Best Psychological Horror Movies
Horror movies have the ability to tap into the things that disturb humans most. One of the most visceral types of horror movies is the one that dissects our understanding of the mundane. The sub-genre preys on our fears of the unknown and manipulates our understanding of the world till we don’t know what the truth is any longer. Some of the best psychological horror movies take common scenarios and amplify them under a microscope. Whether it be the fears of becoming a parent, meeting our significant other’s family, or even perhaps our sense of beauty.
When someone loses their sense of self, it opens up the door to a multitude of scary scenarios. We’ve scoured the annals of film history to curate a list of the most divisive horror/thrillers imaginable. This list will focus heavily on psychological horror/thriller pictures that have entertained, terrified, and struck conversation to this day. Here are thirty of the best psychological horror movies ever made. Enjoy!
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Silence of the Lambs
Directed by Jonathan Demme and written by Ted Tally, Silence of the Lambs follows a young F.B.I. cadet who must receive the help of a manipulative cannibal killer to help catch another serial killer, a madman who skins his victims. The film stars Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster, and Lawrence A. Bonney.
Silence of the Lambs won the Oscar for best picture, best actor in a leading role, best director, best actress in a leading role, and best screenplay. Despite the Academy labeling it a thriller, there are portions of this picture the nose dive into the horror genre unapologetically. It’s a contentious film to this day and probably one of the aptest to make our list of best psychological horror movies.
Directed by Adrian Lyne and written by Bruce Joel Rubin, Jacob’s Ladder follows a haunted Vietnam War veteran who attempts to uncover his past while suffering from a severe case of dissociation. To do so, he must decipher reality and life from his own dreams, delusions, and perceptions of death. The film stars Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, and Danny Aiello.
Jacob’s Ladder won the critics award at the Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival in 1991. The film is a stark and disturbing look into a soldier’s failed attempts at reintegration while grappling with the horrors of war. It’s a must-watch film first and a phenomenal psychological horror movie second.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky and written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin. Black Swan follows a committed dancer who struggles to maintain her sanity after winning the lead role in a production of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”. The film stars Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, and Vincent Cassel.
Black Swan won the Oscar for best performance in 2011 and continues to be Natalie Portman’s most haunting role. The film follows the personality of a perfectionist and all the dangers that mindset entails. It’s unforgiving, tense, and exhausting psychologically. It’s an experience though that puts you in the shoes of the film’s protagonist in one of the only ways Aronofsky can.
If we were including Black Swan we knew we had to include his directorial debut. Written by Darren Aronofsky, Sean Gullette, and Eric Watson, Pi follows a paranoid mathematician who searches for a key number that will unlock the universal patterns found in nature. Pi was nominated for dozens of awards on the film festival circuit in 1999.
Shot on 16mm black and white film, Pi is an anxiety attack wrapped up in a 1-hour and 24-minute picture. It’s sporadic, stark, and gut-wrenching. Probably one of the tensest psychological horror films on this list by far. If there was one word to describe the film it’s ‘chaos’.
Bunny Lake Is Missing
Directed by Otto Preminger and written by John and Penelope Mortimer, Bunny Lake Is Missing follows a woman who reports that her young daughter is missing, but there seems to be no evidence that she ever existed. The film stars Keir Dullea, Carol Lynley, and Laurence Olivier.
Bunny Lake Is Missing was nominated for the BAFTA for best British art direction and best British cinematography in 1967. The film is certainly an odd classic for this list but without any information other than the provided synopsis you’ll be pleasantly intrigued.
Directed and written by David Lynch, Eraserhead follows Henry Spencer trying to survive his industrial environment, his angry girlfriend, and the unbearable screams of his newly born mutant child. Eraserhead stars Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, and Allen Joseph. Eraserhead marks the directorial debut of David Lynch in terms of a full-length feature.
Eraserhead is regarded as one of the most surrealist films ever made and it’s easy to see why. David Lynch’s anxiety about being a father is visceral and his fear shines through. Eraserhead is an independent horror classic so if there’s any film you walk away deciding to watch, this should definitely be on your list.
Directed by Stanley Kubrick and written by Diane Johnson, The Shining follows a family who heads to an isolated hotel for the winter where a sinister presence influences the father into violence, while his psychic son sees horrific visions from both past and future. The Shining stars Jack Nicolson, Shelley Duvall, and Danny Lloyd. The Shining was intended to be Kubrick’s critical success to get him back into the eyes of movie-goers and it worked.
