There’s just something so uncanny about a good mockumentary. Though they are often a cross between found footage and even autofiction, mockumentaries are more than satire or thriller. They act as a bridge between extremes, often using realism to deliver its message. Among the most popular mockumentaries are also breakthrough found footage films like The Blair Witch Project that helped popularize the subgenre; others delve into thriller territory like Cloverfield. And then there are the ones that use it to make us vulnerable to some of the most conditioned and oft-used devices, Paranormal Activity. Whatever it may be, mockumentaries act as shapeshifters of genre and reality, scaring us by thinning out the fourth wall and often outright breaking it.
Let’s take a look at some of the best horror mockumentaries of the recent past.
This 2022 Shudder original is the directorial debut of Vanessa and Joseph Winter and continues in that “small budget” or even “no budget” lineage of the aforementioned Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. In the film, viewers are introduced to a YouTuber named Shawn, who has been seemingly canceled for some of his controversial videos.
Instead of self-examination, Shawn seeks out a way to regain his following by going and spending a night at “Death Manor,” a haunted locale infamous for multiple homicides. He plans on filming it all, and in true dark comedic fashion, he is unreliable, bumbling, and kind of despicable, which is perfect for when things really go south and get crazy. This one was a nice surprise when it landed on the streaming service last year.
Lake Mungo (2008)
It couldn’t be a list without this one. Lake Mungo is a prime example of the mockumentary utilized to really unsettle viewers through a stripped-down, simple documentary style, an emphasis on pacing and atmosphere, and most of all, confidence in really selling the “fact or fiction” suspension of disbelief.
In Lake Mungo, teenager Alice Palmer drowns while on vacation with her family. The film is set up around how her brother Mathew begins seeing her ghost around the house, so he sets cameras up and investigates. Lake Mungo does a great job of constantly switching things up. Viewers expect one thing to happen when suddenly something completely different shifts the narrative into even darker territory. It remains a cult favorite for a reason; Lake Mungo is terrifying.
Speaking of terrifying, the original Creep ranks up there for amazing work in both low-budget improvisation and acting. Starring Mark Duplass as the subject of the mockumentary at the center of the film, Creep is effectively a descent into the mind of a psychopath. The setup is simple and believable, a struggling videographer accepts the assignment of filming Josef, who says he has a brain tumor and is dying.
The film is aimed to be a video diary for his child, who won’t be born until after his death. Of course, Josef’s behavior systematically devolves into truly disturbing stuff, the kind of thing that makes you second guess trusting anybody. It’s a movie aimed to unsettle, and feels disturbingly like a home video just waiting for a random viewer to find it—and watch.
Unfriended: Dark Web (2018)
Technically a sequel to Unfriended, Dark Web involves an entirely different cast yet continues along with its “screen life” subgenre roots, every single moment of the film being set on the screen of a character’s laptop. What makes it perhaps a bit more interesting is how Unfriended: Dark Web explores the unmitigated and often anomalous side of the internet as hinted in the subtitle, the dark web.
After one of the characters swipes a laptop that has been in the lost and found of a cyber cafe for weeks, he and his friends discover that the owner is part of a mysterious group called The River, where people pay to have people tortured and killed. It’s internet nightmare fuel for sure and does what many mockumentary and fourth-wall-breaking narratives do: They use human psychology to make one hyperaware of what they cannot control.
What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
Time for a laugh. What We Do in the Shadows is now an extremely popular series with its latest season recently out, but it got its actual start with an entirely different cast of actors in a standalone dark comedy horror mockumentary. Using the same masterful tone and eye for comedy, viewers are introduced to a bunch of vampire roommates living in a flat, struggling with typical issues like house cleaning, and trying to find fresh victims.
The film has since become the subject of so many hilarious memes, and its characters, from Vladislaw the Poker to Viago, become well-known and endearing characters in their own right. What We Do in the Shadows uses both horror tropes and the mockumentary style to prove that it doesn’t always have to involve breaking the fourth wall to scare or disturb; it can be used to bend reality for the sake of a good laugh.
The Blackwell Ghost (2017)
Like a lot of people that talk about The Blackwell Ghost on the internet, I don’t really know where it came from and who the director/writer is. Its elusiveness may be the reason it got so much attention upon discovery because, in the short hour-long mockumentary, viewers go on a surprisingly creepy journey of a zombie film director seeking out possible proof of a house being haunted. The scares are well done and never heavy-handed.
The director himself comes off as endearing and self-deprecating, which adds to the entire investigation. Though I can’t speak for the many sequels to The Blackwell Ghost, the first one stands as a great example of the mockumentary and how when done well, subtly, and with good writing, you don’t really need anything but a single camera to make something effective.
Back when [REC] was originally making the rounds in 2007, the found footage subgenre was still on its first couple of breaths, new and fascinating to most audiences. The film was so infamous that it went on to have three sequels, which may be the reason it isn’t discussed as much nowadays. Fans got a little burned out, the subtlety of the original was watered down and stretched thin by so many sequels. The original is still a great example of the horror mockumentary.
This time it’s a news reporter and her crew tagging along with some firefighters in hopes of capturing video footage for a report. Of course, the disturbance ends up being a different kind of fire altogether: zombies. The claustrophobic nature of the film to the way the zombies are portrayed stand the test of time and are still extremely grotesque and effective. [REC] is one of those films that should be talked about in modern 2023 as much as it was a few decades ago.