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These films depict nonfiction nightmares, imaginary and real

A scene from "The Nightmare."Documentary+

Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction. Sometimes it’s scarier, too, as a series of creepy nonfiction films on the free streaming platform Documentary+ demonstrates. Here are a couple that gave me a chill.

Most nightmares let you wake up, shake the terror off, and go on with your life. But some, as in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise, don’t leave it at that. They enter the waking world, or what seems like the waking world, because you’re still asleep and dreaming and the horrible visions your unconscious has summoned pursue you into your bedroom, into your bed, and you can’t flee or fight or move and can’t make a sound as hard as you try to scream for help.


Doctors call this “sleep paralysis.” In “The Nightmare” (2015) directed by Rodney Ascher, maker of “Room 237″ (2012) and “A Glitch in the Matrix” (2021), eight people relate their experiences with the disorder. Ascher’s use of reenactments and clips from movies such as “Communion” (1989), “Insidious” (1990), and “Jacob’s Ladder” (2010) don’t add much to the accounts, which are scary enough.

Many of the incidents involve “shadow " people, black silhouette figures that emerge from a closet or through a bedroom door to torment the sleeper. They look like portals into nothing. Red-eyed, “Mothman” like entities also plague the victims, one of which hovers over a sleeper and says “You know who I am. You don’t know now but you will.” The victim can’t move until a scream snaps him out of it. It’s from the woman he is in bed with, who woke up to see a giant cat with red eyes sitting on his chest.

What can be done? A woman who felt she was being consumed by pure evil prays to Jesus. It works — the phenomenon never happens again and she has since become a Christian. But a man who had these nightmares since he was a child says prayer doesn’t help. He found that if he left a TV on during the night it helped. But the effect wore out and he added more and more TVs until he had a wall of them and then he gave up. With resignation he waits for the dream from which he will not awaken.


A scene from "Cropsey."Documentary+

Like the dreams in “The Nightmare,” urban legends have a nasty habit of becoming real. When Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio, the directors of the twisty, suspenseful, and horrifying “Cropsey” (2009), grew up on Staten Island they heard tales about the title boogeyman, who murdered children. Neighborhood kids would explore the borough’s many abandoned buildings — a prime location was the long abandoned, spooky Willowbrook State School for the mentally disabled — in search of Cropsey and to scare one another.

But it turns out that Cropsey was real. Children on Staten Island had been disappearing. A lot of them and for a long time — from 1972 to 1987. Only one body was ever recovered.

So Zeman and Brancaccio return to the scenes of their childhood to investigate. They enter one of the pitch-dark, decrepit buildings on the Willowbrook site and are spooked by a bunch of kids hanging out there. They study old TV news reports and other archival material and learn about the chief suspect, Andre Rand, a former orderly from Willowbrook. He certainly looks the part, dazed and drooling as he goes through his perp walk for the cameras. Without any material evidence and based only on shaky eyewitness testimony he is convicted of kidnapping two of the missing children.


Interviewing residents and law enforcement officials today, the filmmakers hear speculation about Rand and his crimes. Some say he was the leader of a satanic cult that sacrificed children to the devil. Others venture into conspiracy theories reminiscent of QAnon about how Rand was a scapegoat covering up for people in powerful positions who engaged in pedophilia, necrophilia, and child trafficking.

Zeman and Brancaccio contact Rand, who is still in prison. He sends them increasingly outlandish letters debunking the evidence used against him in the trial, but when they agree to meet he blows them off and gives them a runaround.

Much of “Cropsey” is disturbing and frustrating, but the most grotesque scenes are from a 1972 TV news story by a youthful Geraldo Rivera. It is a report on Willowbrook, housing at the time hundreds of juveniles with mental disabilities. They are jammed into a filthy ward, naked, starving, and sleeping in their own waste.

It is a nightmare.

“The Nightmare” and “Cropsey” can be streamed on Documentary+ and other streaming platforms including Amazon Prime, Apple TV, and Roku, Go to

Peter Keough can be reached at