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The History of Psychological Horror

What’s scarier: a fabricated boogeyman, or the realistic pressures of paranoia, guilt, fear, and self-doubt gnawing at your very soul? When it comes to horror all scares are good scares, but when it comes to psychological horror the scares tend to hit closer to home. You may not have a den of devil worshipers trying to steal your baby, but as a parent you may fear for the safety of your child and the unknown dangers that could lurk around every corner. Oftentimes it’s the dreaded anticipation of something happening, rather than the actual thing itself, that is more alarming. 

Defining Psychological Horror

Psychological horror centers around the mental and emotional states of its characters, typically replacing actual physical monsters with psychological terrors instead (madness, paranoia, anxiety, guilt, and so on). And even when the story does contain monsters, it tends to keep these creatures shrouded in darkness so the focus is on subliminal rather than overt horror. In fact, the “monster” is often meant to function as a complex metaphor for the flaws of the character or society at large. The overall effect is an unsettling story that uses internal conflict to dig into the darker, underlying fears of the human psyche. 

Psychological Horror Origins and Development

Illustration from Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto showing a man and woman in a gothic castle hallway

Early gothic literature features mentally unstable protagonists and terrifying manifestations of guilt and fear, so it’s no surprise that much of the groundwork for today’s psychological horror was laid in the 18th century by popular gothic writers. Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk are all shining examples of gothic horror establishing and promoting an emphasis on psychological terror.

In the 19th century American authors such as Ambrose Bierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne were instrumental in continuing the fascination with psychological fear. Henry James is another standout author during the time period, whose 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw effectively blends supernatural frights with mental uncertainty. But perhaps no one did it better than Edgar Allan Poe. Pick a Poe story from a hat – from “The Black Cat” to “The Tell-Tale Heart” and beyond – and you’ll likely wind up with an unreliable narrator suffering through thick layers of paranoia, terror, and even mental disorders.

Psychological Horror Films and Books in the Postmodern Age

Going into the 20th century, psychological horror gained an even larger audience and wider popularity in literature. One notable contributor to the genre during this time is Shirley Jackson, who became a household name with her disconcerting novels of distrust and paranoia such as The Bird’s Nest (1954), The Haunting of Hill House (1959), and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962). Then of course there’s Stephen King, who wrote breakout hits in pretty much every horror genre, but whose novels Carrie (1974), Misery (1987), Gerald’s Game (1992), and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordan (1999) in particular are known for their elements of psychological terror.

Jackson and King really helped propagate the genre, in the stories they wrote but also the numerous adaptations and spinoffs that they inspired. Other fan favorites from the 20th century include William Golding (Lord of the Flies), Robert Block (Psycho and American Gothic), and Thomas Harris (basically anything involving Hannibal Lector). This is also the time period when the “psychological thriller” rose in popularity, blurring the lines and making it more difficult to discern between the two overlapping genres. 

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari poster from 1920's

The 20th century is also when psychological horror was woven into newer forms of media as well, specifically in movies. One of the very first films that fits into this genre is the 1920 German expressionist piece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, with its unnatural architecture, foreboding mood, and unsettling discomfort. Moving forward in the decades, some standout films in American cinema include Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Shining (1980), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Additionally, elements of psychological horror can also be found in the Italian genre of giallo and the Asian genres of “J-Horror” and “K-Horror” (all of which also have their American remakes, of course). 

Recent Examples of Psychological Horror

The 21st century has only seen an increase in popularity for the genre, as many notable creators seek to tell stories that not only disorient and unsettle, but that include relevant social commentary and complex metaphors as well. In the world of film Darren Aronofsky gave us Black Swan (2010) and mother! (2017), David Robert Mitchell made the subliminal hit It Follows (2014), Jordan Peele elevated the genre with Get Out (2017), and Robert Eggers continues to amaze with movies like The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019). Some newer authors who write in the vein of psychological horror are Josh Malerman, Brian Evenson, V.C. Andrews, Nick Cutter, and Mark Z. Danielewski. And of course there are plenty other examples; indeed far more than there is room for in this article. With these particular standard bearers and more, it is clear that the genre is in good hands.

The Lighthouse psychological horror film poster 2019

In Conclusion

The effectiveness of this horror genre lies in its ability to unnerve and disturb by getting inside your head and messing with your mind, Stories that stand on often shaky narrative ground sound risky, but in actuality this inability to discern fact from fiction (for the character and the audience) is quite effective in its ability to frighten. If you’re looking for a deeply unsettling scare that explores important societal issues while also making you question your very sanity, look no further than psychological horror.

