Fall down the YouTube rabbit hole and you’ll find a goldmine of fascinating, heartwarming, and cringeworthy documentaries available in their entirety. Clicking on one can lead to hours of binge-viewing, stumbling from one true story to the next, the subjects ranging from unsettling conspiracy theories to supernatural possibilities that blow your mind.
Some are scary, some are sweet. Either way, they’re epic timewasters available for free online. Get the popcorn and check out these great flicks.
The best documentaries on YouTube
1) The Staircase
Nearly a decade before Serial sparked a true-crime craze there was The Staircase, an eight-part miniseries about the mysterious death of Kathleen Peterson. At the heart of the crime is the question of whether Kathleen was the victim of a freak accident, or a victim at the hands of her novelist husband Michael. Director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade is given incredible access by Michael and his team as they mount his defense. The series covers the case and trial through to the end, and there are enough twists and turns along the way to make you change your mind frequently. —Eddie Strait
2) The Family Who Walks on All Fours
This documentary by an English psychologist named Nicholas Humphrey follows his a Turkish family where most of the members walk on all fours. The debate sparks a conversation about the possibility of human devolution. —Gaby Dunn
3) 3D Printed Guns
This Vice documentary follows Cody Wilson, the man at the center of the 3D-printed gun revolution. With the advent and popularization of 3D printers, gun control may be moot. Wilson, then a college student, shows how he can “print” illegal firearms right in his home. The government has no way of stopping or regulating this practice. In the wake of the Newtown and other school shootings, this documentary is particularly poignant and scary. —G.D.
4) Child of Rage
This 1989 documentary follows Beth Thomas, a young girl who, as a result of sexual abuse when she was 1 year old, wants to kill her brother and adoptive parents. She’s interviewed by researchers who ask her about snapping baby birds’ necks, stealing knives from her mother, and excessively masturbating until her vagina bled. Today, Thomas is a nurse and an advocate for abused children. She’s gone through a lot of therapy and purports to be healed. But in this documentary, she coldly describes wanting to murder her family by stabbing them at night. It’s very unnerving. —G.D.
5) The Scariest Drug in the World
Vice reporter Ryan Duffy travels to Colombia to find the world’s scariest drug, scopolamine. The drug keeps the person lucid but makes them amenable to doing whatever you say. It’s been used to convince people to rob themselves and hand the money to strangers, as a rape drug, and as a way to humiliate people. It’s essentially “chemical hypnosis,” where you lose total control of your actions, despite being completely awake. The stories from people who’ve been drugged with scopolamine are harrowing. —G.D.
6) Too Ugly For Love
This is a multipart documentary about average people who suffer from body dysmorphic disorder. The pain these people feel over their looks may seem surreal given a lot of them are normal to attractive. But they really do not see in the mirror the reality of their appearance. You’ll never think of your own “fat days” the same way again. —G.D.
7) The Boy Who Lived Before
Cameron is a 5-year-old Scottish boy who remembers a past life on the island of Barra. He recounts details that end up matching a real house and family in the town. His face when he returns to the house he “remembers” is haunting. It’s a really interesting look at what children might remember from being reincarnated. —G.D.
8) The Boy Who Sees Without Eyes
Ben Underwood is a young boy who had his eyes removed at age 3 due to retinal cancer. As a result, he uses echolocation (like dolphins do) to “see” without seeing. He plays basketball, skateboards, and rollerblades. He uses sound to “see” and gets around perfectly well. Some have compared him to a real life X-Men character. Ben tragically passed away from his retinal cancer in 2009, but this documentary gives a look at his incredible abilities. —G.D.
9) This Is the Zodiac Speaking
The story of the Zodiac serial killer is riveting but terrifying—especially since he was never officially caught after terrorizing San Francisco for years. Not only did the Zodiac kill, he taunted the police openly for years and they still weren’t able to apprehend him. —G.D.
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10) Just Melvin, Just Evil
This documentary follows years of sexual and physical abuse across multiple families by their shared step-father, Melvin. It’s made by one of the families’ sons, who confronts Melvin about what he did. Melvin denies he hurt any of his step-children, but they all have memories of being abused by him for over a decade. Some accuse him of marrying their mother only because she already had young daughters for him to prey on. It’s one of the most manipulative and expansive stories of child abuse ever told on film, and you’ll be outraged by what happens in the end. —G.D.
11) Inside North Korea
This three-part Vice documentary takes founder Shane Smith on a trip to North Korea that unveils some of the most confounding facts about the company and its relationship to foreign travelers. There have been several follow-ups on the situation in North Korea by Vice and other outlets since, but this take on the restrictions, pageantry, and strife in the hermit country is a must-watch. —Rae Votta
12) The Men Who Killed Kennedy
For a crash-course on how to get censured by the British Parliament and draw the ire of two former presidents, look no further than The Men Who Killed Kennedy. Multiple conspiracy theories surround the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (“theories” being the operative word), and this nine-part British documentary series covers many of them, in a way that some criticized as blurring the line between facts and speculation.
The most troubling theory—that President Lyndon B. Johnson was behind Kennedy’s assassination—surfaces in the ninth episode. After “The Guilty Men” aired in 2003 on the History Channel, the network and its parent companies got in a whole heap of trouble with Johnson’s former aides, including former Johnson press secretary Bill Moyer, along with former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. In a letter to network executives, President Ford called the charges made in the documentary, “'the most damaging accusations ever made against a former vice president and president in American history.”
Controversy behind The Men Who Killed Kennedy didn’t begin stateside; the series’ questionable research ethics resulted in documentarian Nigel Turner getting censured by the British Parliament after the initial two-part series aired in 1988. Watch The Men Who Killed Kennedy with the discerning eye it deserves, and you'll give your critical thinking skills a real workout. —Amrita Khalid
13) A Brief History of Time
A Brief History of Time is a documentary on the life of Stephen Hawking, the famous astrophysicist whose best-selling book with the same name explained black holes and Big Bang theory to everyday audiences. Unlike the book, this documentary focuses on Hawking himself. Directed by Errol Morris of The Thin Blue Line, the film includes interviews with Hawking’s mother, sister, students, professors, and legions of his friends and acquaintances. The film offers a candid look into the life of the renowned scientist as he lives with Lou Gehrig’s disease, which has left him confined to a wheelchair and only able to speak through a complex computer technology that he operates with his cheek.
14) Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters
One of the great wonders of film is how it can make the mundane thrilling and vice versa. Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters is the former, injecting empathy and compassion into a story about the best Tetris players in the world. The film starts off fairly benign, but as you meet the people behind the high scores, their personal neuroses and dramas come to the fore. There are rivalries both friendly and heated, as well as a particularly distressing story about how Tetris greatness came at a great price for one of the players. You probably won’t care about Tetris any more or less than you did before the movie, but you’ll be interested in the people by the end. —E.S.
Editor's note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.