6 Nonfiction Books That Will Give You Nightmares


Even though I tend to avoid horror movies and books, I have no problem diving into some of the creepiest, most horrific true tales that have been captured in creative writing. I guess I just don’t want to be scared unless it’s by something I know took place safely in the past and can definitely never happen to me. (That’s what I tell myself, anyway.) If you’re ready to be freaked out by books about real things that have totally happened, consider reading these—just not right before bedtime.

Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894, by  Daniel James Brown
It’s quite possible this is the first you’ve heard of the Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894. I’d never heard of it until my husband raved about this book and passed it on to me. The book documents two massive forest fires that converged after a long hot summer in a Minnesota logging town, creating actual tornadoes of fire so hot that train wheels melted onto the tracks, over 200,000 acres were burned in four hours, and over 400 (some estimates say 800) people died. I read Under a Flaming Sky five years ago, but Brown’s detail about the way dying men shrieked like little girls as their throats burned from the heat (unsurprisingly) stuck with me. Here’s a fun tip for you, by the way, if you hate nightmares: do not read this book while summer camping in Wisconsin!

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, by Erik Larsen
True story: one evening, my husband blasted through the last hundred pages or so of this nonfiction murder-mystery-meets-city-planning thriller, staying up late while I snoozed beside him. At one of its scariest climaxes, which involved the mass murderer H.H. Holmes, who built a nightmarish hotel in which to trap, kill, and dispose of his victims, I sat up straight in bed and began babbling in my sleep. Coincidence? Or had I been possessed by the titular devil? It didn’t help that at the time, I lived across the street from the Chicago cemetery that now houses many of the characters in the book.

To Sleep with the Angels: The Story of a Fire, by  David Cowan and John Kuenster
While everyone has heard of the great Chicago fire, there are a few long-ago disasters now seared into every Chicagoan’s brain that are not as famous elsewhere: the Iroquois Theatre fire, the Eastland ferry disaster, and the 1958 fire at Our Lady of Angels School, which killed over 90 kids and three nuns just hours before class was set to let out for the Christmas holiday. I wasn’t that far removed from grade school myself when I first read this tragically fascinating telling, and now that I’m a mom, I just wish I could erase all knowledge of this event from my brain, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind–style. Odd sidenote: coauthor David Cowan, a former firefighter, actually served three years in prison for committing arson himself after he set fire to the grounds of a Chicago church, nearly 50 years after the Our Lady of Angels School fire.

In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and its Consequences, by Truman Capote
I don’t like being alone out in the country, and part of that is due to In Cold Blood, which many people claim is one of the first, best examples of creative nonfiction out there. In it Truman Capote pieces together the story of the Clutter family murders, committed by Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, who were out of prison on parole. I always found Capote’s re-creation of the Clutter family’s last moments (all were murdered by shotgun) chilling, and the randomness of the crime terrifying. Hickock and Smith never intended to murder the Clutters, and in fact were only there based on bad information they had received from another former inmate. Just picturing Hickock and Perry creeping up on the Clutter farmhouse in Kansas is enough to scare me away from living in a secluded area.

Columbine, by Dave Cullen
As seen in Capote’s book, tragedies get creepy when we move our focus from the big event and start living in the moments that lead up to it. Dave Cullen does this with Columbine, covering not just how Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris came to massacre 12 students and one teacher in Colorado. Cullen’s examination of what the public assumed it knew in contrast to the actual facts of the tragedy is fascinating, but what will set your hair on end is his portrayal of Harris, who, unlike the tortured, depressed Klebold, pretty much comes off as pure evil, as revealed in his creepy, boastful journal excerpts.

Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders, by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry
Jeff Guinn has a new book about Charles Manson that I’m just dying to check out, but before that came Helter Skelter, which is seen as the definitive account of the Manson Family murders. To be honest, what scared me most when I read the book (when I was home sick in high school, with mono) in the old days of paperback were the black-and-white photos of the crime scene, which are fascinating yet horrifying. I didn’t want to look, and yet…

What nonfiction book has scared you the most?

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