It’s that time of year again. The month of screams and scares is upon us, and we’re all looking to get our fix of horror. Now, you might be getting your dose from movies and TV shows. That’s understandable. Who doesn’t love a good slasher, or a suspenseful tale of the supernatural? However, fictional horror can only get you so far. After a while, it starts to lose its edge; there’s no serial killer in a hockey mask coming for you, there aren’t ghosts hiding in the corners of your house, there’s not a boogeyman under your bed. Once you turn the TV off, those movie monsters go away.
But what about the real monsters?
After all, nothing is scarier than things that happen in real life. Plenty of beloved horror media is even based on real events or people. So, this year, add a few of these documentaries into your Halloween watch list, and remember that real life will always be scarier than the movies.
Killer Legends (2014)
We’ll start it off with a documentary that tries to find fact out of fiction. Killer Legends is a documentary written and directed by Joshua Zeman (Cropsey, The Killing Season). He and researcher Rachel Mills investigate a series of urban legends, including killer clowns and Candyman. Their research takes them all over the United States to find the origin 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 spine-chilling. This is a great documentary for anyone who enjoys urban legends, or anyone who is maybe looking to learn something without straying too far from the fiction of a good horror movie.
Admittedly, Blackfish is a bit of a controversial documentary. It centers around Tilikum, an orca at SeaWorld San Diego that has been involved in numerous injuries and deaths, and takes a very firm stance against the captivity of orcas. The film discusses the mistreatment of marine mammals, particularly orcas at SeaWorld parks, and how it contributes to aggressive behavior towards humans and other animals. Relying on comparisons of wild and captive orcas, testimonials from former trainers (including John Hargrove, author of Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish), and interviews from professionals such as Nonhuman Rights Project Director of Science Lori Marino, Blackfish tells a story of abuse towards animals that are socially and emotionally intelligent. Of course, SeaWorld has refuted many of the claims in the film, and insisted that their practices have since changed, but it’s worth checking the documentary out and judging for yourself.
Joshua Zeman returns to this list as the writer and director of Cropsey, a documentary focusing on a New York City legend of the same name. Along with Barbara Brancaccio, Zeman sets out to discover the roots of the legend and make a point about oral traditions that keep these legends alive, while also tying the legend into the story of Andre Rand, a convicted kidnapper. The film makes a lot of 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 creepy throughout. This is another great choice for a viewer that might want a bit of fiction mixed in with their facts.
Method of a Serial Killer (2018)
True-crime fans will find Method of a Serial Killer particularly compelling. The documentary outlines the life and crimes of Israel Keyes, a serial killer known for at least three murders throughout 2011 and 2012, as well as numerous other crimes from 1996 onward. Through a number of interviews with police and professionals and recreations of interrogations and other scenes, the film explains how Keyes went so long without being caught and how he was eventually arrested. Full of facts and details about grisly murders and the awful man that commited them, Method of a Serial Killer will make you think about the danger that is often right in front of us that we’re blind to.
Dr. Death: The Undoctored Story (2021)
Going under the knife for a surgery is always a little scary, but Dr. Death: The Undoctored Story shows you just how scary it can be when a surgeon isn’t bound to the Hippocratic Oath. The four episode series outlines the horrific malpractice of Christopher Duntsch, a former neurosurgeon that killed two patients and maimed 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 the people around him. If the documentary isn’t enough for you, there’s also a miniseries simply titled Dr. Death that tells the story (albeit in a less informational, more dramatic way.)
Meltdown: Three Mile Island (2022)
Meltdown: Three Miles Island is a four part miniseries that recounts the partial meltdown of Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear reactor on March 28, 1979. Nuclear power professionals, plant employees, and locals 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 does a pretty good job at explaining the devastation the event caused. It aims to make you think about the price of progress and the way corners can be cut to save time and money, even at the cost of lives.
The Nightmare (2015)
A documentary with all of the feelings of a horror movie, The Nightmare takes a look at the
phenomenon of sleep paralysis. It interviews people who suffer with sleep paralysis and re-creates their experiences with actors, particularly focusing on visions of shadow men and other hallucinations that are common in sleep paralysis. While the documentary can get a bit repetitive at times, it doesn’t take away from the unease it leaves you with as you imagine what it would feel like to be unable to move or speak as you see a shadowy figure over you.
The Act of Killing (2012)
The Act of Killing provides a look into the mind of the perpetrators of the Indonesian Communist Purge of 1965 and 1966, particularly Anwar Congo, a death squad leader. Director Joshua Oppenheimer asks Anwar to tell him of experiences during the time, and Anwar and his friends recreate their memories through film scenes. As the film progresses, Anwar must eventually play a victim in a recreation and can no longer stomach his actions, and Oppenheimer takes the opportunity to remind him that this is how his victims felt; the only difference is that Anwar could stop the production, and his victims could not. The documentary is incredible in every sense of the word, and provides insight into the motives of mass murderers. It will leave you not only in horror of the past, but also in the present and future as you consider the repercussions of the massacre and all the others that have happened and continue to happen.