Scarier than fiction: 9 genuinely frightening documentaries

A.A. Dowd, Katie Rife, Alex McLevy, Randall Colburn, Patrick Gomez, and William Hughes
·9 min read
Clockwise from left: Beware The Slenderman (Screenshot), The Cheshire Murders (Screenshot), The Nightmare (Screenshot), and Hell House (Screenshot)
Clockwise from left: Beware The Slenderman (Screenshot), The Cheshire Murders (Screenshot), The Nightmare (Screenshot), and Hell House (Screenshot)

As anyone alive right now can attest, real life is often as terrifying as any movie. Leatherface is scary, sure, but can his buzzing (and entirely imaginary) chainsaw really compete with the actual horrors lurking beyond your front door? For those seeking a different and maybe deeper chill than the kind your typical Halloween staple provides, there’s a growing canon of documentaries that prove how much stranger than fiction truth can really be—and how much spookier or more disturbing, too. We’ve cited nine of them here: an unsettling mixture of true-crime chillers, urban-legend examinations, and petrifying history lessons. For the sake of keeping the list manageable (and at least Halloween-adjacent), we left out climate-change docs and political exposés, frightening as both can be. The latter, of course, would be seasonally appropriate in a whole different way, but there are limits, even this time of year, to how much real-world horror you should really beam straight into your living room.

Cropsey (2009)

In many ways an elevated version of a basic-cable paranormal-investigation show—which, to be clear, is a good thing—Cropsey is a quintessential example of the horror documentary. Directors Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman begin by recountng a campfire tale straight out of a slasher film, about a bogeyman named Cropsey who lives in the woods outside of an abandoned mental hospital and snatches any kid who’s foolish enough to go into the forest alone. They then proceed to break down the truth behind the urban legend, a tale of institutional neglect and child abduction that’s almost more disturbing than the myth itself. But although Cropsey is legitimately scary, it’s also an elegiac ode to the filmmakers’ roots on Long Island, portrayed here as a dumping ground for all of New York’s castoffs, be they plastic bottles or children with disabilities. [Katie Rife]

The Cheshire Murders (2013)

The Cheshire Murders operates foremost as a commentary on the death penalty, raising questions about where the intersection between justice, vengeance, and practicality lies when society passes ultimate judgment on one of its members. But to tackle such a weighty subject, the filmmakers were forced to seek out and explore a crime so heinous to the average person, and so offensive to the public sense of safety, that it could evoke Old Testament urges in even the most moderate of hearts. They found it in a 2007 home invasion in Cheshire, Connecticut, a night-long nightmare that ended with a mother and her two children dead, untold lives ruined, and two defendants facing the unleashed wrath of a community. Bluntly unsensational in its approach, The Cheshire Murders horrifies instead through its quiet presentation of facts—the detached recitation of not just the awful, haunting things that happened in the Petit family home in the early morning hours of July 23, 2007, but also of the lives that led these two men to do the things they did. As a reminder of the banal, self-perpetuating nature of evil, it’s far more draining than any number of fictitious films on a similar theme. [William Hughes]

The Nightmare (2015)

The most terrifying parts of Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare aren’t the eight interviews with subjects who suffer from the condition known as sleep paralysis, which leaves the body frozen in a hallucinatory state between waking and sleep. It’s not even the reenactments of the private hell each of these people go through on a nightly basis, featuring visuals of shadowy figures with glowing red eyes hovering over their motionless victims’ bedsides. It’s the fact, casually mentioned by one interviewee, that sleep paralysis can be triggered simply by someone telling you about it. It’s like a character in a horror movie turning to the screen and saying, “Oh, by the way, the monster is real, and it’s in your house,” and it’s mind-bogglingly unsettling. [Katie Rife]

Hell House (2001)

Although the breadth and extremity of its “the wages of sin is death” message are ultimately quite horrific, in the pantheon of horror documentaries, Hell House is more of a horror-comedy. George Ratliff’s film follows the conception, construction, and execution of a Texas “hell house”: a church haunted house whose blend of pious moralism and bloody mayhem reveals much about the American evangelical mindset. The movie plays with this contrast, to sometimes humorous ends: One shot lingers on a “pentagram” drawn by sheltered Christian teens that’s actually a Star of David. But it never loses sight of the insidious stereotypes and repressed desires at play in the “scenes,” as when the camera lingers on the face of a church leader dumped for another man during a grisly tableau of an unfaithful wife being murdered. [Katie Rife]

