The scariest movies do more than showcase a handful of jump scares and creepy little girls and call it a night. They know that the truest, deepest terror is often found in toxic relationships and gaslighting horror. A couple in a horror movie united against the zombies, ghosts, or whatever can survive almost anything, but when one or more people attempt to convince the other that what they’re experiencing isn’t real, or that they’re insane or emotionally unstable, things quickly fall apart.
Modern examples include Midsommar's abusive relationship and the toxic masculinity featured in The Invisible Man, but this trope has been around much longer than audiences might realize. These horror films may deal with external, possibly supernatural forces, but they’re really about women struggling to maintain their identity amidst gaslighting - that is, being intentionally manipulated to believe they’re insane.
We’ve compiled a list of some of the scariest films where the true horror stems not from some possessed spirit but from psychological torment brought on by those closest to the main character.
- 1209 VOTESPhoto: DreamWorks Pictures
What Lies Beneath constantly blurs the line between what’s real and imagined. That’s further exacerbated by Claire’s manipulative husband, Norman. As Claire experiences strange, supernatural phenomena, she slowly uncovers elements of her husband’s affair with a former student - as well as the paramour's demise. Yet, Norman seems to have an answer for everything.
Norman convinces Claire the affair was a long time ago and that the girl took her own life. He pretends to call the police and fakes an attempt on his life, all in an effort to manipulate Claire into believing he’s not a slayer. He attempts to warp her until the bitter end.
- Actors: Harrison Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Diana Scarwid, Miranda Otto, James Remar
- Released: 2000
- Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
- 2273 VOTESPhoto: Paramount Pictures
While conceiving and birthing Satan’s literal child is terrifying enough, Rosemary’s Baby comes with the added horror of nobody believing that’s what happened in the first place.
Rosemary is essentially taken against her will by Satan while her husband watches, yet she's assured that’s not what happened and that she’s insane. Things get weirder and weirder as she gets close to term, but her husband constantly assures her everything is fine.
This climaxes with her husband telling Rosemary her baby is stillborn, when in actuality it was taken from her and very much alive. It’s every mother’s worst fear played out in horrifying fashion. Satan’s involvement is just window dressing.
- Actors: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Maurice Evans
- Released: 1968
- Directed by: Roman Polanski
- 3145 VOTESPhoto: Universal Pictures
The majority of the mayhem in the cult classic Fear stems from a particularly egregious example of gaslighting. Nicole pretty quickly realizes David is a bad dude, given that he actively beats the crap out of her friend Gary and gives her a black eye. She breaks up with him, but David convinces her that he’s not like that and, in fact, that he was actually beaten up by Nicole’s father.
Nicole gets back together with David who continues to do horrible things and stalk her, all the while trying to convince her that, in actuality, he’s not this creepy, homicidal dude despite him very obviously being one.
- Actors: Mark Wahlberg, Reese Witherspoon, William Petersen, Amy Brenneman, Alyssa Milano
- Released: 1996
- Directed by: James Foley
- 4296 VOTESPhoto: Loew's, Inc.
Gaslight is where it all began.
The 1938 play - as well as the 1940 and 1944 film adaptations - follows Paula, a woman who believes she’s losing her sanity. She keeps losing objects and noticing strange phenomena like the house’s gas lights flickering.
Gregory, her husband, says these things are all in Paula’s imagination and accuses her of kleptomania. He attempts to institutionalize her so he can claim power of attorney and search the house for some valuable jewels. Ultimately, Paula breaks free of his spell, but her inability to know what’s real is legitimately unnerving.
- Actors: Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty, Angela Lansbury
- Released: 1944
- Directed by: George Cukor