A Genre Examination of Psychological Horror Movies and TV Shows

Psychological Horror header
Sometimes it's not about what you see, but what you think you see...

Psychological horror movies and TV shows are an assault on our hearts and minds. This subgenre of horror purposefully messes with what's inside us, making us feel uneasy and outside of the norm. But there's so much more to this genre than just upsetting people. 

These kinds of movies and TV shows are about human nature. Often, they tackle social problems and societal negligence. Psychological scary movies can be deep, they can be profound, and they have a lot more to say. 

Today I want to really dig into this kind of entertainment and go over the definition, examples, and how you can use the techniques and tropes in your own work.  

Let's get started. 

Table of Contents

 

A Genre Examination of Psychological Horror Movies and TV Shows

Psychological Horror Definition

Psychological horror is a subgenre of horror. It focuses on the mental, emotional, and psychological states of a human being, often deconstructing their situations to frighten, disturb, or unsettle the audience.

While this often overlaps with psychological thrillers, psychological horror films and TV shows are intent on disturbing us to enhance the suspense, drama, action, and paranoia of the story.

The characters in these stories can be unstable, unreliable, or disturbed. 

It's also known as cerebral horror or surreal horror, depending on the nature of the plot. 

What Sets This Apart from a Psychological Thriller? 

A thriller is generally all psychological and requires thought and explanation as to what happens within the filmthere needs to be logic present. So the psychological thriller definition is a movie that can be explained with logic and motive but one that relies on scary situations, like Zodiac

A horror film has blood and gore with careless actions of violence.

So what is the horror vs. psychological thriller argument? Really, it's just semantics when clarifying a genre. 

When you mash up what we defined, you get psychological horror, which has all the gore and violence with complex explanations and paranoia. 

'Psycho'
Credit: Paramount Pictures

The Tropes of Psychological Horror Movies and TV Shows 

Most of these stories are built on existential dread or worry. There's often the threat of madness and the exploration of the mind. There's creepy things happening and often subtle details or clues. But there are specific tropes we often see in these kinds of stories. 

Let's look at their explanations as researched by Harriet Moore and Sheldon School

Nothing Is Scarier

This is a story trope used in three ways.

  • The Classic: Story beats build up suspense and tension until something jumps from the shadows. 
  • The Full Version: Nothing is happening at all, which makes the audience fearful of what they imagine might happen. 
  • The Empty Version: The audience thinks that there is nothing there until they realize there's been something there the whole time. Usually delivered as a reveal.  

Mind Screw

This trope is a combination of symbolism and surrealism. The idea here is that the audience is never quite sure what could be happening. We never have a definitive grip on what is actually going down, until maybe it's too late. 

Here's a list of these tropes compiled by Harriet Moore and Sheldon School:

  • Due to the symbolism or surrealism, the film appears "weird."
  • Even when symbolism is used, it is not explained.
  • The film events are never connected for the audience to understand them.
  • Even in context, events do not seem to have a cause.
  • Plot developments tend to be unclear.
  • You have to pick up "pieces" throughout the film to get the whole picture.
  • The "reveal" of the film seems irrelevant or unrelated to the rest of the film.
  • The "reveal" contradicts the rest of the film.
  • There is no "reveal."
  • There isn’t a clear timeline, or the timeline is non-chronological.
  • There is no end to the film, it just stops.
Credit: 20th Century Fox

Nightmare Fuel

We go to horror movies and shows to be scared, and this version of psychological horror tries to provoke the audience. Everything done is meant to be as scary as possible.  Here's a list of these tropes compiled by Harriet Moore and Sheldon School:

  • Death.
  • Extreme violence.
  • Fear-inducing animals such as snakes, spiders, or rats.
  • Rape.
  • Being buried alive.
  • Surreal things, such as monsters or anything supernatural (ghosts, demons, etc.).
  • Being eaten alive.
  • Being set on fire.
  • Disturbing noises or voices.
  • A totalitarian authority that is killing people, or so bad that people are killing themselves.
  • Being drowned.
  • Corpses.
  • Disease.
  • Being hunted.
  • Creepy children singing.
  • Being a puppet to someone controlling you, but your mind is still working.

Examples of Psychological Horror Movies and TV Shows 

Now that you understand some of the ideas behind the genre, let's look at a few examples of the best psychological horror movies and TV shows. 

Psychological horror films frighten or unsettle by relying on the imagination and/or the anticipation of a threat.

Some of the scariest psychological horror and movie TV shows are ones like Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby and Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. On TV, shoes like Castle Rock or The Twilight Zone play off the audience's understanding of fear. 

Castle Rock was marketed as an amalgamation of Stephen King's stories meant to terrify us. And The Twilight Zone became synonymous with creepy happenings week in and out. 

'Rosemary's Baby'
Credit: Paramount Pictures

This name-brand marketing played into the popularity of psychological horror. 

As I mentioned in the opening, psychological horror asks us to deal with societal issues as well. Think about movies like Get Out or even Unsane.

Get Out confronted suburban racism head-on, and Unsane took on greedy medical companies looking to bill insurance. 

The point is, psychological horror plays a lot into the fear of the "other."

