While regular slasher horror movies are great and all, sometimes we want something that delves a little deeper than a man with a knife. Psychological horror movies are a subgenre of horror that delves deep into the human psyche, leaving audiences with a lingering sense of unease and terror.
These films are known for their ability to burrow into the darkest corners of the mind, often blurring the lines between reality and delusion. Let’s take a journey into the eerie world of psychological horror as we explore the ten best films that have pushed the boundaries of fear and sanity.
The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, The Shining, is a timeless masterpiece of psychological horror. The film tells the story of Jack Torrance, a writer who takes a job as the winter caretaker of the isolated yet beautiful Overlook Hotel. As the hotel becomes snowbound, Jack’s descent into madness is vividly portrayed.
Jack Nicholson’s iconic performance as Jack Torrance and Kubrick’s meticulous direction create an atmosphere of dread and paranoia. The Shining is a chilling exploration of isolation, cabin fever, and the supernatural that remains a cornerstone of the genre. After watching it, you might be surprised to learn that King isn’t a fan of Kubrick’s adaptation, despite it being one of the best horror movies and one of Kubrick’s best works.
Talk about a movie that redefined the horror genre, Psycho is another psychological horror masterpiece from the great Alfred Hitchcock. The film follows Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh, who checks into the Bates Motel while on the run after embezzling money. Her encounter with the enigmatic Norman Bates, portrayed by Anthony Perkins, sets in motion a series of horrifying events that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Psycho is known for its groundbreaking and iconic shower scene, shocking twists, and an unforgettable portrayal of madness. If you’re not a fan of older movies, you might want to give this one a try and see if it can’t change your mind.
Black Swan (2010)
You might not expect it, but Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a must-see film if you’re interested in psychological horror. It combines elements of your favorite horror sub-genre with the world of ballet, resulting in a nightmarish and gripping tale. The film follows Nina Sayers, a talented but fragile ballerina played by Natalie Portman, as she becomes consumed by her dual role in a production of Swan Lake.
As Nina’s pursuit of perfection spirals into obsession and hallucination, Black Swan becomes a dark exploration of the cost of artistic excellence. Portman’s Oscar-winning performance and Aronofsky’s visceral direction make this film a haunting and unforgettable experience. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to give it a watch—you won’t regret it.
Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Jacob’s Ladder is a twisted journey into the fragmented psyche of a Vietnam War veteran named Jacob Singer, portrayed by Tim Robbins. Haunted by nightmarish visions and bizarre encounters, Jacob struggles to discern reality from delusion. As his ability to distinguish between real life and hallucination gets worse, Jacob will have to find the truth about his time in Vietnam and why it continues to so strongly affect him today.
The film is a surreal and unsettling exploration of trauma, guilt, and the supernatural. Its nightmarish imagery and disorienting narrative make Jacob’s Ladder a unique and thought-provoking psychological horror film.
The Babadook (2014)
The Babadook is a modern psychological horror gem that delves into the horrors of grief and motherhood. The film follows Amelia, a widow and single mother, as she grapples with the sinister presence of the Babadook, a malevolent entity from a mysterious pop-up book that she read to her son one night. As her son’s problems and fear of the monster grow, Amelia must confront her grief and underlying disdain for her son in order to save them both.
The Babadook is an emotionally resonant horror film that explores the depths of psychological torment. Essie Davis delivers a haunting performance as Amelia, and the film’s atmosphere is suffused with dread and tension. Just remember, if you find a book titled The Babadook, maybe don’t read it to your 6-year-old—or in general.
Shutter Island (2010)
Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island is a gripping psychological thriller that keeps audiences guessing until the very end. Set in the 1950s, the film follows U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, as he investigates the disappearance of a patient from the ominous Shutter Island psychiatric institution.
As Teddy delves deeper into the island’s secrets, he confronts his own haunted past and descends into a nightmarish reality with flashbacks to his time in World War II. Shutter Island keeps the viewer guessing after every twist and turn at the insane asylum. Shutter Island is a visually stunning and atmospheric film that clouds the lines between paranoia and reality.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Rosemary’s Baby is a classic of psychological horror that explores themes of paranoia, pregnancy, and the occult. Based on the 1967 novel of the same name, the film follows Rosemary Woodhouse, played by Mia Farrow, as she becomes pregnant and suspects that her neighbors are part of a sinister cult with nefarious plans for her child.
Rosemary’s Baby is a slow-burning and suspenseful film that relies on a sense of growing dread and unease. Mia Farrow’s performance is both vulnerable and chilling, and the film’s climax remains one of the most memorable in horror cinema. The entire time, you’re left wondering if Rosemary is right to be afraid of her neighbors or if she is slowly stumbling down a staircase to madness.
Donnie Darko (2001)
Donnie Darko is a mind-bending and enigmatic film that defies easy categorization. The story revolves around Donnie Darko, a troubled teenager portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal, who begins to experience strange visions and encounters a sinister figure named Frank, a rabbit-like creature, after avoiding a tragic accident thanks to sleepwalking.
As Donnie navigates the complexities of time travel and alternate realities, Donnie Darko becomes a complex and thought-provoking exploration of mental illness and existential dread. The film’s surreal narrative and haunting atmosphere have made it a cult classic in the genre; just be sure to avoid the sequel, which has nothing to do with the original cast or crew and is considered an abysmal bomb.
Another Roman Polanski film, Repulsion is a chilling and claustrophobic psychological horror film that explores the unraveling of a young woman’s mind, unwanted advances, and sexual assault. Catherine Deneuve stars as Carol, a reclusive and disturbed woman who descends into madness while alone in her apartment, also having to deal with a number of men who try to take advantage of her.
As her hallucinations and paranoia intensify, Repulsion becomes a harrowing and visceral journey into Carol’s fractured psyche. Polanski’s direction and Deneuve’s performance combine to create a haunting and deeply unsettling cinematic experience.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
If you haven’t seen The Sixth Sense, go watch it right now. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense is a film known for its supernatural elements, but it also delves deeply into the psychology of its characters. It also happens to be one of M. Night Shyamalan’s best works, which might be shocking if you only know him for his recent stuff.
The film follows child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe, portrayed by Bruce Willis, as he attempts to help a young boy named Cole, played by Haley Joel Osment, who claims to see and communicate with the dead. The Sixth Sense is a poignant exploration of trauma, grief, and the power of belief. Osment’s performance is particularly impressive, and the film’s slow-building tension leads to a revelation that lingers long after the credits roll.