One day, I think POV should host a Halloween party in which everyone comes as their favorite documentary character or filmmaker. (I think I’d go as R. Crumb.) Until then, let’s celebrate Halloween by considering how the documentary and horror genres overlap.

Hell House is the first doc that comes to mind; it’s about these preventative horror attractions that Christians create in the hopes of scaring the sin out of kids. It’s a good one.

Poster for Cropsey film

And this year, my friend Barbara Brancaccio put out Cropsey, an eerie journey into an urban legend that she and her co-director Josh Zeman grew up hearing. It’s part serial killer story, part ghost story. It’s still playing in a few cities (see their website for more information), or you’ll be able to catch it on DVD soon.

Barbara has gone on quite a ride, showing her film to audiences at festivals. She told me that the film has a lot of different audiences, but that from the beginning, the horror and true crime crowd embraced the film. She and Zeman were inspired by Joe Berlinger‘s and Bruce Sinofsky‘s Paradise Lost and Brother’s Keeper, Andrew Jarecki‘s Capturing the Friedmans and Errol MorrisThin Blue Line. She says that Stephen King was also a guide to “crafting Cropsey‘s camp-fire style narrative.”

I asked her if there have been any disturbing or creepy responses to the film, and this is what she said: “Definitely. We’ve gotten emails from people who knew [convicted killer] Andre Rand and have anecdotes about him, as well as family members of other missing persons who think Rand may have been involved in their loved one’s disappearance. We’ve even gotten a few anonymous emails telling us to ‘check deeper into the devil worshippers.'”

Most horror related docs are either about the making of a horror movie, like Amityville Horror and the more funny-than-scary (and quite good) American Movie; or about murder, like Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer or the fantastic Paradise Lost movies. But more than anything, when most people think about horror and documentary, they probably think of the faux-documentaries, the ones that pretend to be docs but are actually entirely fictional, such as The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. Both films made tens of millions at the box office, tapping what’s best about documentary — the authentic, the real, the immediate. Or, to use a more appropriate phrase, they sucked the life out of the documentary form.

Happy Halloween!

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen