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Carl the Critic's Top Ten Psychological Horror Films

Updated on December 19, 2014
Horror Movie Freak!
Horror Movie Freak!

There are many sub-genres of horror, ranging from the modern day "gorno" films to the slasher films. Some films have a monster, some take place during a post-apocalyptic world, and some have dark religious themes. If I was to pick my favorite genre, it would be the horror films where all the scares do not come from a concrete, physical being, but instead comes from the depths of ours psyche. You don't really see a lot of good modern psychological horror films, so if I am to make one of my own, where do I look for guidance, and/or inspiration?

To answer this question let's take a look at what I feel are the top ten psychological horror films.


To start off, I decided to talk about a film that I don't particularly like. Is it a bad film? Not really, it just really wasn't my thing. However I can not deny the impact that this film made in the film industry, particularly the independent film industry. This is a film that had a budget of literally nothing, but yet it made about $248,639,099. It started off as a bunch of kids with cameras who went off into the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland in 1994 in search of a legend. Who is this legend you might ask?

"The Blair Witch Project"

Some of you are wondering, "Carl, if you don't like this movie, then why is it on your list?"

Well this is an important movie for horror film students to watch at least once, just so they can see what was responsible for so many films like "Cloverfield", "The Last Exorcism", and "Paranormal Activity". "The Blair Witch Project" is a type of film that I like to call a "Shock-u-mentary", a film that has a realistic feel (as if it were a documentary) that is made to scare you! What makes "The Blair Witch Project" an interesting specimen is the fact that there is all this build up to a witch that we never actually see. For some this is quite clever because think about it, when does a monster stop being scary? The very instant you see it! So for many, the fact that we never actually saw the Blair Witch, meant that she is the perfect monster. We don't know if she is real, or if she is only just a myth, or if all of this is inside of the three kid's heads, it's a film that really plays with your mind. I am one of the few people who finds the film both annoying, but acknowledges that it did make a huge impact on horror film making.

What the Film Teaches:

  • The possibilities of creating a horror film with zero budget
  • The history of "Shock-u-menatry" film making


I initially didn't like "Black Swan" the first time I saw it. Again it's not a bad movie, but it just took some getting use to. I don't mind the film as much, and that was actually initially supposed to be on this list, however there is another film that is quite similar that I feel is much better, and is in need of your attention. In fact, after I saw "Black Swan", I immediate thought that it blatantly copied the film I'm about to talk about. After all, Darren Aronofsky had owned the rights to making an American version of this film (that was never actually made, but he used this privileged to steal a scene involving a woman screaming in a bathtub in his film Requiem for a Dream). What film am I talking about you might ask?

"Perfect Blue"

For those who are not familiar with the Satoshi Kon animated film, it's about a retired pop singer who wants to become an actress. After she becomes an actress, she constantly receives threats to end her career as an actress, which is making her go crazy. She also sees a ghostly figure who is constantly stalking her, making her life a living hell. In many ways, if you watch both films, you can see many connections between the two. Even Darren Aronofsky confesses that both films are indeed similar, and that he is a fan of Satoshi Kon work, but he ensures that he didn't really mean for it to seem like he copied the great animator's work. If you have never seen the film, go check it out, Satoshi Kon is one of my favorite animators. It's a shame that the man died of pancreatic cancer, I was hoping to see more films like "Paprika", and/or "Tokyo Godfathers".

Though "Perfect Blue" is more of a Psychological Thriller as oppose to Psychological Horror, it still has many moments that were legitimately scary. I won't go into too much detail just in case you plan to watch the film yourself, but it is very graphic, violent, and often surprising. But this is also why I love Satoshi Kon work because he always did stuff like this.

What This Film Teaches:

  • You can make an animated psychological horror film.
  • Animation techniques that create clever transitions into gags, jump-scares, etc.
  • Satoshi Kon's work is awesome!
  • Animation can create horror effects that seem impossible to accomplish in the real world.


Somewhere in the early 2000s, Nichole Kidman started to fade from the silver screen. After staring in the surprise hit "Moulin Rouge!", she starred in a strange little film that hardly anyone went to go see. It was a story with an ending so twisted that I was surprised M. Night Shyamalan didn't direct it. It was instead directed and written by Alejandro Amenábar, who I honestly have never heard of. It's a shame because he's not half bad, and his 2001 film staring Nichole Kidman actually gave me nightmares as a child... I saw the film recently and thought it wasn't as scary as I remembered it to be. But enough banter, let's dive into...