Do you have a favorite book, film, or comic in the psychological horror genre? Let us know in the comments below!

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Under the Sea with Leviathan, Underwater and More

Underwater horror movie poster 2020

Oceans are believed to be one of the most stunning places in the world – and they are. But like most beautiful things, these bodies of water have a dark side. They cover over 70% of the Earth’s surface and go thousands of feet in depth, to places that no human could even dream of going. What lurks on the ocean floors? Are there an underwater species we know nothing about? These are the frightening questions that plenty of horror movies have asked.

You may have heard about Underwater, the recently released science fiction/horror film starring Kristen Stewart. It follows a group of scientists who delve into the depths of the ocean, only to encounter a mysterious group of creatures who are out to destroy them. If this plot sounds a bit familiar, it’s because it is. The movie has drawn comparisons to everything from sci-fi horror classic Alien to Black Sea, as the sea monster genre has been prevalent in cinema for decades. Underwater is especially similar to a group of underwater films released right before the 90’s, featuring a few names you may remember and a giant crab that still haunts your dreams. Do you remember these sea monster films?

Leviathan – 1989

If you thought the Mosasaurus sea serpent in Jurassic World was terrifying, just wait until you meet the Leviathan. This biblical creature is referenced in a variety of ancient Hebrew literature one of the most frightening sea monsters known to man, lurking at the depths of the ocean and coming up to the surface to cause mass destruction to passing ships. While there are many interpretations on the appearance of the Leviathan, it is commonly believed to be gigantic in size and take on the appearance of a serpent – compared certain reptiles such as snakes, dragons, and crocodiles. 

Of course, Hollywood always has its own adaptations. The 1989 film Leviathan follows a group of scientists terrorized by a mutant underwater creature that’s not exactly what the Old Testament describes. The beast in the film resembles a gigantic, hideous and scaly fish rather than a serpent – with multiple tentacles and a randomly-placed human head on its lower back. It enjoys stalking and killing due to chemical mutations by the Russians, giving this film a more modern, science-fiction take on the Leviathan found in the bible. While the creature effects were designed by critically acclaimed special effects artist Stan Winston, the action in the 1989 film is a bit outdated today. Would you be interested in seeing a Leviathan remake? 

DeepStar Six – 1989

Released in 1989 mere months before Leviathan, one of the greatest lessons to take from DeepStar Six is that no good comes from humans living underwater. A group of military and civilians join together in DeepStar Six – an experimental deep sea US Naval facility where they plan to test underwater colonization methods. With the crew already starting to grow tired of each other – and you know, the whole “living underwater with no fresh air or sunlight” scenario – they come across a man-eating sea monster out to destroy both their project and their lives. 

One Google search will bring you countless “Leviathan vs. DeepStar Six” articles, breaking down the similar plot, characters and ending scene. While neither films were box office hits, it was DeepStar Six that took a much bigger hit from the critics. It has a 0% (yes, you read that correctly) rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics looking down on everything from the film’s vision to the design of the monster. They’re not exaggerating, by the way… the thing looks like a gigantic blend of a crab and a frog. 

The Abyss – 1989

After the mediocre releases above, horror enthusiasts of the 80’s were thrilled when The Abyss made its way into theaters in August 1989. Since everything James Cameron touches turns to Oscar gold, it’s no surprise that the film was a box office hit and commercial success. The Abyss received an 89% score on Rotten Tomatoes and was nominated for a number of Academy Awards, even winning in the Best Visual Effects category. 

While this film gravitates away from horror and more towards science fiction, it’s still a gorgeous film that deserves a watch. It strays away from sea monsters and towards sea aliens who are friendly in nature. It emphasizes both the frightening and stunning aspects of the ocean, while reminding you that James Cameron is a seriously incredible filmmaker. 

Deep-Sea Scares 

Let’s be honest… Underwater, Leviathan, even The Abyss – none of these films have a completely foreign concept. The sea monster genre is one of the most famous in the history of film, with a creature arriving uninvited into society and seeking to destroy our lives. The sea monster and underwater horror genres combine this concept with another that’s even more terrifying – the unknown. From classics like Jaws to the modern monsters from Underwater… these films aren’t bound to become a sinking ship anytime soon. With so much still unknown the deep abyss of the ocean you better prepare your escape pod as you prepare to outrun the next sea monster from the depths.

