Psychological horror is a subgenre of horror and psychological fiction that relies on mental, emotional and psychological states to frighten, disturb, or unsettle readers, viewers, or players. The subgenre frequently overlaps with the related subgenre of psychological thriller, and it often uses mystery elements and characters with unstable, unreliable, or disturbed psychological states to enhance the suspense, drama, action, and paranoia of the setting and plot and to provide an overall unpleasant, unsettling, or distressing atmosphere.
Psychological horror usually aims to create discomfort or dread by exposing common or universal psychological and emotional vulnerabilities/fears and revealing the darker parts of the human psyche that most people may repress or deny. This idea is referred to in analytical psychology as the archetypal shadow characteristics: suspicion, distrust, self-doubt, and paranoia of others, themselves, and the world.
The genre sometimes seeks to challenge or confuse the audience's grasp of the narrative or plot by focusing on characters who are themselves unsure of or doubting their own perceptions of reality or questioning their own sanity. Characters' perceptions of their surroundings or situations may indeed be distorted or subject to delusions, outside manipulation or gaslighting by other characters, emotional disturbances, and even hallucinations or mental disorders. In many cases, and in a similar way as the overlapping genre of psychological thriller, psychological horror may deploy an unreliable narrator or imply that aspects of the story are being perceived inaccurately by a protagonist, thus confusing or unsettling viewers or readers and setting up an ominous or disturbing overarching tone. In other cases, the narrator or protagonist may be reliable or ostensibly mentally stable but is placed in a situation involving another character or characters who are psychologically, mentally, or emotionally disturbed. Thus, elements of psychological horror focus on mental conflicts. These become important as the characters face perverse situations, sometimes involving the supernatural, immorality, murder, and conspiracies. While other horror media emphasize fantastical situations such as attacks by monsters, psychological horror tends to keep the monsters hidden and to involve situations more grounded in artistic realism.
Plot twists are an often-used device. Characters commonly face internal battles with subconscious desires such as romantic lust and the desire for petty revenge. In contrast, splatter fiction focuses on bizarre, alien evil to which the average viewer cannot easily relate. However, at times, the psychological horror and splatter subgenres overlap, such as in the French horror film High Tension.
The novel The Silence of the Lambs written by Thomas Harris, Robert Bloch novels such as Psycho and American Gothic, Stephen King novels such as Carrie, Misery, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, The Shining, and Koji Suzuki's novel Ring are some examples of psychological horror. Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle is often viewed as one of the best examples of psychological horror in fiction.
Psychological horror films generally differ from the traditional horror film, where the source of the fear is typically something material, such as grotesque or horrifying creatures, monsters, serial killers, or aliens, as well as the splatter film, which derives its frightening effects from gore and graphic violence, in that tension in psychological horror films is more frequently built through atmosphere, eerie sounds and exploitation of the viewer's and the character's psychological fears. Psychological horror films sometimes frighten or unsettle by relying on the viewer's or character's own imagination or the anticipation of a threat rather than an actual threat or a material source of fear portrayed onscreen. However, some psychological horror films may in fact contain a material or overt threat or a physical source of fear, as well as scenes of graphic gore or violence, yet still rely or focus mainly on atmosphere and the psychological, mental, and emotional states of the characters and viewers to frighten or disturb. For instance, some psychological horror films may portray psychotic murderers and scenes of graphic violence while still maintaining an atmosphere that focuses on either the villain's, protagonist's, or audience's psychological, mental, or emotional status.
Roman Polanski directed two films which are considered quintessential psychological horror: Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary's Baby (1968). Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film The Shining, adapted from the aforementioned Stephen King novel, is another particularly well-known example of the genre. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) directed by Jonathan Demme is another example of psychological horror, whilst also incorporating elements of the thriller genre. Recent English-language films in the genre include Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan (2010), The Babadook (2014), and It Follows (2015).
The Italian film genre known as giallo often employs psychological horror or elements of the psychological horror subgenre. The subgenre is also a staple in Asian countries. Japanese horror films, commonly referred to as "J-horror", have been noted to be generally of a psychological horror nature. Notable examples are Ring (1998) and the Ju-On series. Another influential category is the Korean horror films, commonly referred to as "K-horror". Notable examples are A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), Hansel and Gretel (2007), and Whispering Corridors (1998). A landmark film from the Philippines, Kisapmata (1981), is an example of psychological horror.
While video game genres are based upon their gameplay content, psychological horror as narrative is used in some video games. A few successful video game franchises have spawned from using psychological horror as a main form of creating fear.
