After watching enough horror, fans begin to recognize how films commonly reflect collective anxieties, many of which were originally told through urban legends or seen in real-life events like true crime cases. Sometimes these stories creep in as subtly as serial killer Ed Gein’s influence on Leatherface, and other times we are greeted with the opening line “Based on the true story” as seen in THE CONJURING (2013). Whether the original stories are true or not, the fact of their continued existence proves that someone, somewhere was frightened by the idea that it could potentially happen. This then becomes perfect fuel for villains, monsters, settings, or situations seen in horror movies.
With Halloween just around the corner, I wanted to share some documentaries that highlight some of those “true” stories that freak us out (or at least freak me out) and pair them with a feature film that takes them one step further into dramatization. Of course, with any list of films, there are many I could have included in this article, but for now I will stick with a few that jumped out to me at first watch.
- THE NIGHTMARE (2015) & DEAD AWAKE (2016)
One of the most unsettling documentaries out there, THE NIGHTMARE explores sleep paralysis, a state between wakefulness and sleep that often causes horrific hallucinations, feelings of dread, and, if that’s not bad enough, renders you unable to move, speak, or…scream. Inspired by director Rodney Ascher’s (ROOM 237, A GLITCH IN THE MATRIX) own experiences, the documentary focuses on first person accounts of sleep paralysis and includes devastatingly frightening reenactments that make your bed feel like a very dangerous place to be at night. What pushes these accounts over the edge for me are the hallucinations seen during sleep paralysis and, even more so, how many of them are shared among experiencers. This causes us to question the origin of these hallucinations and whether or not it’s all in our heads.
If you’re brave enough to dig deeper into the horrors of sleep paralysis, check out DEAD AWAKE, directed by Phillip Guzman and starring Jocelin Donahue (HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2). The film follows Kate Bowman, a social worker investigating a series of deaths seemingly linked by the experience of sleep paralysis. Although by no means a masterpiece, DEAD AWAKE leans heavily into the paranormal associations with sleep paralysis and, because of that, is a fun watch for anyone interested in the topic.
Watch THE NIGHTMARE on Tubi
Watch DEAD AWAKE on Tubi
2. HELLIER (2017) & THE DESCENT (2005)
With beautiful cinematography and an eerie theme to set the mood, HELLIER does not feel like your typical paranormal investigation series. Directed by Karl Pfeiffer, it follows executive producers and “professional weirdos” Greg and Dana Newkirk along with other paranormal researchers, Connor Randall and Tyler Strand, as they search for answers after receiving a mysterious email. The team lands in Hellier, Kentucky and soon uncovers a chain of synchronicities that lead down some of the weirdest and most surprising rabbit holes I’ve ever seen in a paranormal series. From hobgoblins and alien abductions to EYES WIDE SHUT-level conspiracies, HELLIER manages to fit together seemingly unrelated phenomena into one bizarre and deeply unsettling puzzle. It’s a slow burn for sure, but the extreme weird-factor and unusual stream of coincidences keep the series highly compelling.
With the Mammoth Cave system as one of the most disturbing pieces of the HELLIER puzzle, THE DESCENT seems like an appropriate pairing here. Directed by Neil Marshall (HELLBOY, TALES OF HALLOWEEN), this British horror film follows six women’s spelunking adventure near North Carolina. As HELLIER teaches us, entering an Appalachian cave system can only lead to problems, and in the case of THE DESCENT, it is a humanoid creature, or crawler, the group must survive. Like HELLIER, this film really highlights the terror of what stirs below the surface and out of sight until accidentally uncovered.
Watch HELLIER on YouTube
Watch THE DESCENT on Tubi
3. POLYBIUS: THE GAME THAT DOESN’T EXIST (2017) & SEQUENCE BREAK (2017)
Urban legends surrounding video games, or technology of any kind, tap into a different kind of fear of the unknown than what we see in HELLIER and THE DESCENT. POLYBIUS: THE GAME THAT DOESN’T EXIST delves into one of those urban legends — an arcade game that mysteriously appeared and then disappeared in Portland, Oregon back in the 1980’s. The documentary traces the origins of Polybius and describes the lore surrounding the game, including its supposed link to a government-run psychological experiment, visits from the men in black, subliminal messaging, and its psychoactive and addictive effects on anyone who dared to play. Ultimately, the goal of the documentary is to uncover the truth about Polybius, and well, as it pretty much gives away in the title, you learn some truth. But even if Polybius leans more fiction than fact, the concept of a video game that entrances its players through mind control is still pretty terrifying.
If the idea of mysterious arcade games freaks you out, then check out SEQUENCE BREAK (2017) directed by Graham Skipper. Chase Williamson (JOHN DIES AT THE END) stars as Oz, a reclusive arcade game technician who finds, and quickly becomes engrossed in, a new game that randomly appears in his shop. Although the plot wavers at times, the colorful effects and unique body-tech horror brings the film to a dramatic climax. The geometric graphics of the game in SEQUENCE BREAK also look extremely similar to the description of Polybius’s graphics, drawing a clear connection between the film and urban legend.
Watch POLYBIUS: THE GAME THAT DOESN’T EXIST on YouTube
SEQUENCE BREAK on Shudder
4. THE FEAR IS REAL: REINVESTIGATING THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT (2009) & THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT (2009)
Of course a list of creepy documentaries would not be complete without a ghost story. THE FEAR IS REAL: REINVESTIGATING THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT revisits the Snedecker family’s paranormal experiences while living in a Southington, Connecticut house. After finding mortician’s tools in the basement of their new home, the Snedeckers learn their house once functioned as a funeral parlor — which sounds like the start of a horror movie in itself. This short documentary shares details of the haunting they experienced, beginning with their son’s visions of ghosts and ending with an exorcism performed with the help of Ed and Lorraine Warren. We also learn about the controversy associated with the haunting, stirred further with the debut of the film based on their experience, THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT.
For those interested in a dramatized version of the Snedecker’s story, then THE HAUNTING OF CONNECTICUT makes the most sense. THE FEAR IS REAL pulls scenes straight from this movie, overlaying them with narration of the events straight from the family, so the film seems to portray many of the haunting in detail. Directed by Peter Cornwell, this film produces lots of jump scares, creepy kids, spiritualism, and dead bodies pouring out of walls — a great Halloween watch.
Watch THE FEAR IS REAL: REINVESTIGATING THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT on YouTube
Watch THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT on YouTube
Whether you consider yourself a believer or a skeptic, these documentaries and accompanying feature films offer the opportunity for our minds to fill in the ambiguities ourselves. Through them, we can explore the what-ifs these stories bring to mind, and asking those questions, especially at this time of year, is a fun game to play.