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Werewolves Through Years of Books and Film

Aggressive wolf snarling
Photography by Philip Pilz

Myths and Legends of Werewolves have been popular throughout their history, not only as a source of inspiration for writers of fiction but as the fiery spark of terror that haunts the dreams of those who believe–their origin story from Petronius Arbiter’s The Satyricon has been built upon for almost two millennia has resulted in an enthusiastic following in the last century. Within medieval folklore, there are numerous tales of villages in rural areas being ripped apart by werewolves–uncontrollable beasts with blood-lust and an insatiable appetite for human flesh. By day the only evidence of their existence would be dead bodies, bloodied and torn by enormous claws, and a trail of bloody paw prints that marked their presence. As noted by Petronius and a plethora of other writers, this was centralized around the appearance of the full moon. So, while werewolves are considered exciting, dangerously fun, and possibly even a little sexy (thanks to authors like Charlaine Harris by Patricia Briggs) in today’s horror culture and paranormal fiction, they were vicious and brutal beasts that threatened the lives of villagers in the middle ages.

5 Werewolves in History

While the mythology of the Werewolf is vast, there are actually more modern historical accounts of these creatures actually existing, so we present these five Werewolves that were found throughout history.

Wolf howling near the pack
Photography by Thomas Bonometti

The Beast of Gévaudan

In the former province of Gévaudan–Lozère and Haute-Loire–in the south of France, the presence of La Bête du Gévaudan terrorized the countryside beginning in 1764 and lasting until 1767. This beast was reported as a massive wolf-like creature–about the size of the cow–that had razor-sharp claws, a mouth that housed giant fangs, and reddish-brown hair. Its head and ears were said to be shaped like a greyhound’s, with a wide chest and a back streaked with black.

In May or June of 1764 was the first known encounter with the beast, where it charged a young woman tending to her cattle in the Mercoire forest in the eastern part of Gévaudan–it is said the bulls in her herd were able to keep it at bay and finally drive it off after two attempts to charge the woman, and she was able to escape with her life. What followed was a continuous onslaught of the region against what was deemed easy prey–women, children, and men who were tending to their livestock alone in secluded pastures. Unusually, it wouldn’t target the legs or throat like a wolf might, instead it went for the head; victims that were left behind partially eaten were often with their heads completely crushed or without one at all. There was such a high volume of attacks that there was suspicion of there being more than one beast, as well as a person training these creatures to do the killings–but as the attacks continued, the supernatural quality of it increased, when it was seemingly unaffected by gunshot wounds inflicted upon it by two hunters in October 1764. Having believed they had mortally wounded the beast, they followed the blood trail to the woods the next day and instead of finding the body of the wolf, they discovered freshly slaughtered victims.

Seeking the large reward that was posted for slaying the beast, soldiers and hunters traveled from far and wide to find the creature, but months passed and it was no closer to being captured or slain. After hearing of a brutal public attack of two young children, Louis XV sent a Norman squire and hunter by the name of Denneval to aid in the hunt of the beast and in February of 1765, this man began tracking it with his six best bloodhounds. He was joined by Jacques Denis, a sixteen-year-old who lost his twenty-year-old sister to the beast and sought vengeance. After hunting it for several months, Jacques was killed and Denneval retired from hunting the beast at all. The Beast continued its rampages, was shot through the eye by another hunter, fell to the ground, seemingly deceased, then rose and went for a final attack, but was met with another barrage of bullets and was at last killed. Upon examination, they determined that this beast was actually a rare wolf that was on the larger end of the reported spectrum.

This tale would seem to be fairly run of the mill in circumstances with a bloodthirsty wolf, except that after a year of peace returning to the community, in the spring of 1767 the beast was reported to have come back to life and start massacring once again. This time, they took no time assembling the largest hunting party yet, comprised of over three hundred men, as well as a man by the name of Jean Chastel; Chastel had heard rumors that the Beast of Gévaudan was actually a werewolf, so he loaded his gun with silver bullets that were blessed by a priest. Turned out that the rumors allowed him to be well-prepared, as after shooting the beast twice in the chest with these silver bullets, it was instantly killed.

During its reign of terror over the countryside of Gévaudan, it was said to kill between sixty and a hundred men, women, and children, while injuring more than thirty.

