I wanted to take a little bit of a break from writing and editing and share my thoughts about psychological horror. Simply put, psychological horror (or “psych horror”) is a horror concept that messes with the mind. The horror can be real or it can be imaginary, but the horror itself revolves around the mental and emotional reaction to the horror that occurs in the mind of the victim.
A good example of early psych horror in the literary world would be Henry James’ story The Turn of the Screw, in which a governess seems to undergo a manipulation by ghosts, although Mr. James writes the story in such a way as to leave open the possibility that the cause of the governess’s state could be due either to the presence of real spirits or as a result of her own mental instability. This same sort of ambiguity is carried by the movie Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, a film about a woman that encounters bizarre and horrific situations after returning home from her stay in a mental hospital. As with James’ story, the movie is intentionally set as ambiguous with regard to whether or not the horrific unfolding of events is real or if it is nothing more than something happening in Jessica’s mind, perhaps as a residual echo of her former state.
Nowadays, psych horror is a staple in literature and film, and it’s not hard to see why. There is something about the blurring of the imagination and reality that both fascinates and terrifies us, whether its through mental illness, through experimental means (such as the use of LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs), or through external forces (such as an evil spirit world like in the video game Silent Hill, or through entering minds by fictional means, as depicted in movies like The Cell). There is a sense in which psych horror reaches into us, extracting that which we conceal from the rest of the world (and sometimes from ourselves) and laying it bare for us to see and deal with. It can be the ultimate manifestation of horror for a great many people.
All of this would probably lead you to believe that I like psychological horror. Well… I do. To a point.
While there is much to admire about psych horror, there’s also a good bit of it that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. For starters, coming from a pure literary point of view, I’ve seen psych horror used in bad ways, such as becoming an excuse for a writer/filmmaker to account for holes and inconsistencies in the plot of a story. Certainly psych horror can be used to bring up more questions than answers, but this should not be used as an excuse to keep poorly written parts of a story. Suspension of disbelief requires an illusion of logic that must seem plausible. If you deal too much damage to that logic, you lose your audience to rolling eyes and shaking heads. Psych horror should not become a justification for slipshod writing.
The second trap to watch out for with psych horror is the “it’s all in their head” cliche. Part of the appeal of psych horror is the interplay between the victim’s fear and the apparent reality of the object of fear. But turning that fear into nothing more than a mere manifestation of the person’s mind has become a regular staple for this genre, and I fear that it has become an overused one. If the fear is only in the mind of the victim, and does not have any objective basis in reality, in essence what you have done is turned the victim into somebody with an overactive imagination who has no basis for his/her fright. Granted, it can be a clever plot device when used sparingly, but it seems as if too many of the current psych horror movies and books have turned this into a crutch, and a predictable one at that. Aside from the fact that too often this “plot twist” can be seen a million miles away in some works, it also destroys the tension of the story. When you know that the thing feared by the victim is nothing more than a manifestation of their own mind, it makes the object of fear nothing more than a hollow symbol, a puppet controlled by the victim’s own mind, whether consciously or subconsciously. In essence, it’s being afraid of your own shadow: a horror that turns out to be nothing more than being “afraid of the dark” because the mind has created its own monsters and filled empty rooms and dark corridors with these nightmares. And while such things may provide a good jump, in the end there’s no real horror in being told that it’s merely a figment of the imagination.
Plus, it can get old. A couple of bandmates of mine told me about their times of playing scifi Role playing games with others, and talked about a GM (game master, similar to a dungeon master in Dungeons and Dragons) who would lead them through these painstakingly long and arduous adventures and dangers. Then, at the end of the game, when the gamers would prepare to claim their prize, the GM would spring upon them the terrible line “But it was all a dream!”
Cute at first. But it became really old, really fast.
It’s the same with psych horror. Just because the horror is in the mind does not mean that it cannot have a real, external, objective monster. If the thing actually exists outside the mind, it actually adds a more fulfilling sense of horror, because it means the victim isn’t let off the hook when he/she emerges from the mental aspect of the horror. It means that there is something more than just one’s own feelings and reactions to be preoccupied with. It means looking beyond one’s self for fear, or for salvation, rather than over-introspection and self-centered thought.
Plus, it’s even more scary.
Well, those are my thoughts. Feel free to let me know what you think about it all! Back to editing and writing for me!
See you in the Vein!