The film is a masterclass in set design, acting, cinematography, music, and of course directing. It features a notorious production history, stellar imagery, and still manages to terrify audiences to this day. The Shining is an essential watch if you love psychological horror movies. It’s also a personal favorite of mine as well, go watch this film!
Directed and written by Jordan Peele, Get Out follows a young African-American who visits his white girlfriend’s parents for the weekend, where his simmering uneasiness about their reception of him eventually reaches a boiling point. The film stars Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, and Bradley Whitford. I believe most would agree that Jordan Peele’s Get Out is a contemporary classic. The movie changed the game for horror and how the way a vast majority of white people understood race relations.
Even with its grand turn of events, Get Out manages to tease, entertain, and thrill after multiple viewings. It’s a refreshing take on the psychological horror sub-genre and has earned its place on this list for its thrilling storytelling.
Directed and written by Henri-Georges Clouzot, Diabolique follows the wife and mistress of a loathed school principal who plans to murder him with what they believe is the perfect alibi. The film stars Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, and Paul Meurisse. Known for his work making suspense-filled stories, Diabolique basks in the themes of cold-hearted revenge.
The film gets right to the point and is intriguing throughout. With similar tones to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, Diabolique is a must-watch for fans of the psychological horror sub-genre. Speaking of Hitchcock, did you know that Diabolique was almost a Hitchcock film? After director Henri-Georges Clouzot bought the rights to the original novel, he reportedly beat legendary director Alfred Hitchcock by only a matter of hours.
The Blair Witch Project
Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, The Blair Witch Project follows three film students who vanish after traveling into a Maryland forest to film a documentary on the local Blair Witch legend, leaving only their footage behind. The film stars Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams.
The Blair Witch Project was not the first found footage horror film but many would argue it popularized the sub-genre. With its unique form of storytelling, unclear antagonist, and mysterious ending it’s no wonder why the film continues to divide viewers. Is there a Blair Witch? That’s part of the fun of the picture, you get to decide.
Directed and written by Robert Eggers as well as Max Eggers, The Lighthouse follows two lighthouse keepers trying to maintain their sanity while living on a remote and mysterious New England island in the 1890s. The film stars Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, and Valeriia Karaman.
With his work on The Witch, The Northman, and The Lighthouse, it’s apparent Robert Eggers can really bring a period piece to life. It’s his skill and devotion to each respective era that makes his films atmospheric and tactile. The Lighthouse plays on the fears of isolation in one of the most interesting and original ways. With Pattinson’s and Dafoe’s performances alone, this film will cling to the folds of your brain for years to come.
Directed by Karyn Kusama and written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, The Invitation follows a man who accepts an invitation to a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife, an unsettling affair reopens old wounds and creates new tensions. The film stars Logan Marshal-Green, Tammy Blanchard, and Emayatzy Corinealdi.
Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation becomes a rolling boil just before it simmers over into a thrilling story of relationships and the complications that come with them. It’s a great meditation on so many of the pitfalls that make us human. Kusama orchestrates The Invitation into a brilliant spider web, it’s a phenomenal psychological horror movie and one I continuously go back to time and time again.
Eyes Without A Face
Directed by Georges Franju and written by Thomas Narcejac and Pierre Boileau, Eyes Without A Face follows a surgeon who causes an accident that leaves his daughter disfigured and goes to extreme lengths to give her a new face. Eyes Without A Face stars Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli, and Juliette Mayniel. This display of psychological meets body horror is truly nerve-racking.
Though the more gruesome scenes were cut down in the US release of the film, Eyes Without A Face remains a staple in classic psychological horror. It’s the pursuit of perfection that truly brings on the horror in every frame. Though futile in their efforts, you can’t help but watch and see what will happen next.
Directed and written by Mary Harron with additional writing by Guinevere Turner, American Psycho follows a wealthy New York City investment banking executive, Patrick Bateman, who hides his alternate psychopathic ego from his co-workers and friends as he delves deeper into his violent, hedonistic fantasies. American Psycho stars Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, and Chloë Sevigny.
