So much of the horror genre deals with outside threats—demons, ghosts, killers, and vengeful ex-lovers. But psychological horror cuts much deeper as the threat comes from within. If it’s scary to think about being betrayed by a lover, how much creepier is it to be betrayed by your own brain?
What’s even worse is the way our culture treats people dealing with mental health issues. A grippy sock vacation is a terrifying ordeal in its own right but before modern times we locked people up in lunatic asylums and pretty much never let them out. These institutions were hotbeds of abuse, torture and worse. Far from helping the unwell return to health, sadistic doctors and nurses performed cruel experiments on patients that would drive even a healthy person insane. The following films deal with the dual horror of being tormented by one’s own mind and being held captive in an institution where the workers seem hell-bent on ensuring that you never recover.
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Old Insane Asylum Movies
An Alfred Hitchcock psychological thriller starring Gregory Peck as young doctor, Dr. Anthony Edwardes, who is the new director of a mental hospital. Ingrid Bergman is a psychoanalyst, Dr. Constance Petersen, who works at the hospital and becomes smitten with her new boss. As the two grow closer, Constance realizes that Anthony is an imposter… and possibly a murderer.
Olivia DeHavilland stars as a schizophrenic girl whose condition takes a turn for the worse once she is institutionalized. The Snake Pit is based on a novel by Mary Jane Ward about her own negative experiences in psychiatric institutions. The book’s title refers to an ancient practice of throwing mental patients into pits filled with snakes, with the “reasoning” being that since such an experience would drive any normal person insane, throwing an insane person in a snake pit would have the opposite effect. The novel, while a best-seller, was extremely controversial at the time because up until then, no one had any idea how grotesquely patients were treated in mental asylums. The film had such a tremendous effect that 13 states soon changed their laws regarding mental-health institutions.
This dystopian crime drama based on the Anthony Burgess novel is set in a world where England has been conquered by Soviet Russia and Russian slang has slowly made its way into the British vernacular. Malcolm McDowell stars as Alex, a sociopathic young gang member who enjoys “ultraviolence” and winds up in prison, where he becomes a candidate for a new state-sponsored medical procedure that forces him to become nauseous whenever he’s faced with violence. When he’s set free, he is easy prey for those who aren’t physically sickened by violence. Although it’s technically set in a prison rather than a mental hospital, the aggressive “curative” techniques are reminiscent of real life psychiatric experiments.
An independent horror movie set in a sanitarium where the head doctor believes the cure for insanity is to allow his patients to act as out as much as they want. When a new nurse (Rosie Holotik) starts at the hospital, the rest of the staff is reluctant to work with her. Her chilly welcome may have to do with a secret the sanitarium is hiding in the basement.
This British sci-fi comedy horror movie involves a group of people who are sent to “Brittlehurst Manor,” which is ostensibly a health retreat, but is actually a “Horror Hospital” where an evil doctor performs lobotomies on kidnapped hippies. The Terror Trap calls it a “wacko Brit horror with a gallows sense of humor” and says “in the right frame of mind you might enjoy this minor effort which plays out like some Hammer film left out too long in the sun.”
A psychological drama that is scary because of the threat of institutionalization, loss of freedom and the ice-cold Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). Cuckoo’s Nest is based on a novel that used psychiatric abuse as a metaphor for state cruelty. Nurse Ratched brutalizes and belittles the male patients in her care until she is confronted with Randall McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a free-spirited and fun-loving man who faked mental illness to avoid prison. This is one of only three films in Hollywood history to win all top five Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Nicholson), Actress (Fletcher), and Screenplay.
After 6-year-old Michael Myers murders his sister, he is sent away to Smith’s Grove Sanitarium. Fifteen years later, a short but scary scene shows Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence) and nurse Marion Chambers (Nancy Stephens) driving to the sanitarium to bring Michael to a hearing. However, upon arrival they discover that the patients are wandering freely and Marion is attacked by Michael, who escapes with their car. Michael then drives home to Haddonfield where he murders teens on Halloween night.
