'Decision to Leave' & 9 Other Intense Psychological Thrillers That Explore The Human Psyche (2023)

Cinema is the perfect art form to tell psychological thriller stories. Movies are immersive experiences that can allow viewers to understand or feel the sorts of emotions that fictional characters are going through on screen. When there's a combination of great filmmaking, strong acting, and expert writing, it's easy to forget you're watching a movie sometimes, and this can make film one of the most engrossing mediums out there.

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When a psychological thriller gets all these things right, it's a genre that can allow audiences to see the world in an entirely different light. The following movies all put viewers in the shoes of characters who are tortured, challenged, or simply struggling with some kind of emotional burden. They may not be easy watches all the time, but they are ultimately empathetic, immersive and compelling looks at characters who struggle with identity, personal feelings and sometimes even telling what's real and what isn't.

1 'Decision to Leave' (2022)

'Decision to Leave' & 9 Other Intense Psychological Thrillers That Explore The Human Psyche (1)

Decision to Leave combines a variety of genres and tones to create one of 2022's boldest and most unpredictable movies. It follows a detective investigating a mysterious death, and despite the deceased's man's wife being a suspect, he begins to harbor feelings for her that throw his life into chaos.

With crime, mystery, thriller and romance elements all thrown together into one movie, Decision to Leave is a dizzying and intentionally disorientating film. Given the main character is torn between so many different thoughts and emotions, the chaotic story and variety of tones reflect his psychological state well. It's a complex movie with an intricate narrative and heavy themes, making it one of the most intense psychological thrillers in recent memory.

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2 'Shutter Island' (2010)

'Decision to Leave' & 9 Other Intense Psychological Thrillers That Explore The Human Psyche (2)

Though Martin Scorsese is best known for his mob movies (and, in recent years, speaking out against the MCU), he's excelled at making non-crime movies, too. Shutter Island is evidence of this, as it's a psychological thriller/drama about a U.S. Marshal losing his grip on reality whilst investigating the disappearance of a patient from a high-security psychiatric hospital.

Things start simple enough, but the film gets progressively stranger and more twist-filled as it goes along. It's an unpredictable movie where every time the protagonist gets blindsided or shocked, the audience feels it too, making it a truly immersive mystery/thriller film.

3 'The Trial' (1962)

'Decision to Leave' & 9 Other Intense Psychological Thrillers That Explore The Human Psyche (3)

Orson Welles will always be most well-known for directing, writing, and starring in Citizen Kane, but that 1941 classic is far from Welles' only great movie. Case in point is The Trial, which captures the nightmarish writing of famed author Franz Kafka on film better than just about any other movie released either before or since.

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It follows a hapless and incredibly unlucky man named Josef K., who one day finds himself arrested for a crime he's sure he didn't commit. Worst of all, no one seems willing - or able - to tell him what the crime actually was. It's a nightmarish and consistently gripping film, and succeeds at immersing viewers in the story and making them feel the dread and horror that The Trial's main character does.

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4 'Possession' (1981)

'Decision to Leave' & 9 Other Intense Psychological Thrillers That Explore The Human Psyche (4)

Few horror films from the 1980s are as unsettling as Possession, which was once considered so shocking it was temporarily banned in the UK. It follows a couple whose marriage is falling apart in a damaging, sometimes violent manner, with both husband and wife descending into madness due to the waking nightmare that their lives have become.

Viewers won't likely want to find themselves experiencing what the characters in Possession feel, but the film takes its audience on that harrowing journey regardless. Beyond being an effective horror movie, it's also one of the most intense movies ever made about a relationship breakdown, making it a difficult - yet undeniably impactful - watch.

5 'The Batman' (2022)

'Decision to Leave' & 9 Other Intense Psychological Thrillers That Explore The Human Psyche (5)

The character of Bruce Wayne/Batman is often shown as a tortured, broken man, but rarely to the extent seen in 2022's The Batman. It's a superhero movie that emphasizes character drama and the psychological toll of being a vigilante over action scenes, with a slow pace and fewer fight sequences/explosions than you might expect.

It's an approach that works wonderfully though, with the character arc given to Bruce Wayne over the film's nearly three-hour runtime being a powerfully emotional one. It's ultimately more hopeful than most psychological thrillers, but certainly goes deeper into the tortured mind of Bruce Wayne/Batman than most Batman films go.

6 'Vertigo' (1958)

'Decision to Leave' & 9 Other Intense Psychological Thrillers That Explore The Human Psyche (6)
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Considered by some to be Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece, Vertigo is a methodically-paced mystery film that's heavy on intrigue and psychological drama. It follows a detective who takes on a private investigation for an old friend, and ends up getting incredibly involved with the case, with it eventually consuming his life.

