To further understand and get a better grasp on what makes a good psychological horror film, I've compiled a list of the best and scariest psychological horror movies I have ever seen. Some of these movies use monsters to create the overall mood of horror and dread, some only hint at the monster's existence and it's unclear if it is real or not, while others make you question the perceptions of the characters as the story unfolds. Some of these movies use elements of psychological horror, others may be considered psychological thrillers, but all of them explore the inner workings of our minds to scare us to death.
But be warned, these scary movies will stay with you for a lifetime.
13. The Uninvited (2008)
"The Uninvited" is actually the title of two different movies that came out in consecutive years. The 2008 version is more of an independent film and should not be confused with the trite 2009 movie "The Uninvited."
Lee is agoraphobic-- she is terrified of wide open spaces. Her phobia is so intense that at times she has to face a wall and block her peripheral vision with her hair to shut out the open space of a room. Lee was traumatized as a child when she looked into her childhood friend's bedroom window at night and saw an old woman looming over his bed. The old woman turns around and smiles directly at her and took her breath away (in the bad way) and Lee believes this is the source of her agoraphobia. Unfortunately for Lee, she moved into a haunted house full of malevolent spirits that aim to possess her body.
When her husband (and former therapist) leaves on a trip, Lee slowly begins to fall apart and her phobia resumes it's grip upon her mind as the ghosts in the house make their presence known. She begins seeing the old woman and hears a baby crying in the house. Lee begins to believe that she had a baby that her husband stole from her and things go downhill from there. The end of this movie was a little ambiguous, but in the unsettling way.
12. Rebecca (1940)
Alfred Hitchcock's Oscar Award winning gothic ghost story is a psychological horror film about a young woman who marries a rich man and soon learns that his first wife, Rebecca died in a suspicious boating accident. Some believe that Rebecca has not moved on and that her ghost haunts the servants and her husband at his Manderley Estate. Just what happened to Rebecca, and what is her husband really hiding from her?
11. Repulsion (1965)
Roman Polanski's "Repulsion" is about Carol Ledoux, a Belgian manicurist living in London with her sister Helen. Coral is painfully shy and incredibly awkward around men, to the point of being terrified of them. When her sister goes on vacation with her boyfriend Michael, Carol begins to slowly lose her mind. She is terrified of losing her sister to a man, and soon stops going to work and becomes a shut-in. Her world seems to close in on her as she begins to hallucinate and mentally fall apart. This movie has some very trippy scenes in it, such as the walls cracking and pulling apart and hands reaching out to grab Carol. "Repulsion" is definitely one of Polanski's greatest films.
10. Paranoia 1.0 (2004)
"Paranoia 1.0" aka "One Point O" is a dark cyberpunk psychological movie with a plot that is drowning in heavy atmosphere. Simon, a computer programmer, begins to receive mysterious empty packages in his apartment. (They are delivered even though the door to his apartment is locked.) His investigation into the source of these empty packages takes him on a downward spiral into madness as he meets his odd neighbors, receives phone calls from an android head named Adam, and uncovers a creepy corporate conspiracy to control what consumers buy by infecting them with cravings, such as Simon's indescribable addiction to Nature Fresh milk.
9. Spider (2002)
David Cronenberg's "Spider" is about a paranoid schizophrenic man, Dennis Cleg aka Spider, who as a boy came to believe that his mother was replaced by a whore, and that she and his father killed his mother. When Dennis is released from the mental hospital he goes to live at a desolate halfway house that is near his childhood home. There he begins to relive the events of his childhood and his fragile grasp on reality is utterly shattered as his delusions take hold of his mind once again.
8. In the Mouth of Madness (1995)
"In the Mouth of Madness" is one of the best examples of a Lovecraftian psychological horror movie that I have ever seen.
Sam Neill plays an insurance fraud investigator John Trent, who is hired to find Sutter Cane- the insanely popular and best seller modern horror writer. Sutter Cane's books have been known to driver readers mad, which at first Trent believes is just hype, until he starts looking into things and learns that nothing is as it seems. Trent's reality quickly unravels as he travels to a town not found on any road map called Hobb's End, where he comes across characters from Sutter Cane's books and soon learns that the madness in the town is infectious as he goes insane and suffers from a psychotic break.
7. Stir of Echoes
Working class family man Tom is a skeptic that allows himself to be hypnotized by his wife's sister Lisa, who gives him the post-hypnotic suggestion to be more open-minded. Her suggestion accidentally opens a door in his mind and allows him to see the dead. Tom begins to suffer from horrifying visions of a local missing girl, Samantha Kozac, being murdered. Samantha continues to torment him and he is slowly driven mad as he tries to unravel her cryptic messages. Is Tom losing his mind, or is the missing girl actually a ghost trying to get Tom to help solve her murder?
