Psychological horror

Psychological horror is a sub-genre of horror literature, film, television and video games (as a narrative) which relies on the character's fears and/or abnormal psyche to frighten readers, viewers or players. On a few rare occasions, Psychological horror overlaps with the Psychological thriller sub-genre, making whatever story of the genre more unpleasant as well as terrifyingly suspenseful.


Psychological horror aims to create discomfort 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 Jungian psychology as the archetypal shadow characteristics: suspicion, distrust, self-doubt and paranoia of others, themselves and the world. Thus, elements of psychological horror focus on mental conflict. These become important as the characters face perverse situations, sometimes involving the supernatural, immorality 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 in 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 focuses on bizarre, alien evil to which the average viewer cannot easily relate. At times, the psychological horror and splatter sub-genres overlap, such as in the French horror film High Tension.[1]


The novel 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 Ring are some examples of psychological horror. Grant Morrison's graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth is also sometimes considered psychological horror.


Psychological horror films differ from the traditional horror film, where the source of the fear is typically something material, such as creatures, monsters or aliens,[2] as well as the splatter film, which derives its effects from gore and graphic violence,[2] in that tension is built through atmosphere, eerie sounds and exploitation of the viewer's and the character's psychological fears.

The Black Cat (1934) and Cat People (1942) have been cited as early psychological horror films.[3][2][4]

Roman Polanski directed two films which are considered quintessential psychological horror: Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary's Baby (1968).[5][6] Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film The Shining, adapted from the aforementioned Stephen King novel, is another particularly well-known example of the genre.[7] The Changeling (1980) directed by Peter Medak is good example of a psychological haunting story. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) directed by Jonathan Demme is another example of psychological horror, whilst also incorporating elements of the thriller genre.[8][9]

The subgenre is a staple in Asian countries. Japanese horror films, commonly referred to as "J-horror", have been noted to be generally of a psychological horror nature.[10] Notable examples are Ring (1998) and the Ju-on series.[10] Another influential category is the Korean horror films, commonly referred to as "K-horror".[10] Notable examples are A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), Hansel and Gretel (2007) and Whispering Corridors (1998).[10] A landmark film from the Philippines, Kisapmata (1981), is an example of psychological horror.

Video games

While video game genres are based upon their game-play content, psychological horror as narrative is used in some video games. A few successful video game franchises have spawned from using psychological horror as a main form of creating fear, the most well known being Silent Hill. Other psychological horror games include Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Soma, Manhunt, Ib (video game), Nocturne, Condemned: Criminal Origins, The Evil Within, Alan Wake, Deadly Premonition, Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, Cry of Fear, Outlast, The Suffering, Anna, Lone Survivor and to some extent, Dead Space, F.E.A.R, Spec Ops: The Line and The Swapper.

See also


  1. "Psychoanalytic theory in times of terror". Journal of Analytical Psychology. 4 (48): 407. September 2003.
  2. 1 2 3 Hayward 2006, p. 148.
  3. Skal, David J. (15 October 2001). The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. Macmillan. p. 180. ISBN 0571199968. Retrieved 1 October 2012.
  4. Strinati, Dominic (31 August 2000). An Introduction to Studying Popular Culture. Routledge. p. 90. ISBN 0415157668. Retrieved 1 October 2012.
  5. 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.
  6. Mazierska, Ewa (15 June 2007). Roman Polanski: The Cinema of a Cultural Traveller. I.B.Taurus. p. 89. ISBN 1845112970. Retrieved 1 October 2012.
  7. Kawin, Bruce F. (25 June 2012). Horror and the Horror Film. Anthem Press. p. 115. ISBN 0857284495. Retrieved 1 October 2012.
  8. "THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS And Horror Aversion At The Oscars". Britt Hayes. Retrieved 2 March 2016.
  9. "Top 10 Psychological Horror Movies - Alternative Reel". Alternative Reel. Alternative Reel. Retrieved 25 December 2015.
  10. 1 2 3 4 Reid 2009, p. 163.
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