Psychological horror is a subgenre of horror and psychological fiction with a particular focus on mental, emotional, and psychological states to frighten, disturb, or unsettle its audience. The subgenre frequently overlaps with the related subgenre of psychological thriller, and often uses mystery elements and characters with unstable, unreliable, or disturbed psychological states to enhance the suspense, horror, drama, tension, and paranoia of the setting and plot and to provide an overall creepy, 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 or trauma; 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 the audience 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 on 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 and monster movies often focuses on a 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.[1]

Psychological fascination of psychological horror


Fascination with horror films lies in the unreasonable, irrational, and impossible. Jung and Nietzsche's theories exemplify humans need to escape the real world and live in a sublime space where anything is possible. Horror allows the watcher to escape mundane conventional life and express the inner workings of their irrational thoughts. H.P. Lovecraft's explanation for the fascination of horror stems more from the lack of understanding of a humans true place and our deep inner instinct we are out of touch with, and the basic insignificance of ones life and the universe at large. Horror forces us to remember. Psychological horror further forces the manifestation of each individuals own personal horror. Our unseen humanity and our most basic human impulses forces us to seek out stimuli to remind us of our true nature and potential.[2]

Modern research reveals the relationship between empathy and fear or the lack thereof with interest in horror. Research shows that the effects of psychological horror affects females more than males.[3]  A current hypothesis for this difference between the genders is that it relates to social expectations and the gender roles we are exposed to during childhood.[4] As a result of the lack of cross-cultural research on the psychological effects of horror, one hypothesis is that individual cultures develop their own unique sense of horror, based in their cultural experiences.

Tools of psychological horror


Lighting and shadows


Hitchcock's Rear Window used light and deliberate shadows to incite suspense in the viewer. Suspense is a fundamental part of Hitchcockian horror. The use of shadows through light to cover up information results in a subtle escalation of suspense and horror of what can not be seen. Hitchcock's Rear Window places the main character as the primary information source for the viewer; their confusion is pervasive. The viewer lacks an omniscient understanding of events, resulting in an suspenseful and slow then explosive revelation. Shadows hide events or truths yet to be revealed, sometimes foreshadow events, and notify the viewer to hidden truths, resulting in suspense and the self reflection of known truths by the viewer. Light is used as a metaphor for what we know and can be seen, in the light, and what we do not know and are trying to figure out, what is in the shadows. Half illumination can be used to express a duality of emotions and uncertainty. The use of a burning cigarette or cigar, a tiny light in a sea of darkness is enough to inform the viewer that something or someone is there, but reveals nothing else, manipulating the viewers fears of what could be.[5]

Sound and music


Studies by Thayer and Ellison in the 1980 studied the effects of different types of music layered on top of stressful visual stimuli, they used dermal electromagnetic to capture information about physiological stimulation while watching and listening. They found that with stressful music and composition laid over top stressful images the psychological response was greater than when watching the same visual stimuli with non stressful sound.[6] Music with a positive tones results in viewers perceiving simultaneous visual stimuli as positive, and when negative tones are used viewers perceive visual stimuli as negative or more threatening. They made three hypotheses and were able to prove two with their research: 1. The use of equally stressful sounds and music over stressful imagery increased the psychological response in viewers in comparison to the same imagery without sound. 2. Where sound and music are placed in relation to a stressful visual stimuli effects the psychological response in viewers. This could not be totally proven, as when sound and music are incongruent with visual stimuli the electromagnetic response was heightened without alleviation in moments of non stress. 3. Sound and music placement can manipulate the viewer into believing a stressful moment is about to happen or has ended, when music is used in opposition to human expectation it can increase stress in the viewer when the expectation the music created doesn't happen visual.[6] When following a character in a movie or show, the music exemplifies the emotion of the character, the viewer feels what the character feels, creating a synergy between character and viewer.[7] The addition of music breaths more depth into emotional response that visual stimuli can not accomplish on its own. Music can subconsciously influence the viewer, further intertwining them emotionally with what they are watching forcing them to feel more deeply whatever emotion they are feeling from watching making it an important piece of psychological horror and its success in inciting emotions in the viewer. While the use of full orchestras is a common use in the entire horror genre, when music is not playing sounds from actions in film, as well as the lack of all sound and score are also used as tools to incite psychological horror and emphasize emotion.[8]



The novels The Golem written by Gustav Meyrink, 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.


