The Persistance of Psychological Horror

By Lilly Ball

With every October comes 31 days that justify my love for frightening films. The other 334 days of the year, however, I find myself attempting to explain my obsessive and admittedly pretentious opinions on scary movies.
Though I have often found myself in theaters watching the likes of “Unfriended” and “As Above, So Below,” their cheap jump scares and unsurprising plots instill more irritation than fear. It’s films that utilize psychological fear, a terror that permeates the mind and establishes a genuine feeling of danger, that leave me shaking.
Since its cultivation in the 1920s by the great Alfred Hitchcock, the psychological thriller has assumed many forms, intermixing sci-fi and horror to create a few standout films.

In a time before modern CGI when Hitchcock ruled the silver screen, horror movies like “Psycho” approached the edge of perfection. Without the realistic special effects of today, Hitchcock had to rely on something that many current horror directors lack: creativity.

“Psycho” tells the story of the beautiful Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) who, driven by love and the overbearing debts of her boyfriend, steals a large sum of money from her employer. Attempting to flee with the money, Crane finds herself at the Bates Motel, run by a peculiar man named Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his mother who appear to have quite the hold over him.

Thanks to the popularity of Freddie Highmore and the show “Bates Motel,” many know the story of Norman Bates and his oppressive mother, but in the 56 years since the release of “Psycho,” Hitchcock’s masterpiece continues to appall audiences in ways that films like “Paranormal Activity” never could. Utilizing the art of suspense, as well as some very impressive camera work, Hitchcock delivers almost two hours of slow-building, pervading terror.
Just minutes into the opening scene of the film, it is already made clear to viewers how Hitchcock’s creations have stood the test of time. With a panning shot of the Phoenix skyline slowly zooming in on a faroff window, a bustling city melts into the background.

As the film goes on, audiences are clueless as to why an overbearing sense of dread slowly takes over the characters, a mystery unsolved until an ominous secret is revealed.

Another horror film with a huge fan base and cult status is “Donnie Darko,” hailed for its strange ability to simultaneously stun and disturb. I was first introduced to director Richard Kelly’s sole classic many years ago, yet I still find myself thinking of it and attempting to fully understand its magic. Whether it be the film’s soundtrack (featuring bands like Joy Division and Tears for Fears), eerie cinematography or complex plot, “Donnie Darko” manages to affect me in ways I did not think possible.

The film tells the story of Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), a seemingly typical teenager, dealing with his overbearing family and the boredom of living in bland suburbia. What separates Donnie from his peers, however, is a mangled, humanoid rabbit named Frank who visits Donnie in visions and dreams.

What makes “Donnie Darko” so frightening is not Frank’s disturbing image, but rather the overall darkness that shrouds Donnie’s life. Donnie is distant, like many teenagers, but his mind’s monsters manifest themselves and overtake his life, preventing him from finding any sense of happiness or normalcy. Gyllenhaal, though only 20 at the time, gives a performance that continues to overshadow those of more recent thrillers.

The film darkens as Donnie’s symptoms worsen. Scenes of pastoral Virginian mountains are replaced by Frank’s daunting visage, and it becomes apparent that Donnie is destined for catastrophe.

A third standout in the category of psychological horror films is “Insidious.” I am torn because the film features all the horror movie tropes that I pride myself in resisting: jump scares, CGI demons and excessive gore. Yet, a distinct feeling of anxiety stayed with me long past the credits rolled.

The film tells the tale of Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai Lambert (Rose Byrne) who have recently moved with their three children. Their son, Dalton, decides to explore the house, finding himself climbing into a dimly lit attic, where a startling, shadowy figure causes him to fall off the ladder and into a coma. Soon after, the Lamberts find themselves harassed by some ungodly force.

“Insidious” shares many qualities with lesser supernatural films, but somehow manages to rise above them. Prior to the many horrifying scenes that send viewers reeling, tension tangibly builds, preventing each scare from becoming tedious. Color schemes darken to a dull, all-consuming grey and the once happy song “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” becomes a taunting warning that something sinister comes.

While horror films have found a new norm with each passing era, there are those that evoke a particular type of fear in audiences still manage to frighten, despite their release date.