Everyone likes to watch stuff that freaks them out around Halloween—but what about films that aren’t of the slasher, torture porn or supernatural ilk? There are plenty of movies that cannot be rightly classified as “horror,” yet are still so damn scary you should watch them this time of year, anyway. After all, fear creeps up in unexpected places. Monsters and deranged serial killers don’t have a monopoly on terror; a crowded subway can be scary, or the looming threat of another polar vortex. Loss, grief, and oppression are scary.
READ MORE: The 13 Best New Indie Horror Movies to Watch at Home on Halloween
We’ve compiled a list of titles currently available on Netflix that are respectively haunting, nightmare-inducing, or just plain distressing—but without jump scares, mountains of gore, or psychos stalking babysitters.
“Jesus Camp” (2006, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing)
Single-minded religious fervor and a devotion to conservative Christian values are not assets that typically spring up without a little coaching. This fascinating documentary spotlights an evangelical Christian summer camp for children in North Dakota, where such values are not only learned, but drummed into youthful brains. Following an Academy Award nomination, the film was met with controversy that led to the camp’s closure. It follows several kids as they listen to harrowing lectures about the evils of Harry Potter and engage in group prayer. During these collective sessions, children weep desperately as God “touches” them—but arguably, they are too young to understand the religion’s hefty demands, and are crying mostly because the frantic hysteria of the worship is all too much for their tender age.
“Blue Valentine” (2010, Derek Cianfrance)
“Blue Valentine” follows the marriage of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams); the time frame shifting between the early, happier days of their courtship, and the bitter disbanding of their marriage a few years later. This is one of bleakest depictions of romance ever put on screen, as Dean and Cindy’s relationship quickly becomes apparently, utterly hopeless. Both characters start out a bit glum, but they end up pretty damn miserable, oppressed by dull routines and disappointingly non-blissful matrimony. These two love each other in different ways (possibly one of them loves the other more), and they each expected different things from their life together. It might be impossible to fix their bond, because neither person is sure of where or why it all went wrong. Falling out of love is something no one can control.
“All is Lost” (2013, J.C. Chandor)
Robert Redford is the only actor to appear in this film, and there is no real dialogue to speak of, but it’s nonetheless completely gripping. He plays an unnamed man alone in the Indian Ocean, lost at sea after his sailboat’s navigational gear is damaged from a collision with a floating shipping container. Redford is forced to contend with not one, but two tropical storms, terrifying forces of nature that flood and rip his vessel apart. He carries the film bravely, wordlessly conveying every hint of despair, hope and defeat as waves crash over him again and again—and yet he refuses to go down with the ship. The narrative slowly, methodically takes us through every moment of his lonely journey—it’s as though we’re right there with him.
“Melancholia” (2011, Lars von Trier)
Every one of von Trier’s films is deeply troubling in its own right, but this one is especially dismal. It follows two sisters (played by Kristen Dunst as Justine and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Claire) facing the threat of a rogue planet on a collision course with earth. Justine is a depressive who doesn’t think the end of the world is necessarily a bad thing. Clare, who has a young son, is much more distraught. “Melancholia” is frightening both as a metaphor for depression (morose Justine expects the worst, so she remains calm in the face of sheer disaster), and for its lack of traditional apocalyptic plot points. There are no television news updates, riots in the streets, or nuclear missiles sent to destroy the planet. There is only Wagner’s music from “Tristan and Isolde” bellowing as the end of the human race draws nigh and there is nowhere to run or hide.
“Boys Don’t Cry” (1999, Kimberly Peirce)
Based on the tragic real-life story of Brandon Teena, a Nebraskan trans man is raped and murdered after his friends discover him to be anatomically female. Hilary Swank gave a no holds barred, tour de force performance as Brandon. The fantastic cast also includes Chloë Sevigny as Lana, who falls in love with Brandon, and Peter Sarsgaard as John, Brandon’s buddy and eventual murderer. Sarsgaard imbues the sociopath with a charm that makes it easy to see why Brandon would like him, which becomes all the more disturbing when John eventually turns violent. The film draws you into lazy small-town life, an insular world filled with days spent drinking beer and nights weighing cabbage at the local factory. Brandon, born a woman but feeling like a man on the inside, fools his friends into believing he is like them—until they find out he’s not. His demise is both graphic and heart-wrenching. Vivacious and innocent, Brandon had big dreams and a deep love for Lana—but small towns are not kind to those who stand out, and what people don’t understand, they fear.
“Food, Inc.” (2008, Robert Kenner)
America’s food industry is ruled by powerful corporations who aspire only to grow more food, faster and cheaper. This chilling documentary illustrates how little such corporations actually care about what they put into our food, or the harmful effects certain ingredients may have on a consumer’s health and on the environment. Much of the food Americans purchase makes them sick (look at instances of E. coli or salmonella); Food, Inc. suggests we all could feel much better and have more energy, if only increasingly wholesome dietary options were offered. This doc came at the forefront of our country’s trend toward eating organic. You’ll never be able to grocery shop the same way.
