There’s something about documentaries that dare to dabble in the paranormal. Filmmakers take on an impossible task of adding clarity to a topic that would end up, by the conclusion of the investigation, offer more questions than answers. But that’s what makes a good paranormal documentary so irresistible: It shines a light into the darkness and dares you to look.
During the pandemic, streaming services like Netflix and HBO Max doubled down on docu-drama series like Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel to satiate those seeking some escapism in the grim nature of reality. But what about the wealth of documentaries just waiting for you to stumble upon its cover at while scrolling through stream offerings?
Whether they're truth or ultimately docufiction, we gathered 10 must-see paranormal investigation documentaries that you’ll never forget.
The best place to start is Rodney Ascher’s 2015 documentary, The Nightmare. On paper, it doesn’t seem like anything that would be nightmare fuel. Ascher framed the documentary around the subject of sleep paralysis. However, anyone that has experienced the phenomenon knows just how frightening and unexplainable of an experience it can be.
Sleep paralysis is an unconscious abduction, or a situation where people find themselves lucid and unable to move or speak while they are still technically asleep. Ascher and his crew turned to the internet for possible subjects to discuss on camera their experiences. The result is nothing short of baffling, particularly when participants’ experiences begin to connect, depicting a recurring cast of shadow people.
Noroi: The Curse
A notable international cult classic, Noroi is one of two fictional “mockumentary” in this list. The film follows a paranormal researcher named Masafumi Kobayashi investigating odd occurrences taking place in Japan. He goes missing during filming, his entire life erased in the burnt wreckage of his home.
Like The Blair Witch Project, the film begins with a bit of a disclaimer, stating the demise of Kobayashi, before launching into his footage. What makes The Curse feel so uncanny and real is how director Koji Shiraishi masterfully captured the tone of a documentary, right on down to the methodical narrative. Blending fiction with a documentary atmosphere creates a truly unforgettable and unforgiving experience.
Another expert example of that marriage between fictional horror and the methodical documentary lens, Lake Mungo is a film that begins so matter-of-factly and bland, the third act revelations become horrific, nightmare-inducing provocations. The setup involves the drowning of 16-year-old Alice Palmer during a family vacation at a dam in Ararat, Australia.
The family is unable to move past the event, particularly due to the suddenness of her drowning. One minute she was there and fine and the next, gone. After the family begins to experience oddities around their home, Matt, her brother, sets up cameras in hopes of a paranormal investigation. Soon the cameras discover something, evidence that leads to something truly unexpected.
The source of the title, Crospey is a boogeyman of legend that makes its home in New York City. Every locale has its own urban legends, and documentarians Zeman and Brancaccio seek out some solvency to the legend, only to discover an even darker story revolving around a child kidnapper from Staten Island named Andre Rand.
The documentary becomes about five missing children whose stories become so convoluted, that the documentary itself must shift and change as it chases the truth. The use of the urban legend and prevailing mystery surrounding Rand produces a “down the rabbit hole” sort of paranormal investigation, where both documentarians unrelentingly chase, as if possessed themselves.
Wrinkles the Clown
If you’re scared of clowns, this one might be a little too much. The star of this documentary that eschews fact and fiction (believed to be both real and fake by the internet) is Wrinkles the Clown, a downtrodden and somewhat vengeful homeless man dressed as a clown who begins leaving flyers and other grassroots advertisements across Naples, Florida aimed at parents looking to scare their children.
For a meager fee (a couple hundred bucks), Wrinkles will enter clients’ homes with the intent to scare the crap out of their kids. The ominousness of this venture grew tenfold when videos and other information about Wrinkles showed up online, the first of which arrived on YouTube in 2015.
In the video, Wrinkles can be seen crawling out from under a young girl’s bed. It’s outright frightening stuff. The film’s sole focus is to debunk this Wrinkles the Clown as an urban legend but, in doing so, a surprising number of questions arise, blurring the lines between fact and fiction.
There's Something Wrong with Aunt Diane
This one is a little different from the rest on this list. The documentary’s subject in question is one Diane Schuler, the driver responsible for the 2009 Taconic State Parkway crash. For those that are unaware of the accident, it took place at 1:30pm on Sunday, July 26, 2009, on the aforementioned highway. Schuler drove a minivan approximately 1.7 miles in the wrong direction, eventually causing a head-on collision with an oncoming SUV. Eight people died.
The film aims to unearth the root causes of Schuler’s bizarre behavior, including her husband and family that deny the toxicology reports suggesting that she was driving under the influence of both alcohol and THC. This is a story that begins with the facts and becomes increasingly bizarre and paranormal the more one looks.
The Blackout Experiments
Have you ever heard of the “immersive horror experience” called Blackout? To put it simply, the experience is kind of like taking a haunted house, adds in torture porn, blends the two together and forms a tailored experience that targets a guest’s own fears. Blackout is notorious for being over-the-top, the actors and other crew members openly willing and able to touch and torment guests as they wander around horrific locales. The documentary captures the sheer insanity of the experience, including a look at why people subject themselves to extreme fright attractions like Blackout.
Beware the Slenderman
The internet’s favorite and most popular creepypasta, the Slenderman captured the attention of seemingly millions with the help of a healthy dose of internet sleuthers adding their own contributions, including additional stories and ideas that flesh out the character, a videogame called Slender: The Eight Pages, and more. The Slenderman is tall with long legs and a seemingly pale, marred face. Most of the stories about him involve stalking and abducting children.
The documentary investigates the incident that occurred on May 31st, 2014 in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser, both 12 years old, lured their friend Payton Leutner into the woods and stabbed her repeatedly. Their belief was in doing so they would appease the Slenderman and become his surrogates. It’s a harrowing tale of fiction becoming fact becoming paranormal fiction.
Dreams of a Life
This documentary poses a very deep and dark question: What if you died and nobody noticed? Joyce Carol Vincent was found in her home, completely decomposed, years after going missing. Before she died, she made an active attempt to cut off ties with everyone she knew, including resigning from her job.
The authorities found her skeletal remains in her apartment in Wood Green, North London. The remains were surrounded by wrapped Christmas gifts, the television still on. What makes it so odd and borderline paranormal is the question at the top of the paragraph – how could someone simply… disappear?
What better way to round things out than with a memorable documentary anthologizing four known urban legends? Filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Rachel Mills hand selected urban legends and sought out a source and a solution.
There’s the “Hookman,” who many might remember from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, who tries to murder teenage lovers while they are making out in the car in a secluded lover’s lane. “Candyman” investigates the urban legend surrounding the distribution of poisoned candy. “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs” involves one of the more memorable legends, the babysitter getting a call from inside the house. “The Killer Clown” goes right for the source of many a clown phobia.
The documentary is a well-rounded look at the outwardly familiar yet paranormal and goes as far as debunking some childhood fears in the process. It’s about as close to a “happy ending” anyone’s going to get from this list.