Top 10 Creepiest Documentaries
VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton
WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
The creepiest documentaries are stranger than fiction. For this, we're looking at documentaries tackling unsettling subject matter in disturbing ways. Our countdown includes "Jesus Camp," "The Act of Killing," "The Family I Had," and more!
Script written by Caitlin Johnson
Top 10 Creepiest Documentaries
These films will make your skin crawl. Welcome to WatchMojo and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the Top 10 Creepiest Documentaries.
For this, we’re looking at documentaries tackling unsettling subject matter in disturbing ways. However, don’t expect to see any multi-part docuseries, because we’ve decided to save those for another day.
#10: “The Imposter” (2012)
In 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared in Texas. Three years later, a man claiming to be Nicholas came forward, but this man wasn’t Nicholas at all: he was Frédéric Bourdin, a French con artist. “The Imposter” explains how Bourdin was able to get away with it for so long, despite being significantly older than Nicholas and not looking anything like him. It’s incredibly disturbing how Bourdin inserted himself into the Barclay family and tricked them into accepting him. Most remarkable of all, however, is that director Bart Layton conducted interviews with Bourdin himself, which makes the case even more complex as he somehow manages to come across as sympathetic.
#9: “Cropsey” (2009)
A pair of filmmakers who grew up on Staten Island decided to take a closer look at the New York version of the boogeyman, Cropsey, to get to the bottom of local children who disappeared in the 1980s. Andre Rand was arrested under suspicions of kidnapping and even killing the missing kids, and his – and the island’s – disturbing history is uncovered throughout filming. From the letters Rand sends the documentarians claiming his innocence; to investigating the tunnels underneath the condemned Willowbrook State School for the mentally handicapped; and finally theories about devil worshippers, “Cropsey” is sure to send a chill down your spine.
#8: “The Bridge” (2006)
The Golden Gate Bridge may be one of America’s most iconic landmarks, and the image that comes to mind when you think of the city of San Francisco, but for many, its looming presence is a symbol of tragedy. The bridge is a common spot for suicides, with dozens of attempted jumpers reported each year. This documentary takes a closer look at some of these incidents, but it certainly isn’t easy viewing. Over the course of filming in 2004, 23 suicides were caught on the crew’s cameras. It remains controversial, with reports of bridge jumpers increasing after the documentary was released, and in 2015 it was even removed from Netflix in New Zealand.
#7: “Holy Hell” (2016)
While searching for a new home and a new purpose in the 1980s, film grad Will Allen fell in with the Buddhafield new religious movement – a cult based in West Hollywood at the time. Allen became the group’s documentarian and lived with them for 22 years, finally leaving in 2007. He became inspired to make a movie, and used all the footage he had of his time with the Buddhafield cult and its leader, Michel, to create “Holy Hell”. This direct look at the inner workings of a cult is both rare and creepy, made all the more unsettling by the fact the cult continues to this day, now based in Hawaii.
#6: “The Family I Had” (2017)
In February 2007, Charity Lee’s world was shattered when police told her that her 4-year-old daughter Ella had been murdered by her 13-year-old son Paris. Originally intended to examine juvenile criminals in the US, the documentary quickly shifted to focus on this personal tragedy. It follows Charity as she grapples with the reality of her son having killed her daughter, as she mourns Ella’s loss but refuses to abandon Paris, still visiting him in prison. It’s difficult to know what to make of this uncomfortable watch, as the film leans into the fact that with true crime, there are no easy answers.
#5: “Titicut Follies” (1967)
One of the most disturbing films ever made, “Titicut Follies” was banned for over 20 years upon release. Shot in black and white with no narration, it’s a raw exposé of the injustices America’s mentally ill faced in the 1960s. Specifically centered on the Bridgewater State Hospital in Massachusetts, the film shows the gross mistreatment of the inmates - all people in need of real care who were dehumanized and abused by those tasked with looking after them. Despite being banned, the film was able to draw attention to these issues, though it still took decades for s to begin.
#4: “Jesus Camp” (2006)
This look at a summer camp for one branch of evangelical Christians has been disturbing viewers around the world since its initial release. Seen by many as a damning portrayal of allegedly abusive practices at camps like the featured Kids on Fire School of Ministry, it played a role in getting the camp shut down; the camp pastor Becky Fischer was forced to close the retreat due to backlash. But it’s arguably a credit to the directors that you can’t necessarily tell where their own sympathies lie while watching this movie. It’s down to the viewer to decide what’s right and what’s wrong.
#3: “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father” (2008)
A harrowing watch, “Dear Zachary” follows Kurt Kuenne as he makes a movie about Andrew Bagby, his lifelong friend who was allegedly murdered by his ex, Shirley Jane Turner. Turner revealed shortly after Andrew’s death that she was pregnant with their child, but police had a difficult time pinning the murder on her. The movie is intended as an archive of Andrew, a widely loved person by all accounts, for his son Zachary. But the project became more complex the longer it went on, and by the time it was finished, it had become a fully-fledged documentary. An examination of loss and grief, “Dear Zachary” is as poignant as it is upsetting.
#2: “The Act of Killing” (2012)
With subject matter this heavy, “The Act of Killing” was always going to be a tough watch. In Indonesia, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer interviews former executioners who took part in the Indonesian mass killings of 1965 to 1966. They re-enact the killings in a variety of genres, including westerns and musicals, while Oppenheimer asks them both about their artistic choices in the portrayals and about the events themselves. The “fun” re-enactments juxtaposed with the horrific topics they portray is extremely disturbing. It’s not hard to see why this documentary remains so controversial.
Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few Honorable Mentions:
“Wisconsin Death Trip” (1999)
A Midwestern Town Seemed to Collectively Go Insane
“The Killing of America” (1982)
The Interviews with Killers Will Turn Your Stomach
“Room 237” (2013)
These Stanley Kubrick Fans Take Their Love of Movies to the Extreme
“Team Foxcatcher” (2016)
It’s Hard to Watch as Billionaire John du Pont Slowly Loses His Mind
“Mommy Dead and Dearest” (2017)
What Could Push Someone to Murder Their Own Mother?
#1: “Abducted in Plain Sight” (2017)
Jan Broberg’s story is particularly disturbing. When she was just an adolescent in the 1970s, one of the Broberg family’s neighbors, Robert Berchtold, befriended Jan’s parents and inserted himself into their lives. Twice, Berchtold abducted Jan, including taking her to Mexico when she was 12. His manipulation knew no bounds; even after Jan was brought home the first time, her parents still allowed Berchtold to be around her, even letting him sleep in her bed. By far, the strangest detail is the recordings Berchtold made of aliens to further increase his influence on Jan. Thankfully, Jan and her family survived the long ordeal.