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These 3 Netflix documentaries scared the bejeezus out of me

Published Apr 5th, 2024 5:11PM EDT
American Nightmare on Netflix
Image: Netflix

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Netflix has debuted several documentary releases since the beginning of this year. As I look back on the titles we’ve covered here and added to my own watchlist, several of them have one thing in common. Three of these films, in different ways, scared the living heck out of me, from the story of a bizarre home invasion to an unexplained and grisly killing of a journalist who was doggedly investigating what looked like a sinister web of government corruption.

It’s not so much that the documentaries themselves are packed with shock value, per se. Just that the stories you’ll find below skirt the line between light and darkness — presenting viewers with surprise-filled narratives that will keep you on the edge of your seat out of a mixture of both fear and disbelief. Let’s get into it.

American Nightmare

American Nightmare on Netflix
Denise Huskins and Aaron Quinn in “American Nightmare.” Image source: Netflix

This first Netflix documentary that had my jaw on the floor for pretty much the entire runtime is actually one of two on this list that tells the story of a home invasion.

American Nightmare comes from Felicity Morris and Bernadette Higgins, the makers behind 2022’s The Tinder Swindler, and it’s about the bizarre 2015 kidnapping case of Denise Huskins. The whole thing quickly becomes an expose into the way the local police in California mishandled the investigation, dismissing the account of the invasion and kidnapping given by Huskins and her boyfriend Aaron Quinn as a hoax along the lines of Gone Girl.

Huskins reappeared a couple of days after the kidnapping with evidence of sexual assault; but, even then, the authorities still felt that the whole thing had been fabricated. Months later, the arrest of a serial rapist vindicated the couple — whose story in this documentary highlights the maddening and systemic failures in law enforcement’s rush to judgment. The crime was bad enough, but it’s seriously scary to imagine that you wouldn’t even be believed in a case like this one.

American Conspiracy: The Octopus Murders

Danny Casolaro
Danny Casolaro in “American Conspiracy: The Octopus Murders.” Image source: Netflix

This next Netflix documentary is definitely not one you want to watch, say, late at night when you’re home alone. Not unless the gruesome, bloody murder of a reporter — who was found dead in a bathtub with both wrists slashed, by the way, not long after warning someone that he might be killed — is the kind of thing you’re not really rattled by.

American Conspiracy: The Octopus Murders delves into the unsolved death of investigative journalist Danny Casolaro in 1991. He’d been investigating a sprawling nexus of government corruption and corporate espionage, the kind of thing that would have so many branches if you drew it on a chart that he nicknamed the whole thing “The Octopus.”

Journalist Christian Hansen retraces Casolaro’s steps and tries to pick up the threads that Casolaro was working to untangle. Among the figures interviewed in the documentary is Michael Riconosciuto, an eccentric computer expert who claims insider knowledge of some of the facts that Casolaro was chasing.

The beginning of this documentary release, by the way, sucks you right in. It starts off with Hansen on the phone, asking a detective about his work investigating the case all these years ago. “It’s a tough case to talk about,” the detective responds, seeming to choose his words carefully. Hansen prods him to keep going.

“Listen. I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what it is you think you’re gonna do … but you’re not gonna do it.”

What Jennifer Did

What Jennifer Did on Netflix
Detective Bill Courtice in “What Jennifer Did.” Image source: Netflix

This final Netflix documentary release starts off with what seems like a cut-and-dried home invasion from back in 2010. A frantic and traumatized young woman named Jennifer Pan called authorities in Canada after unknown intruders broke into her family’s home and shot her parents during an armed robbery attempt.

You should be able to tell from the title of director Jenny Popplewell’s Netflix documentary alone that there was much more to that story.

Without giving anything away, I’ll just say that Jennifer’s troubled past and a complicated web of deception around the horrible incident — during which her mother actually died — make for a twist-filled narrative that explores the dark side of human nature. Ultimately, this 90-minute Netflix documentary is a story about hitmen, the baggage of family expectations, and the lengths to which some people will go to ensure that they can live the life that they want. What Jennifer did shocked me to my core, but I’ll leave it at that instead of spoiling the details.

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.