Psychological horror films span back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, with Universal Pictures' two biggest stars playing a part in the subgenre's inception: In The Black Cat (1934) Bela Lugosi's Dr. Vitus flays Boris Karloff's Hjalmar, while he's still alive, but viewers can only witness the crime via the characters' shadows.
Picking the crème de la crème of this horror subgenre proves most difficult with such a rich wealth of selections to choose from. Ingmar Bergman's Hour of the Wolf (1968) or Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965) seems good starting places for novices, while the more mature scary film fan might appreciate classics like The Killing Kind (1973), Jacob's Ladder (1990) and Don't Breathe (2016).
Now, enjoy EW's list of the 20 best psychological horror movies of all time.
20. <i>Get Out</i> (2017)
Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) gets more than he bargains for when he spends the weekend with his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) and her parents at their white flight-esque estate. Filmmaker Jordan Peele's venture into the realm of horror is an almost flawless, emotional rollercoaster that races on the tracks of both Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Stepford Wives (1975).
The scene where groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Hendersen) runs aimlessly across the lawn borders on the ridiculous, but, without getting into spoilers, the only other mistake Peele makes is the film's antagonist. It's immediately obvious who the true baddie is because the character simply can't be anyone else, so Peele's cleverness misses the mark here, though Get Out remains a stunning example of modern psychological horror with ample social commentary to spare.
You'll also enjoy Us (2019).
19. <i>The Blair Witch Project</i> (1999)
Heather, Josh and Mike journey to the woods of Maryland so they can film a documentary about the urban legend of the Blair Witch, but the trio disappears during their expedition — and they're never found. However, the footage they shot is recovered, and their harrowing time in the woods of Blair is purchased by Artisan Entertainment then shown in theaters nationwide.
There's also no way to discuss the psychological effect this footage had on moviegoers without spoilers. The infancy of the internet in 1999 allowed the filmmakers to pull off one of the greatest marketing campaigns of all time. As a result, Blair Witch Project became an indie sensation, costing a mere $60,000 to produce but grossing nearly $249 million worldwide, and is a film that remains the definitive cornerstone of the found-footage subgenre to this day.
You'll also enjoy Paranormal Activity (2007).
18. <i>The Wicker Man</i> (1973)
A girl vanishes into thin air, and Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives on the remote island of Summerisle to investigate. There, Howie finds Christianity discarded as Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) leads a pagan community, but he also learns a human sacrifice must be made to ensure a bountiful harvest.
The Wicker Man boasts a conclusion that is one of the most haunting and disturbing climaxes to a horror film in any era, but the inclusion of Lee as the wicked Lord Summerisle is a casting coup. Lee's distinguished career includes his indelible performances as Dracula for Hammer Film Productions, and even with his illustrious list of acting credits, Lee considered Lord Summerisle one of his finest roles.
You'll also enjoy The Witch (2015).
17. <i>American Psycho</i> (2000)
Bret Easton Ellis composes the decadent world of the late 1980s in his stream-of-consciousness novel American Psycho, and it's captured perfectly by director Mary Harron's adaptation, but there aren't enough business meetings, dinners at Dorsia, or videotapes to quell yuppie Patrick Bateman's (Christian Bale) need to kill — or is the mayhem Bateman causes all in his mind?
Part of the fun comparing the source material to the film can be summed up in two words: Tom Cruise. A number of actors were attached to the movie production before Bale won the role of Bateman, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Edward Norton, but Cruise is actually written into the novel and stage plays as Patrick's neighbor.
You'll also enjoy The House That Jack Built (2018).
16. <i>Audition</i> (1999)
Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi) is a widower attempting to get back in the dating pool, but he goes about it by holding a phony audition to meet women. It's there he falls for Asami (Eihi Shiina), but he can't love her the way she wants, and Asami doesn't handle rejection well.
Audition is a slow burn, spending the better part of two hours setting up audiences for arguably one of the most graphic climaxes in horror history. One scene in particular will test the mettle of even the truest horror fan: Asami feeds a bowl of vomit to her mutilated prisoner. Quentin Tarantino said in an interview that Audition is a "true masterpiece if ever there was one."
You'll also enjoy Fatal Attraction (1987).
15. <i>Black Swan</i> (2010)
Nina (Natalie Portman) lands the role of a lifetime as both Odette and Odile in Tchaikovsky's famed Swan Lake, but she barely has time to enjoy it. Her anxiety stems from her domineering mother (Barbara Hershey) and rival dancer (Mila Kunis) who may or may not be after her part of the ballet. Is the danger all in Nina's head, or does she have real cause to agonize?
Black Swan excels by offering breathtaking dance choreography, and the film's gorgeous cinematography provides viewers with a tapestry of imagery unparalleled by most psychological horror films. Natalie Portman owns each and every single moment of her screen time, and she spent an entire year training as a dancer. Her dedication earns her the Best Actress in a Leading Role Oscar.