“The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover” (1989, Peter Greenaway)
This lavish and darkly comedic film stars Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon as husband and wife. Gambon is the title’s “thief,” a brutish, vulgar bully who eats dinner every night in a fancy London restaurant, where he terrorizes all those he comes in contact with. Mirren is his long-suffering wife, whom he abuses both physically and emotionally. Inside the restaurant, she meets a kind patron and begins a love affair—but when her husband finds out, things get nasty. The film takes place largely on one set; the camera panning back and forth in long tracking shots from the restaurant’s kitchen, to its banquet hall, to the bathroom where Mirren disappears with her lover. Each room has a different, exquisite color tone, and the characters’ clothing changes color as they move from room to room. Repulsive scenes of savagery include a fork stabbed into someone’s cheek, death by suffocation via book pages crammed down a throat and cannibalism. The film is both unrelenting and difficult to stomach—but a beautiful meditation on the horrors of tyranny.
“Heavenly Creatures” (1994, Peter Jackson)
Before he was the epic “Lord of the Rings” patriarch, Jackson made some some freaky low-budget flicks. This one, based on the true story of a New Zealand murder case in the 1950s, launched the careers of young Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey. Winslet and Lynskey play teenage girls who form an obsessive and borderline-romantic friendship, disappearing together into imaginary worlds of their own creation and gradually losing touch with reality. As the intensity of their bond strengthens, they conspire and carry out the murder of one of their mothers, whom they see as an obstacle keeping them apart. The film is especially topical in light of the recent “Slender Man” stabbing in Wisconsin: two eighth-grade girls stabbed their classmate in the woods nineteen times. Apparently, they believed such an act of violence would get them into the good graces of a fictional horror character from the Internet.
“Blackfish” (2013, Gabriela Cowperthwaite)
This revealing documentary details the controversy surrounding killer whales held captive at SeaWorld, specifically focusing on an orca known as Tilikum, who was involved in the deaths of three people. With exposé-style revelations, it sheds light on the shockingly callous treatment of these highly intelligent creatures, suggesting the inhumane living and working conditions the animals endure is directly responsible for their aggressive behavior. Orcas have injured SeaWorld staff on multiple occasions, but according to poignant testaments from former trainers, they are essentially driven mad by captivity. It seems probable the flashy performances so many spectators enjoy, with orcas doing jumps and flips and tossing their trainers playfully in the water, mask brewing dangers. After the documentary aired, SeaWorld suffered huge profit losses, though they deny this came as a result of the film.
“The Invisible War” (2012, Kirby Dick)
According to Defense Department statistics, more than 20 percent of women in the U.S. military have reported a sexual assault; but the department estimates that about 80 percent of such assaults are not reported. Most people don’t realize the breadth of the sexual assault epidemic running rampant through the military, but those victims interviewed for “The Invisible War” prove just how prevalent these instances of rape are. In a line of work that necessitates toughness and a certain amount of “sucking it up,” soldiers are encouraged to follow orders; in many of these instances, a commanding officer is the perpetrator, and the victims are afraid to report him. Many assault claims have been ignored or dismissed, rarely leading to punishment or any legal action. Here, those women whose lives have been shattered in the line of duty give testimony.
“Alice” (1988, Jan Švankmajer)
This surreal Czech adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” combines live action with stop motion animation, and though it’s technically a children’s story, it’s also liable to terrify kids. Instead of interpreting Alice as a fairy tale, Švankmajer treats it more like a dream—or rather, a nightmare. Alice falls down not a rabbit hole, but a creaky elevator shaft; the signature white rabbit is a taxidermied bunny who comes to life, and the Queen’s ordered executions are carried out by the rabbit with a pair of scissors. The film highlights the undercurrent darkness and strangeness of Carroll’s original work. After all, Wonderland is full of self-proclaimed “mad” characters, who speak and deal only in utter nonsense, and are never particularly welcoming or helpful to Alice. Wonderland is much murkier and weirder than Narnia or Hogwarts ever were.
“Frances Ha” (2013, Noah Baumbach)
This one is a bit more light-hearted. Baumbach’s Frances, played by likably blundering Greta Gerwig, is a 20-something Vassar graduate living in New York City and struggling to find a job. She’s an artistic type (a dancer, specifically), and everyone knows job opportunities in the arts are slim. Frances tries to maintain a relationship with her best friend Sophie, who ditches their shared apartment and moves to Japan with her serious boyfriend for work (he has a grown-up job). Sophie seems to be leaving Frances behind. This film captures the quintessential millennial anxiety: because of the bad economy, it seems no college graduate can get hired or easily support themself, and will be left floundering, unsure of what to do or who to be. It’s plenty scary, if you’re a 20-something, have an arts degree, or need to make a living in an expensive city and don’t fancy retreating to your parent’s basement.
“Antichrist” (2009, Lars von Trier)
Another von Trier delight, this one stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as parents whose young son falls to his death from a window whilst they are making love. Wracked with guilt and grief, the couple retreats to a cabin in the woods, where they respond to the tragedy with increasingly unbalanced behavior. Both Dafoe and Gainsbourg give intimate, unflinching performances. He begins hallucinating, meeting a talking fox in the woods, while she starts to exhibit sadistic and violent sexual deviancy (genital mutilation comes up several times). Antichrist explores the deep trenches of sorrow—and the ways in which grief can literally drive a person insane.