There’s nothing like the thrill that comes from watching a scary movie. And if you consider yourself a horror fan, chances are you find yourself returning to the genre again and again whenever you’re looking for a little excitement in your life. That’s because thrillers give us a no-strings-attached adrenaline rush: a consequence-free way to examine the darker side of life. But when it comes to frightening documentaries, those rules cease to apply.
These nonfiction tales aren’t just scary — they’re also real. Whether they’re true crime stories that force us to examine disturbing parts of the human psyche, or supernatural stories that question the more unexplained elements of the world, scary documentaries take cinematic thrills to a whole different level. Here are five unnerving documentaries that will truly test your love of scary stories.
1. The Nightmare
Sleep paralysis is a well-documented medical condition with no known cure. It’s also a terrifying phenomenon for those who are unfortunate enough to have it. Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare makes their reality ours with his electrifying documentary. The film puts the spotlight on eight people who suffer from sleep paralysis, giving them a chance to speak openly about the horrors they’ve suffered throughout their lives. But Ascher doesn’t just let them tell us what it’s like — he gives us a chance to experience it ourselves by recreating their most frightening hallucinations. Shadowy figures, static-filled alien shapes, and demonic voices all come to life much as they would in a fictional horror movie. But in The Nightmare, the images are real — at least to those who see them in their dreams.
2. My Amityville Horror
Most scary movie nuts are familiar with the real-life story at the center of The Amityville Horror. But it’s still easy to forget that there were actual people who once allegedly experienced the hellish events brought to life in the 1979 horror classic. My Amityville Horror gives a voice to one of the survivors, Daniel Lutz. As a child, he not only inhabited the infamous New York home with his family. He lived through the ensuing fallout when his parents’ story of supernatural possession became an international sensation. In My Amityville Horror, Lutz speaks candidly about his experience in the Dutch Colonial house that, and the psychological impact of what he witnessed there. And hearing the stories come from a man who’s clearly still haunted by his childhood makes a once-familiar story feel new — and all too disturbing — all over again.
3. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills
In the opening sequence of Paradise Lost, we see aerial footage of a seemingly safe, rural community. But within moments, any notion of safety is shattered by devastating footage; the corpses of three young boys. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s HBO documentary chronicles the arrests and subsequent convictions of three teenagers, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Miskelley, who have since come to be known as the West Memphis Three. And in doing so, it exposes gross negligence and a disturbing amount of corruption within one Arkansas community’s criminal justice system. The deaths at the heart of Paradise Lost are almost too grim to bear; but so is the fact that the system set up to give their families justice failed so miserably.
When you’re a child, it’s easy to believe in the boogeyman. But as you grow older, you learn that there are some people that are even scarier than the monsters you brought to life with your imagination. Joshua Zehman and Barbara Brancaccio hoped to get to the bottom of a long-unsolved child disappearance when they began filming the documentary, but their research led them down a much more gruesome path. The result of their efforts is Cropsey, a chilling and personal documentary that weaves a childhood urban legend from New York into the real-life story of suspected child killer Andre Rand. It shows how sometimes our deepest fears can manifest in ways we don’t expect — and stay with us long into adulthood.
5. Titicut Follies
Titicut Follies isn’t about murder, or death, or even potentially supernatural events. But it’s still likely to be one of the most frightening documentaries you ever see, because it exposes an alarming capacity for humanity to turn ugly. It chronicles the treatment — more often mistreatment — of residents at the Bridgewater State Hospital over the course of 29 days in the late 1960s. Director Frederick Wiseman was unflinching in his portrayal of the guards and medical professionals on staff, from the way they harassed the patients and inmates to their lack of expertise when it came to giving them proper care. The result is a haunting portrait of what can happen when the wrong people are left in charge of those who need help the most.
Follow Katherine Webb on Twitter @prufrox.
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