Psychological Horror is an element of fiction, not tied to a particular genre (it manifests itself in many stories which are not identified as "horror stories"), which aims at creating horrific or unsettling effects through in-depth use of psychology. This may involve replacing physical threats with psychological ones (e.g. madness), thorough exploration of the mind of the involved protagonists (including the bad guys/Monster of the Week), replacing overt displays of horror by more subtle, creepy details, and so on. Often overlaps with Surreal Horror. Often works hand in hand with Nothing Is Scarier, Mind Screw, and Through the Eyes of Madness. Due to the nature of this form of horror, it is usually Nightmare Fuel. This subgenre is particularly common in Japanese horror, or "J-Horror".
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Anime and Manga
- Key the Metal Idol, the root influence of a lot of the other anime listed here.
- Neon Genesis Evangelion in some parts, especially in End of Evangelion. In other parts, it's pure Cosmic Horror.
- Ergo Proxy
- Death Note
- Paranoia Agent
- Serial Experiments Lain
- Boogiepop Phantom
- Ghost Hound
- Kara no Kyoukai
- Mononoke (pushing it to the limit: several complex ghost stories where exploring the minds of the ghosts and of the protagonists is a major plot point)
- Impressively, the only threat in Monster comes from the horror/madness as it's established very quickly that Johan specifically wants to keep Tenma from being killed.
- MPD Psycho
- Ghost in the Shell 2 : Innocence - The whole part in Kims mansion goes quite into this.
- Perfect Blue
- Elfen Lied, moreso in the manga than the anime.
- Nightmare Inspector
- Alien Nine
- Gregory Horror Show
- Puella Magi Madoka Magica combines this with plain Cosmic Horror Story.
- Shamanic Princess
- Bleach is much more about shonen fights and power levels, but the counted times Kubo Tite has used this trope worked surprisingly well. Shukuro Tsukishima mindraping Ichigo's family and friends, and then using them to Mind Rape Ichigo was made of this, and it was both heartbreaking and horrifying.
- Kubo does this again with Byakuya, courtesy of As Nodt.
- Collapse Of The World As We Know It is an manhua example, but still follows with its short stories, ranging from horrible Body Horror, to dark humor.
- Tokyo Ghoul borrows heavily from the works of Franz Kafka and Carl Jung, often dealing with realistic portrayals of madness and trauma. In particular, the series explores the heavy toll events take on Kaneki's sanity and the coping mechanisms that Ghouls adopt to deal with having to kill and eat humans to survive.
- Kamisama No Iutoori
- Quite common in Batman comics, especially since practically every Bat-rogue is insane some way or another, and Batman himself is often described as being insane in his own special way.
- Grant Morrison's run of Animal Man was like this. So is Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth also written by Morrison. He kinda likes this.
- That's to say nothing of his Doom Patrol run. Oh, god, his Doom Patrol run.
- Almost any Alfred Hitchcock movie ever made:
- The Bad Seed
- Black Swan
- Carrie (1976)
- The Cell (takes place inside the mind of a serial killer. It's a very unpleasant place.)
- The Soviet war movie Come and See
- The Dark Knight Saga appears to have traces of this, especially The Dark Knight.
- Most of David Lynch's movies fall into this category.
- The Eye, which is a Hong Kong movie, also does feature some elements of J-Horror.
- Shutter, a Thai movie.
- Alone, by the directors of Shutter.
- The 1961 British movie The Innocents, based on The Turn of the Screw
- This is a big part of Japanese horror, or "J-Horror", and why it was so popular a few years ago.
- Julia's Eyes
- Alejandro Amenabar's The Others.
- The Purge
- Red Eye
- Right at Your Door
- Then there's Roman Polanski:
- The Shining
- Fourteen Oh Eight
- On that note, any other film based on a Stephen King novel.
- The Silence of the Lambs and that whole series.
- A Tale of Two Sisters is Korean, and Korea is no slouch in this department, also putting out movies like:
- Take a movie by Andrei Tarkovsky. Any movie by Tarkovsky. But particularly Stalker.