Psychological horror video games include:
1408 is a 2007 American psychological horror film based on Stephen King's 1999 short story of the same name. It is directed by Mikael Håfström and stars John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack, Tony Shalhoub, Len Cariou, Isiah Whitlock, Jr., and Jasmine Jessica Anthony. The film was released in the United States on June 22, 2007, although July 13 (which in 2007 fell on a Friday) is mentioned as the release date on the website.
The film follows Mike Enslin, an author who investigates allegedly haunted houses and rents the titular room 1408 at a New York City hotel. Although skeptical of the paranormal, he is soon trapped in the room where he experiences bizarre events. Reviews were mostly positive and the film was also a financial success.Black Swan (film)
Black Swan is a 2010 American psychological horror film directed by Darren Aronofsky. The screenplay was written by Mark Heyman, John McLaughlin, and Andres Heinz, based on an original story by Heinz. The film stars Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, and Winona Ryder. The plot revolves around a production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake ballet by the prestigious New York City Ballet company. The production requires a ballerina to play the innocent and fragile White Swan, for which the committed dancer Nina (Portman) is a perfect fit, as well as the dark and sensual Black Swan, which are qualities better embodied by the new arrival Lily (Kunis). Nina is overwhelmed by a feeling of immense pressure when she finds herself competing for the part, causing her to lose her tenuous grip on reality and descend into a living nightmare.
Usually described as a psychological horror film, Black Swan can be also interpreted as a metaphor for achieving artistic perfection, with all the psychological and physical challenges one might encounter, i.e. "the film can be perceived as a poetic metaphor for the birth of an artist, that is, as a visual representation of Nina's psychic odyssey toward achieving artistic perfection and of the price to be paid for it."Aronofsky conceived the premise by connecting his viewings of a production of Swan Lake with an unrealized screenplay about understudies and the notion of being haunted by a double, similar to the folklore surrounding doppelgängers. Aronofsky cites Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Double as another inspiration for the film. The director also considered Black Swan a companion piece to his 2008 film The Wrestler, with both films involving demanding performances for different kinds of art. He and Portman first discussed the project in 2000, and after a brief attachment to Universal Studios, Black Swan was produced in New York City in 2009 by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Portman and Kunis trained in ballet for several months prior to filming, and notable figures from the ballet world helped with film production to shape the ballet presentation.
The film premiered as the opening film for the 67th Venice International Film Festival on September 1, 2010. It had a limited release in the United States starting December 3, 2010 and opened in wide release on December 17. The film upon release was a critical and commercial success. Critics praised Portman's performance and Aronofsky's direction, while the film grossed over $329 million worldwide. It received five nominations at the 83rd Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing and winning Best Actress (for Portman).Case 39
Case 39 is a 2009 American supernatural psychological horror film directed by Christian Alvart, and starring Renée Zellweger, Jodelle Ferland, Bradley Cooper and Ian McShane.Escape Room (film)
Escape Room is a 2019 psychological horror film directed by Adam Robitel and written by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik. The film stars Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Deborah Ann Woll, Tyler Labine, Jay Ellis, and Nik Dodani, and follows a group of people who are sent to navigate a series of escape rooms, only to discover that their fates are tied to whether or not they can beat them in time.
Development of the film began in August 2017, then under the title The Maze, and the casting process commenced. Filming took place in South Africa in late 2017 through January 2018.
Escape Room was released in the United States on January 4, 2019, by Sony Pictures Entertainment, and was a box office success, grossing over $154 million worldwide. The film received mixed reviews from critics, who praised the atmosphere and cast, but criticized the familiar plot and its failure to take full advantage of its premise. A sequel is planned for release on April 17, 2020.Flatliners (2017 film)
Flatliners is a 2017 American science fiction psychological horror film directed by Niels Arden Oplev and written by Ben Ripley. The film is a remake of the 1990 film of the same name, and stars Ellen Page, Diego Luna, Nina Dobrev, James Norton and Kiersey Clemons. It follows five medical students who attempt to conduct experiments that produce near-death experiences.
Sony Pictures released the film in the United States on September 29, 2017. It was heavily panned by critics, with many comparing it unfavorably to the original, but it was a moderate box office success, grossing $45 million worldwide on a $19 million budget.Gerald's Game (film)
Gerald's Game is a 2017 American psychological horror film directed and edited by Mike Flanagan and written by Jeff Howard and Flanagan. It is based on Stephen King's 1992 novel of the same name. An adaptation of the novel was long thought to be unfilmable until Mike Flanagan came in. The film stars Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood.
