When words like cerebral, disturbing, and mind-bending surround a horror film, the viewer can assume they’re in for something good.
The horror genre in every medium has a lot of wiggle room. Perhaps more than any other genre, two works of horror could be worlds apart. The horror of being hacked apart by an armed crazy person or consumed by a massive monster is obvious, but the more subtle scares play with the mind’s inner recesses.
When judging horror in a visual medium, people often draw a hard line between suspense and shock. Smart scary stories slowly build tension through meticulous subtle storytelling, while the lower-tier competition settles for loud noises and sudden shrieks. The high watermark of the subtlety camp is almost always psychological horror.
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Psychological horror relies on the internal mental state of its characters to convey terror to the audience. A lot of horror stories depict extreme reactions of fear, misery, and rage, but psychological horror takes a deeper look at the strange emotional factors of a terrible situation. Many stories in the genre eschew any material threat. There’s often no killer or monster to evade, nor is there a ton of gruesome gore to be disgusted by. The thing that scares the protagonist and the audience might not even exist in fiction. Psychological horror fiction explores the vulnerabilities and anxieties that are common to the experience of living with a human brain. Characters frequently struggle against their own human impulses. The story may mess with perception, be delivered by an unreliable narrator, or otherwise betray the audience’s trust. One can expect a few twists in any given psychological horror story. Countless other horror subgenres use elements of psychology, but the truest examples shake audiences to their core.
Arguably, the early predecessors of the psychological horror genre could be found in the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Though he was unappreciated in his time, Poe created the building blocks for so many modern horror movements. In 1843, two of Poe’s short stories were published; “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The stories are, in many ways, in conversation with each other. Both stories are first-person accounts of murder, heavily tinged by guilt and paranoia. Both killers are driven mad by their actions, gradually tormenting them emotionally until they’re forced to confess. The horror of Poe’s short stories isn’t the risk of being murdered, it’s the internal ravages of fear that come with doing something wrong. Poe loved the idea of moral disintegration reflecting itself in a person’s surroundings. He rarely wrote about literal ghosts coming to haunt their killers, but anyone who would dare cross that moral boundary would be haunted for the rest of their days.
One of the first cinematic examples of psychological horror was Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1934 adaptation of The Black Cat. Famously, despite having such solid source material to pull from, Ulmer’s film had almost nothing to do with Poe’s classic. 8 years later, Jacques Tourneur directed Cat People for RKO. The film cast Simone Simon as a woman descended from an ancient race of people who transform into deadly panthers when aroused. It’s a bizarre psychosexual horror film that explores the dangers of passion and the complicated nature of relationships. Decades of development in the genre have led to classics like Silence of the Lambs, Black Swan, Get Out, and many more beloved horror films. Across cultures, Japanese films like Ringu and Korean films like A Tale of Two Sisters keep the tradition alive all over the globe. Though things have changed, matters of the mind have a certain universal appeal.
Books and movies handle psychological horror very well, but the newest art medium in the world brings the concept of interactive narrative to the genre to great effect. Inspired by films like Jacob’s Ladder, Team Silent’s 1999 classic Silent Hill defined the genre for a generation of fans. Though the franchise has undergone a bit of a quiet period over the past few years, the first four titles are all unique mainstays of psychological horror. The ability to experience a character’s guilt, trauma, and descent into madness from the driver’s seat changed the concept forever. Silent Hill hasn’t returned to the high point of its early days in years, but there’s a new crop on the way to possibly reignite this horrific flame.
Psychological horror is unnerving in a way that a lot of other genres can’t manage. A mountain of gore might gross out the audience. A jump scare might make them squeal. Psychological horror gets into the darkest corners of the human mind, unraveling what keeps us safe from ourselves. Over the generations, mankind has imagined the most horrific concepts possible to keep each other awake at night. But, the undisputed champion of horror remains the human brain. We can scare ourselves more effectively than anyone else. Psychological horror is the art of holding up a mirror and a flashlight and forcing us to consider the parts of our mind that we’d rather leave in the dark.
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