It’s All In Your Head: Psychological Horror At Its Best

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

– Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows


Do horror films have to be all blood and gore, all the time to be “scary”?  While the films that gleefully employ those gruesome and shocking tactics absolutely have their place (in my heart as well as in the horror pantheon), there is something to be said for the slow burn.  A building up of atmosphere and anticipation that leads the viewer (and quite possibly the protagonist) to imagine the worst.  The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, said it best: “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”  In my opinion, the following films all expertly demonstrate the power of the mind and how it can utterly and completely betray you.



haute-tensionHaute Tension (2003)

Critics remain divided over HT’s merits as an effective horror film. Some hail it as a forerunner in the New French Extremity movement along with films like Frontier(s) and Sheitan, while others resolutely pan it as a disappointing slasher flick that is gory for gore’s sake.  Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of opinions, Haute Tension does deliver when it comes to psychological horror. I would argue that this film showcases the mind’s ability to manipulate reality and what we conceive of as “fact” to the point where it is indistinguishable from fiction.  This film by director Alexandre Aja benefits from at least two viewings.  (The first to experience the story for the first time and a second to try and find all the clues you didn’t notice.)  Once you reach the ending (Surprise!  There’s a twist!), I would wager that your own powers of perception and the grasp on the reality of the film you think you just watched could be questioned.  Or you could be painfully aware of the enormous, truck-sized plot hole.  Either way – enjoy!


jacobs-ladderJacob’s Ladder (1990)

“The horror of the movie would be in the revelation that hope is Hell’s final torment, that life is a dream that ends over and over with the final truth: that life was never real, that we are all creatures trapped in eternal suffering and damnation.”

– Bruce Joel Rubin, Horror Noir: Where Cinema’s Dark Sisters Meet

What horror does so well is offer a way to explore the darker parts of the human psyche.  This genre in particular offers a safe environment in which to delve into the most hidden recesses of our own minds and personalities.  Jacob’s Ladder does this particularly well and as we watch Tim Robbin’s character’s descent into madness as mind-bending disturbing images unfold around him, it begs the question: Are there really monsters or is the monster his own mind?

Jacob Singer, a Vietnam veteran, is the film’s unreliable narrator.  He returns home from war so incredibly damaged and the struggle to maintain his sanity is what pushes the narrative forward (or backward…?).  The diverse and complex layers of Jacob’s Ladder have led to two main theories of what the protagonist is experiencing:  1) He has been in Purgatory since he died in Vietnam or 2) The entire film is hallucination that Jacob is experiencing as he is dying.  While both theories have merit and evidence to support them, I suggest you watch it and form your own.


session-9Session 9 (2001)

“Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be .  Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is”

– Carl Jung

Not so long ago, individuals were locked away in asylums for reasons ranging from valid mental disorders to laziness or “women trouble”.  The institutions that housed these poor souls and witnessed untold atrocities in turn became the physical manifestation of the “Shadow” referred to by Carl Jung.  The “Shadow” is the unknown, darker side of one’s personality, where suspicion, distrust, self-doubt, and paranoia flourish.  The setting for Session 9 (Danvers State Hospital) is no exception and throughout the film, there is an uncomfortable and unnerving feeling generated by the asylum itself.

The main characters start out the film with outside stressors (domestic violence, law school drop-out, drug use, failed relationships, severe nyctophobia) that make them weak and vulnerable to whatever evil is still infecting the asylum.  One by one, they are singled out and their deep-seated fears and anxieties are exploited to great (and deadly) effect.  Something is off about Session 9, but you can’t really put your finger on it until the last 10 minutes of the film.  And what a last 10 minutes!  I dare you not to get chills from the haunting last lines of the film.

– “And where do you live, Simon?”
– “I live in the weak and wounded…Doc.”


it-followsIt Follows (2014)

Something is following you.  It is never seen head-on but only in glimpses out of your peripheral vision.  The trailing edge of a shadow whipping around corners before you have a chance to turn completely around.  The hairs on the back of your neck standing straight up because you KNOW someone is in the same room and is staring straight at you.  If you’ve ever tried to explain this feeling to someone who has not experienced it and doesn’t believe you, the level of frustration can be enough to actually drive you crazy.  It Follows plays on those emotional vulnerabilities and fears.  The tension is racked up steadily throughout and for most of the film, it’s what you don’t see that’s so terrifying.  But when you finally do, It makes you squirm in your seat and wish the camera would turn away.  You’re never granted that wish but what you’re forced to watch is, in my opinion, necessary – for the narrative and for the modern audience.  Along with [REC], this is one of my absolute favorite modern horror films.


the-shiningThe Shining (1980)

“There’s something inherently wrong with the human personality.  There’s an evil side to it.  One of the things that horror stories can do is to show us the archetypes of the unconscious; we can see the dark side without having to confront it directly.”                                                                                                                      

– Stanley Kubrick

A faithful adaptation of Stephen King’s 1977 book, this film is definitely not.  However, much like the hotel it is set in, Stanley Kubrick’s 146-minute descent into depravity and brain-melting fear has taken on a life of its own, occupying the top spot in many a Best of Horror list.  The hotel itself exudes a quiet yet menacing atmosphere, a promise of violence to come.  In the September issue of BFI’s Sight and Sound magazine, Author Jonathan Romney discusses the “value of mise en scene.  It’s a real, complex space that we don’t just see but come to virtually inhabit.  The confinement is palpable: horror cinema is an art of claustrophobia, making us loath to stay in the cinema but unable to leave.  Yet it’s combined with agoraphobia – we are as frightened of the [asylum’s] cavernous vastness as of its corridors’ enclosure. … The film sets up a complex dynamic between simple domesticity and magnificent grandeur, between the supernatural and the mundane in which the viewer is disoriented by the combination of spaciousness and confinement, and an uncertainty as to just what is real or not.”

At its heart, The Shining is a family drama.  We are given clues as to the underlying stress and discontent experienced by all members of the Torrance family before they ever arrive at The Overlook.  Slowly but surely, the family’s façade begins to crack as they are besieged on all sides by the demons of the hotel’s past.

This is one of my absolute favorite movies of all time, of any genre.  From the slow, deliberate pacing of Stanley Kubrick to the shiver-inducing score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind to the unforgettable performances by Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers, and Danny Lloyd, this movie will stick with you for at least one lifetime…maybe more.


What did you think of the films in this list?  Are there any that you would add?  Do you have a favorite sub-genre of horror?  Let me know in the comments!  Thanks for reading and stay spooky!




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