The Up Series (1964-present): Horror films tend to prey on unrealistic fears; chances are you’re not going to be killed in your dreams or felled by a hatchet or tortured by rich psychos in Eastern Europe. You’re more likely to lead a thoroughly unspectacular life, watching your dreams and idealism dissolve into boring practicality and either settling down way too early or wandering aimlessly as punishment for not settling down. Watch Michael Apted’s beloved doc series—which has been visiting the same group of U.K.-ers every seven years since they were seven—and behold as life, for most participants, becomes increasingly ordinary. Now that’s scary.
The War Game (1965): There’s a whole genre of films that exploit atomic fears. But what’s scary about Peter Watkins’ notorious, Oscar-winning fake doc isn’t the actual nuclear strike that hits London. (Though it was graphic enough to get it banned back home.) It’s the aftermath, when the government that isn’t prepared fails to protect the survivors, setting humanity up for a greater crisis. By the way, Ron Paul is right and we should totally dissolve FEMA.
The Rapture (1990): [Spoiler] The Christian fundies were right! There is a god, and he’s a dick.
Almost any documentary by Adam Curtis: If there’s an overriding message to the dizzying, epic BBC docs of Adam Curtis—particularly The Century of the Self, The Trap, It Felt Like a Kiss and All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace—it’s this: any attempt to improve society will have unexpected negative repurcussions later down the line. The hippies who practiced experimental psychotherapy to unleash their true potential? They became the greedy narcissists of the ’80s. The expose of Watergate? It made everyone as paranoid as Richard Nixon. These films, with their brilliant kaleidoscope of clips and music, make an unfortunately convincing argument for miserable nihilism.
I.O.U.S.A. (2008): A not-very-well-made doc that revealed the national debt was insurmountable—in spring of 2008.
Contagion (2011): Not even Gwyneth Paltrow survives the trailer of Steven Soderbergh’s $50 million pandemic movie, which looks like the movie Outbreak. But with its happy ending, it was too chicken to be: The scariest movie ever.