Psychological Horror

Contributed by Spencer Colvin

Psychological horror is a part of the overall genre of psychological fiction that attempts to understand the mental, moral, and emotional sides of the main characters. In the subgenre of psychological horror, this is done with the intent to frighten or disturb the audience by showing a character’s suspicion, distrust, and paranoia in themselves, others, and the world around them. A story might contain supernatural, occult, or cosmic elements, but in all cases the focus is on the character’s psyche.

It’s difficult to trace back the origins of psychological horror, but it can be said that an early influence is Edgar Allen Poes The Tell-Tale Heart (1843) where the narrator is slowly going insane while attempting to convince the reader he actually isn’t as he describes a murder he just committed. Although H.P. Lovecraft is mostly known for cosmic horror, elements of psychological horror are present as well. In The Rats in the Walls (1924), the protagonist reverts to his ancestors’ cannibalistic tendencies when he discovers the horrible truth about his family history. In At the Mountains of Madness (1936), the characters are driven to insanity during an Antarctic expedition when they learn the truth about the dark origins of mankind and life of earth. In Psycho (1960), hotel manager Norman Bates becomes attracted to a new hotel guest and alters his personality to that of his mother and then stabs her and others. From this it can be said that psychological horror helped pave the way to slasher horror. Psychology is a far-reaching theme in horror and can be applied to almost any subgenre.

Other notable examples of psychological horror novels include the novels Robert Bloch’s American Gothic (1974), Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), and Stephen King’s The Shining (1977) and Misery (1987). Notable films include Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Halloween (1978), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Session 9 (2001), Black Swan (2010), The Babadook (2014), Get Out (2017), and The Lighthouse (2019).