"Stir of Echoes" is loosely based on the novel "Stir of Echoes"by Richard Matheson. I highly recommend the book as well.
6. Pan's Labyrinth
"Pan's Labyrinth" by Guillermo del Toro is a period piece set in Spain five years after the Spanish Civil War in May of 1944. Ofelia is a young girl who is obsessed with fairies and the Underworld. She lives in a vibrant fantasy world of her own imagination. Her indifferent stepfather, Captain Vidal, is a ruthless fascist who dotes on her pregnant mother but could care less if Ofelia died. Ofelia finds a labyrinth near her new home and meets the Faun, who tells her that she is the Princess of the Underworld and that she must undergo three tasks and complete them before the moon is full in order to return to her father, the king.
The movie is full of vivid imagery and covers many themes about the human mind (labyrinths are common symbols for our psyches). At times it is often unclear is Ofelia is actually interacting with magical creatures, or if they are all in her mind.
A word of warning though, this isn't a cute fairy tale, it's a bitter-sweet tragedy with an ending that will make even the most stalwart of movie watcher tear up and reach for a tissue.
5. The Changeling (1980)
Dr. John Russel is a classical composer that moves into an large, long abandoned estate after his wife and daughter are killed in a traffic accident. Strange things start to happen to John after he moves in, and he becomes obsessed with composing a song that he hears in his head. Later, he finds a music box that plays the exact same song that he composed on his piano.
John is plagued by nightmares while his waking hours are filled with terror and dread as he slowly unravels the mystery behind the ghostly presence of a boy in the house, and how the boy died.
The atmosphere of this movie will stay with you long after you've watched it, it's one of the best ghost movies I've ever seen; it really manages to get inside your head to create a tense feeling of terror that you really have to experience for yourself. "The Changeling" also uses the creepy imagery of an empty wheelchair to great horrific effect.
3. Black Swan (2010)
Nina wants to be both the White Swan and the Black Swan, but soon has difficulty separating her own thoughts and actions from those of the darker character.
"Black Swan" is about a dancer, Nina Sayers, who is a member of the New York City ballet company. The ballet company is producing Swan Lake, in which a sensual Black Swan steals the prince from the innocent and virginal White Swan.
Nina lives with her controlling mother, and is struggling to compete with a rival in the ballet company. The director wants the same dancer to portray the White Swan and the Black Swan. Nina forces her way into the role and sends her rival into early retirement. The pressure of performing soon starts to affect Nina's mind and she starts to hallucinate as her behavior becomes erratic and violent. Nina believes that her body is sprouting black feathers as her personality takes on more of the Black Swan's bolder, more sinister qualities. "Black Swan" covers the theme of the doppelganger, or evil twin, and the dangers of high stakes performance arts.
2. Jacob's Ladder (1990)
Jacob Singer is a traumatized Vietnam Vet who survived the war. While on tour in Vietnam the soldiers in his unit started behaving erratically and he was attacked. Now, he struggles with living an ordinary life and suffers from war flashbacks and hallucinations of his dead son and ex-wife. As his hallucinations become increasingly surreal and terrifying, Jacob learns that the Army's chemical warfare division released an agent called BZ, code named "The Ladder" on his unit during the Vietnam War. "The Ladder" was supposed to increase people's primal fears and base anger and make them highly aggressive in combat. Unfortunately, it makes them hallucinate and attack each other instead of the enemy. The labyrinthine journey of "Jacob's Ladder" has a shocking conclusion that you won't believe until you see it.
1. Session 9
"Session 9" is one of the most underrated and least talked about psychological horror movies, which really surprises me because it the best one I have ever seen. It may be a slow burner, but that is done on purpose, as the atmosphere and paranoia needs to be developed for it to have a huge impact during the climax of the story. Even better, it was actually filmed in an abandoned mental hospital that was about to be torn down.
Gordon's cleaning crew has landed a lucrative job removing asbestos from an abandoned mental hospital. One of his men uncovers a box labeled "Evidence" in a tunnel of the mental hospital. Inside the box are nine taped sessions with patient number 444, Mary Hobbes. As the tapes are listened to, the men split up to cover more ground while they clean up the hospital. One by one, they are attacked by an unseen assailant, while Mary's split personalities talk about Simon, the violent personality.
It slowly becomes clear that Simon represents the darkest parts people's psyches, and that Gordon is being affected by him. Is Simon one of Mary's personalities, or is he the evil spirit of the mental hospital that is now influencing Gordon's mind and driving him insane?