Inspired by the events surrounding Donald Trump throughout the 80s and 90s, Bret Easton Ellis’ original novel sought to shed light on the psychopathy of wealthy American businessmen. American Psycho is horrific in nature and only looks closer at the ever-evolving hellscape that is capitalist America. It was a must-add for our best psychological horror films without a doubt.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Directed by Robert Wiene and written by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the horror film to truly define the genre. The film follows a hypnotist known as Dr. Caligari who uses a somnambulist to commit murders. The film stars Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, and Friedrich Feher.
The film is a meditation on corruption, power, and war. Made right out of the first World War, the film helped define German Expressionism in filmmaking and move the horror genre to new heights within the United States. It’s also perhaps the first film to invent the “twist ending”. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is essential cinema and because of its place in history, it’s rightly earned its place on our list.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock and written by Joseph Stefano, Psycho follows a Phoenix secretary who embezzles $40,000 from her employer’s client, goes on the run, and checks into a remote motel run by a young man under the domination of his mother. Psycho stars Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, and Vera Miles. Adding Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho to the list of best psychological horror movies feels like a no-brainer but it’s an important reminder of how revolutionary the film truly was.
In a lot of ways, Psycho ushered in a new era for filmmaking and the horror genre. It redefined how movies were seen and also pushed boundaries in terms of media censorship. It cannot be understated how crucial Psycho was to the timeline of filmmaking and it will continue to go down as one of the best horror pictures ever made.
Directed by Robert Wise and written by Nelson Gidding, The Haunting follows the notorious Hill House that has stood for about 90 years: its inhabitants have always met strange, tragic ends. Now Dr. John Markway has assembled a team of people who he thinks will prove whether or not the house is haunted. The film stars Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, and Richard Johnson.
The Haunting is a classic and pleasant surprise to many first-time viewers. Its ‘G’ rating takes this picture further than many would ever anticipate. The film’s cinematography elevates the material leagues further than similar pictures of the same period. If you’re into classic ghost stories then we have to recommend The Haunting.
Directed and written by Roman Polanski as well as Gérard Brach and David Stone. Repulsion follows a sex-repulsed woman who disapproves of her sister’s boyfriend, she sinks into depression and has horrific visions of rape and violence. Repulsion stars Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, and John Fraser.
Repulsion is a thought-provoking picture but devoid of any type of humanity. It’s truly horrific throughout and some would argue it goes much too far. Regardless, it remains a controversial picture in terms of psychological horror films to this day. If you’re into shock, dread, and terrifying atmospherics – then you might enjoy Repulsion.
Directed by Satoshi Kon and written by Sadayuki Murai, Perfect Blue follows a pop singer who gives up her career to become an actress, but she slowly goes insane when she starts being stalked by an obsessed fan and what seems to be a ghost of her past. The film stars Junko Iwao, Rica Matsumoto, and Shinpachi Tsuji.
If you enjoyed Black Swan, then you’ll enjoy what Perfect Blue has to offer. The Japanese animated feature highly inspired the Aronofsky film, from its plot to its cinematography. The picture even predates Black Swan by thirteen years. Perfect Blue travels through the consequences of fame and how we make sense of our identity when we give so much of ourselves to others. It’s a deeply philosophical film with beautiful cinematography.
The Sixth Sense
Directed and written by M. Night Shyamalan, The Sixth Sense follows a frightened, withdrawn Philadelphia boy who communicates with spirits as he seeks the help of a disheartened child psychologist. The film stars Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, and Toni Collette.
The Sixth Sense is yet another film with an incredible twist if it hasn’t been ruined for you already. Shyamalan set his career up with this film and to be fair it was a bold way to get your name out to filmgoers. The Sixth Sense remains a quintessential psychological horror/thriller.
It Comes At Night
Directed and written by Trey Edward Shults, It Comes At Night follows a family secure within a desolate home as an unnatural threat terrorizes the world, a man has established a tenuous domestic order with his wife and son. Then a desperate young family arrives seeking refuge. The film stars Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, and Carmen Ejogo.
Maybe not as well known as the other films on this list, It Comes At Night delivers emotional blows with ease. Upon its release it received mixed reviews, perhaps because of its muddled marketing, but trust me when I say this film is worth your time. Its focus on human nature and the lengths we’ll go to protect those around us make It Comes At Night a formidable psychological horror movie.
Directed by Roman Polanski and written by Ira Levin, Rosemary’s Baby follows a young couple trying to have a baby as they move into an aging, ornate apartment building on Central Park West, where they find themselves surrounded by peculiar neighbors. The film stars Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, and Ruth Gordon. The film was nominated for the Academy Award in best writing.