A horror movie about a perfectly sane college student named Kelly (Diane Hull) who accidentally overdoses while dancing at a disco, is misdiagnosed as suicidal and is then sent to the fifth floor of a mental hospital. At the hospital, a perverted male orderly takes an unsavory interest in her. Most of the scares are derived from the classic insane asylum movie trope of the patient knowing she’s sane, but no one—not even her boyfriend—will believe her.
A British psychological horror thriller about a young man (Željko Ivane) who wakes on the side of the road and then tries to drown himself in a nearby lake. The man is taken to a mental hospital where he is named John Doe #83 and diagnosed with retrograde amnesia. Psychiatrist Dr. Gail Farmer (Kathryn Harrold) cares for him and comes to believe that John Doe is sending her telepathic messages.
This comedy slasher is gonzo, terribly cheesy and amusing if you love bad films. The movie follows a group of teenagers who trespass into an abandoned insane asylum. Inside they find a lesbian punk band with communist insignia on their instruments and a creepy coroner on the property. There is no dissociative identity disorder in this movie or any mental illness really, just nonsense.
Much of this beloved Nightmare sequel takes place at Westin Hills Psychiatric Hospital where Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) is a new intern therapist. Teenager Kristen Parker (Patricia Arquette) begins having nightmares about Freddy Krueger and is committed to Westin Hills. As Freddy attacks Kristen, Nancy and the other kids at the psychiatric hospital, they work together to defeat him.
After the events of Hellraiser (1987), Kristy Cotton (Ashley Laurence) is a patient in a psychiatric hospital. While she tells the truth about what happened to her family, Kristy is judged as insane by the doctors (and everyone else) at the hospital. However, one of her doctors, Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham), resurrects Julia Cotton (Clare Higgins) and unleashes the Cenobites again.
A supernatural horror movie starring Sam Neill as John Trent, a patient in a psychiatric hospital. Before being committed, Trent was an insurance investigator who was looking for a missing author whose final book drives readers insane. During the increasingly bizarre investigation, Trent comes to believe that the manuscript is indeed monstrous.
New Insane Asylum Movies
Much of the psychological thriller Don’t Say a Word is set inside a dilapidated public mental health hospital in New York City. Brittany Murphy plays a young woman with severe PTSD. Michael Douglas is a prominent psychiatrist who must extract a set of numbers from her at any cost, compelled by the film’s villain (Sean Bean) kidnapping his wife and daughter.
When an asbestos-removal crew wins a bid to work on an abandoned mental hospital, they chance upon a tape recording of a former patient with multiple personalities. After hearing the tape, the crew’s leader begins behaving strangely. According to Mondo-Digital, “No one who has seen this film has ever forgotten those audio recordings, some of the most chilling aural concoctions in horror cinema this side of Black Christmas.”
Halle Berry barely escaped a Razzie award for Worst Actress for her role in this supernatural psychological horror thriller. She plays a female psychiatrist who wakes up one day confined to her own mental hospital with no memory of what she did or how she got there. Roger Ebert saw some positive qualities to the film, though: “Any criticism of this movie that says it doesn’t make sense is missing the point. Any review that faults it for going over the top into lurid overkill is criticizing its most entertaining quality.”
A sci-fi psychological thriller based on the Jack London novel, The Star Rover. Gulf War veteran Jack Starks (Adrien Brody) is found guilty of murdering a policeman (an event he can’t remember due to amnesia) and committed to a psychiatric hospital. As part of a cruel experimental procedure, Jack is bound in a straightjacket and shut inside a morgue drawer which somehow results in time travel.
Rob Zombie’s reimagining of Halloween (1978) explores Michael Myer’s origin story in more depth than the original. At age 10, Michael is already showing psychopathic tendencies when he kills four people (his sister Judith, Judith’s boyfriend, his school bully and his mom’s abusive boyfriend). After a trial, he is institutionalized at Smith’s Grove Sanitarium under the care of Dr. Samel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell). At first Michael seems receptive to care but gradually withdraws, isolating himself from others by wearing a series of papier-mâché masks. After Michael kills a nurse at the sanitarium, his mother dies by suicide and Michael’s withdrawal from others is complete, he never speaks again. When Michael is 25, he escapes from Smith’s Grove and returns to Haddonfield to murder again.
