In short, psychological horror is highly reliant on the mental and the emotional state of the audience. It relies heavily on the buildup of suspension, creating elements of dread before frightening, disturbing, or simply unsettling the audience as the payoff. For example, a character isn’t just placed in a world in which a serial killer is loose, but a large part of the narrative would be the uncertainty of what would happen next. In addition, psychological horror also deals heavily with the psychology of the “baddies” and the fear itself. Thus, it’s not just the serial killer, but the unpleasantness associated with who is being killed, why they are being killed, and so forth. This makes all the difference between just another slasher and a piece that will make audiences questioning some aspect about humanity, or even themselves. In addition, psychological horror does not have to be true to real life. It can feature supernatural or paranormal themes prominently. The main consideration, however, is the fact that the mind creates what isn’t there. It is the slow reveal and dissection of information that allows audiences to not only get a sense of dread, which begets fear, but it also allows us to later examine it after the threat has passed.
Why do we like it?
Although we have a high degree of enjoyment for all types of horror, we do have a special place for psychological tales. In many ways, they resemble our nightmares, which is a reflection of our waking fears. Thus, they allow us a way to explore these fears from the comfort of our homes, movie theatres, etc. We know that the serial killer or crazed madman on screen isn’t actually going to kill us. At the same time, we know that it is not outside of the realm of possibility for something like this to occur. That’s where the fear comes from. It’s the what if of what might happen in the real world. A world we know is horrible. Serial killers really do exist, mass murderers still happen almost every week, and sometimes it seems like we are living in our own Final Destination movie, where one wrong step could mean the difference between life and death. Even when the psychological horror we consume also has a supernatural bent, (take the Babadook for instance) the emphasis is either placed on the realistic elements or there is a general uncertainty about whether or not the supernatural elements are actually happening; sometimes both.
Keep in mind that by their nature, psychological horrors are designed to catch us off guard. Through atmosphere and use of setting, the audience is thrust into a very specific environment. Of course, this happens in other horror genres as well, but also consider the fact that is often subverted. Think of the “jump scares” that sometimes take us off guard. For example, in the Sixth Sense we know the huge twister (spoiler alert) is that it is actually Dr. Malcom Crow, a psychologist helping a child who sees ghosts, who is dead. Even when we see these twists coming, the reveal of information throughout keeps our wits sharpened and our eyes fresh in spotting any clues. So, psychological horrors not only gives us a platform to explore very real fears in a controlled environment, but it also helps us sharpen the tools we might need to draw from; should anything actually happen like these examples in our waking life.
Now that we know what psychological horror is and why we are so compelled to seek it out, here’s a list of some of my personal favorite psychological horror books and movies and why I recommend them. Feel free to share some of your own!
The Babadook (2014): A mother and her son try to fall into a sense of normalcy the year after her husband dies. This movie is an incredible example of how psychological horror gives us a lens to explore inner fears and turmoil. Specifically, the “monster” in the movie is the physical embodiment of grief.·
The Sixth Sense (1991): After a child reveals to Dr. Crow that he sees dead people, the therapist undergoes a great deal of self-discovery. This is not only considered M. Night Shyamalan’s best piece, but is often hailed as one of the best examples of a solid twist ending. It’s also interesting to go back and look at how Shyamalan threads out bits and pieces of the future reveal.·
Get Out (2018): The film opens with Chris Washington being introduced to his girlfriend's family; in which race plays a huge part in the film and family dynamic. Once there, Chris slowly begins to realize that something is amiss. Director Jordan Peele creates a masterpiece that tackles race relations in an interesting, and of course, psychologically stimulating way.·
Psycho (1960): A woman goes on the lam after stealing $40,000. She checks into the inconspicuous Bates Motel, where things get very, very unsettling. Regarded as one of the first serial killer yarns, Hitchcock’s piece delves straight into the strange psychology behind why some may kill. This film was also inspired in-part by real life serial killer, Ed Gein.
The Shining by Stephen King: Writer, Jack Torrance, is a recovering alcoholic that is looking to put the past behind him for his wife and son. He becomes the caretaker for the Overlook Hotel. Once settled in, he and his family get anything but rest and relaxation. The movie is also worth watching. It’s a good example of the complexity of psychological horror and how it often models our own inner demons.·
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis: Patrick Bateman is a very successful business man living in New York City during the premiere Wall Street peak of the 1980's. He also has a penchant for cocaine and killing. Not only are Bateman’s nefarious deeds an interesting look into the psyche of the murderer, but the interiority of his character also allows us to explore our own depravity. ·
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay: When a young girl has a psychotic breakdown, a family is thrown into disarray. After trying out medication, the family contacts an exorcist and a television crew. The book takes place years after the girl has grown up while having an interview with a writer. It’s a good window into the psychology behind exorcism, as well as when “help” becomes downright exploitation. ·
The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Stories by Edgar Allan Poe: Featuring such classics as “The Raven”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, and the title piece, Poe is one of the masters of psychological horror. In addition, Poe also heavily relies on the idea of an unreliable narrator, in which the audience questions their own sanity.