Horror is (often) a famously predictable genre, full of ghosts and jump scares and "twists" we can see coming a mile away. Psychological horror, on the other hand, is a little less clear-cut.
It's not the aliens, monsters or slashers that make psychological horror so twisted and disturbing. It's the characters, and how they get trapped in warped mind games and suffer through terrifying delusions.
Whether it's because they're under the influence of paranormal forces, satanic folklores, or severe mental illness, these movies take deep dives into the dark and twisted psyches of their characters.
Here are our picks for the best psychological horror movies worth watching if you want to see twisted, disturbed, and troubled characters in horrible situations.
15. The Witch (2015)
Director Robert Eggers and Anya Taylor-Joy are two names you'll see a lot on this list. The latter stars as Thomasin, the eldest daughter of an English settler in mid-17th century New England.
When her baby brother vanishes under her watch, Thomasin is accused of witchcraft by her own family. Satanic conspiracies and paranoia envelope the family, who's thrown into a crisis of faith and loyalty.
Eggers' folk horror is full of eerie atmospherics and strange religious imagery. The characters are pressured in their psychology, distrusting even their own family members in this witch-fearing Puritan society.
A slow burner full of interpretation, you might want to watch The Witch with the lights on.
14. Jacob's Ladder (1990)
Adrian Lyne directs this spine-tingling horror, which was later remade by David M. Rosenthal in 2019. But for this list, we're sticking to the original—the one which heavily influenced modern-day video game effects.
Jacob Singer (played by Tim Robbins) is subject to incessant, fragmented flashbacks from his days in the Vietnam War. We aren't just talking your usual war visions of bombs and guns—there are faceless figures, demons, and weird tentacles.
Are they really there? Or is it all hallucinations? Jacob's troubled past and instability have both himself and the viewer questioning his reality.
A wholly original storyline littered with surreal imagery, Jacob's Ladder expertly blends the mystery genre with ghostly psychological horror.
13. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
On its surface, We Need to Talk About Kevin doesn't look much like a horror—just really, really weird.
But dig a little deeper and you'll find the psychological torment of Eva (played by Tilda Swinton) by her son Kevin (played by Ezra Miller) is deeply and horrifyingly disturbing. This Kevin is a complete sociopath.
As he spends his adult years in prison, Eva looks back on the memories of her son's childhood—memories which should be sweetly nostalgic, but instead are full of tantrums, mischief, and manipulation.
Director Lynne Ramsay embeds elements of the horror genre in her highly successful psychological thriller, praised for its strong performances, symbolic use of color, and smartly written storyline.
12. Split (2016)
Having dissociative identity disorder doesn't automatically make you a psycho... but it does when one of those identities is homicidal. M. Night Shyamalan is famed for his hit-or-miss horrors, and Split is definitely a hit.
James McAvoy gives an incredible performance as Kevin (and Barry and Dennis and Patricia and Hedwig and Jade... the list goes on) who has 24 alter-egos that McAvoy seamlessly switches between throughout the movie. That alone is engrossing to watch.
When one of Kevin's personas kidnaps three girls and chains them in his basement, Casey (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) decides to play his mental illness against him. There's just one persona Casey doesn't want to meet, who goes by the name "The Beast."
The psychological warfare between Casey and Kevin—and Kevin with himself—make Split utterly absorbing.
11. Black Swan (2010)
A doppelganger is already pretty creepy, but even more so when it has red eyes and scratch marks everywhere. Darren Aronofsky's obsessed-artist horror film was an instant hit, winning five Oscars and going down as a film buff classic for the ages.
Natalie Portman stars as performer Nina, who's given the role of the White Swan. Opposite her is talented newcomer Lily (played by Mila Kunis) as the Black Swan.
Friction and pressure come not only from the physically demanding art of ballet, but the immensely competitive Lily. Hallucinations and doppelgangers plague Nina's waking hours, and we begin to wonder which horrors are real and which are in her head.
The idea for Black Swan was spawned from the legendary Russian ballet Swan Lake (which was a surprising failure back in 1875) as Aronofsky pondered the idea of a performer haunted by her understudy.
10. The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
Yorgos Lanthimos has an extremely unique style—one that perfectly fits the psychological horror genre. It's offbeat and awkward, but not in a funny Coen brothers kind of way; more in a menacing, is-that-guy-about-to-kill-someone kind of way. And the cinematography is stylish!
Colin Farrell plays surgeon Steven Murphy in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, who invites young Martin (played by Barry Keoghan) to dinner as his stand-in father figure. But Steven quickly comes to regret this as Martin's strange behavior grows more and more sinister.
Steven's weird-yet-mundane suburban life is pulled out from under him when Martin prophesizes that his family will die horrible deaths. Bleak, chilling, and wholly ominous, The Killing of a Sacred Deer will have you frowning and squirming in your seat.
9. Midsommar (2019)
Cultish folklore meets psychological horror in Ari Aster's polished A24 flick Midsommar. When Dani (played by Florence Pugh) finds her relationship strained due to the mental trauma of her past, the couple embark on a trip to Sweden.
The free-loving hippie vibes of the commune turn out to be a Scandinavian pagan cult, where sacrifices, mushroom trips, and weird mating rituals only pile more trauma onto Dani's life.
What's most remarkable about Midsommar—aside from its superb acting—is the visual experience of being in such a mythical, trippy cult.
The beauty of the Swedish countryside is matched by its beautiful cinematography, which uses lights and the color white to unsettle the viewer (rather than the usual shadows and darkness).
