The psychological horror genre, explained

The psychological horror genre, explained

When words like cerebral, disturbing and thought provoking surround a horror film, the viewer can assume they are onto something good.

The horror genre in every medium has a lot of wiggle room. Perhaps more than any other genre, two works of horror can be worlds apart. The horror of being hacked apart by an armed madman or devoured by a massive monster is obvious, but the more subtle scares play with the inner recesses of the mind.

When judging horror in a visual medium, people often draw a hard line between suspense and shock. Smart creepy stories slowly build tension through meticulously subtle storytelling, while the lower-level competition settles for loud noises and sudden screams. The high watermark of the subtlety camp is almost always psychological horror.


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Psychological horror relies on the inner mental state of the characters to convey terror to the audience. Many horror stories depict extreme reactions of fear, misery and rage, but psychological horror takes a deeper look at the strange emotional factors of a terrible situation. Many stories in the genre avoid any material threat. There’s often no killer or monster to escape, nor is there a ton of gore to be disgusted by. What frightens the protagonist and the audience may not even exist in fiction. Psychological horror fiction explores the vulnerabilities and anxieties common to the experience of living with a human brain. Characters often struggle against their own human impulses. The story may mess with perception, be delivered by an unreliable narrator, or otherwise betray the audience’s trust. One can expect some twists and turns in any given psychological horror story. Countless other horror subgenres use elements of psychology, but the truest examples shake audiences to their core.

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Arguably, the early predecessors of the psychological horror genre could be found in the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Although unappreciated in his time, Poe created the building blocks for so many modern horror movements. In 1843, two of Poe’s short stories were published; “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The stories are in many ways in conversation with each other. Both stories are first-person accounts of murder, strongly marked by guilt and paranoia. Both killers are driven insane by their actions, gradually tormenting them emotionally until they are forced to confess. The horror of Poe’s short stories is not the risk of being murdered, it is the inner ravages of fear that come with doing something wrong. Poe loved the idea of ​​moral resolution reflected in a person’s surroundings. He rarely wrote about literal ghosts coming to haunt their killers, but anyone who would dare cross the moral line would be haunted for the rest of their days.

One of the first cinematic examples of psychological horror was Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1934 adaptation of The black cat. Famously, despite having such solid source material to draw from, Ulmer’s film had almost nothing to do with Poe’s classic. 8 years later Jacques Tourneur directed Cat people for RKO. The film starred Simone Simon as a woman descended from an ancient race of humans who transform into deadly panthers when excited. It’s a bizarre psychosexual horror film that explores the dangers of passion and the complicated nature of relationships. Decades of development in the genre have led to classics such as Silence of the Lambs, Black Swan, Get Out, and many more beloved horror films. Across cultures like Japanese movies Ring and Korean films such as A tale of two sisters keep the tradition going all over the globe. Although things have changed, matters of the mind have a certain universal appeal.

Books and movies handle psychological horror very well, but the newest art medium in the world brings the concept of interactive storytelling to the genre to great effect. Inspired by movies like Jacob’s ladderTeam Silent’s classic from 1999 Silent Hill defined the genre for a generation of fans. Although the franchise has gone through a bit of a lull in recent years, the first four titles are all unique mainstays of psychological horror. The ability to experience a character’s guilt, trauma and descent into madness from the driver’s seat changed the concept forever. Silent Hill hasn’t returned to the heights of its early days in many years, but there’s a new crop on the way to possibly rekindle this ferocious flame.


Psychological horror is unnerving in a way that many other genres cannot. A mountain of gore can absorb the audience. A jump scare can make them squeal. Psychological horror reaches into the darkest corners of the human mind, uncovering what keeps us safe from ourselves. Throughout the generations, mankind has imagined the most horrific concepts possible to keep each other awake at night. But the undisputed champion of horror remains the human brain. We can scare ourselves more effectively than anyone else. Psychological horror is the art of holding up a mirror and a flashlight and forcing us to consider the parts of our minds that we’d rather leave in the dark.

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