Psychological horror films are not only designed to terrify audiences but also play with their minds. Unlike other horror films, these scares don’t rely on jumps and gore alone. Instead, they take audiences on a mind trip that can be much scarier. These are some of the best examples from the full breadth of movie history.
Updated on May 5th, 2021 by Mark Birrell: Psychological horror may not be to every movie fan’s tastes but these incredible examples have something within them that any lover of great acting, writing, directing, and cinematography can appreciate. The history of the horror genre itself within cinema is so vast that narrowing down this list to just 10 entries was difficult, so we’ve added 5 more entries that showcase the very best of psychological horror from both the past and the present.
15 The Lighthouse (2019) Available on Amazon Prime Video
The follow-up movie from writer and director Robert Eggers after the breakout success of their debut, The Witch, was perhaps even more impressive and just as horrific. The Lighthouse follows to late 19th-century lighthouse keepers on a remote island. The intense monotony and indignity of their isolation giving way to paranoia and delusion.
Though gorgeously shot in a fittingly claustrophobic 1.19:1 aspect ratio and filled with unforgettably weird visuals, it’s a movie that hinges almost entirely upon the performances of its two lead performances. With actors Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson rising to the challenge with total commitment to every scene, no matter how wild.
14 Session 9 (2001) Available to buy on Amazon Prime Video
Though still quite underrated, Session 9 sits comfortably as one of the most chilling psychological horror movies of the 21st century so far.
Shot on location in the abandoned Danvers State Mental Hospital in Massachusetts, the movie follows a group of stressed asbestos removal workers trying to clean out the haunting old building. The toll of the job, and the overall economy around them, brings out some of the worst in the men as the genuinely, palpably, chilling history of their surroundings seems to come back to life.
13 Cat People (1942) Available on Shudder and AMC+
Director Jacques Tourneur was a pioneer of many aspects of the horror movie genre that are considered integral today, with his 1942 movie, Cat People, standing out as an early example of psychological horror.
Tapping into complex psychoanalytical fears, the movie’s horror is played out mostly within the imagination of the main characters and the audience, using suggestion and shadowplay to skirt around the restrictiveness of censorship and standards of the time period. It’s a fascinating cornerstone of modern filmmaking despite humble B movie origins and is still brimming with atmosphere. A jump scare that’s powerful enough to still work over three-quarters of a century later is certainly not something to be sniffed at.
12 The Changeling (1980) Available on Shudder and AMC+
Following the tragic loss of his family, an aging composer moves into a beautiful old house but quickly discovers a dark history haunting its walls and becomes overwhelmed by a need to uncover its origins and resolve its unfinished business.
As far as ghost stories in movies go, The Changeling may not be one of the most generally famous but it remains a firm favorite with film buffs thanks to its focus on grief, emotion, slow-burning dread, and a genuinely engaging story. It’s a sterling example of how terrifying a horror movie can be without kills or gore, making the audience feel sucked into the story and the headspace of the main characters themselves.
11 It Follows (2014) Available on IMDb TV, Tubi, Pluto TV, and Shudder
Monster movies don’t usually appear on lists of the best psychological horror movies but It Follows is a very different monster movie. For one thing, you never see the monster’s true form. Instead, it takes on the scarier disguise of everyday people.
The film has an instantly compelling plot where the main character has a curse passed on her, meaning she will be hunted by this inconspicuous force until she passes it to another. It doesn’t waste a killer premise like this, infusing the film with a paranoid mood suggesting the danger could be anywhere.
10 I Saw The Devil (2010) Available on Amazon Prime Video, Tubi, and Vudu
South Korea has churned out a number of amazing horror films in the 21st century, and this intense cat-and-mouse horror is certainly one of the best.
The film follows a special forces agent whose wife is brutally killed by a serial killer. The grieving man hunts down the killer, but instead of a quick revenge, he begins playing a game with his target. The film plays with the idea of both these men being vicious killers and the struggle for control continues to go back and forth between them until the bloody conclusion.
9 Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Available on Amazon Prime Video and Pluto TV
Satanism and the occult have often played a big role in the psychological horror genre. There is something unsettling about the idea of worshipers of evil operating in plain sight. Rosemary’s Baby latches on to this fear in the tale of a couple who becomes unexpectedly pregnant after moving to a new home surrounded by unusual neighbors.
