By Sam Stashower ’22
Missing children, hidden underground tunnels, Devil-worshiping cults, killers with hooks for hands, an abandoned sanatorium…it’s almost hard to believe that this is real life. The realm between fact and folklore is a tenuous one. This may be a documentary, but by the time the two main documentarians are prowling the sewers armed with nothing but flashlights and cameras, we’ve well entered the realm of horror.
The Cheshire Murders
How do we treat those who have treated others so inhumanely? That’s the question at the heart of this documentary, which is primarily an examination of the foibles and justifications of the death penalty, but one which uses a truly horrific home invasion as a jumping-off point on the issue. On the surface, this is a true crime documentary, but make no mistake, there’s enough horror in this to last for a lifetime, with the most chilling sequence being a taped account by one of the killers describing what they did, as pictures of the long-vacant crime scene flash across the screen.
I don’t want to make this entirely about my own personal experiences with the subject of the documentary, because I don’t want to imply that the only way this documentary works is if you’ve experienced what it’s talking about. But I did suffer from sleep paralysis as a child, though never to the extent that these people did, and as such, this was an oddly cathartic experience for me. It’s gratifying, in a way, having suffered this incredibly isolating experience, and finally knowing that you’re not the only one.
It wouldn’t be much of a list of scary documentaries without at least one entry from the man himself, Werner Herzog. And perhaps the greatest indicator of this documentary’s material is that, for a brief moment, we can see Werner Herzog losing his composure. Let me repeat that – there is something in this documentary that freaks out Werner Herzog.
Libera Nos (Liberami)
This does a great job of demonstrating the real reason that exorcisms are terrifying: there are plenty of people who believe they work. Libera Nos (translates to Deliver Us) is a fly-on-the-wall documentary, as it entirely forgoes the usual trappings of the genre. There’s no voiceover narration, no talking heads to speak of. The camera simply follows Sicilian Franciscan Father Cataldo Migliazzo, watching as he performs his exorcisms without comment. We’re left to our own conclusions as to what he’s really doing, whether he’s accidentally triggering people with mental illnesses into disturbing behavior…or he’s deliberately taking advantage to further his reputation.
I was very young in 2006, and I was far from politically active, or religiously aware. But I was alive, and apparently I was aware enough to really be able to recognize the world Jesus Camp portrayed. This doc really captures the tone of the time, taking an unflinching look at the rise of the angry, authoritarian side of Christianity in the wake of 9/11, and the damage it did to the children at this camp. The film follows the children enrolled at “Christ Triumphant Camp,” and the impact this place had on their psyche.
Beware the Slenderman
I actually have no respect for this documentary, as I think it fails at both its stated goals; as an examination of online urban legend culture, and as a worthwhile study of a true crime case. A documentary made by the internet-illiterate for the internet-illiterate, it all essentially amounts to a bunch of faffing about while the documentarians desperately try to distract you from the fact that there’s no real center to this story.
The Hellstrom Chronicle
‘70s psychedelic imagery used to create the origins of life on Earth is something else to behold, let me tell you. Even more so than Cropsey, this documentary belongs on this list for deliberately appropriating the language and imagery of a horror movie for greater dramatic effect. Often feeling like David Attenborough mixed with David Cronenberg, this movie would serve as a great double-bill with Phase IV.
When I Last Saw Jessie
In November of 2006, Jesse Ross traveled from Kansas City to Chicago for an academic conference. At some point along the way, he disappeared, never to be seen again. This documentary is certainly more sad than scary, and there’s a certain melancholy underscoring the proceedings. But by virtue of being a totally unsolved missing person case, the film almost can’t help but contain a certain creeping dread.
There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane
The most fascinating thing about There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane is how adamantly everyone insists how well they knew Diane Schuler, while simultaneously declaring her to be a “private person,” who never complained about much of anything and tended to slip into the background.
The Killing of America
The Killing of America isn’t a perfect doc – it’s very lacking in the cause and effect of the violence it portrays, for one – but it’s worthwhile at least for how utterly it nukes the insidious “greener grass” lie that some people still have about the past. We all want to return to a simpler time…except that time never existed.
Wisconsin Death Trip
Speaking of horrors from the past…how does one content with a town that seemingly went mad by increments? Narrated by Bilbo Baggins, Wisconsin Death Trip is a dramatic recreation of a series of macabre incidents that took place in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, in the late 1800s. These incidents were made even worse for how apparently inexplicable they were. The film is an exercise in serial escalation, both in its oppressive mood, and in the sheer amount of shit that gets thrown the way of the settlers, from pestilence to accusations of witchcraft. By the end of the film, the amount of child coffins seem to rival the actual living population, just so you know what you’re in for.
The Donner Party
Most of us probably have memories of watching at least one Ken Burns documentary in middle school. I’m guessing none of us had to watch this film, made by his brother, when we were in school. Recounting the fates of the infamous Donner Party, pioneers on the wagon train in the mid-1800s who were trapped by snow, and eventually turned to cannibalism, it’s genuinely shocking how oppressive and terrifying the tone of this film is, despite still fulfilling the requirements of a PBS “educational” documentary.
The Act of Killing/The Look of Silence
These pair of documentaries each take a look at the Indonesian genocide that took place between 1965 and 1966, each from a new perspective; The Look of Silence is about the family members of the people who were killed, while The Act of Killing focuses on the killers themselves, many of whom are still in power. Both films function as stand-alone pieces, though taken together they paint a more complete picture of an atrocity that’s astonishing not just for how awful it was, but for how justifiable it seems to some of the people still in power.