Livonia and the Hounds of God

In the late 1600s, Thiess of Kaltenbrun a man living in Jurgenburg, Livonia–what is now the Latvia and Lithuania regions–was widely believed by neighbors and peers to be a werewolf who regularly had dealings with the devil. Although it didn’t help his case that he admitted that he was one, especially during a time when an association with the devil meant a death sentence. Either way, the local authorities didn’t seem to care, since Thiess was an eighty-year-old man.

The authorities eventually had to question him on an unrelated matter in 1691, which oddly enough ended in him volunteering information about his being a werewolf. His confession to his lycanthropic lifestyle was quite strange, with no real consistency within–he said that he had stopped participating as a werewolf a decade prior, but that he and his companions would wear magical wolf pelts and turn into wolves to celebrate St. Lucia’s Day, Pentecost, and Midsummer’s Night.

His claim throughout was that werewolves were the agents of God, that they traveled to hell to battle the Devil himself and bring goods stolen by witches back to the people who lost them, but strangely also kill, cook, then eat farm animals. He also claimed that if they failed to keep the witches and demons in Hell that the community would have poor crops for the entire season. To counter the accusations that he was in league with the devil, he instead told the authorities that he and his companions were actually working for God, that they were a group of lycanthropes that were titled the “Hounds of God.” Thiess claimed that this ensured them an ascent to Heaven when they died. Eventually, when it was discovered that Thiess was not a devout Luthern and that he occasionally performed folk magic, the judge ordered Thiess to ten lashings and permanent exile.

The Wolf of Ansbach

In 1685, in what was the town of Neuses, Ansbach–now Germany–there was a wolf terrorizing and killing people; while this was not completely out of the ordinary, this particular instance coincided with the death of the cruel and unpopular chief magistrate, Michale Leicht. The people of the town believed that this wolf was Leicht who had returned from the dead as a werewolf. Once the wolf had been killed, they paraded the streets with its corpse, cut off its muzzle, then dressed in to look like Leicht, even going so far as to put a mask and a wig on it. After the parade concluded, they hung the body in a prominent position in town so that everyone could see that this creature had been killed, but eventually the wolf’s corpse was preserved and put on display at a local museum.

The Werewolf of Allariz

Manuel Blanco Romasanta, born in 1809, was thought to be Spain’s first-ever serial killer; although, there weren’t many stories other than his own to corroborate his being a werewolf. When he was accused of murder, he actually confessed to thirteen of the incidents but claimed he was cursed with Lycanthropy. When asked to display his ability to transform, he stated that he was no longer afflicted; he was eventually acquitted for four deaths, which were killed by actual wolves, but he was found guilty of the rest. Sentenced to death, but then to life in prison after being seen by a French hypnotist who believed that Romansanta was actually just delusional and had a mental illness. He passed away the same year from stomach cancer.

The Werewolf of Bedburg

Perhaps the most notorious werewolf case is that of Peter Stumpp, in Bedburg, Germany 1589; having gained his wealth as a farmer, he was accused of multiple counts of murder, cannibalism, and ultimately a werewolf. At first, thought to be the work of wolves, incidents started with the mutilated bodies of cattle, but were soon followed by townsfolk, but the creatures couldn’t be caught. In 1589, a hunting part cornered the wolf with its hounds, however, when the hunters approached they saw Peter Stumpp instead–what was more damning was that the wolf they had been hunting had had his left forepaw cut off and when they came upon Stumpp he also had his left hand cut off. After a torture-driven confession was made by Stump, he admitted that when he was twelve he had made a pact with the devil and had been given a magical wolf pelt belt which enabled him to turn into a wolf. He confessed that he had murdered and cannibalized fourteen children and two pregnant women, killing his own son, and molesting his own daughter–so Stumpp was fixed to a breaking wheel, had his flesh torn from his body with red-hot pinchers, then his limbs were broken with the blunt side of an ax so he wouldn’t rise from the grave, and he was beheaded. This is a more controversial story, as it was believed by some that he was the victim of a political witch hunt, as the Catholic church had recently seized the area and Stumpp was a Protestant convert.

These days, it seems like werewolves in the supernatural genre are a dime-a-dozen, so it’s no big surprise that there are too many movies to list here–these are just some of our favorites, but they’re also ones that have contributed greatly to the modern lore that are currently associated to the story of the werewolf. Details change from one story to the next, but the broad picture remains the same.

Movies That Have Made Werewolves Mainstream

The Wolfman (2010)
The Wolfman (2010)