Back in 1961, Joseph Heller summarized the crux of paranoia in his seminal novel Catch-22 with one incredible sentence: "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you."
Paranoia is uncertainty manifest. As you begin to suspect your neighbors, your co-workers, your significant other, or even your very grasp on reality, the truth grows increasingly murky and dangerous.
This sneaking suspicion can be terrifying, nauseating, paralyzing, or claustrophobic. Unsurprisingly, a few storytellers have made good use of this unsettling sensation by making great movies about it.
Here are the best movies where paranoia is palpable, where there's a creeping sense of dread that no one can be trusted, where fear and uncertainty cause characters to distrust everything.
10. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Starring Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Todd Field
Drama, Mystery, Thriller (2h 39m)
The legendary Stanley Kubrick directed films in almost every genre of cinema. For his last film, he gave us a palpably unsettling story in the psychological mystery thriller Eyes Wide Shut.
When Alice (played by Nicole Kidman) admits to her husband Dr. Bill Hartford (played by Tom Cruise) that she desperately wanted to have an affair with another man, it sends him into a spiral of confusion.
That spiral also happens to be destructive, causing him to look for answers to his midlife crisis in dangerous places—places where things are not always as they seem and no one can be trusted.
Eyes Wide Shut was widely considered to be a lesser entry in Kubrick's enduring filmography, but it's still a strong film on its own merits if you're looking for a mysterious paranoid thriller.
9. JFK (1991)
Directed by Oliver Stone
Starring Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones
Drama, History, Thriller (3h 9m)
The questions and details surrounding John F. Kennedy's assassination have inspired countless conspiracy theories over the years—and if there's one thing a conspiracy gives rise to, it's paranoia.
In JFK, New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (played by Kevin Costner) is determined to get to the bottom of JFK's infamous murder. Unsatisfied with the official story that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, he searches for the truth in perilous places...
Directed by Oliver Stone, JFK is a movie that will make you paranoid that everyone in positions of power are involved in shady dealings.
8. Memento (2000)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano
Mystery, Thriller (1h 53m)
Long before Christopher Nolan built his reputation as a master of cinematography, he directed the mind-boggling Memento as only his second feature film—and this one oozes paranoia.
Leonard Shelby (played by Guy Pearce) is a man on a mission: to find the man who murdered his wife. Unfortunately for him, Leonard also suffers from anterograde amnesia (the inability to create new memories) as a result of an injury sustained on the night his wife was murdered.
All of that means that Leonard can't remember whether the people in his life are out to get him, to help him, or simply don't care about him. And because Christopher Nolan structures the narrative in a nonlinear way, we don't know any more than Leonard does!
As we begin to suspect that the people in Leonard's life aren't as innocent as initially thought, the paranoia quickly spikes.
7. Werewolves Within (2021)
Directed by Josh Ruben
Starring Sam Richardson, Milana Vayntrub, George Basil
Comedy, Horror, Mystery (1h 37m)
Werewolves Within might be a comedy film—the only one on this list—but don't be fooled into thinking that humor can't coexist with paranoia. Werewolves Within successfully blends genres to brilliant results.
When the inhabitants of a small mountain town begin to suspect that they're in danger of a werewolf, they decide to shack up and isolate themselves in a lodge to keep out of the blizzard.
But the residents soon turn on each other as it becomes apparent that the werewolf is living among them and hiding in plain sight.
Simultaneously a horror, a comedy, and a paranoia thriller, Josh Ruben's Werewolves Within deftly offers cutting social commentary while providing plenty of werewolf-chasing antics.
6. Coherence (2013)
Directed by James Ward Byrkit
Starring Emily Baldoni, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brendon
Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi (1h 29m)
Certainly one of the lesser-known films on this list, Coherence is a massively underrated mind-bending sci-fi thriller that will play psychological tricks on you.
When a group of friends meet for a dinner party one night, strange things start to happen after a comet passes over their small town. First, the lights go out. Then, people disappear when they go outside—and when they eventually return, they behave weirdly.