A supernatural psychological horror movie by master of horror John Carpenter. Amber Heard stars as Kristen, a beautiful but troubled young woman trapped in a mental institution where the other patients are being physically brutalized by unseen forces. She believes the culprit is the ghost of a formerly institutionalized woman named Alice.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars in this 2000s neo-noir psychological thriller directed by Martin Scorsese. Shutter Island is a trippy film about a man (DiCaprio) who goes to investigate the disappearance of a patient at the Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane. Without giving away too much, it is a smart noir that engages with interesting philosophical questions about psychiatric care amidst stunning visuals.
A found footage supernatural horror movie showing the crew of a ghost hunting reality show who supposedly disappeared during their final investigation. The team travels to the abandoned Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital and locks themselves in for the night to do a paranormal investigation. Throughout the night, paranormal events inside the abandoned hospital become increasingly terrifying.
A gothic horror thriller starring Oscar-winner Ben Kingsley (1982’s Gandhi) as the director of a psychiatric hospital whose unorthodox treatment methods draw the suspicion of an Oxford graduate who arrives at the hospital to complete his medical training. Although it appears as if the treatment is helping the patients, all it takes is the sound of screams coming from the cellar one night to convince the medical student that something is very wrong at the asylum. Stonehearst Asylum is inspired by the Edgar Allan Poe story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”.
A psychological horror movie following an ambitious New York City executive (Dane DeHaan) tasked with retreiving his CEO from Pembroke, a remote “wellness center” in the Swiss Alps. After failing to convince the CEO to return to the city, the executive leaves, is involved in a car accident, and wakes as a patient at Pembroke. To his dismay, he finds that patients at Pembroke never check out.
This very scary South Korean found footage horror movie follows a group of young people who set out to explore the abandoned Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital for their YouTube channel. The group separates to explore the facility and finds a plethora of creepy stuff including a room full of strange coffins and footage that impossibly features everyone in the group (as if it were filmed by a seventh, unknown party). When the members of the group get so scared that they decide to leave, they realize you can’t just check out of this psychiatric hospital whenever you want.
David Gordon Green’s Halloween trilogy begins at Smith’s Grove Psychiatric Hospital, where Michael Myers has been imprisoned for 40 years. True crime podcasters Aaron Korey (Jefferson Hall) and Dana Haines (Rhian Rees) visit Smith’s Grove trying to get Michael to speak but even after the podcasters taunt him with his mask, Michael remains silent. The next day, Michael escapes while being transferred to a maximum security prison. He finds the podcasters visiting his sister Judith’s grave and kills them before returning to Haddonfield.
A creepy Steven Soderbergh psychological thriller following a woman named Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) who has been dealing with a stalker. Sawyer is tricked into committing herself to Creek Behavioral Center, a for-profit psychiatric hospital that routinely scams healthy patients for money. While most patients are eventually released when their insurance runs out, Sawyer is in greater danger when she realizes her stalker has gotten a job at the hospital under an assumed name.
A psychological supernatural horror movie following therapist Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), who works in a psychiatric ward. Rose meets with a grad student, Laura (Caitlin Stasey), who says she is being terrorized by smiling people before smiling and taking her own life in front of the doctor. The next day, Rose meets another smiling patient and realizes that the curse has been passed to her from Laura.
More insane asylum movies:
- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) is a German Expressionist silent classic that partially takes place in a psychiatric institution.
- Bedlam (1946) is set in London during the 1760s and is set at Bethlem Royal Hospital, a real-life mental institution that was colloquially known as “Bedlam.”
- Harvey (1950) is based on a hit play from 1944 and stars James Stewart as the only man who is able to see a six-foot-tall rabbit named Harvey.
- Three Faces of Eve (1957) is a black-and-white film that depicts a woman who has multiple personality disorder with uncanny realism.
- Splendor in the Grass (1961) features Natalie Wood as a girl who slowly goes mad after her love for a handsome young man (Warren Beatty) is unrequited.
- David and Lisa (1962) tells the story of a young couple who meet in a mental institution and struggle for a way to claw themselves toward freedom.