You'll also enjoy Suspiria (2018).
14. <i>Don't Look Now</i> (1973)
John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Laura (Julie Christie) grieve for the loss of their daughter in Venice, but a clairvoyant (Hilary Mason) insists their little girl is trying to reach out to them and warn her parents of some unknown danger. Meanwhile, a serial killer terrorizes the city.
John believes he catches a glimpse of his little girl wearing her red raincoat, as the shadow of grief clouds the couple's outward perception and inward relationship. Don't Look Now manipulates audiences' minds, mixing elements of the occult with the overwhelming need for hope into a plot twist audiences will find difficult to swallow.
You'll also enjoy Antichrist (2009).
13. <i>Cat People</i> (1942)
Ah, it's the oldest love story in the books: Boy meets girl, boy marries girl, and then girl transforms into a giant, blood-thirsty panther. Irena (Simone Simon) seems like a nice enough girl, so Oliver (Kent Smith) courts her and they fall in love, but when it comes to consummating the marriage… meow!
Val Lewton's legacy as a scary movie producer begins with Cat People, where he leaves an indelible mark on the horror genre. Lewton's pictures always operate on a psychological level, and his films rely more times than not on the viewers' imaginations to conjure up the terrors being alluded to on screen. Cat People is no exception, and a golden-age must-see.
You'll also enjoy The Body Snatcher (1945).
12. <i>The Babadook</i> (2014)
Amelia Vanek (Essie Davis) does her best as a single mother after her husband dies in a car accident right before their six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), is born. The loss continues to torment Amelia, and Samuel turns to a children's pop-up book, Mister Babadook, for macabre comfort. The film's brilliance is how it folds elements of the supernatural and possession into the psychological trauma Amelia endures.
The Babadook begs for a sequel, but director Jennifer Kent promises that won't happen. "I had the foresight to make sure that my producer and I owned the rights to any sequels," Kent says in an interview. "The reason for that is I will never allow any sequel to be made, because it's not that kind of film. I don't care how much I'm offered; it's just not going to happen."
You'll also enjoy It Follows (2014).
11. <i>Rosemary's Baby</i> (1968)
Two things will happen while watching the ordeal Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) goes through: It'll be hard to trust anyone again, and the notion of nosy neighbors will take on a whole new meaning. Poor Rosemary is tricked by those closest to her through what is quite literally a hellish pregnancy, culminating in an unforgettable ending and an enduring performance from a wide-eyed Farrow.
Producer William Castle desperately wanted to direct an important film, so he'll be remembered for more than the string of B-movies that first launched his career. So, Castle acquired the rights to Ira Levin's novel, and Paramount Pictures paid Castle a handsome sum to produce Rosemary's Baby. But much to Castle's disappointment, Paramount handed over the directing reins to Roman Polanski, who sandwiched the film between 1965's Repulsion and 1976's The Tenant in his informal "Apartment Trilogy."
You'll also enjoy The Omen (1976).
10. <i>The Vanishing</i> (1988)
Rex (Gene Bervoets) faces the unthinkable when his girlfriend Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) inexplicably disappears when they briefly separate at a gas station. He spends three years trying to find her without any luck, and his torment is palpable, until Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) finally comes forward claiming to have abducted his love.
Saskia's boyfriend is so desperate to know what happened to her that he does the unthinkable: Raymond assures Rex that if he drinks some drugged coffee, he'll discover what happened to his girlfriend. Rex is so psychologically compromised by obsession that he accepts Raymond's bargain. What happens next in the final minutes of The Vanishing will leave viewers squirming in their seats and hoping against hope for our vulnerable leading man.
You'll also enjoy Let the Right One In (2008).
9. <i>Les Diaboliques</i> (1955)
Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is a schoolmaster juggling relationships, and his wife Christina (Véra Clouzot) and mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret) have had enough of his wickedness. The women team up to deal with their mutual problem, but as is the theme for this list, things are not as they seem. And when Christina finds her husband's body in the bathtub, the truth comes to life.
It's not clear until the end who the real mastermind is, and the infamous bathtub scene is guaranteed to scare someone to death. In the documentary Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, the famed B-movie producer notes that he was inspired to make scary movies after seeing throngs of people lined up for blocks outside a movie theater to see French thriller Les Diaboliques.
You'll also enjoy Macabre (1958).
8. <i>Wait Until Dark</i> (1967)
The plot of Wait Until Dark mirrors The Night of the Hunter (1955) in that a doll is used to smuggle something obtained through nefarious means, but this time around it's heroin, not money. And instead of Robert Mitchum, it's Alan Arkin and his crew of criminal cronies trying to get the doll away from a blind woman named Susy (Audrey Hepburn).
During the last eight minutes of Wait Until Dark, theater owners dim the auditoriums' lights as Susy tries to escape her own apartment for ultimate effect. Movie fans won't find any spoilers here, but bringing down the lights is an ingenious Alfred Hitchcock-like gimmick which sets up a spine-tingling surprise.