What Are the Best Psychological Horror Movies and TV Shows? 

The best psychologically disturbing movies and TV shows understand the tenets of the subgenre and how to manipulate and exploit them to control the audience. 

Think about The Silence of the Lambs. It's kind of the perfect example. It's a movie about sexism, fear, and the search for a killer so horrific that the audience is scared to imagine him. That impending doom of who Buffalo Bill could be drives the story and the scares within it. 

Clarice Starling is a protagonist who is haunted by her past and the death of her father. Hannibal Lecter is her foil, who she has to work with to overcome her own inadequacies as well as thwart later. 

It really boils down everything this genre can be and more. 

'The Silence of the Lambs'
Credit: Orion Pictures

Psychological Horror Anime 

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention anime within this article. Its focus on stories geared toward adults lets it branch out into multiple genres and storylines. One of the most popular is anime horror, and of course, psychological horror plays a huge factor here. 

Shows like Code Glass on Netflix or Psycho Pass on Hulu thrive within the tropes listed above. They follow characters with deep issues and pack in all the blood and gore you expect from live-action films, if not more. 

While anime is not my strong suit, I'd love to see more suggestions for these examples in the comments. 

Writing Psychological Horror Movies and TV Shows 

When it comes to approaching psychological horror from the writing perspective, you should start the same way you start anything else. With an idea.

Once you have your idea for the film, build the characters. 

Who inhabits this world? 

For this particular genre, I would advise also figuring out what's haunting this person. What's the real problem they have underneath the surface that they want to face? 

Then begin worldbuilding. What kind of place do these characters reside in? Is this a mental hospital or a secluded cabin or one of the many other locales where psychological horror happens? The sky is the limit, and you can always incorporate other genres to make it easier. 

After that, think about how you you want to attack the points in your story. 

The Psychological Horror Screenplay Outline

The following beats can help you structure your psychological horror story.

1. Unraveling The TerrorDo you have an opening scare that defines the movie?

What are we dealing with inside this story? Set up the kind of psychological horror right away. 

2. The Entry PointWho will be involved in these terrifying escapades and what are they dealing with? 

In a movie like Get Out, it's the series of scenes where we meet our lead, his friends, and understand where they are going. 

3. Before It Goes to ShitWhat’s a normal day look like in this world?

Think about the way the family gets by in Amityville Horror before the dad begins to spin out.  

4. The Horror Sets InWhat horrific thing sets our characters off on their journey?

Nothing is worse than realizing the Devil may have impregnated you with the Antichrist, like in Rosemary's Baby.    

5. The Uneasy PathEveryone is together. What keeps them moving this way?

In something like The Ring, it's the reason why they deal with the monster at hand. What do they have to gain? Well, they have to, or they will die. 

6. Walking Over Broken GlassHow do our heroes deal with the problems as they go?

In the Saw franchise, this is how people try to get out of the sick traps and hunt Jigsaw. 

7. Through The Dark CaveDo you have a B story? Set that story off on its own now too.

B-stories, like the marital tension in The Happening, are great scenes to juxtapose against the horror at hand. 

8. Reassess the TerrorYou’re in the middle. Is there another way to get out alive?

In Silence of the Lambs, maybe you have to make a deal with Hannibal Lecter to get ahead.  

9. People are Going to DieThings begin to fall apart. Let the body count rise and show how they deal with it. 

In psychological horror, this is where the paranoia comes out and the danger evolves. 

10. The FallThe worst thing happens, something so bad you don’t think you can get up.

In a horror movie like The Mist, it's when they are forced outside and surrounded by the actual mist. 

11. The Hidden ClueWhat do your characters discover that they never saw before?

Is there a way out? Something they never realized, like in the Sixth Sense when David realizes he's a ghost. 

12. Race To the Final (Girl)They’re up and running no matter what. They can make it! 

This is the series of scenes that carry us toward your thrilling finale. In Alien, it's when Ripley is confronted and has to think fast. 

13. The Moment of ReliefDid they make it out alive? Has life returned to normal?

What does their day feel like with the problem corrected? Think about when The Invisible Man strikes back at the end and we see how the days look now...

14. Where We Go From Here?Show us the world in a new light, hint what’s next. Maybe the killer or monster returns for one final scare!

In every horror movie, it feels like there's one last scare. Like in I Still Know What you did Last Summer when it turns out the hook-handed man is under the bed! 

Summing Up Psychological Horror Movies and TV Shows

Movies and TV shows that mess with your head will always be popular. There are all kinds of ways to frighten an audience, and what this genre proves is you can attack people inside and out.

The best kinds of these movies and shows play off the audience's inherent empathy, but use it against us as well. You can drag an audience down into the pits of a disturbed mind, but only if you have a vision, precision, and a willingness to put your characters through absolute hell.

So go out and rent stuff like Jacob's Ladder, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. 

Learn from the masters, and create your masterpiece. 

I can't wait to see what you come up with and I am excited to read the comments. There's a ton of discourse to be had. 

What's next? Get our free screenwriting eBook

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Dig this spooky post? Then check out the rest of our Horror Week coverage for more tips, tricks, and terrifying takes.

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