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Ken Burns has just released a new documentary series on the Vietnam War that currently has a 96 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, despite several right-leaning reviews that call into question whether Burns’s documentary is pro-war enough.

I very much plan on watching the new series, just as soon as I find a nice 18-hour hole in my schedule. With three kids young kids and a backlog of Drug-King-Pin-Themed Netflix series to to get through first, I’m not exactly sure when that will be. But while I can’t be sure exactly when I’ll be watching the new series, I do know how I’ll be watching it. Or rather, how I won’t be watching it.

I will not be watching this documentary series while I am home alone. I’m too scared.

Allow me to explain.

I, like many other people, would never, under any circumstances, watch Stephen King’s IT while home alone. This is a pretty uncontroversial position. The same holds true for The Ring and Paperhouse. These are all universally accepted as terrifying movies that should never be watched alone. Even if you were a brawny 45 year-old man with a Tom Selleck mustache—who spent decades as a criminal psychologist delving into the depths of actual human horror—if you told a friend you needed someone to come over to watch IT with you, they’d be like, “Oh yeah, I get it.”

What about other horror films? It depends on the person. For me, the list of films I refuse to watch while home alone is rather expansive. It includes any film that has one or more of the following attributes:

  • People making abnormal jerking movements
  • People unexpectedly turning to look directly at another character (or the viewer), either through a window or video camera
  • Sounds (but no visuals) of children laughing, talking, or cavorting in any way
  • When you cannot see, but are able to hear, someone talking, who sounds like a pirate or who speaks in something resembling old English.

This is one of those incomplete and growing lists, but you get the gist..

So far, so good. Many of you may think refusing to watch Shaun of The Dead while home alone is a bit much, but it’s not totally insane. Levity or not, at some point a zombie may pop up and start meandering around the screen in a completely uncanny manner – and the end result will be me suffering from a kind of Post Uncanny Stress Disorder. If we’ve learned nothing else over the last few years of increased social awareness, I hope we’ve at least learned that people’s fear of zombies should not be trivialized.

Where I start to lose folks is when I mention that I also refuse to watch historical documentaries when I’m alone.

What in the world could make a historical documentary on a topic like the National Park System scary?

The answer is pretty simple: old photographs.

Old photographs are creepy. You can literally take anything, and I mean, anything, and make it creepy if you present it as an old photograph. For example, consider this modern photo of a young child dressed as Piglet.

This picture is the most adorable thing you’ve ever seen, right? It’s literally the least creepy thing anyone has ever photographed.

Now consider the “man dressed as pig” presented in an old-timey photo:





(wait for it)







I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you will never be able to “unsee” that image.

Want another example? Check out this one of five sisters sitting on a porch swing and being pushed by dad. It’s adorable, right?

Now check out a similar photo circa 1920.


And sure, I’ll admit I’ve been stacking the deck here a bit, by pulling photos returned from a “creepy old photographs” search on Google. It isn’t like I’m pulling stock footage from Ken Burns’ wonderful/eerie documentary The National Parks.

So let’s consider some “old national park photos” shall we?

Take this photo, which is exactly the sort of photo you’d tend to find in a Ken Burns film:

This is STILL SUPER CREEPY and brings to mind a thousand creep-inducing questions: Who are those two guys? Why are they trying to chop down the world’s largest tree? What else do they use those axes for? Why the matching mustaches?

Here’s another one:

OK, this one is also SUPER DUPER CREEPY. First of all, what is it with old timers and gigantic trees? Apparently if you were visiting national parks anytime before 1940 you were likely doing it to chop down one of those gigantic trees.

Also, why does that lady seem so miserable? Is she a captive of these two men and are they forcing her to cook and clean up their camp site while they spend their days on opposite ends of the world’s largest hand-saw? That ladder looks rickety AF, too. You’d think with access to so much wood they could afford a nicer wooden ladder. These people are not to be trusted.

And what gives? Even in this non-tree picture, trees are overrepresented:

OK, fine. I’ll give these people a pass on the outdoor setting. I suspect that most homes of the period didn’t provide adequate indoor lighting.

But was no one born before 1940 ever happy? Or do we only ever recover the “OK, everyone give us your tough-guy faces!” versions of family portraits?

Still not convinced of the inherent creepiness of every old photograph ever taken? Here’s a picture of a little girl sitting on a log in a forest:

Honestly, I could not have dreamed up a creepier image in my wildest dreams. Why are there only hollows where her eyes should be? What is that ridiculous tiny shovel she has in her hand? And what the hell did she do to all those trees?!

Here’s a fun one I found of some “ice skaters” in Yosemite:

Actually, not fun at all. These folks do not look like they are enjoying themselves. They look like a bunch of white walkers just waiting for the ice to freeze over enough so they can come grab us.

Even when we find photos that don’t have some obviously creepy feature—like this lovely photo of a mom cooing over her baby as they sit on the edge of oblivion—there is still one fact that presses on my existential fears more than any other: These people are most likely definitely dead.

They existed, and now they don’t. And yet here they are in this photo. Does anyone know that baby’s name? He/she presumably had one, and now, like his/her entire being, that name has been devoured into the black hole we call “the past.”

People are scared of ghosts, but what is more ghost-like than eerie old photographs of folks dating back to the 1800s? An old sepia toned photo is no less the impression of some departed soul than if that same soul had wrapped itself in a sheet and gone around haunting the foreclosed house in your neighborhood.

Now, Jesse, you might be thinking. Ken Burns’s current film is about Vietnam. That War happened in the 1960s. The photos will all be more recent than this wonderful black and white photo of Don Knotts!

I had considered that point. I was actually all set to make an exception for this latest Burns doc—until I did a quick Google search of Vietnam-era photos to see what I might encounter on-screen:





(wait for it)








I think I’ll stick to my rule for this latest film too.

So when I do finally find that 18-hour chunk of free time in my schedule, anyone want to come over and watch this series with me?

Because I hear it’s amazing.

Jesse Stone

Jesse B. Stone loves science and writing. Apologies if you were looking for the "Jesse Stone" played by Tom Selleck in the CBS movies.

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