Today’s guest post is brought to us by Taylor Kent. Check out his blogging and podcasting here.
The horror genre is big. Really big. Really, really big. It contains everything from ghosts to vampires to slashers to haunted houses to giant bugs to zombies to the end of the world to the Devil himself. Today, thanks in part to the wonder of the Internet, we have sub-divided that genre (and all genres) into as smaller and smaller chunks, allowing fans with particular tastes to focus only on the specific areas they enjoy. Now whether or not that is a good thing, is irrelevant (at least to this article) because it is this division and sub-division has got me thinking about a particular sub-genre of horror that has been brought to my attention lately: Psychological Horror.
First off, I’m not sure you can really divide psychological horror into it’s own sub-genre. All good horror (stories, books, and movies) has a psychological aspect to it. Mostly, this is portrayed in the effects the events of the story have on the characters (i.e., character development.) Good examples of this would include: the haunting in The Shining driving the father, Jack, through his weaknesses, to attack his family; or the mental breakdowns experienced by the teenagers in Sparrow Rock as they are forced to deal with the end of the world; or evidence of a man’s one true love being raped to death being revealed by the sudden appearance of her ghostly apparition in Ash Wednesday. But these stories in and of themselves would not be classified as psychological horror.
To me, pure psychological horror to me can be summed up in one phrase, “It’s the spider you don’t see.” It is that scratching at the back of your mind that says, “what are they going to do to me?”; or better yet, “what am I going to do to them?”. It is the the inter-workings of an insane or diseased mind laid bare for everyone to see.
I find it easiest to explain things (and understand things) via example so here are a few examples of stories (and books and movies) that truly fit into this category.
Pin by Robert Mccammon (from the Blue World anthology)
This is a story told in the first person by someone trying to insert a pin into their eye. The action is interspersed with lunatic ravings mostly about how the main character will show is love for a girl by not killing her.
I read this story as a teenager and it still haunts me today. The cold, rational thoughts of the main character are laid out for all to see revealing his broken view of the world, and how he plans to act on that damaged world view.
Kingdom of Shadows by Greg F. Gifune
A story about a band of men who commit a crime, or at least they think they did, and live with the aftermath. This is not strictly a psychological horror story but so much of it centers on the characters coping with strange revelations and past events that I think it fits into this category.
Each level of revelation in Kingdom of Shadows slams into the psyche of the main character. Is he mad? Are facts as they appear? Is the world he lives in broken or just his mind? He is forced to cope with truth that most of use can even imagine.
The Passenger by Jack Ketchum (appears as a bonus story in Red by Jack Katchum)
A woman’s car breaks down on a desolate road. She is picked up by a long forgotten school chum. Things go rapidly down hill from there. It is a great example of “not knowing what they are going to do to you.” The main story Red is also good, but I liked The Passenger better.
Session 9 (2001)
This films is wonderful. Much like A Turn Of The Screw, it will leave you wondering what exactly caused the events to unfold. In this film, a haz-mat crew is hired to clean asbestos out of Danvers State Hospital, a mental hospital closed during the Regan era. The leader of the haz-mat crew in Session 9, the main character, is bombard by stress as he is plunged into haunting evironment of Danvers. You can see him break step by step as the flim plays out.
It was film in the closed and abandoned Danvers State Hospital. It is creepy. The characters are great. You can feel the tension building scene by scene. David Caruso stars in this creepy psychological thriller.
If you like psychological horror, watch this movie. Go do it now. This is one of the best recent examples of the genre made. It is about a man who is convinced that the government has infected him with tiny bugs. Through the film he convinces his new girl friend she is infected as well. You definitely see the inter-workings of a diseased mind, and how that disease can be spread. This is some total messed up stuff.
Perfect Blue (1998)
In this Japanese animation, a young pop singer, who is transitioning her career from music to film, is stalked by a deranged fan. This strange, maze-like, and intense film is a great example of both animation and psychological horror. The film she is making parallels events in her life. It is hard to tell the fantasy from reality. In the realm of things that will mess with your head, this is one of the best examples.
So in the end, is psychological horror truly a genre unto it’s self? I’m not sure. Maybe I need to ask the spider over there in the corner.
Hmmm… That strange. I know it was there a minute ago. Where did it go? I’m sure I saw it. Didn’t I?
Maybe psychological horror really is all about the “spider you don’t see.”