- In Hellraiser: Inferno, the gore and Pinhead and the Cenobites' presence is toned down considerably. The horror focuses instead on the psychological descent of a flawed character subjected to nightmarish visions and seeing his reality crumble around him.
- In The Facts in the Case of Mister Hollow An Occult Detective investigating a Mystery Cult has to slowly piece together the larger, sinister context in which a Spooky Photograph was taken, communicated by small details present in the photo itself, building to a conclusion that is either symbolic of the investigator's epiphany, or an explicit paranormal manifestation.
- Spiral is about Mason, a psychologically maladjusted man with an obsession with painting his coworker, who somehow relates to his dark past.
- Ne Te Retourne Pas ("Don't Look Back"): Is the world changing and you're the only one to notice, or have you gone mad and you're the only one not to notice?
- Full Circle, in a somewhat similar vein to fellow Mia Farrow chiller Rosemarys Baby
- Heavily used by HP Lovecraft
- Edgar Allan Poe's main subject as well.
- Especially impressive with Poe, considering he did his writing nearly half a century before psychology was even a recognized field of study. He was writing about mental disorders that hadn't even been named or studied yet.
- Lots of Stephen King's stories also qualify:
- As mentioned, The Shining
- The Tommyknockers
- Dolores Claiborne
- The Man in the Black Suit
- House of Leaves. Does the Navidson Record really exist? Did Zampano actually write the manuscript or is it all in Johnny's head? Is the house on Ash Tree Lane a metaphor for the minotaur the darkness within the human mind? Does anyone have any idea what's going on at all?
- The Fifty Year Sword by the same author. Who are the five speakers? Does anyone else have one of the man with lavender eyelashes' sword? What is it that can stitch and hold the wound?
- "Miriam" by Truman Capote explores mental decline.
- Many of George R. R. Martin's stories use this trope heavily. For example, "A Song for Lya", "Meathouse Man", or "The Second Kind of Loneliness".
- The Bad Seed
- Victor Kelleher's insanely creepy Del-Del.
- Alexandre Dumas, pere, and his The Woman with the Velvet Necklace.
- Caitlín R. Kiernan's The Red Tree
- The Necromantic Mysteries of Kyle Murchison Booth
- The Haunting of Toby Jugg by Dennis Wheatley
- "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a classic example. The fact that it's semi-autobiographical just adds to the scariness.
- A Shadow Girl's Summer of Love and Madness by Jackson Boughen. It's kind of implied by the title.
- A lot of Chuck Palahniuk's earlier work (Fight Club, Invisible Monsters, Haunted2005) falls under this.
- KT Martel's MARZENA Series blends this with Science Fiction using Neuroscience. It's scary because it's real.
- Doctor Who:
- The episode "Midnight", by Russell T Davies, uses a combination of Primal Fear and Paranoia Fuel to turn the act of simply repeating sentences into terrifying conversations. Same goes for "The God Complex", which includes a monster that strips away your faith — not just religious faith, but faith in anything — and feeds off of it.
- Steven Moffat's take on the show plays with ideas of madness, and things you think you saw from the corner of your eye. On the one hand, no, you're not going mad; on the other hand, yes, these things are real, and they are out to get you.
- American Horror Story: Murder House uses it along with all the Surreal Horror, particularly in Ben's plotlines.
- Silent Hill: The enemies and environments of each game are pulled from the screwed-up psyche of one or more of its characters, and the series relies far more on Nothing Is Scarier, surreal imagery and symbolism than jump scares and gore. The games occasionally hint that the protagonist may simply be insane.
- Eternal Darkness, especially since one of the three traits in the game is Sanity, alongside vitality and Mana. Not only are you dealing with enemies that defy common logic, they are purposefully distorting your perception of reality. If you beat them they're gone and not only will you be trying to describe something that sounds insane, you probably are insane. Even if the psychological tricks don't scare you, let that sanity bar run out and your vitality will quickly go down the drain.
- The Suffering is a cross between psychological and physical horror. While you will be fighting inmates, guards, and wretched abominations, you will also encounter horrific hallucinations and the ghosts of Carnate Island's insane and psychopathic residents.