There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane (2011)

True-crime documentaries often derive their horror from the gruesome details of the acts described therein, but There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane is scary because it’s so difficult to pin down. The incident under examination is a 2009 car crash where a minivan speeding down a New York state highway inexplicably began driving on the wrong side of the road, resulting in a head-on collision that killed eight people, including four children. The driver, Diane Schuler, is described as a “supermom” by those who knew her, but her blood was later found to contain high levels of both alcohol and THC at the time of her death. If that would seem to explain the crash, it doesn’t—revelations of Diane’s secret substance abuse are only the beginning in this haunting blend of real-life identity thriller and medical mystery directed by I’ll Be Gone In The Dark’s Liz Garbus. [Katie Rife]

The Donner Party (1992)

While opinions vary on the effectiveness of Ken Burns’ stodgy, public-television-ready approach to documentary, most would probably agree that you’d have a hard time repurposing it as a recipe for scares… unless, perhaps, the target audience was people afraid of old, faded photographs. Yet Ken’s brother, Ric, actually did manage to wring a fair amount of unease from his older sibling’s shopworn techniques in his own PBS film: a recounting of the infamous horrors faced by the Donner Party, which turned to cannibalism during an ill-fated trek through the Sierra Nevada in the winter of 1846. The story itself is chilling enough that just about any faithful retelling would raise a few hairs; one diary entry, soberly read aloud, describes a child sobbing next to the half-consumed body of her mother. But the sense of impending doom is somehow only enhanced by Burns’ dry presentation—that usual mix of narration, archival materials, and B-roll nature photography, which in this case includes some sweeping, melancholy footage of the mountains that recalls the opening scenes of The Shining. Maybe it’s that we’re seeing the real haunted faces of the victims and hearing their real words. To paraphrase a famous, fictional horror story: This is no dream. This really happened. [A.A. Dowd]

Wisconsin Death Trip (1999)

Published in 1973, Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip utilizes vintage photographs from Charles Van Schaick to vividly recount a number of bizarre and tragic incidents that rocked the small town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin in the late 1800s. James Marsh’s 1999 film also relies on Van Schaick’s morbid photos, intercutting them with re-creations as late English actor Ian Holm coldly tells us of lovelorn suicides, decapitations, religious mania, and dead children. (So many dead children, each rung by flowers inside tiny coffins.) If the onslaught of slow, painful death and pestilence doesn’t have you hiding under your blanket, maybe the visions of witches and Norwegian superstitions will do it. Apparently, bringing a rooster out on a boat will help you find the body of your drowned loved one. It’d be funny if it weren’t so sad. [Randall Colburn]

Beware The Slenderman (2016)

HBO’s Beware The Slenderman covers a few different topics over the course of its two-hour running time: folklore, the juvenile justice system, mental health, and the cultural dangers of our current “post-truth” society. But there’s a through-line to this disquieting documentary: the horrifying true story of two 12-year-old girls who brought their friend out into the woods and stabbed her repeatedly as an offering to a monster created by the internet. That’s plenty haunting in its own right, but the film provides plenty of evidence as to why the myth of the spindly, faceless mythological Slenderman is so compellingly unsettling. Beware The Slenderman offers a bevy of grainy footage and DIY video storytelling from fans of the mythos, and there are enough long, solitary walks in nighttime forests and distant glimpses of a tall, menacing being to keep you up all night, every night, maybe for the rest of your life. [Alex McLevy]

Dreams Of A Life (2011)

Joyce Carol Vincent, 38, was found dead in her London flat in 2006. The details of her death were unsettling and mysterious: She’d been dead for three years; she was found with the TV on, surrounded by wrapped Christmas presents; and the cause of death was undeterminable because her body had decomposed to the point that it was “melting into the carpet.” As in the best scripted thrillers, director Carol Morley peppers in the unsettling details of the case amid the more mundane aspects of Vincent’s life. She relies on interviews with old colleagues, boyfriends, and classmates—as well as reenactments—to provide a fuller picture. Sometimes the two storytelling devices meld, to chilling effect: Joyce (portrayed in the reenactments by Zawe Ashton) alone in her living room watching her past retold on the television as time creeps toward her final moments. There’s no resolution, no answers or explanations, in Dreams Of A Life. There’s no terrifying bogeyman either, except maybe there is? Whatever happened to Vincent could presumably happen to you—and if it did, as the tagline asks, “Would anyone miss you?” [Patrick Gomez]