It’s no secret real life can feel like a thriller: The anxiety, suspense, and surprise are enough to keep us all on our toes. Simply turning on the news can sometimes make you feel like you’re living in a movie, but instead of the end credits rolling up, you’re faced with reality. Life goes on, punctuated by these moments.
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?
"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?"
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 12 best psychological thrillers of all time. So why not detach from the thrills of everyday life and instead get inside someone else’s head for a change? Reality will be there for you when you’re done.
The Silence of the Lambs
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.
The Sixth Sense
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.
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?
Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island is based on the book of the same name. In it, Leonardo DiCaprio’s 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 Hitchcock-directed film set a new level of acceptance for violence, behavior, and sexuality in American films. In it, 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 things will never be the same.
Also 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 the latter fears 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.
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 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.
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?
After the Vietnam War, a lonely veteran takes up driving cabs in Taxi Driver 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.