Horror movies have long explored the topic of mental health, often with polarizing results. In the past, horror movies often used a mental illness as the reason for their villain’s murderous impulses, with Psycho and Split being two notable examples. As society is becoming more aware and understanding of mental health and the many forms it can take, the horror genre is also becoming more considerate in its interpretations.
The recently released Smilehas proven to be a box office hit, thanks in no small part to its brilliant marketing campaign. The big baddie that haunts the characters of Smile feeds on their grief, creating an unsettling experience that comments on unhealed trauma and how one can try to face it: many other horror movies tread similar ground.
‘Black Swan’ (2010)
The movie that won Natalie Portman an Oscar, Black Swan, sees the actress play Nina, a professional ballerina. After she secures the lead role in a production of Swan Lake, Nina finds herself descending into a state of madness as she fights to keep the role from promising newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis).
One of the best examples of the obsessed artist trope, the stress of Nina’s pursuit to be perfect, causes her to hallucinate, causing both the ballerina and the audience to question which parts are actually real. While Black Swan never explicitly states what mental illnesses may be affecting Nina, people have speculated it to be a mix of schizophrenia, OCD, and an eating disorder.
Black Swan is available to stream on Hulu.
‘The Babadook’ (2014)
A horror gem from Australia, The Babadook follows Amelia (Essie Davis) and her young son Sam (Noah Wiseman), struggling with their husband/father’s death six years earlier. When Sam begins to claim that the creature from one of his books is real and haunting their home, Amelia struggles to contain him while dealing with the fact that he might be right.
At its core, The Babadook is a story about grief. In this way, it is similar to Smile, but The Babadook rejects cheap jump scares instead of focusing on a much more intimidating monster: grief. The decaying relationship between Amelia and Sam is built on this shared grief. In a way, the movie’s fictional monster exists to help bring the mother and son closer together.
The Babadook is available to stream on Shudder and AMC+.
The directorial debut of cult horror filmmaker Lucky McKee, May follows the titular character played by Angela Bettis. Socially awkward due to a rough upbringing, the lonely May longs for a genuine connection. She seemingly finds it through a romance with Adam (Jeremy Sisto), but May is driven to murder when this relationship ends.
While it eventually becomes a slasher movie as May builds a doll out of human body parts, May focuses on childhood trauma. Through the character’s interactions with those around her, it is clear the events from her past still haunt her, despite her desire to make a friend.
May is available to stream on Shudder, AMC+, and Tubi.
A move you won’t want to have snacks during, Swallow stars Haley Bennett as Hunter, a woman diagnosed with pica. As her desire to eat inedible objects becomes stronger and stronger, it causes her seemingly perfect marriage and domestic bliss to come apart.
Swallow is to be commended for tackling such a unique subject, as pica is a very real condition rarely seen on screen. While the disorder could have been explored further, as it is mostly used as a mechanism to kickstart Hunter on her emotional journey, Swallow is still a great watch with a terrific performance from Bennett.
Swallow is available to stream on AMC+.
Another examination of childhood grief, Oculus follows Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) as they try to prove a cursed mirror is responsible for the misfortune in their family. They hold the mirror responsible for their parents’ deaths; an act young Tim was arrested for.
While the origins of the cursed mirror are never explained, it serves as a metaphor for grief, as the now adult children are drawn back to it for answers, unable to move on without them. Oculus is directed by Mike Flanagan, who would go on to find further fame in the horror genre with such hits as The Haunting of Hill House and Midnight Mass.
Oculus is available to stream on Hulu and Tubi.
‘The Voices’ (2014)
The rare movie where Ryan Reynolds doesn’t play himself, The Voices, sees the Deadpool star as Jerry, a kind but troubled man. Suffering from schizophrenia, Jerry regularly has conversations with his dog and cat, which Reynolds also voices. When pursuing his workplace crush turns deadly, Jerry’s condition becomes homicidal.
One of Reynolds’s most underrated movies, The Voices will appeal to fans of black comedies and of the actor. He delivers one of the best performances of his career as the unstable Jerry. Seeing the actor move out of his comfort zone and deliver a character so far removed from his usual wheelhouse is a treat.
The Voices is available to stream on Starz.
A movie you will only watch once, Antichrist stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a married couple struggling with the recent death of their son. They travel to a remote cabin in the woods where they once holidayed with the boy as a way to face their trauma, but they soon find their lives unraveling further.
Director Lars von Trier claims the film is inspired by his struggles with depression and anxiety, as he wrote the script during a depressive episode. The filmmaker would explore these same themes in his next two movies, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac, revealing that mental health can be just as much of a focus behind the camera as it is in front of it.
‘The Night House’ (2020)
Living alone in the home her husband built for them, Beth (Rebecca Hall) is still reeling from his sudden suicide. Plagued by nightmares that seem to cross over into reality, Beth begins to feel a dark presence in her house as she strives to uncover why her partner took his own life and what secrets he may have been hiding.
Directed by David Bruckner, who also helmed the recent Hellraiser reboot, The Night House is a powerful examination of grief and the strong grip it can hold on us. The movie’s clever script and Bruckner’s tight direction are aided greatly by Hall’s fantastic performance, who expertly sells the desolation of the lonely widow.
The Night House is available to stream on HBO Max.
‘Saint Maud’ (2019)
Saint Maud examines how trauma can send someone towards religion for answers and how that unchecked trauma can consume someone’s life. After losing a patient in confronting circumstances, nurse Maud (Rings of Power‘s Morfydd Clark) becomes a personal carer and moves to a seaside town on the English coast.
Converting to Roman Catholicism as a way to deal with her past trauma, Maud takes her belief too far by hurting herself to appease God. When she becomes the carer for Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a former dancer with cancer, Maud believes she must also save this woman’s soul, leading to tragic consequences.
Saint Maud is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video and Paramount+.
‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (1990)
A powerful examination of post-traumatic stress disorder, Jacob’s Ladder follows Vietnam veteran Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) as he is haunted by terrifying visions. As the hallucinations take a toll on Jacob’s mental state, he searches for answers as to why his past is haunting him.
Jacob’s Ladder is a cult classic whose reputation has only grown in the decades since its release. It is credited as a major influence on the Silent Hillseries of video games, which shares the movie’s focus on past trauma manifesting as frightening hallucinations in the present.
Jacob’s Ladder is available to stream on Paramount+.
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