accomplished anthropologist and essayist. Hurston writes about visits to Haiti and Jamaica in the 1930s where she participated in voodoo practices and rituals. The book is a travelogue “into a dark world” that offers an authentic and thrilling look at the ceremonies and superstitions of voodoo.

Ghostland-An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey

This book is another travelogue, this time exploring some of the most haunted places in the United States in an effort to “decode and unpack” the history of these places. Colin Dickey visits some of the most famous haunted places you may recognize, as well as other lesser-known destinations. Through these explorations, he’s able to explore other sides of American history and uncover “the past we’re most afraid to speak of aloud.” 

the bone woman book cover

The Bone Woman: A Forensic Anthropologist’s Search for Truth in the Mass Graves of Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo by Clea Koff

When she was a 23-year-old forensic anthropologist, Clea Koff was chosen as one of 16 scientists sent by the United Nations to go in search of evidence of the 1994 Rawandan genocide. In this book, she writes about seven different missions on behalf of the U.N. to uncover evidence of genocide in Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, and Rwanda. She shares what she uncovered, the impact it had on her personally, and how the evidence she gathered was used to prosecute those who committed these atrocities.

The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692 Salem by Stacy Schiff

You could pick up many books about the Salem Witch Trials, but I think this is a really good one that explores the full story of how 14 women, five men, and two dogs could be executed for witchcraft. Stacey Schiff tries to recreate the hysteria of the time, presenting the supernatural and realistic elements side-by-side, showing how easily the story spun out of control in a world that was already pretty terrifying.

i'll be gone in the dark michelle mcnamara books like mindhunter

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara

For a decade in the 1970s, a serial rapist turned serial killer eluded law enforcement across California. And then the Golden State Killer disappeared as quickly as he arrived. Michelle McNamara chronicles her quest to find him, while also offering a genuinely scary recounting of his crime spree. This book is one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read, made even more impressive by the fact that McNamara is entirely empathetic and thoughtful in the way she portrays the victims. 

Not scared enough? Here are some other Book Riot lists with scary true stories to discover: