I truly love all incarnations of horror, but psychological horror is, certainly, the sub-category of horror that I respond to best of all. But what is it about psychological horror that gets under our skin so easily?
I’ve said for years that a gloriously terrifying delight for me has been a niggling thought. Something that gets into the brain, sticks and won’t be moved—like a corn kernel lodged in the tooth, only much more deliciously uncomfortable. Like a niggling thought, psychological horror relies on the same mechanism, using the fears and desires of characters against them.
Unlike gothic horror, which makes use of atmosphere, setting, and weather to great effect (both in how they are written and how they are used—imagine a creepy castle. Now imagine a creepy castle falling apart during a thunder storm. Much scarier), psychological horror relies on the characters’ perceptions of the setting, atmosphere, and weather (Joe Bloggs eyes that creepy castle and knows—just knows—that it is watching him . . .). It is how they perceive these elements that makes it scary, not merely their existence. Usually it’s a breakdown of emotions, relying on mental and/or emotional instability and fragility that already exists.
Because of that, psychological horror is often effective because of what isn’t seen. Our minds can fill in the banks far more effectively than CGI . . . We, as the audience or reader, also perceive the images and scenarios presented to us in different ways—and so a lack of horror, but the suggestion of danger, will affect a greater number of people in multiple different (and unpredictable) ways.
My favourite type of psychological horror often involves insanity, unreliable narrators (especially when those narrators are revealed to be unreliable halfway through the book—or at the very end!), ploys with perception and distortions—whether by the mind of the protagonist, or by the author (think House of Leaves).
Nothing delights me more than an artful and unexpected plot twist—anyone remember Strange Circus or The Others or Rosemary’s Baby or Jacob’s Ladder? All of these films are typical works of psychological fiction. Most often, the terror comes from something within, not without. The devil inside—the one that controls us, cages us, and hurts those we love—is far scarier than ghouls and ghosts in the corridors! And, of course, the idea that there are ghosts and ghouls in the corridor is far more terrifying than the actualization of these fears (which brings with it a kind of release).
Leaving a theatre feeling disturbed or contemplating some before un-thought-of scenario or belief is the domain of psychological horror. Human nature is the domain of psychological horror (even when it includes the supernatural, since it is the perception of these phenomena that triggers the fear and discomfort).
K-horror and J-horror are often very psychological, and two of my favorite horror genres! If you’d like a good subtle scare or a disturbing thought-provoking experience, check out the Ju-on series of films and Hansel and Gretel. Thai horror, too, has its gems—watch Shutter.
Good examples of Psychological horror in YA are The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein, Unwind by Neil Shusterman. A recent read, with a decidedly psychological element of horror was Asylum by Madeleine Roux (a photo novel like Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs).
When seeking to find the keys to a good psychological horror, remember: it’s about characters. Fears, desires, suspicions. It’s about being pushed too far, making tough decisions, teetering on the edge of an unimaginable line and looking down into the black abyss of oblivion. It is the mortal fear we all have inside us, brought to the surface and toyed with.
Can you think of great psychological horror (books or films) that you adored? What about them makes them so creepy?
Here is a list of some good psych-horror FILMS:
- Rosemary’s Baby
- Strange Circus
- A Tale of Two Sisters
- Hansel and Gretel
- The Shining (I actually prefer the 1997 Tv mini-series)
- The Uninvited
- The Blair Witch Project (and its sequel)
- Session 9
- Cube (This could also be classed a thriller)
- The Mothman Prophecies
- The Orphanage
- Let Me In (Both versions)
- The Devil Inside
- The Silent House
- Stir of Echoes
- The Skeleton Key
- Donnie Darko (thriller/drama crossover)
- The Sixth Sense
- Hide and Seek
- The Others
- Disturbia (more of a thriller, but…)
Great psych-horror BOOKS:
- House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
- The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
- The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein (Young Adult)
- Unwind by Neil Shusterman (Young Adult)
- Diary of Ellen Rimbauer by Joyce Reardon
- The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
- Asylum by Madeleine Roux (Young Adult)
Before you go to sleep tonight, do remember to check under your bed, or the wardrobe, for that killer demon clown in there, won’t you?
M’kay, thanks, bye!