You'll also enjoy See No Evil (1971).
7. <i>Se7en</i> (1995)
Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) is the hungry new kid on the block, and detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) readies himself to bask in retirement. Unfortunately, the serial killer known as Jon Doe is ritualistically slaying victims by turning the seven deadly sins into symbolic, atrocious murders.
Se7en's gut-wrenching plot twist will leave viewers with goosebumps, but here's where the real chills crawl up the spine: Denzel Washington passed on the part of David Mills. "And I just thought 'no this is so dark,'" Washington explained to Larry King in an interview on why he turned the part down, which he later regrets. "Then I saw the movie and cried."
You'll also enjoy Zodiac (2007).
6. <i>Misery</i> (1990)
Author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) suffers a terrible car accident and is discovered by super-fan Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who nurses Paul back to health in her isolated home. However, once she discovers the writer of her favorite stories kills off the series' main character, Misery Chastain, uh oh, a hobbling Annie goes! Bates' riveting performance garnered her an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role, and she absolutely earns it.
Jack Nicholson was originally courted to play the role of Paul Sheldon, but passed because he didn't know if he wanted to make another Stephen King adaptation. However, the director of Misery, Rob Reiner, did work with Nicholson in his next venture, 1992's A Few Good Men.
You'll also enjoy Dolores Claiborne (1995).
5. <i>The Sixth Sense</i> (1999)
Cole (Haley Joel Osment) is a young boy who possesses the power to see ghosts, and he turns to a psychologist, Dr. Malcom Crowe (Bruce Willis) for help. As the pair work together, Cole realizes his curse might just be a gift, leading to one of the most unexpected movie twists in cinema history.
The Sixth Sense is the third film by M. Night Shyamalan, and the actress portraying the ghostly Kyra Collins is none other than Mischa Barton from The O.C. No spoilers here, but the movie demands to be watched twice. It's so much fun to go back, especially with friends, and see how the vaunted twist fits together seamlessly in the story like puzzle pieces in a jigsaw.
You'll also enjoy Split (2016).
4. <i>The Silence of the Lambs</i> (1991)
Stopping murderer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) proves too daunting a task to solve without direct insight into pure evil, so FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) must team up with the even more dangerous Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a jailed serial cannibal and certified genius, to stop the killings of young women.
The Silence of the Lambs was the first horror film to break through and win the Oscar for Best Picture. The movie also took home Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Hopkins), Best Actress in a Leading Role (Foster), Best Director, Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), Best Sound Design and Best Editing. Oh, and it delivered perhaps the most iconic on-screen villain of all time thanks to the always excellent Hopkins, who shines in an especially sinister light here.
You'll also enjoy Deranged (1974).
3. <i>M</i> (1931)
M's opening ingrains the deplorable, unseen acts of the serial killer, Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), in audiences' imaginations. Hans lures a little girl, Elsie, into a false sense of security when he buys her a balloon. Whatever evil befalls the poor child is left up to viewers' imaginations, and this is accomplished by a chilling series of shots and a daunting musical motif.
Elsie's mother calls out desperately from their apartment's window. An empty stairwell, an untouched place setting, and the sight of the little girl's balloons drifting into the power lines provides cinematic context to the child's chilling fate as the ball she once bounced rolls to a lonely stop in the leaves. Will the citizens find justice for their slain children? The resounding tension of this nearly 100-year-old psychological masterpiece will leave modern audiences guessing until its emotional apex.
You'll also enjoy The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).
2. <i>The Shining</i> (1980)
Recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) goes to extremes when it comes to getting away from it all, taking a job as the winter caretaker of the snowed-in Overlook Hotel to finish his novel with his wife (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) in tow — but he doesn't count on the company of the ghosts. Although the film strays drastically from Stephen King's novel, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is a complex film that teeters between the psychological and supernatural horror subgenres.
The Overlook is clearly haunted, but perhaps rather than simply going mad, Jack's rotting mind "shines" as his son's does with a clairvoyant glow. Now, if fans want to try their own luck at the Overlook, they can book a room. Yes, the lodging is real, but it is known as the Stanley Hotel.
You'll also enjoy Doctor Sleep (2019).
1. <i>Psycho</i> (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock's first horror film makes it fashionable to prefer baths over showers, but the tale of motel keeper Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his knife-wielding mother inspired almost every subgenre of scary movies. Even now, Psycho remains the epitome of psychological horror, but it's hard to discuss the "wigged-out" particulars without spoiling the big twist.
Hitchcock put up most of his own money to make the film, and the budget came in at just north of $800,000. After he acquired the rights to Robert Bloch's novel, the filmmaker decided to shoot the picture in black-and-white to save money, with Psycho going on to gross $32 million during its original theatrical release.
You'll also enjoy What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).