Sure, movie ghosts and masked-slashers are scary, but if you want real, uncut horror you have to go to the source: Real life. These 10 documentaries would be scary enough as fiction, but the fact that they’re real is terrifying.
The Nightmare (2015)
In 2015’s The Nightmare, director Rodney Ascher digs deeply into sleep paralysis, interviewing people whose nights are filled with a terror way worse than bad dreams. By recreating these nighttime episodes using horror movie techniques, Ascher makes the horror visceral and unnerving.
A couple of particularly scary details from The Nightmare: People with sleep paralysis often have similar visions of “shadow people,” similar enough that some dream-beings, like The Hat Man, are seen in the dreams of people who have never met. Also, some people start experiencing sleep paralysis only after they hear about it, suggesting it could be contagious in some way. Don’t blame me if you watch this and the shadow people visit. I warned you.
Wild Wild Country (2018)
In Netflix’s documentary series Wild Wild Country, a religious group/cult moves onto a sprawling ranch outside a small town in Oregon. Townies meet leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his Orange People with suspicion and scorn, and the ranch goes from a free-love and long-hair hippie utopia to a heavily armed encampment where empty-eyed zealots go on a poisoning spree and conspire to commit murder. The growing dread is masterfully built up over the course of its six episode run, and the interviews with present day cult members are fascinating.
The Act of Killing (2013)
Director Joshua Oppenheimer’s audacious documentary examines the nature of political evil by inviting Indonesian mass murderers to cinematically recreate their crimes against humanity. More than 40 years have passed since up to a million communists were executed, so the killers and thugs of The Act of Killing fear no reprisals, and are remarkably candid about their crimes. They seem to revel in filming their real murders like an action movie. But even all these years later, it’s chillingly clear in the faces of their innocent countrymen that no one has forgotten what they are capable of.
Tickled starts like a “look at these colourful weirdos” wacky documentary about the online “sport” of Competitive Endurance Tickling, but it inexorably descends into darker and darker corners of the internet and the human psyche, with the filmmakers themselves targeted by a shadowy, vindictive tickling kingpin. The tickling iceberg is huge, and the below-the-surface aspects of it are a disturbing chronicle of sexual exploitation and madness.
Cropsey tells the true story of a series of child disappearances and murders in the early 1980s on Staten Island that gave rise to countless suburban legends. The crimes were tailored made for a campfire tale: They were pinned on Andre Rand, who supposedly lived in the tunnels underneath the ruins of the abandoned Willowbrook State School on Staten Island where he had once been employed. That’s a scary enough story, but the added layer that Rand, (who is still alive and imprisoned) may not be guilty, adds another kind of terror.
Gimme Shelter (1969)
This vérité chronicle of the Rolling Stones’ tragic Altamont Free Concert unfolds like a horror movie. From the beginning, we know it ends in drug-fuelled violence, murder, and the death of hippie idealism, but watching every bad decision that led to the eventual near-riot ratchets up the dread and foreboding to horror-movie levels. Like the best fright flicks, you’ll want to scream at the screen as concert organisers and musicians alike make mistake after mistake. (“How about you don’t pay the Hells Angels in beer to do security!?”)
A Certain Kind of Death (2003)
Death is the root of most cinematic horror, and this quiet, fly-on-the-wall documentary about people who die with no one to claim their bodies shows why. With the cultural rituals of funerals and headstones stripped away, the stark reality, banality, and inevitably of death is driven right into your brain. The fate of the remains of these solitary individuals is left to the state, which first tries to determine their identities and find someone to claim them, and, failing that, buries their bodies in a mass grave, their passing unmourned and their memories honoured by no one. Talk about horror.
Let the Fire Burn (2013)
This archival-footage documentary plays like an edge-of-your-seat horror thriller. Through news footage and deposition videos, the story unfolds in slow detail as a radical political community stands off against the Philadelphia police department. Tensions gradually escalate until they lead to a conflagration that burns down three square blocks of the city and causes 11 deaths. Let the Fire Burn offers no easy answers — no one is blameless and no one is heroic — instead, we’re left with an unsettling view of the length authorities will go to if they’re pushed hard enough.
Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness (2021)
This true-crime documentary series tells one of two terrifying tales. If its subject, writer and researcher Maury Terry, was correct, the Son of Sam murders weren’t committed by a lone postal worker acting out some unfathomable personal psychodrama, but instead committed by an organised cabal of devil worshippers who have never faced justice.
If Terry was wrong (and it seems to me that he was), it’s the story of a brilliant, talented journalist so obsessed by a farfetched theory that he throws away his entire life trying to prove it. Either way, it’s a fascinating and scary docu-series.
Dr. Death: The Undoctored Story (2021)
This documentary plays on a question we all ask as we’re going under anthesis for surgery: “What if this surgeon doesn’t know what he’s doing?”
Dr Death’s subject, Dr. Christopher Duntsch, did not know what he was doing. At all. The spine surgeon’s incompetence was matched only by his arrogance as he botched procedure after procedure, leaving a trail of paralysed and dead patients in his wake, seemingly unaware of the horror and pain he was inflicting on his patients and their loved ones.