We love a good thriller for the anxiety, suspense, and surprise that keep us all on our toes, but the best psychological thrillers bring a completely different level of suspense—the kind that comes from the inside. The genre loves to emphasize the mental states of its characters, sometimes delusional or unstable. Instead of horror, these films tend to focus on complex relationships with others, and with a few twists thrown in, viewers are usually in for a surprise or two—or was it all in the characters’ heads in the first place?
From genre-pioneering Hitchcock’s Psycho, which follows a secretary who steals money from her employer and ends up in a secluded motel, to the more modern Shutter Island, which follows an investigator on the hunt for an escaped murderer, we’ve found the 15 best psychological thrillers of all time. So why not detach from the thrills of everyday life and get inside someone else’s head for a change? Reality will be there for you when you’re done.
Here are our picks for the best psychological thrillers of all time.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Possibly the most infamous psychological thriller of all time, this Academy Award–winning film follows Clarice Starling, a young FBI trainee who seeks help from one serial killer to catch another. After a senator’s daughter is abducted, Starling must cut deals with her source and try to find the truth. The film was followed by a sequel, Hannibal, and a pair of prequels: Red Dragon and Hannibal Rising.
In Seven, a crime thriller by director David Fincher, detective David Mills works with a retiring William Somerset to track down a serial killer. The killer’s gimmick? The seven deadly sins. Starring Bradd Pitt, Morgan Freeman, and Gwyneth Paltrow, this psychological thriller is one you don't want to miss.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
This movie gave us one of the most famous movie lines of all time—"I see dead people." The Sixth Sense is the story of a troubled boy who is able to see and talk to the dead. Also troubled is the child psychologist who tries to help him. The film put director M. Night Shyamalan on the map and led to future Shyamalan-directed thrillers, Signs and The Village.
The Shining (1980)
Can you even have a psychological thrillers list without including The Shining? Taking an off-season job at a historic hotel overlooking the Colorado Rockies, what could go wrong? Once Jack uncovers his son’s ability to see into the hotel’s horrific past, the supernatural happenings call his sanity into question. Will they be safe?
Shutter Island (2010)
Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island is based on the book of the same name. In the film, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Teddy, visits a psychiatric facility after a patient goes missing. As the investigation goes on, it’s apparent there is more to the story than what meets the eye. This may be the creepiest role you've ever seen Leo in.
This Hitchcock-directed film set a new level of acceptance for violence, behavior, and sexuality in American films. In the movie, secretary Marion Crane absconds with $40,000 of her employer’s money and makes her way to a secluded motel. There, she meets Norman Bates, and trust us: Things will never be the same.
Fight Club (1999)
Another Brad Pitt thriller (and one based on a book), Fight Club follows a narrator who, after he gets fed up with his job, joins a group of men who fight recreationally. As time goes on, he forms complicated relationships with those around him until no one is sure who can be trusted.
Former police detective “Scottie” Ferguson, who has an extreme fear of heights, is hired to follow his friend’s wife, who fears she has lost her mind and is a danger to herself. However, the further Ferguson journeys into the case, the less certain he is of what’s real. Hitchcock direct this famous thriller as well.
Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Based on the novel Tony and Susan, Nocturnal Animals follows an art gallery owner as she reads her ex-husband’s recently released novel. As she reads, she realizes how similar the story is to that of their failed marriage. The book is even dedicated to her, using her nickname her ex-husband called her, Nocturnal Animal.
Ex Machina (2014)
Ex Machina puts a science-fiction spin on the traditional psychological thriller. In the film, a programmer is invited by his boss to judge whether Ava, a humanoid robot, is capable of human qualities such as thought and consciousness. The programmer starts falling for Ava, who in turn uses him for their own plan.
Take Shelter (2011)
When a young father can’t get apocalyptic visions out of his head, he questions what he and his family should do about his perceived upcoming storm. He channels it all into building an improved storm shelter in his backyard and cuts off any naysayers. But is it all in his head?
Taxi Driver (1976)
Taxi Driver takes place after the Vietnam War, when a lonely veteran takes up driving cabs and begins to become even more detached from reality. As his mental health weakens, he becomes determined to save the world, starting with a plan to assassinate a politician and eventually rescue a child sex worker he meets on his drives.
Black Swan (2010)
Natalie Portman won an Oscar for her performance in this Darren Aronofsky film, about a ballerina whose obsession with dance takes over every aspect of her life. When there's an opening for prima ballerina in her company, she has competition from another ballerina, played by Mila Kunis. The two form a twisted friendship that slowly unravels.
Available on: Amazon Prime Video
Gone Girl (2014)
Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck brought this book to life in the movie by the same name, and you won't believe all the twists in it. A man's wife goes missing on their fifth wedding anniversary, and he becomes the prime suspect in the disappearance. This film will have you questioning who's responsible the whole way through.
American Psycho (2000)
If you're a Christian Bale fan, this movie is a must-see. A young, wealthy investment banker in New York City lives a second life as a serial killer by night. The dark, satirical comedy examines the elements that make this man a monster. Trust us, by the end, you'll be questioning literally everything.
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