As delightful as it is to watch a gory horror movie with the lights out while you're hunkered under the covers praying a clown doesn't eat you alive, sometimes you want less blood and more...brains. Enter: the psychological thriller, a genre that’s all about effing you up mentally and emotionally while terrifying you in the process. What's not to love?
Psychological thrillers are ideal for people who aren’t down for jump-scares and the paranormal, but still want to get their heart rate up and possibly have everlasting nightmares. And let’s be real, sometimes the fragility of the human psyche is even more terrifying than killer sharks. To quote Master of the Psychological Thriller Alfred Hitchcock, "There is a distinct difference between 'suspense' and 'surprise,' and yet many pictures continually confuse the two." Then again, apparently this dude also said “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible,” so...yeah.
Hitchcock's movies pretty much dominate this genre with classics like Vertigo and Rebecca, but there are also a ton of contemporary psychological thrillers films ready and willing to freak you out—from Black Swan and American Psycho, to Eyes Wide Shut and Gone Girl.
Check out 20 of our favorite psychological thrillers below if you're in the mood to be ~intellectually creeped out~.
PsychoObviously you can't curate a list of psychological thrillers without including Psycho. It's right there in the name. Alfred Hitchcock's most famous film is about a woman who stays at the world's creepiest motel run by one Norman Bates, a man who's...um...way too obsessed with his mom.
Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel has basically ruined carpets, tricycles, twins, and hallways for me. It's a truly terrifying journey through one man's descent into insanity, and no, I have not recovered. REDRUM.
Just a casual movie about Leonardo DiCaprio heading to an insane asylum on an island where a murderer has recently escaped. OR IS IT?! Like all good thrillers, literally nothing in this movie is as it seems, and you don't find out what's really going on until the very end—at which point you will be utterly and completely terrified. Have fun!
Get Out has elements of psychological thriller, horror, and suspense, but the movie—about a Black man who visits his white girlfriend's horrifying family upstate—can't really be defined by any one genre. Jordan Peele told Vulture that he views Get Out as a social thriller, saying, "The bad guy is society—these things that are innate in all of us, and provide good things, but ultimately prove that humans are always going to be barbaric, to an extent."
The Silence of the Lambs
You'd think a movie about a cannibal who spends his time eating people would fall more into the gore category, but The Silence of the Lambs is another genre-defier, all about understanding the dark mind of Hannibal Lecter, man who enjoys the taste of human flesh. Literally shuddering.
The Butterfly Effect
It's an early aughts thriller starring Ashton Kutcher, what more do you want? Oh, a plot involving his ability to time travel into his traumatic past memories and change the future? And then he slowly loses his mind in the process? Congrats, you have ARRIVED.
To explain why this movie is a psychological thriller would mean completely ruining its ending for the .001% of you out there who haven't seen it already. So I guess I'll just say this: the first rule of fight club is you do not talk about fight club.
The Girl On The Train
This one takes the concept of an "unreliable narrator" to the absolute max thanks to the main character not being able to trust her own memory. Which tends to be a problem when people around you go missing and you wake up covered in blood....
I can barely wrap my mind around this movie's plot, but basically it stars our man Leonardo DiCaprio as a thief who can enter people's dreams and steal elements of their subconscious. I still have no idea whether the movie was a dream...within a dream...within a dream, but FWIW, director Christopher Nolan said this about the iconic last shot: "It matters to people because that’s the point about reality. Reality matters.”
I, for one, am psychologically thrilled.
The Sixth Sense
Yeah, it's technically a ghost movie about a creepy little kid who sees dead people, but if you know the film's famous twist, you know why it's being included in our psychological thrillers list, mmmkay?
Ever wonder where the term “gaslighting” comes from? This movie! Gaslight is about a woman whose awful husband manipulates her into thinking she’s going insane. The title is a reference to one particular moment in the film when she sees flickering gaslights and her husband convinces her that she imagined them.
Vertigo is Hitchcock at his best. As you’ve probably guessed, this movie is about a man who suffers from vertigo, and it features all the usual tropes of the genre: false identities, sanitariums, and some casual madness. But the best part of Vertigo is the dreamy 1950s northern California setting.
Not to give away tooooo much, but Memento basically follows Guy Pearce as a man suffering from short-term memory loss. Which is rough under any circumstances but especially because he’s trying to figure out who murdered his wife. The movie is in both black and white and color to signify two different time periods that finally sync up at the end. It’s absolutely genius.
Oh, hi again, Hitchcock. This movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture and it’s easy to see why. Rebecca leans into the whole “haunted memory of a dude’s first wife low-key haunts his new wife” trope (similar to Jane Austen’s Jane Eyre), and the plot is absolutely wild.
Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?
Arguably Bette Davis’s most famous movie, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is about an unhinged aging child actress who basically holds her wheelchair-bound sister hostage in an Old Hollywood mansion. But as anyone who watched Ryan Murphy’s Feud knows, the juiciest part of this film is what went on behind the scenes: the insane beef between actresses Bette and Joan Crawford, who were notorious rivals.
Natalie Portman’s turn—by which I mean pirouette, haha—as a ballet dancer who loses her grip on reality in Black Swan, was so intense and over-the-top that it earned her an Oscar. Any more details would fully ruin the plot for people who haven’t seen it, but be prepared for a major twist and some casual peeling skin. It’s great!
Kay, so American Psycho is a little less psychological thriller and a little more psychological horror thanks to, ya know, a few chainsaw deaths, but I’m still counting it on this list to support my husband Christian Bale. And it proves that nothing is scarier than a bored investment banking office bro.
Eyes Wide Shut
Remember when Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were married? Lol. Anyway, they made this iconic erotic movie before splitting up, which is basically about Tom accidentally joining a dangerous masked orgy club (wow, relatable) and witnessing a bunch of wild sh*t. Plenty of psychological thriller-y stuff happens, too, but mostly orgies.
Otherwise known as the movie where Ben Affleck does full-frontal nudity, this one’s about a man who becomes a suspect after his wife goes missing. Obviously, literally nothing is how it seems. Except Ben’s nude scene, which is exactly how it seems.
Fatal Attraction is an amusingly ’80s movie about a woman who becomes obsessed with a married man with whom she had an affair. If you’re not in the mood, just watch Obsessed because it’s basically the same but with the added benefit of Queen Bey and Ali Larter.