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6 Best Psychological Horror Films for Halloween

Are you a psychologically screwed up person?

Well gee-wilickers, I sure am!

So when I go for a scary movie this Halloween, I’m not going for a run of the mill slasher flick or ghost movie. No, I’m going for something REALLY messed up. I want something that will scar the average viewer for life!

Unlike other psychological horror movies lists (also known as a “what the hell is WRONG with you?” list), I’m staying away from gross out movies, torture flicks, or any sort of sexual violence. That’s the way an amateur disturbs people. Besides, if that’s the sort of movie you watch for a good time, I don’t want you reading my article. The mere thought makes my skin crawl. Please stop now. Go, and watch pointless gore no more.

Also, I’m going to avoid drama/thrillers that take too long to get to the horror. Don’t get me wrong, Hitchcock’s Psycho is one of my favorite movies, but it takes about 40 minutes for the blonde to get showering, and for the Halloween season, I think we all need something a little more immediate.

So here are six horror movies that will keep everyone’s attention and simultaneously mess them up for life. Try springing them on your friends at this year’s Halloween bash:

The Shining (1980)

The Shining (poster)

I’m going to start with a classic. It may take a little time to get moving, but little crazy/psychic Danny keeps things uncomfortable (in a good way) early on, sharing horrifying visions brought on by his imaginary friend/multiple personalities. That, combined with the gorgeous direction and eerily beautiful isolation of the Overlook Hotel, helps keep you watching until the ghosts start to appear.

All of a sudden, crazy little Danny becomes the least disturbing thing in the movie, with murderous ghosts, naked octogenarian succubi, an axe wielding Jack Nicholson, gay furries (you read that right), and enough blood to make Clive Barker blush.

What really makes the movie work, and keeps the ghosts from ever seeming ridiculous, are the wonderful performances from the cast. How can they convey horror and insanity so well? I’ll tell you how: Stanley Kubrick intentionally drove them insane. He demanded retakes until they were all literally on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Nice to know we’re all experiencing the psychological damage together.

Dark Crystal (1982)

The Dark Crystal (poster)

I’m old enough to remember this when it first came out. A new Muppet movie! What fun! What…what the HELL IS HAPPENING ON THE SCREEN RIGHT NOW?!

Giant clicking crab monsters! Featherless wrinkled bird men torturing Fraggles! A mummy-like witch casually removing her eye from her socket! Slavery! Zombification! Genocide! On screen Muppet deaths! All this coupled with a pair of Gelfling teenagers that travel a little too deep into the uncanny valley!

Again, don’t get me wrong, it’s a brilliant movie. Jim Hensen set out to create a dark and unique fantasy world, and succeeded. The only side effect was he wound up traumatizing a generation of kids in the process.

Of course, there are much darker fantasy stories out there, but it’s the bizarre innocence of the characters and familiar Muppet-ness of the puppets that really makes this a brain-screw. We’re not only watching the characters lose their innocence. We’re losing a bit of ours right along with them.

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

Jacob's Ladder (poster)

Jacob Singer, a Vietnam War veteran, gets hunted by inhuman abominations througout New York City. The premise may seem like standard horror faire, but what really differentiates it is how unnatural the creatures hunting him are. Just as Night of the Living Dead was the grand daddy of zombie films, Jacob’s Ladder was the basis for the monsters of Silent Hill and most other surreal horror movies/games, with creatures that can barely be described, let alone understood.

What really gets me about this movie is how ever-present the danger always seems to be, and how focused it is on him alone, while the rest of the world moves on like nothing strange is happening. Instead of the usual monster or serial killer, the movie instead slowly suffocates our hero with an oppressive and hostile universe, slowly encircling its victim, like a snake coiling around a mouse.

Okay, the plot setup may seem a little dated, and thanks to other similar horror stories, you’ll probably guess what’s about to happen a lot quicker than our hero will, but none of that will prepare you for its brilliant atmosphere of paranoia, and mind blowingly disturbing finale.

Let the Right One In (2008)

Let The Right One In (poster)

(I prefer the original Swedish version, but if that’s not your thing, the American remake Let Me In works too.)

Whew! Those past few movies are heavy, aren’t they? How about we take a break with a love story? How about one of the most messed up love stories ever filmed?