Rosemary’s Baby upon release was a horror phenomenon. Its performances though subtle truly make this picture what it is today and has earned its place amongst films like Psycho, The Exorcist, and Jaws. This is one film that truly deserves its spot on our list of best psychological horror movies.
Directed and written by Patrick Brice, Creep follows a young videographer who answers an online ad for a one-day job in a remote town to record the last messages of a dying man. When he notices the man’s odd behavior, he starts to question his intentions. The film stars Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass.
Creep is one of only two found footage horror films on our list and just like The Blair Witch Project nails its concept so well. Patrick Brice weaponizes social cues and awkward interactions into this spiderweb, so before you have any clue what’s happening it’s too late.
Directed by Takashi Miike and written by Daisuke Tengan, Audition follows a widower who takes an offer to screen girls at a special audition, arranged for him by a friend to find him a new wife. The one he fancies is not who she appears to be after all. The film stars Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, and Tetsu Sawaki.
This is a tale of just desserts. Audition is haunting, vile, and all-around disturbing. So with all of those attributes combined, it was an obvious contender for our list. Legendary Japanese director Takashi Miike uses the trials and tribulations of meeting new people and brings it to horrific heights. It’s a cautionary tale of being inauthentic and manipulating situations for personal gain.
Directed and written by Kaneto Shindô, Onibaba follows two women who kill samurai and sell their belongings for a living. While one of them is having an affair with their neighbor, the other woman meets a mysterious samurai wearing a bizarre mask. The film stars Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura, and Kei Satô. The film won the Blue Ribbon Award for best actress and best cinematography.
Onibaba is yet another Japanese classic that has earned its place on our list of best psychological horror films. Utilizing the backdrop of a samurai story, director Kaneto Shindô crafts a stark and troubling story with absolute ease.
Directed and written by Brad Anderson as well as Stephen Gevedon, Session 9 follows an asbestos cleaning crew as they work in an abandoned mental hospital with a horrific past that seems to be coming back. The film stars David Caruso, Stephen Gevedon, and Paul Guilfoyle.
An abandoned asylum makes for the perfect backdrop for a psychological horror film wouldn’t you agree? Without giving anything away, Session 9 may divide you and your friends after your first viewing but it will absolutely stick with you long after.
Directed and written by Michael Haneke, Funny Games follows two violent young men who take a mother, father, and son hostage in their vacation cabin and force them to play sadistic “games” with one another for their own amusement. The film stars Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Mühe, Arno Frisch, and Frank Giering. The film was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997.
Created as an outcry against violence in media, director Michael Haneke created one of the first meta-horror films. Funny Games is sadistic, brutal, and an all-around uncomfortable watch. Maybe pair this film with something a little more positive afterward because its certain to get in your head.
In the Mouth of Madness
Directed by John Carpenter and written by Michael De Luca, In The Mouth Of Madness follows an insurance investigator who begins discovering that the impact a horror writer’s books have on his fans is more than inspirational. The film stars Sam Neill, Jürgen Prochnow, and Julie Carmen.
John Carpenter’s take on a Lovecraft classic is a sight to behold. The film tends to be a cult classic amongst horror movie fans and for good reason. Cosmic horror, ancient gods, atmosphere you could cut with a knife? Sign us up.
Directed and written by James Ward Byrkit, Coherence follows a group of friends gathering for a dinner party on an evening when a comet is passing overhead. The film stars Emily Baldoni, Maury Sterling, and Nicholas Brendon. The film won best screenplay at the Austin Fantastic Fest in 2013.
Coherence is an underrated gem on our list of the best psychological horror films. Before you ever quite get an idea of what’s happening, the film is over. You’ll be thinking about Coherence for years to come, we guarantee it.
Directed by John Carpenter and written by Bill Lancaster, The Thing follows a research team in Antarctica who is hunted by a shape-shifting alien that assumes the appearance of its victims. The film stars Kurt Russell, Keith David, and Wilford Brimley.
The Thing has become a psychological cult classic and we stand by it. The film is a mediation on paranoia and our innate self-destructive behavior as human beings. With its setting aside, The Thing is cold, horrific, tense, and should be regarded as one of the best creature features ever made.
What’s Your Favorite Psychological Horror Movie?
Did your favorite psychological horror movie make our list? Or maybe we forgot one? Let us know the film you’d like to recommend for our list on social media today.