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.
- Photo: 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: Ingrid Bergman, Angela Lansbury, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, Halliwell Hobbes
- Released: 1944
- Directed by: George Cukor
- Photo: A24
Although Midsommar is ostensibly a horror film, it takes every opportunity to buck traditional horror trends. Director Ari Aster wrote the film after a breakup, and the movie is ultimately about the toxic relationship between Dani and Christian.
Throughout the film, Christian constantly gaslights Dani into thinking she’s unstable and in the wrong. Dani’s sister has just taken her life, and Dani needs emotional support from the man who claims to be her boyfriend - yet Christian constantly tells her she’s clingy and needy.
He’s absolutely in the wrong, but he takes every opportunity to persuade Dani that she’s the one who should change.
- Actors: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Will Poulter, Vilhelm Blomgren, William Jackson Harper
- Released: 2019
- Directed by: Ari Aster
- Photo: 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, Tony Curtis, John Cassavetes, Charles Grodin, Ruth Gordon
- Released: 1968
- Directed by: Roman Polanski
- Photo: Universal Pictures
You’d think the scariest thing about a movie where a man stalks his ex-girlfriend with a suit that makes him invisible would be the fear he could strike from anywhere at any time. And, yes, that is a terrifying aspect of Invisible Man, but physical assaults against Cecilia aren’t nearly as frightening as the way her ex messes with her mind and causes her to doubt what she believes is true.
She knows he’s real and messing with her, but everybody around her believes he’s gone and Cecilia is nuts. It gets so bad she is blamed for an actual slaying committed by her ex, and she’s sent to a mental institution. By the end, perishing almost seems preferable to the gaslighting and psychological torment.
- Actors: Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, Una O'Connor, Holmes Herbert, E. E. Clive
- Released: 1933
- Directed by: James Whale