- Shock Corridor (1963) involves a reporter investigating a murder in Japan who fakes mental illness in order to gain admission to an asylum and solve the murder.
- Strait-Jacket (1964) stars Joan Crawford as a mother who returns home to her daughter after spending 20 years in an asylum for murder.
- The King of Hearts (1967) a comedy drama about a British private arrives in an abandoned French town populated by escaped mental patients, who think he is their king.
- Asylum (1972) centers around a young doctor seeking a job at a mental institution who, as part of the application process, has to interview and diagnose four patients whose stories eerily converge toward the end.
- Seven Beauties (1975) is a film by independent auteur Lina Wertmuller involving an ordinary man who is sent to an asylum for murdering a pimp who tormented his sister.
- I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1977) is based on a best-selling novel about a schizophrenic teenage girl from a well-to-do family who spends three years in an institution after a suicide attempt. It was also the title of a hit country-and-western song by Lynn Anderson.
- The Ninth Configuration (1980) is a horror-comedy about ex-Marines who live in a castle that is also a government mental asylum. It was directed by William Peter Blatty, who is most famous for writing the novel The Exorcist.
- Frances (1982) stars Jessica Lange as famously troubled Hollywood actress Frances Farmer, who suffered a mental breakdown after being blacklisted.
- Dogra Magra (1988) is a surrealist masterpiece by Japanese director Toshio Matsumoto involving a mentally troubled young man who is frustrated that the doctors in his asylum attempt to treat him with Eastern philosophy.
- Don Juan De Marco (1994) stars Johnny Depp as a man who is convinced he is the Don Juan of infamy. Marlon Brando stars as the psychiatrist who attempts to cure him of his delusion.
- Good Burger (1997) in this outrageous and surreal children’s film, the heroes of the film Ed and Dexter Reed are sent to an insane asylum called “Demented Hills” as their enemies have craftily got them committed. Through dance numbers, naive embrace of the clinically insane, and cartoon-like violence they do escape from their institution. It’s one of the more zany sub-plots within a movie filled with zany tangents. The importance of this movie in cinematic cannon was mostly pushed by Netflix when they bought a license to stream it on their platform in 2014.
- Girl, Interrupted (1999) Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie and Brittany Murphy are patients in a 1960s mental hospital in this dark drama based on the autobiographical book by Susanna Kaysen. Jolie won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role.
- Angels of the Universe (2000) based on a novel referred to as an “Icelandic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the film follows the downward trajectory of Paul, a failed artist who loses his mind after a romantic rejection. He finds some odd friends in the asylum—one man thinks he’s Hitler, and another believes he telepathically wrote a song for The Beatles.
- Lunacy (2005) is a Czech film set in an insane asylum that borrows from the work of Edgar Allan Poe and the Marquis de Sade that blurs the lines between a mental hospital and a mental patient’s internal world.
- I’m a Cyborg But That’s Okay (2006) is a South Korean romantic comedy implausibly set in a mental institution.
- Palata N°6 (2009) is a Russian film whose title means Ward No. 6 and deals with a psychiatrist in a mental institution who slowly goes insane after listening to a patient’s thoughts on philosophy.
- Reel Evil (2012) tells the story of three filmmakers who seek to make a documentary at a mental hospital, only to realize it’s haunted.
- Silver Linings Playbook (2012) stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence who find that love is a way to help them escape the prison of mental illness.
- Play Hooky (2014) this mumblegore-ish movie shows five teenagers breaking into an abandoned insane asylum and the aftermath of it.
- Nise: The Heart of Madness (2015) a Brazillian docudrama about the work of psychiatrist Nise da Silveira who thought it may be more helpful to listen to patients rather than giving them electroshock and lobotomy treatments.
- Joker (2019) Joaquin Phoenix won the Academy Award for Best Actor for this psychological thriller about a man named Arthur Fleck whose mental illness leads him to become one of the biggest villains in Gotham City.
- Ratched (2020) while this Netflix and Ryan Murphy series is a series and not a movie, it does feel like a movie and explores psychiatric hospital and includes one too many lobotomies.