It's an incredibly dark (and sometimes uncomfortable) look at love, desire and obsession, and easily one of the most striking thrillers from the 1950s. It still feels impactful and haunting to this date, and does an eerily good job of presenting its protagonist's gradual descent into paranoia.

7 'Brazil' (1985)

'Decision to Leave' & 9 Other Intense Psychological Thrillers That Explore The Human Psyche (7)

Brazil is a 143-minute-long nightmare that you can't wake up from until the end credits roll. You might not want to, given it's an imaginative and darkly funny look at a future society that's been ruined by technology and bureaucracy, but its intensity and relentless pacing do make it an intentionally exhausting watch in many ways.

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Its protagonist, Sam Lowry, is flawed, yet still unfairly treated by the world around him, plagued with bad luck that gets him in one unfortunate situation after another. Few movies sustain the feeling of a particularly anxious cinematic fever dream for as long as Brazil does, making it just as effective a psychological thriller as it is a darkly comedic work of science-fiction.

8 'Last Night in Soho' (2021)

'Decision to Leave' & 9 Other Intense Psychological Thrillers That Explore The Human Psyche (8)
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While Baby Driver represented a partial shift away from comedy for filmmaker Edgar Wright, it still had a lightweight, comedic edge to many of its scenes. Wright's follow-up, Last Night in Soho, hardly had any comedic relief, and was instead a surprisingly intense psychological thriller/horror movie about a young girl who finds herself inexplicably able to travel back to London during the 1960s.

It's light on horror at first, but does become increasingly suspenseful and tense as it goes along. It reveals the dark side of a time in history that's often viewed through rose-tinted glasses, and works as a psychological thriller by showing how learning the truth about London at this time affects the film's protagonist. Wright proved himself to be a fairly good horror director with Last Night in Soho, and time will tell whether it ends up being a genre he returns to again.

9 'Donnie Darko' (2001)

'Decision to Leave' & 9 Other Intense Psychological Thrillers That Explore The Human Psyche (9)

One of the definitive cult classics of the 2000s, Donnie Darko follows a teenager whose life becomes increasingly bizarre after he narrowly avoids dying in an accident. He begins to experience mysterious visions that change his behavior and outlook on life drastically, with strange consequences unfolding because of his actions and newfound psychological state.

Donnie Darko's well-known for being a perplexing and intense movie that's nevertheless enjoyable to watch, thanks to the interesting characters, memorable dialogue and excellent 1980s soundtrack. It's surprisingly accessible, considering its surreal visuals and sometimes confounding narrative, making it a good entry point for viewers who want to explore the psychological thriller genre.

10 'Taxi Driver' (1976)

'Decision to Leave' & 9 Other Intense Psychological Thrillers That Explore The Human Psyche (10)

An uncomfortable and dark movie anchored by a fiercely committed performance from Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver follows one of the most well-known - and tortured - protagonists in film history: Travis Bickle. He's an ex-Vietnam War veteran who feels alienated from the world and lives with insomnia, leading him to begin working as a taxi driver in New York City, meeting a wide array of different people in the process.

Through its visuals, lead performance and frequent use of introspective narration, Taxi Driver is a strikingly effective character study. Travis Bickle is a flawed and often morally questionable individual, particularly when he begins to lash out at society in the film's second half. Despite this, the film wants viewers to understand Bickle; not necessarily like him or agree with his outlook on life, but see where he's coming from, and get a sense of why he becomes compelled to do certain things. This makes Taxi Driver a difficult and often anxious watch, but it remains a remarkably compelling and uncompromising film, and one of Martin Scorsese's very best directorial efforts.

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What is the psychology of psychological thrillers? ›

Psychological thrillers explore their characters' innermost thoughts and motivations, allowing us to examine how their decisions propel the plot forward into the extremes of human ethics and morality. The genre prompts us to consider the darkness in others and ourselves.

What is an example of a psychological thriller? ›

In Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs (1988) — the sequel to Harris's Red Dragon (1981) — FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling enters into a dangerous psychological game with convicted cannibal killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter as she hunts down an elusive murderer known as Buffalo Bill.

What are the themes of psychological thrillers? ›

There are 7 main elements explored in psychological thrillers. These include perception, guilt, reality, obsession, mind, identity and death. This theme is often challenged by the antagonist during a film, causing confusion to the protagonist.

How do thrillers make you feel? ›

Suspense engages the mind.

“I sometimes feel like I could do better than the characters did.” Figuring out the ending gives a sense of competence. Some readers even say they feel a sense of superiority in knowing they could figure out how to solve the mystery when the characters could not.

