Truly Terrifying: 24 Must-Read Nonfiction Books for Horror Fans

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K.W. Colyard


Kristian Wilson Colyard grew up weird in a one-caution-light town in the Appalachian foothills. She now lives in an old textile city with her husband and their clowder of cats. She’s on Twitter @kristianwriting, and you can find more of her work online at

K.W. Colyard


Kristian Wilson Colyard grew up weird in a one-caution-light town in the Appalachian foothills. She now lives in an old textile city with her husband and their clowder of cats. She’s on Twitter @kristianwriting, and you can find more of her work online at

The truth may be stranger than fiction, but it’s often scarier as well. Don’t believe me? I’ve compiled a list of must-read nonfiction for horror fans that’s sure to change your mind.

We live in frightening times. Terror is the fear of what might be; horror is the fear of what is. To quote The Body Scout author Lincoln Michel, “Terror is the sounds of unknown creatures scratching at the door; horror is seeing your roommate eaten alive by giant rats.” In many ways, then, the nightly news is a horror broadcast.

Horror doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The societal fears that popular horror explores change over time — zombies are popular during economic downturns, for example — but the fact remains that whatever is going on in the real world will wind up mirrored in horror media. That means that, if you want to know where horror comes from, you need to read nonfiction.

The authors of your favorite scary books have spent years ripping story ideas from the headlines. The real-life story of an exorcism at Georgetown University Hospital inspired William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. Alma Katsu’s The Hunger gives the Donner party’s fate a supernatural cause. The tragic horror of the Sylvia Likens case inspired Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. I could keep going, but you get the picture.

So let’s dive into the nonfiction books horror fans need to read, from explorations of the genre to real-life horror stories.

a black and white photo of a dilapidated house

Nonfiction About the Horror Genre

Untold Horror by Dave Alexander book cover

Untold Horror by Dave Alexander

This book from Rue Morgue co-owner Dave Alexander compiles his best interviews with the biggest names in horror. Behind-the-scenes insights from Joe Dante (Gremlins, The Howling), Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust), Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Splice), George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead), and more await you here.

the cover of An Illustrated History Of Horror And Science-fiction Films

An Illustrated History of Horror and Science-Fiction Films: The Classic Era, 1895-1967 by Carlos Clarens

First published in 1967, Carlos Clarens’s Illustrated History of Horror and Science-Fiction Films offers an in-depth look into the inspiration, creation, and legacy of your favorite classic horror movies. Complete with full cast and crew lists for more than 300 pictures, this Illustrated History is a must-read for any film buff.

Horror Noire by Robin R. Means Coleman book cover

Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present by Robin R. Means Coleman, PhD

This is the first of two books on this list from film scholar Robin R. Means Coleman, PhD. Initially published in 2011, Horror Noire received a second edition printing in 2023. The book traces more than 100 years of Black actors, writers, and directors’ contributions to horror movie history, as well as the evolving ways Blackness is presented on the big screen.

The Black Guy Dies First cover, showing a Black power fist punching out from a grave

The Black Guy Dies First: Black Horror Cinema from Fodder to Oscar by Robin R. Means Coleman, PhD and Mark H. Harris

Coleman co-authored this nonfiction book about modern Black horror movies with founder Mark H. Harris. Here, Dr. Coleman and Harris explore representation and inclusivity in horror cinema since the 1968 Civil Rights Act. You can read an excerpt here: The Black Character Horror Movie Survival Guide.

the cover of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin

Guggenheim Fellow Ruth Franklin digs deep into the life of famed horror writer Shirley Jackson in this multi-award-winning biography. Despite her premature death in 1965 at age 48, Jackson was one of the 20th century’s most prolific horror writers, authoring six novels — including We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House — three memoirs, and dozens of short stories.

Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix book cover

Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction by Grady Hendrix

We’re in the midst of a horror renaissance, but horror fiction had its true heyday in the 1970s and ’80s. In Paperbacks from Hell, author Grady Hendrix traces the genre’s 20th century successes, and how publishers sold readers on all things horror for two solid decades.

the cover of Behind the Horror

Behind the Horror: True Stories That Inspired Horror Movies by Dr. Lee Mellor

We’ve already talked about the real-life events that inspired some of your favorite horror novels, including The Exorcist and The Hunger. In Behind the Horror, author Dr. Lee Mellor dives into the headlines behind 21 famous horror movies across nearly 90 years of cinema history, from M: A City Searches for a Murderer to The Lighthouse.

Unquiet Spirits by Lee Murray and Angela Yuriko Smith book cover

Unquiet Spirits: Essays by Asian Women in Horror, edited by Lee Murray and Angela Yuriko Smith

American slashers rely on nigh-unstoppable male villains, like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Leatherface. Asian horror, on the other hand, tends to focus on the spirits of wronged and vengeful women — the onryō, the ohaguro-bettari, the cheonyeogwisin. In Unquiet Spirits, 21 Asian women come together to talk about their unique experiences in, and perspectives on, the horror community.

the cover of Nightmare Fuel

Nightmare Fuel: The Science of Horror Films by Nina Nesseth

Fear is a negative emotion, so why do we love horror movies so much? Nina Nesseth’s pop-science exploration of our affinity for scary movies sheds some light on how we respond to horror, why we seek it out, and the ways in which it evolves with us as a society.

the cover of The Lady from the Black Lagoon

The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick by Mallory O’Meara

Creature from the Black Lagoon premiered in 1954, making the titular Creature the most recent of the Universal Classic Monsters — a line of classic movie villains that includes the Bride of Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, and Dracula. You’re undoubtedly familiar with all of the UCMs, but did you know that it was a woman, Milicent Patrick, who designed the Creature? Patrick, who also created Chernabog for the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment of Disney’s Fantasia, was at risk of fading into obscurity when Mallory O’Meara brought her into the spotlight once more, in The Lady from the Black Lagoon.

