Darren Aronofsky‘s mother! hits theaters this week, and we’re preparing for the madness by taking a look at psychological horror films that have totally screwed with us in the past. What are your personal favorite films in the subgenre? Share your thoughts with us in the comments and on social media!
11. The Lords of Salem (2013)
Before you close the link and start furiously typing about this choice, give us a second of your time. We know that this film isn’t for everyone, and that’s totally okay. You’re not wrong to hate it. Rob Zombie’s filmography is nothing if not divisive, and the director’s 2013 effort is arguably the strongest case of just that. Regardless whether you hate the film or not, it’s blatantly ridiculous to disagree that it’s a mindfuck of a horror film. The hellishly bizarre visuals on display are haunting, and though the story itself is lackluster in comparison, in the right setting, with the right mindset, the nightmarish atmosphere of The Lords of Salem is entirely effective.
10. Berlin Syndrome (2017)
The newest film on our list, Berlin Syndrome resides under the radar for most people (It’s on Netflix, so change that ASAP). The film follows an Australian tourist who is backpacking around Germany. After hooking up with a man in Berlin for a one-night stand, she finds herself locked inside of his apartment, realizing that he has no intention of letting her go. The film plays out more like a horror-thriller rather than a straightforward horror flick, but it’s nonetheless intense or scary.
9. It Follows (2014)
One of the more divisive psychological horror films on our list, It Follows, in large part, became an instant classic upon its 2014 release. Inspired by the filmmaker’s recurring “anxiety” nightmares from his youth, the film centers around a shape-shifting entity that is passed on through sex, and can only be seen by whoever is carrying, or has carried, the curse. The mental toll of being followed is on full display throughout the film, and it’s damn unsettling.
8. Bug (2006)
William Friedkin is quite experienced when it comes to terrifying audiences, but in the case of Bug, he scares us in a different kind of way. Electing to focus on the deteriorating mental state of two broken people who found each other at the height of their individual pain, Friedkin sticks us inside the fragile minds of our protagonists. The powerful performances by Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd ensure that Bug is remembered as one of the greatest psychological horror films.
7. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The Blair Witch Project is an effectively chilling film that doesn’t overly rely on the titular villain to produce scares. Instead, the directors put us in the headspace of three college students as they mentally break down while being tormented and lost. The fact that this movie made BANK by showcasing the unsettling terror of mental descent is impressive. Who needs a witch?
6. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
Much like the first film on our list, John Carpenter‘s In the Mouth of Madness establishes an unshakable fever dream-like atmosphere. Inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Carpenter relishes the opportunity to showcase horrifying creatures in a nightmarish setting. The end result is a film that will crawl inside your mind and reside there forever.
5. Session 9 (2001)
Few films are as mentally effective as Brad Anderson’s cult hit, Session 9. Following an asbestos abatement crew who take a job inside of an abandoned mental asylum, the film centers around the mounting tension between the men as they each begin to descend into different types of madness. Drenched in dread and refusing to let up for even a moment, Session 9 is certain to fuck you up.
4. Lovely Molly (2012)
Though The Blair Witch Project remains the most popular work of director Eduardo Sanchez, Lovely Molly is the better film. It also happens to be goddamn devastating. Gretchen Lodge gives a powerhouse performance as the titular Molly, whose troubled past frequently presents itself within her fragile mind. While there is an ample amount of actual terror taking place, the real monster of this story is trauma, mental illness, and how we cope with those things. Entirely unsettling and underrated, this a film everyone needs to check out.
3. The Babadook (2014)
Sticking with the theme of mental illness, trauma, and especially grief, The Babadook is a disturbing showcase in how powerfully monstrous these things can manifest if we harbor them without help. Essie Davis is utterly incredible as the broken conduit for maddening grief, breaking our hearts in one frame and scaring the hell out of us in the next. Though it’s one of the most divisive psychological horror films of recent memory, I think of it as a masterpiece.
2. Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Everything about Jacob’s Ladder feels like a nightmare that you can’t wake up from. Tim Robbins stars as Jacob Singer, a Vietnam veteran who experiences flashbacks and bizarre hallucinations after returning from the war. Evoking feelings of fear, confusion, and unnerving paranoia, Jacob’s Ladder is one of the greatest psychological horror films ever made.
1. The Shining (1980)
One of the genre’s most iconic films, Stanley Kubrick‘s take on Stephen King‘s source material is entirely unfaithful to the story. Still, the descent into madness by Jack Torrance is virtually unrivaled by any film that’s since came along. Jack Nicholson disappears into the role completely, and Kubrick’s intentionally cold direction doesn’t allow viewers to feel anything other than the aforementioned descension. We slip into the increasingly disturbed mindset of Torrance, and Kubrick strings us along relentlessly.