"The Others"

This was a strange film, that is underrated. It might not be a great movie, or even a good movie for that matter, it is definitely a fun/so-so movie that I can only watch once in a while, otherwise it would be annoying. The twist ending was something that I wouldn't have guessed as a child, but seeing it now I can't help but wonder if he ripped off of an M. Night Shyamalan film. The film does know how to keep up suspense, and how to create an atmosphere perfect for a psychological Horror film. Like I said before, it's not a great film, but anyone who is interested in going into psychological horror film making needs to watch this film at least once.

What This Film Teaches:

  • How to create a great atmosphere for a psychological horror
  • How to create and maintain suspense for just the right amount of time


Haha! Oh Hollywood! You and your crazy re-makes to movies that were already good.

"The Uninvited"

"The Uninvited" is a horror film that is based on a Korean Horror film (otherwise known as K-Horror films) called "Tale of Two Sisters" (which I'll talk about later). Though this film it's much slower than it's Korean counterpart, "The Uninvited" has this great energy from the actors, atmosphere, and character development that every good psychological horror film should have. I think this was a film made for people who saw the original, because this film is very slow, and it starts slightly different from the K-Horror film. I wouldn't call it a "great" movie, but it's one every film student should watch if they are interested in making a psychological horror film.

What This Film Teaches:

  • How to pace your horror film (you can either pace it slow like the film or faster if you felt it was too slow).
  • How to strongly develop your character's psyche.
  • How to successfully structure your psychological horror film.
  • The use of misleading narrative, and/or the characters Ally-Opponents or Opponent-Allies.
  • How atmosphere affects your movie.


We all know of M. Nigh Shyamalan right? Believe it or not he use to be one of Hollywood's hottest young directors. Around this time he created what many considered the greatest twist ending of all time. So what's the name of this controversial and most well known movies of his career?

"What a twist!"
"What a twist!"

Haha! Just kidding! It's actually...

"The Sixth Sense"

This film's twist ending is some what of a legend. Whether you liked the ending or not, "The Sixth Sense" is probably the film that many will tag as M. Night Shyamalan's best work (though to be fair I feel "Unbreakable" was a much better film.) I feel that "The Sixth Sense" is a hard movie to watch more than once, the only real thing that keeps it going is trying to figure out the twist ending, and once you learn what it is, then you find it hard to concentrate on anything else. Also, there are some plot holes with the twist ending that many can point out, but I don't want to spoil the film, just in case you haven't seen it yet.

I'm not a huge fan of the film but there are a few things one can learn from it when attempting to making a psychological horror film.

What This Film Teaches:

  • Story/Structure
  • Careful editing choices
  • Character development
  • How to create a misleading narrative
  • Critical thinking and analysis


Stanley Kurbrick is probably one of the strangest film makers of all time. He is a film maker that you either really love or really hate. One things for certain though, he never does anything half-assed. Every movie he makes has so much thought, care, development, symbolism, camera angles, plot devices, character developments, etc. that they all make great textbook films. Since we are on the subject of psychological horror, there is one iconic horror film that he made that I have no choice but to put on my list.

"The Shining"

Do I really have to explain why this movie is on the list?

Even if you do not like Stanley Kubrick's films, if you are to get into film making, you need to watch his movies. They all make great text book films because there are so many good/bad elements from his movies to choose from. From beginning to end, "The Shining" is the perfect psychological horror film that is rich with stunning visuals, a scary story, memorable moments, interesting editing choices, creepy music, stunning cinematography, and an ending that will just... confuse the ever loving crap out of you.

Some of you are wondering, "if this film is so good to watch, why is it at #5 on your list?" Well, because I feel there are much better psychological horror films. In addition to that, in my opinion Shelley Duvall's acting throughout the film was just awful.

What This Film Teaches:

  • Story/Structure
  • Editing choices
  • Character Development
  • Film making in general*
  • How to and how not to act.