It was released on September 29, 2017, by Netflix.Hide and Seek (2005 film)
Hide and Seek is a 2005 American psychological horror-thriller film starring Robert De Niro and Dakota Fanning. It was directed by John Polson. The film opened in the United States on January 28, 2005, and grossed $122 million worldwide. Rotten Tomatoes cited praise for De Niro and Fanning for their performances, though its consensus called the film "derivative, illogical and somewhat silly". Fanning received an MTV Movie Award for Best Frightened Performance in 2005.Insidious (film)
Insidious is a 2010 supernatural horror film directed by James Wan, written by Leigh Whannell, and starring Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, and Barbara Hershey. It is the first installment in the Insidious franchise, and the third in terms of the series' in-story chronology. The story centers on a couple whose son inexplicably enters a comatose state and becomes a vessel for ghosts in an astral dimension who want to inhabit his body. The film was released in theaters on April 1, 2011, and was FilmDistrict's first theatrical release. The film is followed by a sequel, Chapter 2 (2013) and two prequels, Chapter 3 (2015) and The Last Key (2018). There is also a fifth installment set to be released in 2021.It Follows
It Follows is a 2014 American supernatural psychological horror film written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, and starring Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto, Jake Weary, Olivia Luccardi, and Lili Sepe. The film follows a teenage girl named Jay, who is pursued by a supernatural entity after a sexual encounter.The film debuted at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, and was later purchased by RADiUS-TWC for distribution. After a successful limited release beginning on March 13, 2015, the film had a wide release on March 27, 2015. It received critical acclaim and grossed $23.3 million worldwide.It – Chapter Two
It: Chapter Two is an upcoming American supernatural horror film and the sequel to the 2017 film It. Both parts were adapted from the 1986 novel It by Stephen King. The film is produced by New Line Cinema, Vertigo Entertainment, and Rideback, and distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. The second part is directed by Andy Muschietti and written by Gary Dauberman. Set in 2016, 27 years after the events of 1989 described in the first film, the film stars Bill Skarsgård, who reprises his role as Pennywise. It also stars James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Jay Ryan, Isaiah Mustafa, James Ransone, and Andy Bean, who portray the adult versions of The Losers Club, while Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, and Wyatt Oleff return from the first film as the younger Losers, respectively.
Talks for an It sequel began in February 2016, when Muschietti revealed the plan to get production underway for the sequel of It. By September 2017, New Line Cinema announced that the sequel would be released in September 2019, with Dauberman writing the script, and Muschietti expected to direct the film. Principal photography on the film began on June 19, 2018, at Pinewood Toronto Studios and on locations in and around Port Hope, Oshawa, and Toronto, Ontario, and wrapped on October 31, 2018.
The film is scheduled to be released on September 6, 2019.Misery (film)
Misery is a 1990 American psychological horror film directed by Rob Reiner based on Stephen King's 1987 novel of the same name, starring James Caan, Kathy Bates, Lauren Bacall, Richard Farnsworth, and Frances Sternhagen about a psychotic fan who holds an author captive and forces him to write her stories.
The film was released on November 30, 1990 in the United States to critical acclaim. Bates's performance as the psychopathic Annie Wilkes won the Academy Award for Best Actress at the 63rd Academy Awards. Misery is the only film based on a Stephen King novel to win an Oscar. The "hobbling" scene in the film was ranked #12 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments.Mother!
Mother! (stylized as mother!) is a 2017 American psychological horror film written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, and starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer. The plot follows a young woman whose tranquil life with her husband at their country home is disrupted by the arrival of a mysterious couple.
Mother! was selected to compete for the Golden Lion at the 74th Venice International Film Festival, and premiered there on September 5, 2017. It was released in the United States on September 15, 2017, by Paramount Pictures, and grossed $44 million worldwide against its $30 million budget. Although the film received generally positive reviews from critics, its biblical allegories and depiction of violence sparked controversy.Orphan (2009 film)
Orphan is a 2009 psychological horror film directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and written by David Leslie Johnson from a story by Alex Mace. The film stars Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman, C. C. H. Pounder and Jimmy Bennett. The plot centers on a couple who, after the death of their unborn child, adopt a mysterious 9-year-old girl.
The film is an international co-production between the United States, Canada, Germany and France. It was produced by Joel Silver and Susan Downey of Dark Castle Entertainment, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Davisson Killoran of Appian Way Productions. Principal photography for the film took place in Canada, in the cities of St. Thomas, Toronto, Port Hope, and Montreal.
