Sunday, May 13, 2012

Cassie Carnage's Horror Dictionary: Psychological Horror


There are a lot of phrases and words used to describe  horror films. Most if not all of them are misunderstood and terribly misused on the Internet.

For instance, home invasion and torture porn movies have been given the label psychological horror by some well meaning, yet uninformed reviewers when it is clear that they are not, in actuality, psychological horror.

From  [Tribeca '12] What Sets ‘Replicas’ Apart From Other Home Invasion Films post by Bloody Disgusting's John Marrone:

Would you pull your own front tooth out with a pair of pliers? Of course not. But what if your child was tied to a chair, with a razor held to their face? Well – OK! Yes! That’s the sort of psychological horror that home-invasion films bring to the table. 

Sorry Mr. Marrone, but that is NOT psychological horror.


Watching someone pry out her own front tooth with pliers creates a visceral reaction in the viewer and conjures up feelings of discomfort and disgust by being exposed to someone else's brutal torture and extreme physical pain. Which I suppose is scary for some people to have to watch, but it is not subtle, and it certainly doesn't require any sort of finesse to execute on-screen, as just about anyone these days can write and direct a self mutilation scene.

The main themes covered by torture porn and home invasion films are about our fears of other people exerting their sick fantasies or sociopathic obsessions upon our flesh. And really, those themes have nothing to do with the subtle art of slowly creating an atmosphere of dread by delving deep into the darkest recesses of the subconscious mind, which what psychological horror is all about.

After reading the article from Blood Disgusting , which called torture porn psychological horror, I decided that it was up to me to put the record straight and establish a list of terms used in the horror genre: a Horror Dictionary if you will. Because if I don't do it, no one else will.

This week's entry in Cassie Carnage's Horror Dictionary: Psychological Horror!

According to the Pratt Library, psychological horror is mental mayhem; "A dark atmosphere in which the character's own thoughts, fears, guilt, and emotional instability take over their physical world." In this respect, the Silent Hill franchise would be considered psychological horror.

In most Silent Hill games and the movie, a damaged individual becomes trapped in the parasitic reality that is the town of Silent Hill. The town itself changes to reflect the emotionally unstable character's obsessions and darkest fears. It then conjures up demonic entities and monsters that are shaped by the character's own thoughts, fears and feelings of intense guilt. However, even with having to fight off monsters and being trapped in her own personal hell in Silent Hill, there is always a hint that what the character is experiencing in the town, such as what they see and hear, is not actually there. It may all be an illusion created by the character's own psychosis, which can be delusions (false beliefs) and hallucinations caused by intense feelings of guilt, obsessions and phobias.



TV Tropes defines psychological horror as "an element of fiction, not tied to a particular genre (it manifests itself in many stories which are not identified as "horror stories"), which aims at creating horrific or unsettling effects through in-depth use of psychology." Psychological horror relies on the darkest parts of the human psyche-- the shadow  of the unconscious mind-- and evokes our primal urges to fight what scares us or run the heck away when we face our inevitable demise.

The subtle art of manipulating a person's mind during storytelling and effectively scaring them is done by exploring themes, images and sounds that represent mankind's universal fears, which are our feelings, thoughts and base instinctual urges that are repressed by our own psyche. These universal fears are also our psychological vulnerabilities, which include phobias and irrational thoughts or actions, such as the urge to kill a large scary looking spider when it crawls across your bedroom wall. The things we fear may also be things we outright deny feeling, thinking or wanting to do when we first react to a situation.

This sub-genre of horror relies on our instincts, thought patterns, unconscious fears and ultimately our imagination to scare us. The clever use of  light and shadows, color patterns and sounds develops an atmosphere full of tension, suspense and anxiety to create a subtle, yet ever growing sense of unease that slowly builds up over the course of the storyline until the horrifying climax of the tale is reached. This is why most psychological horror movies tend to be slow burners-- the terror takes a while to build up steam, but by the end credits you are so scared that you begin to think that perhaps the evil entity truly is real and waiting for you to turn off your bedroom light before it attacks.

While this may seem to only pertain to movies or video games, a talented writer can also manipulate these things to create psychological horror. In fact, the author has the opportunity to get even more into a person's head and create intense imagery that keeps people awake at night, staring at their bedroom door, wondering if that sound they just heard was the cat, or something else...


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