This next film is one of my favorite movies ever made. Although it is more of a thriller, than an actual horror film, there are some horrific elements to it. In addition to that, it creates one of Hollywood's scariest characters ever created.

"Silence of the Lambs"

The idea of finding a serial killer, with the help of a serial killer is just absolutely genius. It's a great film to watch for directing a horror film. Jonathan Demme's careful choice of camera angles, and directions to the actors are 100% perfect. The way the film is shot, edited and scored, there is a lot of hard work put forth in this film, and is a must see for all who want to be horror movie film makers.

What This Film Teaches:

  • Misleading narrative
  • Story/Structure
  • Cinematography
  • Editing
  • Directing
  • Character Development


Japan's horror films are some of the greatest horror films ever made. This is predominantly why Hollywood continues to try to remake every single one of their movies. J-Horror films are dark, suspenseful, perfectly paced, carefully shot/edited, and sometimes have characters who are not really developed well enough. Why are the character's not developed enough? Because they are all going to die anyway, and so what's the point of developing a character who has 10 minutes of screen time. One of the greatest examples of text book movies is this classic 2002 J-Horror film about a house, that is inhabited by very vengeful spirits.


Though I didn't really like this film as much as I hoped I will say that this film's cinematography, and creepy characters kick ass! Even if I didn't really care about the characters in the movie, all it did was heighten my interest about how they were going to get killed (if they do get killed). A psychological horror film that really messes with your mind, "Ju-On" is an important film to watch! Even if you don't like it that much, like me, there is so much one can learn from this film about cinematography, and character design.

What This Film Teaches:

  • J-Horror Film Styles
  • Cinematography
  • Sound Design: How it is used to heighten the audience's fear
  • Story/Structure
  • How to make your main monster scary both physically and psychologically
  • Less you know about the monster, the scarier they tend to be.


Remember when I mentioned "The Uninvited"? Well I decided to put the original film on this list as well, mostly because I feel that you need to compare and contrast the differences between the original and the American remake. "The Uninvited" is okay, and it's one of the best remakes Hollywood has ever made, but the original film is just so much better. It's confusing as hell because it's much faster paced, but it completely miss guides you in a direction until the very end. It builds up the characters very well, and when the twist ending occurs you are just completely blown away!

"Tale of Two Sisters"

The title says it all. It's about two sisters who have to deal with their evil stepmother. Although this at first sounds like your typical Disney movie, this film keeps you guessing the twist all the way up to the very end. There are some great scary moments, character development, well told and structured story, and is paced at a rate that doesn't insult the intelligence of the viewer. Though the film is confusing the first time you watch it, my suggestion is to not just watch it once, but multiple times. Watch it with "The Uninvited" to do a comparison of old vs new, and see what elements you like from both if you decide to make psychological horror films.

What This Film Teaches:

  • Comparisons between old vs. new
  • Misleading Narrative
  • Symbolism in horror films
  • Cinematography
  • Editing
  • Story Structure
  • Acing in Horror films
  • K-Horror Film Styles
  • Elements to K-Horror Films
  • Directing Horror Films
  • Developing a Critical Understanding for Horror Films


This is the film that perfected the entire psychological horror sub-genre. It is one of my favorite horror films ever made, where the horror is in what you don't see rather than what you do see. The 9 films that I have listed above all have bits and pieces of elements to making a great horror film but this film has all of them. Though this film is over 50 years old, and parts about it are a little dated, it is a must see psychological horror film for all film makers, not just ones who go into the horror genre, but ALL film makers! I am of course talking about a film about a small group of people who are invited to a house in search of ghosts.

Ladies and Gentlemen...

"The Haunting"

The original 1963 horror classic that has so many great elements about it that I don't know where to begin. I guess I could begin by talking about the story, which is simple, original, subtle, carefully photographed, edited, suspenseful, shocking, twisted, and over all just a great reference to all who are interested in making psychological horror films. This was the movie that perfected how to scare the audience without showing us anything. It's a great character study, is full of enriching details, and inspired most of the movies on this list in one way or another.

To be fair the film is a little dated, and although it was re-made in 1999, it just wasn't the same. No remake can beat this Robert Wise masterpiece!

What This Film Teaches:

  • Everything We Need To Know About How To Make A Great Psychological Horror Film !

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Carl the Critic © 2012


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