What was the purpose of thriller? ›

Thriller Film is a genre that revolves around anticipation and suspense. The aim for Thrillers is to keep the audience alert and on the edge of their seats. The protagonist in these films is set against a problem – an escape, a mission, or a mystery.

What psychology movie is based on a true story? ›

A Beautiful Mind (2001) Quick Synopsis: Starring Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly, and directed by Ron Howard, this movie about mental health is based on the true story of John Forbes Nash, a Nobel laureate and genius in mathematics, who lives with schizophrenia.

What is the difference between psychological horror and psychological thriller? ›

Psychological thrillers tend to be more cerebral, focusing on the mental and emotional states of the characters. In contrast, psychological horror films are more visceral, relying on suspense, shock, and gore to create a feeling of unease and terror.

What are the five main elements of a thriller? ›

While crime thrillers come in many different varieties, the great ones generally share at least five essential elements.
  • Element 1: A Diabolical Villain. ...
  • Element 2: A Flawed, But Likable, Protagonist. ...
  • Element 3: Raising the Stakes. ...
  • Element 4: A Ticking Clock. ...
  • Element 5: A Shocking Twist (Beware of Spoilers!)
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How do you make a good psychological thriller story? ›

5 Tips for Writing a Thriller
  1. Make your main character compelling. ...
  2. Make sure your opening scene has plenty of action. ...
  3. Create an interesting villain. ...
  4. Build obstacles for your protagonist. ...
  5. Add plenty of plot twists and turning points.
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What are the three 3 C's of thriller? ›

Thriller author believes every great thriller story should have the "3 Cs". These include the contract or promise to the reader, a clock that creates urgency, and the crucible or litany of things that go wrong that challenge your main character.

What is the scariest psychological thriller on Netflix? ›

Thriller Movies
  • The Weekend Away.
  • The Platform.
  • Fatal Affair.
  • Spiderhead.
  • Intrusion.
  • Shutter Island.
  • Bird Box.
  • Solace.

Which is the number one Psycho movie in the world? ›

American Psycho (2000)

What is the scariest psychological thriller? ›

Essential / Must-see / Genre-defying: Psycho-Horror movies:
  • Peeping Tom (1960)
  • Rosemary's Baby (1968)
  • Repulsion (1965)
  • The Innocents (1961)
  • The Shining (1980)

Why do thrillers give me anxiety? ›

It's all about what happens in the body when we're watching scary movies. During horror movies, our brains release adrenaline, which prepares our bodies for stressful situations. Our sympathetic nervous system responds to the threat and throws us into the "fight or flight" response.

What is the effect of psychological thrillers? ›

Basically, psychological thrillers let us feel fear in a controlled way, reeling us in slowly by deliberately building suspense. We go inside the heads of morally ambiguous characters as directors create moods of anxiety, fury and confusion. Like the characters, we struggle to figure out what's really going on.

Can thriller movies trigger anxiety? ›

Watching horrific images can trigger unwanted thoughts and feelings and increased levels of anxiety or panic, and even increase our sensitivity to startle-eliciting stimuli, making those of us who are anxious more likely to respond negatively and misinterpret the sensations as real threats.

How did thriller impact society? ›

As Jackson moonwalked his way into music history, “Thriller” set a new benchmark for blockbusters that changed how the music business promoted and marketed superstar releases. It also changed MTV, breaking down the cable network's racial barriers and raising the bar for video quality.

What are the rules of a thriller? ›

A thriller is a fast-paced novel full of conflict, tension, suspense, unexpected twists, and high stakes. Every single scene and element in a thriller is meant to propel the action forward, test the characters, and take the readers on a roller coaster ride that will leave them on the edge of their seats.

Why do people watch psychological thrillers? ›

People love psychological thriller novels because they find pleasure in reading about experiences they cannot have. The genre, in some ways, gives readers what they crave — the feeling of not being safe. This also includes the more disturbing aspects of human nature, such as violence and emotional abuse.

What is the saddest movie based on a True Story? ›

From 'Deepwater Horizon' to 'Stronger': 10 Intense and Heartbreaking Movies Based On True Events
  • 'United 93' (2006) ...
  • 'Stronger' (2017) ...
  • 'Deepwater Horizon' (2016) ...
  • 'Captain Phillips' (2013) ...
  • 'Hacksaw Ridge' ...
  • 'The Impossible' (2012) ...
  • 'Hotel Rwanda' (2004) ...
  • 'Schindler's List' (1993)
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Is there a horror movie that is based on a True Story? ›

Arguably the most famous horror film based on horrifying, allegedly real events, The Amityville Horror has spent more than four decades giving audiences a permanent case of night terrors with the story of a young couple and their house in Amityville, New York haunted by violent spirits.