The Black Cat (1934), an early psychological horror film that adapts a story by Edgar Allan Poe

Psychological horror films generally differ from traditional horror films, where the source of the fear is typically something material, such as grotesque or horrifying creatures, monsters, serial killers, or aliens,[9] as well as the splatter and slasher film genres, which derive its frightening effects from gore and graphic violence,[9] in that tension in psychological horror films is more frequently built through atmosphere, suggestion, eerie sounds and exploitation of the viewer's and the character's psychology to induce fear. 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 an 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.

The Black Cat (1934) and Cat People (1942) have been cited as early psychological horror films.[10][9][11] Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 film Psycho has become a cinematic landmark, considered to be one of the most iconic and influential psychological horror films of all time.[12] Roman Polanski directed two films which are considered quintessential psychological horror: Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary's Baby (1968).[13][14] Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film The Shining, adapted from the aforementioned Stephen King novel, is another particularly well-known example of the genre.[15] The Silence of the Lambs (1991) directed by Jonathan Demme, as well as the animated film Perfect Blue (1997) directed by Satoshi Kon, are both notable examples of psychological horror, as on the surface they incorporate elements of the thriller genre.[16][17] Recent English-language films in the genre include Black Swan (2010), The Babadook (2014), It Follows (2015), Get Out (2017), Hereditary (2018), The House That Jack Built (2018), Midsommar (2019), The Lighthouse (2019), Saint Maud (2020), Last Night in Soho (2021), and Smile (2022).

The Italian film genre known as giallo often employs 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 nature.[18] Notable examples are Ring (1998) and the Ju-On series.[18] Another influential category is the Korean horror films, commonly referred to as "K-horror".[18] Notable examples are A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), Hansel and Gretel (2007), and Whispering Corridors (1998).[18] A landmark film from the Philippines, Kisapmata (1981), is an example of psychological horror.

Video games


Psychological horror video games are a subgenre of horror video games. While such games may be based on any style of gameplay, they are generally more exploratory and "seek to instigate a sense of doubt about what might really be happening" in the player.[19][20] Phantasmagoria (1995),[19] D (1995),[21] Corpse Party (1996)[22][23] and Silent Hill (1999)[24] are considered some of the first psychological horror games. Sometimes, psychological horror games will simulate crashes, file corruptions, and various other errors, such as the 2017 visual novel Doki Doki Literature Club![25]

