8 Most Disturbing True Crime Books

These true crime accounts are the stuff of nightmares.

By Jessica Ferri
8 Most Disturbing True Crime Books

There are some true crime books so disturbing that they haunt you long after you’ve closed the cover. These books certainly fit the bill. Whether they chronicle a brutal murder, a dangerously close encounter with a serial killer, or a trial that captivated the nation, these freaky real-life accounts are the stuff of nightmares. Sleep tight!


1. In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

true crime books

Perhaps the most groundbreaking book in the annals of true crime, Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel” centers on the senseless 1959 murders of the Clutter Family in the quiet Kansas town of Holcomb. After reading about the quadruple murder in The New York Times, Capote traveled to Holcomb with plans to write a short piece for The New Yorker. But after spending time in the town, learning of the case’s grisly details—Nancy, Kenyon, and Bonnie were all shot in the head at point-blank range while Herb Clutter’s throat was slashed—and meeting the accused murderers Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Smith, Capote knew he had enough material for a book.

Due to his unprecedented access to the murderers, Capote was able to capture some of the most chilling details about the crime; it was a robbery gone wrong, and the Clutters didn’t have to die. “I thought he was a very nice gentleman,” Smith told Capote about Herb Clutter, “I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.”

The book, which was published in 1965, ultimately took six years to complete, and Capote’s close relationship with Hickock and Smith, took an emotional toll on the author. Though he died in 1984, In Cold Blood was the last full novel Capote ever wrote.

2. Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murdersby Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry

helter skelter

In Cold Blood was an instant success upon its release in 1965, becoming the best-selling true crime book in publishing history. That all changed in 1974, when Vincent Bugliosi’s book on prosecuting the Charles Manson trial knocked Capote’s work off its pedestal. With over 7 million copies sold, Helter Skelter remains the best selling true crime book to date.

In the summer of 1969, the country was terrified by the Manson family murders. Seven people were murdered, including the actress Sharon Tate, then nearly nine months pregnant. Bugliosi’s resulting book chronicles the rise of Manson and his ability to manipulate his “family” through provocations about a race war in America. Helter Skelter gives readers an inside look to one of the most notorious trials in American history, complete with grisly details about the murders and gruesome crime scene photos.

3. Fatal Vision, by Joe McGinniss

true crime books

In 1970, Colette MacDonald and her two daughters were brutally murdered in their home at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Colette, who was pregnant at the time, was clubbed and stabbed 37 times, 21 times with an ice pick and 16 times with a knife. Her 5-year-old daughter Kimberley was stabbed 10 times, and two-year-old daughter Kristen was stabbed 33 times. The main suspect: Colette’s husband and the girls’ father, Jeffrey MacDonald.

MacDonald was convicted of the murders in 1979. Yet he maintained his innocence, claiming that the slayings were committed by a roving band of hippies (similar to the Manson murders, the word “pig” had been scrawled on the headboard of Colette’s bed). MacDonald hired journalist Joe McGinniss to write a book on the case, in hopes that he would set the story straight. McGinniss, however, was far from convinced of MacDonald’s innocence. Fatal Vision hit shelves in 1983, effectively supporting the conviction. MacDonald sued McGinniss for what he thought was an unfair portrayal, triggering a decades-long legal dispute. To this day, MacDonald remains in prison.

4. Buried Dreams, by Tim Cahill

buried dreams

Brave journalist Tim Cahill explores the dark and disturbing world of serial killer John Wayne Gacy in this meditation on pure evil hiding in plain sight. Known as the Killer Clown of Chicago, Gacy is responsible for 33 murders, and most likely more. Cahill goes in-depth with the help of the television reporter who covered the case, building a narrative of Gacy’s violent upbringing and five-year murder spree. Told from the point of view of the psychopath himself, Buried Dreams is a chilling account of one of the most notorious murder cases of all time.

5. Columbine, by Dave Cullen

true crime books

It’s difficult to imagine a world before April 20, 1999, when school shootings were not the norm. Sadly, Dave Cullen’s 2009 investigation into the massacre at Columbine is as relevant as ever.

Cullen chronicles the events leading up to the murders, using primary source material like journal entries, interviews, and police reports. But what’s most chilling about this book is that it dispels many of the rumors about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. While the media portrayed both killers as freaks and outsiders, Cullen tells a different story: Harris and Klebold were apparently popular at school, and had lots of friends. They attended school dances and social events like typical high school students. That the pair planned their massacre up to a year in advance while living seemingly normal adolescent lives makes their 1999 assault all the more disturbing.

6. The Stranger Beside Me, by Ann Rule

stranger beside me

Ann Rule’s powerful 1980 true crime memoir, The Stranger Beside Me, centers on her relationship with none other than serial killer Ted Bundy. While volunteering at a suicide crisis hotline, Rule met Bundy, and the two became friends. Several years later, Bundy was accused of a series of murders at the Chi Omega sorority at Florida State University. Rule struggled to reconcile the charming volunteer from the crisis center with the serial murder suspect in the courtroom.

The updated version of the book published in 1989 includes more details about the trial and Bundy’s execution, including “near-miss” interactions between the murderer and other women. But what makes this book so chilling is the fact that the stranger beside Rule—who wasn’t even a stranger but in fact, a friend—was a monster who confessed to killing at least 36 victims.

7. Eye of the Beholder, by Lowell Cauffiel

eye of the beholder

Anchorwoman Diane Newton King had just stepped out of her parked car with her children still in the backseat when a sniper gunned her down. Who in the world would want to kill this woman? Police set their sights on a stalker who had been terrorizing King for weeks, but the investigation went cold. Journalist Lowell Cauffiel captures the terror that gripped King’s hometown of Battle Creek, Michigan. The book’s thrilling conclusion, in which the identity of the murderer is revealed, will shock you.

8. Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of a Violent Faith, by Jon Krakauer

true crime books

Celebrated author Jon Krakauer takes an entire religion to task in his investigation into a deeply disturbing 1984 murder of a mother and her infant daughter by her brother-in-laws Dan and Ron Lafferty. Both men were extremist Mormons who believed they were under strict instructions from God to kill their sister-in-law Brenda and her daughter Erica.

Krakauer explores the dark and violent history of the Mormon faith in hopes of unraveling the crimes, focusing on the religion’s beginning in the mid-1800s of American West, where Mormons were under attack from both the U.S. Government and the Native American population. Tracing the roots of Mormon fundamentalism to the modern-day extremism of the Lafferty brothers, the author creates a gripping account of American violence and fundamentalism.

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