The film is unsettling in how ordinary the horror seems and the fact that it is linked to the idea of being a new mother. Just as you think that paranoid mayhem can’t get any worse, the film continues to find new disturbing ways to terrify you.
8 The Babadook (2014) Available on DirecTV and AMC+
Like It Follows, this is another monster film that has a lot more going on than most films in that subgenre. The Babadook is an Australian film that follows a widowed woman struggling to raise her troubled young son. When a mysterious book arrives at their home, the family begins being haunted by a creature known as Mister Babadook.
While the titular menace is scary enough, much of the psychological aspect of the horror comes from the mother’s own deteriorating mind. Is the monster real, or is she fighting with something more internal? The movie doesn’t give you any easy answers in this dark tale.
7 Jacob’s Ladder (1990)Available on HBO Max
One common theme of the psychological horror film is the unnerving question of what is real and what is imagined. This is why Jacob’s Ladder serves as such an effective and disturbing film.
The film follows a Vietnam veteran having horrific visions that continue to haunt him. As he attempts to find some kind of relief, he begins to uncover the truth about what happened to him during the war. Along with the nightmarish imagery, the film refuses to let the audience escape the intense uncertainty of the film leaving you exhausted by the time the credits roll.
6 The Vanishing (1988) Available to buy on Amazon Prime Video
This is a genre that is often heavy with mystery, however, The Vanishing is one of the most disturbing examples of where those mysteries can lead you. The 1988 Dutch film follows a man whose girlfriend goes missing at a roadside rest stop which leads him on an obsessive search for answers.
The torture of the unanswered is what is most disturbing here. It is a descent into madness as we find out how far our hero will go to find out what happened to his loved one. The ending is simply unforgettable.
5 Ringu (1998) Available on Shudder, ARROW, and Tubi
There was a time in the early 2000s when Hollywood was in a trend as remaking Japanese horror films, and this film is the one that inspired that movement. Though the remake is solid, the original Ringu is an unforgettable movie-watching experience.
As an investigative reporter looks into the mysterious deaths of several teenagers, she comes across a video cassette that apparently causes those who watch it to die in seven days. What follows is a frightening investigation about what is real, leading to one of the most famous reveals in horror movie history.
4 Don’t Look Now (1973) Available to buy on Amazon Prime Video
The haunted state of the mind is one of the most common aspects of the psychological horror genre. The protagonists are usually deeply troubled souls, unable to forget some dark past.
This is certainly at play in Don’t Look Now. The film tells the story of a couple who, after losing their young daughter, move to Venice in an attempt to start over. But when the husband begins seeing sightings of his daughter, he begins to unravel. The movie has become highly influential thanks to its eerie and foreboding mood. And the climax is still one of the best twist endings of all time.
3 Get Out (2017) Available to buy on Amazon Prime Video
Get Out has already earned a spot high on any list of horror films. While it’s difficult to narrow this complex film down to one genre, the mounting sense of paranoia throughout certainly places it comfortably in the psychological horror section.
The story of a Black man on a weekend getaway to meet his girlfriend’s family makes for an intense, funny, and highly disturbing film. Jordan Peele uses modern social concepts to create a thought-provoking masterpiece that has cemented its place in pop culture. This is the type of movie to reward repeat viewings.
2 Psycho (1960) Available on DirecTV
Alfred Hitchcock’s horror movie masterpiece is a landmark in cinematic history, particularly within the depiction of the psychology of a killer. Though Psycho is not exactly a medically accurate examination of some of its central ideas, Anthony Perkins’ performance as Norman Bates was revolutionary at the time and captivatingly chilling even today.
Hitchcock delves into the thoughts and reasoning of his main characters in a way that makes every situation that much more intense and its boundary-pushing kills, in conjunction with the psychoanalytical approach, helped form the foundation of what would come to be known as the slasher genre.
1 The Shining (1980) Available on HBO Max
Put together the talents of Stanley Kubrick, Jack Nicholson, and Stephen King are bound to result in something interesting. The Shining is not certainly interesting and is still a film that terrifies audiences to this day.
The classic film follows a man who takes a job as a winter caretaker at an empty hotel. As he and his family settle into the isolated location, the dark history of the hotel comes for and the man begins to lose his mind. King’s work mixes well with Kubrick’s amazing and creepy visuals. Topped all that with a brilliantly unhinged performance from Jack Nicholson. It’s no surprise this is considered one of the greatest horror movies ever made.
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