What Exactly Is a “Psychological” Horror Film?

Domestically, it’s doing better than The Lone Ranger. It’s topped R.I.P.D. and is besting Pacific Rim. It’s done better than Turbo, White House Down, The Internship, and After Earth here at home. While studios have often argued that horror films have little traction in the Summer (“people want to have fun, not be frightened”) James Wan’s old fashioned fright fest, the modern horror classic The Conjuring, has raked in nearly $90 million at the box office, proving once again that screenwriter William Goldman’s prophetic statement about Hollywood remains as true today as it was when he coined it back in 1983 — “Nobody knows anything.”

Of course, the Oscar winning scribe (for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All The President’s Men) wasn’t merely suggesting that studio chiefs are dumb or wholly incompetent. In context, Goldman was arguing that few in the business, if any, can predict how well a movie will do with the viewing public. It’s all a gamble. Something can kick in and take over, leaving the rest of the new releases in the dust, while another, perfectly marketed and well made entity can languish in the lower depths of the weekly totals until it quietly slinks away. Few could have predicted that Wan’s bloodless, backwards glancing scary movie would be poised to be one of 2013’s most profitable movies. Fear can sell tickets, but it’s usually October before we see them staking out the Cineplex.

Of course, the higher ups seemed to think it would hit. They’ve hired Wan to work on the next installments of the growing in popularity Fast and Furious franchise. He’ll also return to the movie that remade his name when Insidious 2 comes out in a few months. Wan may always be remembered as the brash Pan-Asian auteur who, along with his writing partner Leigh Whannell, created the Saw franchise (and, for some, the whole “torture porn” subgenre), but now, he is seen as a bankable filmmaker who can easily work outside the dread conceit (don’t think so – check out the Kevin Bacon vigilante thriller Death Sentence).

With its success, The Conjuring got us thinking about the differences in specific horror subcategories. Naturally, there is the all out splatter epic which uses gore and arterial spray to shock the audience into submission. Then there is the true old school scary movie where nothing remotely bloody or grotesque happens. But when looking over what modern macabre fans think “psychological” horror is, the choices were questionable at best. Apparently, many movie viewers have confused suspense and unease with the discomfort same causes in your mind. For them, anything that creates a sense of disquiet or apprehension is “psychological,” and while technically true from a diagnostic point of view, that’s not what this type of terror is all about.

A long time ago, in a college classroom setting that no longer exists, a professor explained “psychological horror” in the following manner, to paraphrase: “it’s the kind of movie where the mind makes up for what the director doesn’t feature outright. It’s the monster in the closet where all you see is a pair of glowing red eyes. It’s the suggestion that a house is haunted and then walking through said location and hearing all kinds of concerning, creepy noises. It’s not a violent killer with a chainsaw chasing you around. It’s not a thriller where the police are trying to catch a heinous murderer. The main facet of a psychological horror film is what isn’t shown, not what is.”

Now, that makes sense. A movie like The Conjuring, while offering some jump scares and other obvious shocks, works because of what you don’t see. Take the memorable moment toward the beginning when little Christine Perron gets her leg pulled by an unseen force. When she wakes up and looks around the room, she sees something in the corner that is so horrific her eyes become huge scared saucers. Her sister gets up to explain to her that nothing is there. While facing her frightening sibling, she hears the words NO ONE wants to hear in a horror film – “It’s right behind you. Behind your shoulder.”

Now, Wan shows us nothing. Nothing. No creepy face. No outline of something horrific. Instead, he lets the acting and the imagination of the audience do all the heavy lifting. In contrast, let’s take a title that almost everyone on the web argues is the best example of psychological horror out there – John Carpenter’s The Thing. Now, a lot of the analysis of this undeniably great creepshow classic comes years removed from its initial release. Back when it hit theaters (and yours truly was part of the audience), Rob Bottin’s stunning special effects dominated the narrative, his vision of a vile shape-shifting extraterrestrial a clever combination of artistry and atrocity. Granted, over the years, the entrails oriented approach has dampened, allowing the more subtle elements of Carpenter’s expert direction to seep in. Familiarity will do that. So will other boundary-pushing offerings (like the French film, Inside).

Still, ask any number of so-called horror experts for a good example of psychological horror and The Thing is mentioned more than any other. More than The Haunting (the original, not Jan de Bont’s bonkers remake). More than The Legend of Hell House. More than The Other, Carnival of Souls, Session 9, or any other obvious example. For them, Carpenter’s control of tension and suspense means that the movie has a profound impact, mentally, on the viewer, and that is indeed true. But psychological horror would never showcase a dead crewmember turning into a massive toothed maw, his belly chomping off arms (in full view of the audience) while its head snaps off and mutates into a crazy cranial spider. It wouldn’t have exploding dogs, splitting skulls, and/or giant monsters made up of the various creatures its consumed over the galaxies.

Yes, the movie is intense and driven by dread. It’s the same with The Exorcist (another oft-quoted example of psychological horror). You might worry about what will happen the next time we visit little Regan McNeil’s room, but then director William Friedkin and his F/X wiz Dick Smith SHOW YOU why you should be afraid. A slasher movie can make you anxious, but when Freddy or Jason or Michael show up to slice and dice, there’s a palatable payoff. The set-up suggests, the follow through shows. For most psychological horror films, there is no reveal. Even in The Conjuring, which offers us witches, Satanic sacrifices, and infrequent glimpses of same, we don’t get a clear answer as to what’s happening to the Perrons. A film like Poltergeist put various faces on the frights. Wan works in a more subtle, suggestive manner.

In fact, it’s safe to say that true psychological horror is that clouded gray area between all out splatter and a trip through a cinematic dark ride. It’s not quite the Supreme Court and pornography, but it certainly is a topic open for discussion. A good rule of thumb might be to always look for the intent. If the filmmakers want you to see both the build-up and the blood, it’s not pure PH. If there’s nothing but a mood of agitation and foreboding, it’s probably trying to be psychologically horrific, but may never truly succeed. Of course, on the heels of The Conjuring‘s continuing commercial success, some suit in Tinseltown is trying to figure out how to copy and capitalize on the whole old school scares trend. As with the similarly styled J-Horror, they will sledgehammer the demo until the exit in disgust and seek slimier, sicker climes. Nobody knows anything, indeed.