See also



  1. ^ "Psychoanalytic theory in times of terror". Journal of Analytical Psychology. 4 (48): 407. September 2003.
  2. ^ Hauke, Christopher (2015-10-26). "Horror films and the attack on rationality". Journal of Analytical Psychology. 60 (5): 736–740. doi:10.1111/1468-5922.12181. ISSN 0021-8774. PMID 26499301.
  3. ^ Martin, G. Neil (2019-10-18). "(Why) Do You Like Scary Movies? A Review of the Empirical Research on Psychological Responses to Horror Films". Frontiers in Psychology. 10: 2298. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02298. ISSN 1664-1078. PMC 6813198. PMID 31681095.
  4. ^ Lin, Carolyn A.; Xu, Zhan (2017-10-02). "Watching TV Series with Horror Content: Audience Attributes, Motivations, Involvement and Enjoyment". Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. 61 (4): 638–657. doi:10.1080/08838151.2017.1375503. ISSN 0883-8151. S2CID 149437842.
  5. ^ Bradley, Devon (2022). "The Best Things Happen in the Dark". Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film & Visual Narration. 7 (2): 26–29. ISSN 2369-5056. Archived from the original on 2023-04-26. Retrieved 2023-04-26.
  6. ^ a b Meinel, Larina Sue; Bullerjahn, Claudia (2022-02-14). "More horror due to specific music placement? Effects of film music on psychophysiological responses to a horror film". Psychology of Music. 50 (6): 1837–1852. doi:10.1177/03057356211073478. ISSN 0305-7356. S2CID 246843004.
  7. ^ Deutsch, Stephen (2010-07-01). "<I>Psycho</I> and the orchestration of anxiety". The Soundtrack. 3 (1): 53–66. doi:10.1386/st.3.1.53_1. ISSN 1751-4193.
  8. ^ Smith, Eleanor Katie. Music, madness & memory : Victorian constructions of madness & musical horror tropes in contemporary film & television. OCLC 1255875757.
  9. ^ a b c Hayward 2006, p. 148.
  10. ^ Skal, David J. (15 October 2001). The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. Macmillan. p. 180. ISBN 0571199968. Retrieved 1 October 2012.
  11. ^ Strinati, Dominic (31 August 2000). An Introduction to Studying Popular Culture. Routledge. p. 90. ISBN 0415157668. Retrieved 1 October 2012.
  12. ^ Gleiberman, Owen (4 August 2009). "'Psycho': The horror movie that changed the genre". Entertainment Weekly.
  13. ^ Browne, Ray B.; Browne, Pat (15 June 2001). The Guide to United States Popular Culture. Popular Press. p. 411. ISBN 0879728213. Retrieved 1 October 2012.
  14. ^ Mazierska, Ewa (15 June 2007). Roman Polanski: The Cinema of a Cultural Traveller. I.B.Taurus. p. 89. ISBN 978-1845112974. Retrieved 1 October 2012.
  15. ^ Kawin, Bruce F. (25 June 2012). Horror and the Horror Film. Anthem Press. p. 115. ISBN 978-0857284495. Retrieved 1 October 2012.
  16. ^ "THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS And Horror Aversion At The Oscars". Britt Hayes. 16 January 2015. Archived from the original on 6 March 2016. Retrieved 2 March 2016.
  17. ^ "Top 10 Psychological Horror Movies - Alternative Reel". Alternative Reel. Alternative Reel. Archived from the original on 18 October 2015. Retrieved 25 December 2015.
  18. ^ a b c d Reid 2009, p. 163.
  19. ^ a b Perron, Bernard (2009). "Games of Fear: A Multi-Faceted Historical Account of the Horror Genre in Video Games". In Perron, Bernard (ed.). Horror Video Games: Essays on the Fusion of Fear and Play. McFarland & Company. pp. 26–45. ISBN 978-0786441976.
  20. ^ Krzywinska, Tanya (2009). "Reanimating H.P. Lovecraft: The Ludic Paradox of Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth". In Perron, Bernard (ed.). Horror Video Games: Essays on the Fusion of Fear and Play. McFarland & Company. pp. 267–288. ISBN 978-0786441976.
  21. ^ Kurl, Daniel (11 April 2019). "The "D Trilogy" Was Weird, Wild, and Truly One-of-a-Kind". Bloody Disgusting. Archived from the original on 7 November 2020. Retrieved 24 December 2020.
  22. ^ Fahey, Mike (October 31, 2011). "Paranoia, Madness, Suicide and Cannibalism; Who Says 16-Bit Can't Be Scary?". Kotaku. Archived from the original on 18 June 2012. Retrieved 12 June 2012.
  23. ^ Mortensen, Torill Elvira; Linderoth, Jonas; Brown, Ashley ML (June 5, 2015). "14: Sonic Descents – Musical Dark Play in Survival and Psychological Horror". The Dark Side of Game Play: Controversial Issues in Playful Environments. Routledge. p. 226. ISBN 9781317574460. Retrieved 4 May 2017.
  24. ^ Fahs, Travis (30 October 2009). "IGN Presents the History of Survival Horror". IGN. IGN Entertainment, Inc. p. 5. Archived from the original on 29 June 2010. Retrieved 9 June 2011.
  25. ^ Rose, Victoria (October 22, 2017). "Doki Doki Literature Club is an uncontrollably horrific visual novel". Polygon. Archived from the original on October 23, 2017. Retrieved May 10, 2020.