On the surface, it’s a story about an immortal preteen vampire, Eli. You’ve probably seen young vampires before though, most notably in the brilliant Interview with the Vampire (not quite disturbing enough to make this list though) or the Twilight movies (first one was alright). This movie isn’t mainly about her though. It’s about the young boy who falls in love with her, Oskar.

The question, “What would happen if you fell in love with a monster?” is disturbing enough, but what really makes it work is how visceral and inhuman our vampiress is. Eli truly is a predator, mauling and feasting on her prey like a wolf among lambs. Regardless, Oskar just keeps falling deeper and deeper in love. No matter how unnatural and violent she is, he keeps trying to win her cold, unbeating heart.

If all that wasn’t unsettling enough, I guarantee that by the end you’ll be rooting for them. However how unnatural their love is, you can’t help but feel happy when you see them together. Never before has being tempted by evil seemed so heartwarming and fun.

Sweeney Todd (2007)

Sweeney Todd (poster)

Most people who first saw this, watched for Johnny Depp, and were inevitably deeply disturbed by the carnival of horrors that awaited them. No question, this is one twisted movie, with Alan Rickman playing a villain so evil he makes the mass murdering barber and his human-meat pie making accomplice seem well adjusted in comparison.

Did I mention it’s a musical? Yup, we’ll be slashing throats, grinding corpses, and getting our horrible revenge to toe tapping songs!

Okay, some of the attempts at wacky humor seem a little out of place with all the blood and tragedy going on, and they went a little over the top with Johnny Depp’s makeup, but what really makes the movie interesting is how believable and sympathetic Johnny Depp makes Sweeney Todd. You can truly believe his pain, and his descent into madness and murder seems less like a psychotic break, and more like a logical progression, considering how traumatic his life had been up to that point.

So what differentiates this from other ‘inside the mind of the killer’ movies, like American Psycho or TV’s Dexter? Subtlety, pure and simple. Instead of narrating his sociopathic thoughts over the action for 90 minutes, Sweeney only shares glimpses of his psyche, mainly through sad songs, accompanied by remorseless, hellish violence.

There are many types of mind screws, and honestly feeling sad for someone WHILE they’re murdering innocent people is certainly a unique one.

Eraserhead (1977)

Eraserhead (poster)

I decided to save the most screwed up one for last. This one will leave your friends staring gape mouthed at the screen. Scene after unsettling scene just keeps topping itself, and just when you think it can’t get any worse, you see ‘the baby’. I can only refer to it as ‘the baby’. There’s honestly no describing it beyond that.

Then when you’re finally used to seeing the malformed infant, it suddenly gets even more sick and horrifying looking. Then the singing woman with the cheeks shows up. Then things start to get weird.

Sure, just about everything David Lynch makes is horrifying, or at the very least unsettling, but usually it’s in a drama which springs the surreal horror on you as a surprise in the third act. Eraserhead, on the other hand, immediately bombards you with one nightmare after the other, each more disturbing than the last.

When you’re done with all that, you can top it off with Lynch’s short film on the ABC’s. Be sure to bring the kids over! It’s fun and educational! Trust me!

Trick-or-Treat, everyone!

Title image by MarcoBucci.



  1. Doom Generation was weird and terrifying, sick and sad

  2. Avatar Maxcat says:

    Indeed, but a little empty in the middle (relied too heavily on ridiculous shock/depravity) and not really a horror movie, aside from the very graphic finale. Still, I thought it was a little better than Natural Born Killers, which failed to get me to sympathize with any character whatsoever.

  3. Avatar Dawn Napier says:

    If you haven’t already, you need to see a stage performance of Sweeney Todd. Hubs took me to a college production for my birthday and I haven’t been able to enjoy the film since. The play is so much better, more clever and the interaction with the audience made it a great experience.

  4. Avatar Al G says:

    Videodrome by David Cronenburg

  5. Avatar Maxcat says:

    The stage performance of Sweeney Todd sounds fun. I’ll have to see if and when I can see it.

    The bizarre over-sexuality of Videodrome made it a no-go for me. I mean, I watched it, but I wouldn’t again. I mean, our supposedly straight protagonist watches gay inter-racial sado masochism? And he shares this fact with colleagues? He just goes way too far overboard for me to really sympathize with him, making the movie weird and gross, but not a mind screw. For me, the movie has to pull you in, not just disturb you. Just my preference though.

    All hail the new flesh.

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