With a lot of horror movies, the scares are cheap and fleeting. Some might give you bad dreams the night after seeing them, but few have lasting effects (save for any you saw too young). Only one fiction film (actually a franchise) has ever given me sustainable fears, and that’s Final Destination. Accidents worry me, and while those movies highly exaggerate the chain reactions that lead to their deaths, a lot of them at least remind me of more plausible situations.
If you want long-tail fears, you’re more likely to get them from documentaries. Halloween is only one night, but watching a truly scary movie could make the experience last as long as the stash of candy you’ve got leftover or accumulated from trick or treating. Possibly longer. The real world can be a lot more terrifying than anything found in a horror film. Or it’s at least made to seem so through fearmongering propaganda and cautionary true tales. Documentaries can show the worst in humanity with so many films focused on war and genocide, and it can also show the worst in nature with films about weather-related disasters and disease.
The Act of Killing is certainly one of the scariest movies of the year in terms of long-term concern, because while most mass-murder human rights watch docs involve something in the past that people are trying to move forward from, this one is really about something in the present and probably continuing into the future. To know there are men like Anwar Congo in the world is to be afraid for our entire species. It’s more of a reminder that this sort of thing will likely happen again here or elsewhere, unlike the more historical treatments that mean to imply we can learn from wrongs of yesteryear.
Another less talked about movie this year that is very long-term frightening is Gasland 2. How appropriate that one of the scariest nonfiction films in recent years would get a sequel. When it comes to true stories like this, the fact that there’s an ongoing franchise only makes it more terrifying. When we get to Gasland 7, that’s going to be when all hope is lost, right? By that point all our water will be aflame and we’ll all have cancer and Josh Fox will simply be delivering a long eulogy in his serious, soft-spoken narration. Or these films will scare enough people into action so that the series stops with just the two?
Systemic problems are always the most daunting, and those that may affect us personally either now or down the road are very frightening. For me, the scariest movies are the documentaries about the food industry. Most of them are running together in my memory at this point, but any film dealing with the patents on plants and genetic modification and drugs and chemicals and all that worrisome stuff that could be making all food and therefore us irreparably unhealthy. The Future of Food, for example, might be the documentary equivalent of The Exorcist (or whatever the consensus is on scariest horror movie of all time). And to the side of that, films addressing world hunger, eventual food shortage and certain potable water decreases are equally crippling.
Fewer and fewer docs that have long-tail scares wind up attracting a lot of attention and concern the way they did when aired on TV in the ’60s, before people had a lot of viewing choices and films about nuclear war (i.e. The War Game) or environmental issues (Bulldozed America) or food crises (Hunger in America) would catch millions of eyeballs at once. Pop culture rarely latches onto films like they did once in the past decade with An Inconvenient Truth — the long-term fears from which seem to have died down some. Not enough people see stuff like Surviving Progress, Last Call at the Oasis and Countdown to Zero, the last of which horrified me with its acknowledgement of not only possibility for nuclear war but of the accidental close calls we’ve had before and could have again.
Those kinds of films are avoided because we don’t want long-term fear. Or real fear. Or the kind of fear stemming from seemingly hopeless problems, reminders that we’re all just doomed and it’s only a matter of time before the world’s end. But if you really want to be scared tonight, watch one of the films mentioned above. Or, even something historical yet dealing with events that are still horrific after 65–75 years like The Triumph of the Will, Hiroshima — Nagasaki, August 1945 and Night and Fog.
What docs do you find to provide the most lasting scares?
This post was originally posted on October 31, 2013, and is being reposted for Halloween 2014.