What is “Psychological Horror”?

“It’s the kind of movie where the mind makes up for what the director doesn’t feature outright. It’s the monster in the closet where all you see is a pair of glowing red eyes. It’s the suggestion that a house is haunted and then walking through said location and hearing all kinds of concerning, creepy noises. It’s not a violent killer with a chainsaw chasing you around. It’s not a thriller where the police are trying to catch a heinous murderer. The main facet of a psychological horror film is what isn’t shown, not what is” (Source).

What Does a Good Psychological Horror Movie Look Like? 

Good psychological horror films:

  • often start out realistic, and then develop into irrational and terrifying stories
  • make the villian appealing/invite the audience to identify with the main character, who often turns into the villain
  • are built around emotional states: fear, tension, anxiety, confusion, disgust
  • control the audience’s emotions through the emotions of the characters
  • make the audience question their judgement, their emotions, and their own lives
  • replace obvious physical violence with subtle, evolving psychological violence
  • are scary because they’re vague/confusing
  • contain realistic qualities
  • make the mundane terrifying
  • contain “twists” that stun and unsettle the audience
  • contain moments of severe discomfort for the audience (in lieu of “jump scares”)


  • split-screen for telephone calls
  • unusual camera angles
  • interesting camera movement
  • monsters that embody emotional distress or issues of characters in a physical format
  • animal motifs that imply themes of the films
  • main characters with psychological disorders
  • protagonists/”good guys” who rely on/are at the mercy of psychopaths
  • manipulation of protagonists/audience
  • misogyny
  • psychopaths who have issues with their parents/were traumatized or abused as children
  • development of “doomed characters”
  • foreshadowing of “twists”
  • double climaxes that trick and confuse the audience
  • main characters who suffer from substance abuse (alcohol/drugs)
  • plot holes/ambiguous endings which allow for the audience’s imagination to fill in the gaps and make the film more terrifying for each specific viewer
  • “slasher smile” – the creepy look of the psychopath that creates discomfort for the viewer