What is based on a True Story? ›

“Based on a true story” means much of the actual story and events remain intact in the script. The writer may make significant adaptations (creating composite characters, truncating or shifting the timeline, changing names, locations, ages, gender, etc.) but the core of the story remains the same.

Why are psychological thrillers scary? ›

Psychological horror films sometimes frighten or unsettle by relying on the viewer's or character's own imagination or the anticipation of a threat rather than an actual threat or a material source of fear portrayed onscreen.

What is an example of psychological horror? ›

Film and Literature

The novels Carrie, The Shining, Misery, and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon written by Stephen King as well as the novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Haunting of Hill House written by Shirley Jackson are some examples of psychological horror fiction.

Why psychological horror is the best? ›

Psychological horror is the best horror. Psychological horrors terrify us. Not with jump scares and gore, but by seeping deep into our dark and twisted insides. As the audience, we are left not exactly spooked.

What are the 4 elements of suspense? ›

Four factors are necessary for suspense—reader empathy, reader concern, impending danger and escalating tension. We create reader empathy by giving the character a desire, wound or internal struggle that readers can identify with. The more they empathize, the closer their connection with the story will be.

What are the characteristics of a thriller story? ›

“Thriller” Definition

A thriller is a type of mystery with a few key differences. As its name suggests, thrillers tend to be action-packed and fast-paced with moments full of tension, anxiety, and fear. Without fail, they are plot-driven stories.

What are the 5 Elements Every story has? ›

There are 5 elements of plot:
  • Exposition.
  • Rising Action.
  • Climax.
  • Falling Action.
  • Conclusion.

Why do I love psychological thrillers so much? ›

People love psychological thriller novels because they find pleasure in reading about experiences they cannot have. The genre, in some ways, gives readers what they crave — the feeling of not being safe. This also includes the more disturbing aspects of human nature, such as violence and emotional abuse.

What is the point of psychological horror? ›

Psychological horror usually aims to create discomfort or dread by exposing common or universal psychological and emotional vulnerabilities/fears and revealing the darker parts of the human psyche that most people may repress or deny.

What is the difference between a thriller and a psychological thriller? ›

The term “thriller" just means that a film has an exciting narrative, likely with some twists and turns. A psychological horror film will likely have a more straight forward plot. But one in which will imply a lot of the disturbing stuff, making the viewer use their minds to imagine the worst.

Why do people enjoy thrillers? ›

People often fly through reading thrillers because they compel the reader forward with their exciting plots. Additionally, thrillers provide a kind of catharsis, pulling us into a world similar to our own but enticingly different and disturbing.

Why do anxious people love horror? ›

"If someone is feeling anxious, they may find that horror helps them stop ruminating about other things in their life," Scrivner says. "Horror forces the viewer to focus -- the monster on the screen pulls us in and focuses our attention."

What does psychology say about people who like horror movies? ›

Some research indicates that people with a higher sensation-seeking trait (i.e., a stronger need for experiencing thrill and excitement) tend to seek out and enjoy horror-related experiences more. Those with a lower sensation-seeking trait may find those experiences unpleasant and avoid them.

Why do horror movies turn me on? ›

Dr. Holly Richmond, a somatic psychologist and certified sex therapist explains it like this. Something called “horror-induced horniness” has a lot to do with the body's physiological response to fear. When we're scared, our bodies typically have some natural and hormonal responses reports Refinery 29.

Are psychological thrillers considered horror? ›

The psychological thriller sub-genre reveals more clearly their difference with horror. Movies like Eyes Wide Shut and The Talented Mr. Ripley are psychological thrillers that even though they contain disturbing scenes (like murder scenes), nobody would ever label them as “horror”.

How do you end a psychological thriller? ›

End each chapter with a glimpse into the next, and create tension at the last minute that will keep the reader turning pages. In a psychological thriller, the action will be primarily mental and emotional. Psychological manipulation and mind tricks will keep the reader guessing.

What was the first psychological thriller? ›

Psychological thrillers began to gain popularity in the early 90s, films from Alfred Hitchcock began the genre and helped to develop it into what it is now. 1930s - Alfred Hitchcock's produced The Lodger (1926).

What makes a psychological thriller scary? ›

The genre focuses on psychological fears like madness, anxiety, guilt, and paranoia. The genre uses elements of mystery and characters who have unstable, reliable, or disturbed psychological states. Each element is used to enhance the distressing and disturbing atmosphere.


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