Orphan was released theatrically in the United States on July 24, 2009 by Warner Bros. Pictures. Although the film received mixed reviews, Fuhrman's performance was lauded and positively received, with some critics compared her performance as Esther to that of Linda Blair in The Exorcist and Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed. It grossed $78 million worldwide against a $20 million budget.Split (2016 American film)
Split is a 2016 American psychological horror thriller film and the second installment in the Unbreakable trilogy written, directed, and produced by M. Night Shyamalan and starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Betty Buckley. The film follows a man with 23 different personalities who kidnaps and imprisons three teenage girls in an isolated underground facility.
Principal photography began on November 11, 2015, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The film premiered at Fantastic Fest on September 26, 2016, and was released in the United States on January 20, 2017, by Universal Pictures. The film received generally positive reviews, with McAvoy's performance earning high praise and some critics labeling it a welcome return to form for Shyamalan, although some criticized the film for its perceived stigmatization of mental illness. The film grossed $278 million worldwide on a budget of $9 million.
The film is a standalone sequel to the 2000 film Unbreakable, which was also written, produced, and directed by Shyamalan. The film was not marketed as a sequel, instead saving the revelation for a scene featuring Bruce Willis reprising his Unbreakable role in an uncredited cameo. Split is noted as the first solo supervillain origin movie and Hollywood's first stealth sequel. It is also Shyamalan's first sequel. The final part of the trilogy, titled Glass, was released in January 2019, combining the casts and characters of both previous films.The Ring (2002 film)
The Ring (stylized as the ring) is a 2002 American supernatural horror film directed by Gore Verbinski and starring Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson, David Dorfman, and Brian Cox. It is a remake of the 1998 Japanese horror film Ring based on the novel of the same name by Koji Suzuki.
The Ring was released theatrically on October 18, 2002, and received mostly positive reviews. Many critics praised direction, screenplay, Watts's performance, and reliance on dread and visuals over gore, but criticized the lack of character development. The film grossed over $249 million worldwide on a $48 million production budget, making it one of the highest-grossing horror remakes. It is the first installment of the American Ring series, and was followed by The Ring Two (2005) and Rings (2017).
The Ring paved the way for English-language remakes of Asian horror films, such as The Grudge, Dark Water, Pulse, One Missed Call, The Eye, Shutter, Mirrors and The Uninvited.The Ring Two
The Ring Two (stylized as the ring twO) is a 2005 American supernatural psychological horror film and a sequel to the 2002 film The Ring, which was a remake of the 1998 Japanese film Ringu. Hideo Nakata, director of the original Japanese film Ringu, on which the American versions are based, directed this film in place of Gore Verbinski.
The film was shot in Astoria, Oregon and Los Angeles, California. It was released on March 18, 2005, and although it was met by generally negative critical reception, it opened in the United States with a strong US$35 million its first weekend, more than doubling the opening weekend of The Ring. Its final $76 million domestic gross was less than the original's $129 million, but it took $85 million internationally, for a total gross of $161 million.
It is the second installment in The Ring film series and was followed by Rings (2017).The Village (2004 film)
The Village is a 2004 American psychological thriller mystery drama film, written, produced, and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, and starring Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, Bryce Dallas Howard, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, and Brendan Gleeson. The film is about a village whose population lives in fear of creatures inhabiting the woods beyond it, referred to as "Those We Don't Speak Of". Like other films written and directed by Shyamalan from the same time period, The Village has a twist ending.
The film received mixed reviews, with critics especially divided about the plausibility and payoff of the ending. The film gave composer James Newton Howard his fourth Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score.Unsane
Unsane is a 2018 American psychological horror film directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer. The film stars Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Aimee Mullins, and Amy Irving, and follows a woman confined to a mental institution after she is pursued by a stalker. The film was shot entirely on the iPhone 7 Plus.
Unsane had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival known as Berlinale on February 21, 2018, and was theatrically released in the United States on March 23, 2018, by Bleecker Street and Soderbergh's production company Fingerprint Releasing.What Lies Beneath
What Lies Beneath is a 2000 American supernatural horror film directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer as a couple who experience a strange haunting of their home. It was the first film by Zemeckis' production company, ImageMovers. The film opened in 2,813 theaters in North America, and grossed $291 million at the worldwide box office, becoming the tenth-highest grossing film of the year. It received mixed reviews, but was nominated for three Saturn Awards.
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