There are few things I find more terrifying than rare, incurable diseases. Therefore, I read every book about rare diseases I can get my hands on. Makes total sense. It’s hard to say if my passion for non-fiction medical horror is helpful or just fuel for my fears. If you, like me, can’t get enough of these truly scary stories, or if fictional horror just isn’t giving you the chills you crave, check out this list of some of my favorites of the genre.
I first learned about The Family That Couldn’t Sleep, when Nicole Cliffe tweeted about it. I can’t find the original tweet anymore, but in my memory it was something to the effect that this book is absolutely nightmare inducing. That was all the encouragement I needed. This book is terrifying in the best possible way.
Prions exist in the air, the water, and the soil. They can’t be killed with boiling water, fire, or any other conventional way of destroying disease. This book covers the history of various prion diseases throughout history and just how little we still understand about them.
Content Warning: One of the discoverers of prion disease, Gajdusek, was a child molester who specifically targeted Indigenous Papua New Guinea boys. While the book is not graphic in the details, I found Gajdusek’s justifications for his actions incredibly disturbing. I also thought the coverage it was given in the book was unnecessarily long.
My elementary school loved to read us the picture book Stella Luna, about a bat that sleeps right side up. During recess one day, a kid saw a bat on the playground and tried to play with it. The poor kid was bitten and had to go to the hospital to get the rabies vaccine. The school put the fear of rabies into all of us, and I’ve been terrified of the disease ever since.
This novel covers the history of this terrifying, and absolutely fatal, disease from references to it in mythology to folk cures to our modern understanding of this virus.
Cahalan was working as a journalist when she suddenly developed mysterious symptoms: hallucinations, paranoia, hyper-sensitivity, but Cahalan doesn’t recall any of this when she wakes up alone in a hospital room. Cahalan puts her journalistic experience to use to craft a first person narrative that follows the journey from her earliest symptoms to the desperate fight for her life to the unusual and ultimately life-saving diagnosis she received.
I think this book is best enjoyed by going on the journey with Cahalan, so I’m not going to name the disease she was eventually diagnosed with, but it’s an incredible story about what it’s like to survive a rare, and often misdiagnosed disease.
Hantavirus. Ebola. Covid-19. Some of the most terrible diseases humans face, first infected animals before crossing over into human populations. These diseases are almost impossible to eradicate. As long as an animal population is hosting the disease, it will continue to enter human populations.
This book was written in 2013, and while it doesn’t predict Covid-19 specifically, Quammen certainly posited that a new zoonotic disease would be the next global health crisis. He explains not only how these diseases come about, but what exactly makes them so dangerous.
Have you read any terrifying non-fiction medical horror? Post your recommendations for this list in the comments or on social media. I’m particularly on the lookout for books about two diseases I find especially horrifying: Naegleria Fowleri (brain eating amoeba) and Necrotizing Fasciitis (flesh eating bacteria).
And if you can’t get enough medical non-fiction, check out our list of horrifying medical mistakes.