the cover of Women Make Horror

Women Make Horror: Filmmaking, Feminism, Genre, edited by Alison Peirse

You only need to scroll through this list to see that women’s contributions to horror cinema are routinely overlooked and undervalued. Women Make Horror contains 18 essays on female horror filmmakers, their work, and the myriad representations of women — for better or worse — in scary movies.

the cover of Recreational Terror

Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing by Isabel Cristina Pinedo

In this slim 1997 text, Hunter College’s Isabel Cristina Pinedo examines the roles that race and gender play in horror cinema. At a time when many writers lambasted horror for its frequent juxtaposition of sex and violence, Recreational Terror offered a different perspective: that women could find empowerment in the genre.

Horror by Xavier Aldana Reyes book cover

Horror: A Literary History, edited by Xavier Aldana Reyes

Horror: A Literary History is a 250 year chronology of developments in horror fiction. Here, scholars explore the breadth of this spooky history, from The Castle of Otranto to Harriet Beecher Stowe, Weird Tales, Stephen King, and beyond. This slim but powerful volume belongs on every horror aficionado’s bookshelf.

the cover of It Came from the Closet

It Came from the Closet: Queer Reflections on Horror by Joe Vallese

Queerness isn’t unique to horror, but horror does share a rather unique relationship with queerness. Horror is about otherness, and few things have been othered more in recent history than queerness. It Came from the Closet collects 25 essays that focus on both queerness in horror films and those movies’ impact on individual queer identities.

Horror Nonfiction

Redhanded cover

RedHanded: An Exploration of Criminals, Cannibals, Cults, and What Makes a Killer Tick by Suruthi Bala and Hannah Maguire

RedHanded podcast co-hosts Suruthi Bala and Hannah Maguire go deep inside our fascination with humanity’s worst specimens here. Why do we care so much about serial killers? Cannibalism? Religious abuse? And, perhaps more importantly, why do some of us choose to harm others for fun? Find out, in RedHanded.

the cover of House of Evil

House of Evil: The Indiana Torture Slaying by John Dean

Nearly 60 years after 16-year-old Sylvia Likens died as the result of three months of abuse at the hands of her foster mother, the case continues to fascinate, largely due to its abject cruelty. The details of Likens’s abuse and death are not for the faint of heart. Jack Ketchum drew inspiration from Likens’s story for his 1989 novel, The Girl Next Door, which was adapted for the screen in 2007.

Book Cover for Tell My Horse

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

Voodoo shows up a lot in American horror media. Unfortunately, the depictions audiences may be most familiar with aren’t exactly kind or true-to-life. Based on the author’s experiences as a Voodoo practitioner in 1930s Haiti and Jamaica, Tell My Horse may help to separate fact from fiction in the minds of horror fans and occultists alike.

Book cover of The Rape Of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust Of World War II by Iris Chang; photo of a soldier in front of a Japanese flag

The Rape Of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust Of World War II by Iris Chang

Iris Chang’s microhistory of the Nanjing Massacre is not for the faint of heart. The Japanese Army’s wartime atrocities in the winter of 1937 and ’38 rival — or perhaps even eclipse — those at the Battle of Berlin and Mỹ Lai. A difficult and eye-opening read, this is not a book you’ll soon forget.

A graphic of the cover of In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Fans know just how inventive an author Carmen Maria Machado is. Her 2019 book, In the Dream House, blends horror with memoir as it unravels the lingering questions regarding her relationship with an abusive, unnamed girlfriend during her time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

the cover of Survival in the Killing Fields

Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing Ngor and Roger Warner

Haing Ngor won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Cambodian photojournalist Dith Pran in The Killing Fields. Unlike other actors who worked on the 1984 film, however, Ngor had firsthand experience with Pol Pot’s regime, having survived three imprisonments under the Khmer Rouge. He tells his heartbreaking story in Survival in the Killing Fields.

Ghostland by Edward Parnell book cover

Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country by Edward Parnell

Researching the UK’s haunted places — the landscapes that served as backdrop to classics like The Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man — didn’t just help Edward Parnell parse through the recurring nightmare that plagued his young adulthood. It also led to the creation of Ghostland, which examines the UK’s ancient forests, spooky moors, and other natural features that inspired our favorite English ghost stories.

the cover of The Hot Zone

The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus by Richard Preston

When it comes to truly terrifying nonfiction, it’s hard to beat The Hot Zone. The filoviruses — a family that includes the Ebola and Marburg viruses — pose a unique threat to humanity. They have high contagion and mortality rates. We have few vaccines or cures readily available. If you’re already a hypochondriac like yours truly, consider skipping this one.

Dark Archives Book Cover

Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin by Megan Rosenbloom

Few things continue to captivate and horrify book lovers quite like anthropodermic bibliopegy. Many libraries across the world claim to hold books bound in human skin, but how many of those are the real article? Librarian Megan Rosenbloom is part of a multidisciplinary team that authenticates these volumes. Read all about the origins of the practice in Dark Archives.

the cover of Rabid

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Disease by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy

Did you know that rabies can live in a human body for up to seven years before the carrier becomes symptomatic? If that tidbit alone doesn’t leave you wanting to sleep with the lights on tonight, pick up a copy of Rabies: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Disease, for more nightmarish facts.

In the mood for more horrific nonfiction? Check out this list of nonfiction horror books and The 50 Scariest Books Of All Time, including fiction and nonfiction.