We even get a POV experience of magic mushrooms, which is pretty disquieting to watch on a huge theater screen!
8. Last Night in Soho (2021)
It's Anya Taylor-Joy again, this time as the seductive 1960s singer Sandie, who takes over the body of Eloise (played by Thomasin McKenzie) in her dreams—or should we say nightmares.
When the London student life isn't quite what Eloise expected, she escapes to the fantasy world of her dreams. There, she travels back to the swinging 60s in awe of the fashion, music, and night life.
But when Sandie's life begins to crumble, Eloise wonders if they're really just dreams or horrible visions from a real girl's life. Sandie's hellish existence amid the seedy streets of midnight Soho—and Eloise's isolated existence as a student—begin to blur together.
We're called to question what's real and what's imagined, what's past and what's present. Edgar Wright directs this dazzling mystery horror that was recently released in cinemas, so catch it while you still can!
7. The Sixth Sense (1999)
M. Night Shyamalan's biggest hit remains The Sixth Sense, starring Haley Joel Osment in one of cinema's best child actor performances. Wide-eyed, shy, and utterly adorable, Cole is a 9-year-old boy whose social awkwardness becomes concerning.
Thankfully, Bruce Willis swoops in as an honored child psychologist to help Cole cope with his affliction. What is the issue, exactly? Well, as the infamous quote goes, he sees dead people.
The Sixth Sense is already a solid, creepy, and finely-paced psychological drama before it even reaches its iconic twist ending. If you don't know what that twist is yet, watch it before you stumble on a spoiler!
6. Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Roman Polanski's satanic 1960s classic Rosemary's Baby was somewhat controversial upon release.
Audiences of the era weren't as desensitized as we are now, and some Christians were offended by its demonic themes. The fact that Polanski was charged with rape a few years later didn't help the film's reputation.
Nonetheless, Rosemary's Baby is now celebrated as a classic horror masterpiece with visual flair that borders on the psychedelic. Mia Farrow gave a startling performance as the innocent young mother who falls pregnant with Satan's child, although she doesn't know it.
Polanski's second installment in his "Apartment Trilogy" is also rumored to be cursed... if you believe in that sort of thing.
5. Get Out (2017)
Director Jordan Peele has written, produced, and directed a growing number of horror films and TV shows, most recently his neo-Western sci-fi horror thriller Nope.
However, Get Out remains his best one yet. Daniel Kaluuya put himself on the map with his leading role as Chris Washington, the young black photographer who goes to meet his white girlfriend's parents.
Anxieties about meeting the in-laws are made doubly worse in the gentrified land of Upstate New York, but not even Chris could have guessed how deep the racism would run. The Armitage family doesn't insult their victims or call the cops on them—it's much worse than that.
Leading up to the grand finale is a slow-burning, psychological build-up that's flecked with racist undertones that make our blood boil.
4. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
If Anthony Hopkins hissing though prison bars as one of cinema's most famous villains doesn't creep you out, we don't know what will!
Notorious cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) is the only person who can help FBI newbie Clarice (Jodie Foster) crack the case of Buffalo Bill. Whereas Buffalo Bill skins his victims, Hannibal eats them—but, like, in a civilized way.
Hannibal is the most sophisticated, well-to-do serial killer you'll ever see. Hopkins gave an Oscar-winning performance as the murderer and reprised his role for two more film adaptations.
Neither of those two beat his first depiction though, where it's never clear if he's helping Clarice or playing mind games with her. Jonathan Demme directs this unusually framed murder mystery.
3. The Shining (1980)
The Shining is the quintessential psychological horror classic, adapted by Stanley Kubrick from Stephen King's 1977 novel.
King and Kubrick made an awesomely eerie pair, with The Shining going on to influence cinema for decades to come. Take a journey into a spiralling mind of madness, starring Jack Nicholson as the disturbed caretaker Jack Torrance.
When Jack takes his family to live in an isolated hotel, his mind begins to deteriorate into a homicidal fury. His son, meanwhile, believes he can telepathically communicate with the dead.
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"—and Jack's idea of fun turns out to be axe-murdering. Jack's tormented psyche is reflected in the geographical mapping of the hotel, with twisting mazes and darkening night. A true masterpiece of psychological horror.
2. The Lighthouse (2019)
While Thomas Wake (played by Willem Dadoe) drinks and rants through the night in strange sailor dialect, Ephraim Winslow (played by Robert Pattinson) carries out the taxing jobs that Thomas would rather avoid.
Set in 1890s New England, the two lighthouse keepers live a spookily isolated life where storms rage and mythical beings wash up on shore.
Robert Eggers directs this visually stunning indie horror, filmed in grainy black-and-white with a square ratio. If you can't handle wacky avant-garde movies, maybe don't tune into this one. But if you can, you'll be in for quite a treat!
The Lighthouse is a modern take on Edgar Allan Poe's unfinished 1849 story The Light-House, full of period horror and whimsical mythology.
1. Psycho (1960)
Psychological horror began in literature—most notably in Gothic novels following unstable protagonists.
In early cinema, the genre was translated onto screen through vehicles like German Expressionism (e.g. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and, by the 1960s, Hollywood studios. The best example? Psycho, of course!
With a title like Psycho, this one has to take number one spot on our list, especially given that it's Alfred Hitchcock's most famous masterpiece.
At first, we think Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is a normal-if-eccentric hotel manager when Marion (Janet Leigh) stops for the night. If you've seen clips of the legendary shower scene—a landmark in film history—you can probably guess he's not so normal.