It’s that time of year again. The month of screaming and terror is upon us, and we are all looking for our fix of horror. Now you may be getting your dose of movies and TV shows. That is understandable. Who doesn’t love a good slasher or a thrilling story about the supernatural? However, fictional horror only gets you so far. After a while it starts to lose its edge; there is no serial killer in a hockey mask coming at you, there are no ghosts hiding in the corners of your house, there is no bogeyman under your bed. As soon as you turn off the TV, those movie monsters disappear.
But what about the real monsters?
After all, nothing is scarier than the things that happen in real life. Many beloved horror media are even based on real events or people. So add some of these documentaries to your Halloween watch list this year and remember that real life will always be scarier than the movies.
Killer Legends (2014)
We start with a documentary that tries to extract facts from fiction. Killer Legends is a documentary written and directed by Joshua Zeman (cropsey, The murder season). Him and researcher Rachel Mills investigate a range of urban legends, including killer clowns and Candyman. Their research takes them across the United States to find the origins of the legends and the historical basis for them. Zeman and Mills do an excellent job of connecting true crime and myth in a way that is fascinating and more than a little chilling. This is a great documentary for anyone into urban legends, or anyone who might want to learn something without straying too far from the fiction of a good horror movie.
admitted, blackfish is a bit of a controversial documentary. It revolves around Tilikum, an orca at SeaWorld San Diego who has been involved in countless injuries and deaths, and takes a very strong stance against captive killer whales. The film discusses the mistreatment of marine mammals, especially killer whales in SeaWorld parks, and how it contributes to aggressive behavior towards humans and other animals. Based on comparisons of wild and captive orcas, testimonials from former trainers (including John Hargroveauthor of Beneath the Surface: Orcas, SeaWorld and the Truth Beyond Blackfish), and interviews from professionals such as Nonhuman Rights Project Director of Science Lori Marino, blackfish tells a story about the abuse of animals that are socially and emotionally intelligent. Of course, SeaWorld has refuted many of the claims made in the film, highlighting that their practices have changed since then, but it’s worth watching the documentary and judge for yourself.
Joshua Zeman returns to this list as the writer and director of cropsey, a documentary about a New York City legend of the same name. Together with Barbara BrancaccioZeman goes in search of the roots of the legend and makes a point about oral traditions that keep these legends alive, while also connecting the legend to the story of André Rand, a convicted kidnapper. The film makes many interesting connections between legend and reality and the way we create and use legends as tools, and the cinematography and narration keep the tone of the documentary perfectly eerie. This is another great choice for a viewer who might want to mix a bit of fiction with their facts.
Method of a Serial Killer (2018)
True crime fans will find Method of a serial killer particularly compelling. The documentary traces the life and crimes of Israel Keyes, a serial killer known for at least three murders in 2011 and 2012, as well as numerous other crimes since 1996. Through a number of interviews with police and professionals and recreations of interrogations and other scenes, the film explains how Keyes so lasted a long time without being caught and how he was eventually arrested. Full of facts and details about horrific murders and the horrific man who committed them, Method of a serial killer will make you think about the danger that is often right in front of us and that we are blind to.
dr. Death: The Undoctored Story (2021)
Going under the knife for surgery is always a little scary, but dr. Death: The Undoctored Story shows how scary it can be when a surgeon is not bound by the Hippocratic Oath. The four-episode series chronicles the horrific malpractice of Christopher Duntsch, a former neurosurgeon who killed two patients and mutilated many more. The series uses interviews from staff, patients and family to walk through Duntsch’s time as a surgeon and the negative impact he had on the lives of those around him. If the documentary isn’t enough for you, there’s also a miniseries with the simple title dr. Dead telling the story (albeit in a less informative, more dramatic way.)
Meltdown: Three Mile Island (2022)
Meltdown: Three Miles Island is a four-part miniseries that chronicles the partial collapse of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania on March 28, 1979. Nuclear power professionals, plant workers, and local residents recount and explain the event and the impact it had — and continues to have — on the region , from environmental to epidemiological. The Three Miles Island incident is the worst nuclear incident in United States history, and this documentary is pretty good at explaining the devastation the event caused. It’s meant to make you think about the price of progress and how to cut corners to save time and money, even at the cost of lives.
The nightmare (2015)
A documentary with all the feelings of a horror movie, The nightmare take a look at the
phenomenon of sleep paralysis. It interviews people who suffer from sleep paralysis and recreates their experiences with actors, focusing in particular on visions of shadow men and other hallucinations common with sleep paralysis. While the documentary can get a little repetitive at times, it doesn’t take away the discomfort left by imagining what it would be like not being able to move or speak while seeing a shadowy figure above you.
The act of killing (2012)
The act of killing gives a glimpse into the minds of the perpetrators of the Indonesian communist purge of 1965 and 1966, in particular Anwar Congo, a death squad leader. Director Joshua Oppenheimer asks Anwar to tell him about experiences during that time, and Anwar and his friends recreate their memories through movie scenes. As the film progresses, Anwar ends up playing a victim in a recreation and can no longer bear his actions, and Oppenheimer takes the opportunity to remind him that this is how his victims felt; the only difference is that Anwar was able to stop production and his victims couldn’t. The documentary is incredible in every sense of the word and provides insight into the motives of mass murderers. It will leave you in horror not only for the past, but also the present and the future as you consider the consequences of the massacre and all the others that have happened and are still happening.