- One of the reasons why the original Operation Flashpoint and its current successor ARMA are praised for their realism is how they not only accurately portray the tech and tactics employed on a modern battlefield, but also the tension, paranoia and uncompromising unpredictability of military operations. Compared to most other military games, which are usualy action-pumped thrill rides with lots of loud set pieces, these titles have the player experiencing almost unbearable tension while moving through enemy territory. The enemies can be well hidden, may already know of your position, may be already surrounding you stealthily and killing you before you even manage to register them and realize your grave mistake. And don't even get us started on situations like being Trapped Behind Enemy Lines, completely out of ammo and hiding in the bushes, because heavily armed brigades of soldiers and vehicles are combing the whole area. All of this goes hand in hand with the horror occuring commonly during missions set in broad daylight.
- Iron Storm is a shooter that has zero supernatural elements, but is set in a nigh-nightmarish Diesel Punk world scarred by an increasingly insane and dystopic Forever War.
- Spec Ops: The Line is a curious example of the trope. It opens much like any other modern military shooter, but about halfway through the game (after the protagonists unwittingly burn forty-seven innocent civilians to death with white phosphorous rounds) it starts to take on more and more elements of psychological horror, including surreal, horrific imagery, hallucinations etc.
- Metro 2033 is a first person shooter, but while it has gunfights against bandits, mutants, and Neo-Nazis and/or Communists, those are brief levels of heart-pounding adrenaline between long stretches of isolation, unexplained but explicitly supernatural horrors such as ghosts and 'anomalies', and a growing sense of gloomy, claustrophobic despair in the tunnels that manages to evolve into agoraphobic paranoia when Artyom is in the open on the surface. Worst of all are some of the completely unexplained instances of blatant and lethal Mind Screw that defy explanation—the less said about the Dark Ones, the better. It's saying something when it's comforting to have a level with Nazis to shoot at, versus the game's alternatives.
- The trippy horror in Metal Gear Solid 4 was intended to disturb on this level, such as unmanned biomechanical robots that moo like cows and can rotate their legs on 360 degree joints to climb buildings, and a very sexy woman in a skintight suit wearing Snake's face while murdering people and laughing with huge robotic tentacles, and the 'white room' segments after defeating the bosses in which you hear a distorted soundtrack of women moaning in orgasm and crying/screaming/snarling/laughing, and so on.
- Cry of Fear fits this neatly. The game is focused on exploring the madness of the main character Simon through the environment (which twists and changes whenever Simon has a psychotic fit), enemies (each of which is based on one of Simon's fears and the anger he has about his unusable legs) and flashbacks with his doctor.
- The When They Cry series is made of this (often mixed with some gore), as the protagonists often succumb to madness and hallucinations or are mentally tortured/have their hopes crushed in various ways.
- Gunnerkrigg Court:
- The comic dips into this any time Zimmy shows up. Her perception of the world is very abnormal—and she has Reality Warper Power Incontinence. So when the focus switches to Zimmy, bizarre, dreamlike events are quick to follow. It's never entirely clear how much of this is real and how much is hallucination... or how much is a hallucination that's becoming real.
- A non-Zimmy example happens in the chapter "A Ghost Story". Annie has to counsel a ghost—and since the ghost doesn't realize he's dead, he unintentionally creates a shared hallucination that symbolizes an event from his old life.
- Homestuck delves into this around the middle of Act 5 when Gamzee goes sober and starts killing off the characters, which had already started dying by Eridan and Vriska earlier. Probably the creepiest part is a flash in which, after seeing a few scenes of Nepeta and Equius talking adorably to one another, the reader is forced to play as the both of them and lead them through a dark, deserted lab as ominous music riddled with honks slowly grows louder. The worst part is that, unlike in a video game, the 'player' has no choice - they know the story depends on the two characters moving towards the threat, so unless they just stop reading altogether (which doesn't solve the problem as of course the story continues on regardless) they can't continue any other way than by leading these beloved, oblivious characters to what is likely their doom. And indeed it is.
- A good chunk of vlogs and stories pertaining to The Slender Man Mythos love this trope. As for Marble Hornets, one of the more prominent examples, it's pretty much made of this trope. Well, that and Paranoia Fuel. Lots and lots of that, too.