As they scramble to work out what's happening, the night takes several brain-twisting turns. Coherence is a hidden gem of indie sci-fi filmmaking, and this paranoia-inducing piece was impressively made on just $50,000.
5. Shutter Island (2010)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Emily Mortimer, Mark Ruffalo
Mystery, Thriller (2h 18m)
Martin Scorsese has directed classic after classic, but if there's one film that showed he still had his touch of greatness more than 40 years into his filmmaking career, it would be Shutter Island.
Teddy Daniels (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is a US Marshal who's sent to the enigmatic Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of a patient from the island's infamous mental asylum.
However, once there, he realizes that few of the people on the island can be trusted and that some people are not who they claim to be.
With its palpably creepy setting and masterfully woven tale, Shutter Island is one that you'll inevitably want to rewatch a few times.
4. The Game (1997)
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Michael Douglas, Deborah Kara Unger, Sean Penn
Drama, Mystery, Thriller (2h 9m)
David Fincher has directed a lot of films that hype up the anxiety, with notable examples in Se7en (1995) and Fight Club (1999). However, The Game is his highest achievement in terms of crafting paranoia.
The story follows a wealthy merchant banker by the name of Nicholas Van Orton (played by Michael Douglas). Bored with a life where he can have anything he wants, he signs up as a participant for a mysterious "game" that blurs the line between reality and horseplay.
Unfortunately for him, he has no idea what he's signed up for. He's about to enter a world of torment where no one can be trusted.
Complete with a chilling score composed by Howard Shore, The Game is one of David Fincher's most underrated films.
3. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Directed by Don Siegel
Starring Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates
Drama, Horror, Sci-Fi (1h 20m)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers encapsulates a period in history that was absolutely defined by paranoia: the Cold War.
Our plot follows Dr. Miles Bennell (played by Kevin McCarthy), who's bemused by the number of patients that come to him claiming that their loved ones are acting strangely.
However, he soon becomes concerned that there may actually be something to their apprehensions after all—and that whatever it is that has infected their small town will spread even further.
Crafted as a rather on-the-nose social allegory, Invasion of the Body Snatchers succeeds due to its combination of sci-fi elements and horror tropes, masterfully capturing the genuine political dread that dominated the world at the time.
2. The Conversation (1974)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield
Drama, Mystery, Thriller (1h 53m)
Right when Francis Ford Coppola was in between directing two of the best films ever made—namely The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974)—he just so happened to make what's easily one of the best films of the 1970s in The Conversation.
The story follows Harry Caul (played by Gene Hackman), a surveillance expert who's tasked with recording a conversation that takes place between a certain man and woman.
However, the more he listens, the more he starts to suspect his employer's true motives, and he begins to fear for their lives—and his own.
The Conversation takes a page out of George Orwell's book as we watch a man in the surveillance industry grow paranoid about the increasingly powerful technology that's at the disposal of wealthy people.
In this respect, Coppola's film is a prescient one that predicted a lot of the paranoid fears that dominate society's concerns in the 21st century.
1. The Thing (1982)
Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David
Horror, Mystery, Sci-Fi (1h 49m)
In 1982, John Carpenter directed what I firmly believe to be a strong contender for best horror film of all time: The Thing.
When a group of researchers out in Antarctica come across a creature from another world—a horrifying, amorphous thing that can shapeshift and imitate its assimilated victims—no one can be trusted.
As far as these researchers know, anyone at the base could be the alien creature. There's no way to tell! And so, the premise for the best paranoia film of all time is laid out: identify all of the aliens or die trying.
Though it initially wasn't successful at the box office or with critics, The Thing garnered a cult following over the decades due to the insidious nature of the film's antagonist.
Since the extra-terrestrial creature is defined by its unknowability, it sets itself apart as the perfect monster for a paranoia movie.
What's so great about The Thing is that every layer contributes to a deeply unsettling atmosphere, which, of course, is conducive to strengthening that sense of paranoia. You won't find a better paranoid mystery.