Spooky Cinema: Why psychological horror will never leave our minds or our movie theaters

Psychological horror sticks with its viewers far longer than the average horror movie lasts, and for good reason. It asks its audience to do the most challenging thing of all — think.



"Us," the newest horror movie from Jordan Peele, is the first film to be screened at the Alamo Drafthouse of Torment. [CONTRIBUTED]

Jenna Post, Arts Reporter

With the Campus Activities Board showing of Jordan Peele’s Us at the IMU today and the Halloween season coming to a close, now is the time to talk about the horror subgenre that sticks with us long after leaving the theater — psychological horror.

While monsters and gore may be frightening at the moment, it’s unlikely that you’ll be still be afraid after the credits roll. Psychological horror, on the other hand, relies on toying with the audience’s minds to create a truly unnerving experience.

The key to creating a memorable psychological horror movie is finding the right balance of the unnatural and the believable. For simplicity’s sake, let’s use Peele’s movies to demonstrate this rule.

Do most people believe that the government is storing failed clones of everyone in the country right under our feet? No, course not. Do they believe that there’s an underground slave trade of black bodies being sold to house the consciousnesses of white people? Again, no.

And yet, Peele has found huge success as a psychological horror director because he uses these strange situations to facilitate a larger discussion grounded in reality.

Related: Spooky Cinema: How Sweeney Todd proved that horror musicals deserve a place onstage

It’s easy to put yourself in the shoes of Peele’s protagonists because his movies aren’t really about murderous doppelgangers or bodysnatchers. They pull from very real issues, like childhood trauma and systemic racism, then place the viewer into a world where the main character is forced to confront a representation of these problems or, literally, die.

In other horror subgenres, the solution to beat the bad guy is obvious — run away, call the police, don’t go into the graveyard. However, in psychological horror movies, even if the protagonist does everything right and makes it out alive, they’re still left with questions that may never be truly answered, which means that they can never truly escape the antagonist. After all, what haunts people more than their own minds?

“It makes you think,” is probably the most overused phrase in the history of cinema reviews, but there’s no point in putting it another way when it comes to psychological horror, because that’s its purpose.

While viewing these types of films, the audience is forced to think about what they would do in the moment. After it ends, the audience feels safe, but not sound. When all is said and done, they realize that survival was just the tip of the iceberg.

More often than not, there are countless questions to consider by the time the film ends. Us forces the viewer to examine their responsibility to the less fortunate, Get Out has its audience examine racism and bodily autonomy, and The Babadook makes its viewers question the nature of grief.

As I’m sure you’ve realized by now, a good psychological horror film is philosophical in nature, but, believe it or not, a horror movie can’t fully answer the questions philosophers have pondered for centuries. It’s up to the viewer to come to their own conclusion.

In the world of psychological horror, it’s easy for the viewer to wonder “what would I do?” and it’s equally as difficult to find the answer. They not only present us with dilemmas during the movie, but also questions to consider long after its end, which is why the genre will never leave our theaters or minds.