Here's the thing about the documentary The Imposter: It may well be the scariest non-scary movie you've ever seen. It's not a supernatural horror story or a creepy slasher fic or even exactly a psychological thriller, although it will get inside your head. It's the real-life story of a boy who went missing — and the grown-man who pretended to be him. You've heard of con artists before swindling people out of their money, but what happened here is somehow even more sinister. Because The Imposter shows you how a then-23-year-old Frédéric Bourdin pretended to be a 16-year-old Nicholas Barclay, despite looking nothing like him, and how Nicholas' family improbably accepted him as their own.

Who was Nicholas Barclay?

nicholas barclay missing

Nicholas Patrick Barclay is the name of an American boy who disappeared from San Antonio, Texas at the age of 13. Born on New Year's Eve in 1980, Nicky was not yet 14 when he went missing in June of 1994. He'd been playing basketball with friends when he called his house to have his mom pick him up. According to Nicky's older brother, who answered the phone, their mom was asleep — and the young teen was on his own when it came to finding his way home. But the 13-year-old never made it.

Though Nicky was a sweet looking blond, blue-eyed boy — and little at only 4'8 and 80 pounds according to his listing on The Charley Project — he'd been in trouble before and even had three tattoos. He'd had domestic disputes with his family, truancy issues at school, and had been in trouble for stealing. He even had a court hearing scheduled for June 14, the day after he went missing, where there was a chance he was going to be removed from his family and placed in a group home. So when he didn't come home right away, nobody was too worried yet. After all, he'd run away before, though never for longer than a day.

But Nicky never came home after that. Three months later, in September of 1994, his older brother thought he saw him. He told the police that he thought he saw Nicky trying to break into the family's garage, but when he realized someone had seen him, he fled again. Not everyone bought the story, and the missing teenager wasn't heard from again. Until his family got a call that an unidentified kid they thought was Nicholas Barclay was at a youth shelter in Spain.

Who was the boy claiming to be the missing Nicholas Barclay?

'the imposter' true story

From the beginning, the documentary admits that the "Nicholas Barclay" in Spain is not really Nicholas Barclay. After all, the title of the film is The Imposter, which gives a lot away. But the boy, now a man, tells his story to the camera all the same. He was staying at a youth shelter in Linares, Spain, and the administration there wanted him to prove that he was a teenager so that they could let him stay. In a desperate bid to not be kicked out, he did a little research, finding missing persons online, and pretended to be a lost American teen — and not just any lost American teen, but one who'd been missing for three years.

When the appropriate authorities contacted the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Virginia and then Nicky's family, they agreed to try and identify him, and the missing teen's sister flew to Spain. Carey Barclay landed and talked to the boy, with whom she shared family photos. But the problem was the boy didn't look or seem anything like a should've-been 16-year-old blond from Texas. Instead, he had dark eyes, a tanned complexion, and spoke with a European accent. He claimed that he'd been part of a child sex ring that had chemically and permanently altered his appearance so he couldn't be identified, forced him to listen to tapes that changed his accent, and made him forget much of hist past life. Somehow, the story worked, authorities positively identified the boy as Nicky, and Carey brought him home to her family.

The Barclay family accepted the fake Nicholas as their own, and even brought him home to live in their house. After all, the real Nicky would still be a minor, too young to live on his own. Everything that seemed off about the fake Nicholas, he explained as a result of his traumatizing experience. And though he seemed to have fooled the family, he couldn't keep the ruse up forever. Five months after he moved in, a private investigator determined that the Nicholas living there could not be the Barclays' Nicky, and after it had been six months, the FBI got involved. Not only was the boy not Nicky, he was Frédéric Bourdin, a known con man.

Who was Frédéric Bourdin?

frédéric bourdin

Before The Imposter came out in 2012, Frédéric was profiled by The New Yorker in 2008. The article named him "The Chameleon," drawing on a nickname he'd chosen for himself and even had tattooed on his body: "caméléon nantais," French for "chameleon from Nantes," the area where he'd grown up. In the article, the he told the magazine that he'd been impersonating abandoned and orphaned children for years before he even turned 18. But Nicholas Barclay was the first real identity he assumed instead of just making one up.

He ended up impersonating Nicky by chance. Frédéric had been the one to call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. He posed as an employee of the shelter and said he thought they had an American teen there and then gave his own description. The center suggested that the description sounded like that of Nicky, faxed over a black-and-white missing person poster, and the con-man said yep, this must be him. But when he finally got his hands on a color picture of Nicky, and not just a fax, he realized he was in trouble — so he bleached his hair, got a friend to give him Nicky's amateur tattoo, and came up with the crazy story.

Once he was caught and forced to admit who he was, the con man insisted he wasn't the only one lying. He claimed that it was obvious from the beginning that he wasn't Nicky — and that the Barclay family must have known. He insisted that they'd essentially fed him information, like showing him the family photos in Spain, so that he could believably pass as Nicky. After all, if the family thought it was their missing teen, who would question it? Despite this, he was found guilty of passport fraud and perjury in a federal court and served a six years sentence. But there were still questions left unanswered.

Why would the Barclays accept the imposter?

It's possible that the family really did believe that it was Nicky because they wanted so badly for him to come home. It's also possible that they simply wanted to believe that it was Nicky, and having someone who was pretending to be him was better than not having him at all. After all, the missing person case had long gone cold and they didn't have any other leads to pursue, so they couldn't keep looking for the real teen anyway. But Frédéric, along with the private investigator who discovered him, had another theory: the Barclays had killed the real Nicky, and that by letting Frédéric impersonate him, it meant nobody would ever look into his death. The private investigator even started looking for Nicholas Barclay's body, digging in areas where he thought the teen may have been buried.

So what was the truth? Through the documentary, the con man, the private investigator, and family members alike tell their side of the story through personal interviews. Dramatic reenactments of their tales bring the rest of the film to life so audiences can follow along, but the heart of the story lies in the real people involved and what they have to say. The family claims they were unfairly and immorally deceived and that Frédéric preyed on their hopelessness. The Frenchman claims that they were hiding even darker secrets of their own — and that once he realized that, he found himself in danger with them. Who can you believe?

The true crime enthusiast in us who picked this movie to watch wants to buy into the conspiracy theories, leaning into Frédéric's story that he became afraid of the family, that they had to have known he wasn't who he said he was. But then again, "The Chameleon" is a con man — and he went on to con again, pretending to be more abandoned and orphaned boys, after he was released from prison and returned to Europe. So do we believe the family that accepted into their home a stranger who looked and acted nothing like their son? Or do we believe the con man, a known liar who lives off tricks and deceits? In this film, it's hard to believe the family's story because it's so implausible. It's hard to believe the con man's story because he's, well, a con man. But what makes it so difficult is that watching the documentary, it's also way too easy to believe whoever is currently on-screen.