The thought of being betrayed by your own thinking is horrifying. These films about mad asylums are likely to provide you the answer you’re looking for in the form of terrifying, mind-bending terrors.
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In a lot of horror stories, the antagonists are always from the outside—demons, ghosts, assassins, and vengeful ex-lovers. Psychological horror, on the other hand, seems to go far deeper because the threat is internal. How much worse is it to be betrayed by your own thoughts than by a lover?
It was commonly recognized in the 1800s that mental institutions were breeding grounds for cruelty and sadism that would drive even the most normal of people insane. Tormented by one’s own thoughts while being held hostage in an institution where the personnel seem hell-bent on making sure you never recover are the subject of the following films.
1. The Snake Pit (1948)
Based on Mary Jane Ward’s novel, The Snake Pit is widely regarded as the first Hollywood picture to address the subject of mental illness in a serious manner. Throwing insane people into pits full with snakes, as the book’s title suggests, is a centuries-old practice. The “reasoning” behind this was that, while such an event would drive a normal person insane, it would have the reverse effect on an insane person. Despite its popularity, the book was controversial since no one knew until then that mental institutions were breeding grounds for abuse where patients were treated worse than animals. More than a dozen states modified their mental health laws after seeing the film. With Olivia DeHavilland in the lead role, the story follows the progress of an institutionalized young woman with schizophrenia. Camarillo State Mental Hospital in California was used as a location for some of the filming.
2. The King of Hearts (1967)
An English lieutenant is deployed to an abandoned French town during World War I in order to keep a look out for intruding German troops. Mental patients who fled from a nearby hospital are the town’s only residents, and they mistake him for the king. While he puts up with their pomp and circumstance and accepts his role as “king,” he is desperately searching for a bomb the Germans have planted in the town that would destroy it. King of Hearts became a regular of “Midnight Movies” in the 1970s, along with Pink Flamingos and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, despite its initial failure.
3. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Based on the Anthony Burgess novel, this dystopian futuristic drama is set in a world where Soviet Russia has invaded England and Russian terminology has steadily seeped into British slang. A psychotic young gang member named Alex, played by Malcolm McDowell, is sentenced to prison for his “ultraviolence” and becomes the test subject for a new state-sponsored medical procedure that makes him vomit everytime he is confronted with violence. Once released, individuals who aren’t physically repulsed by violence can easily take advantage of him. Even while it’s nominally set in a prison rather than a mental institution, the strong “curative” methods are evocative of overzealous psychiatric measures.
4. Horror Hospital (1973)
People are transported to “Brittlehurst Manor,” a supposed health resort, but it’s actually a “Horror Hospital” where a wicked doctor conducts lobotomies on kidnapped hippies in this British horror-comedy. Brittlehurst Manor
If you’re in the correct frame of mind, you might like this modest effort that plays out like some Hammer film that was left out in the sun for too long. “Wacko Brit horror with a gallows sense of humor.”
5. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
To win the top five Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay for Cuckoo’s Nest was based on a novel by Ken Kesey that depicted state brutality through the mistreatment and humiliation of mental patients. When Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) is confronted with Randall McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a free-spirited and fun-loving guy who faked mental illness in order to avoid prison, she is forced to face her own demons.
6. The Fifth Floor (1978)
Misdiagnosed as suicidal and assigned to the fifth floor of the mental hospital, Kelly (Danielle Hull) inadvertently overdoses while dancing at a disco. A perverted male orderly takes an ugly interest in her. Because no one, not even her boyfriend, believes her, most of the horror comes from the fact that she knows she’s insane.
7. Doom Asylum (1987)
Gonzo, funny, and ridiculously over-the-top—if you’re into lousy movies, of course—80s slasher flicks like this one are sure to please anyone with an appreciation for gonzo humor. Trespassing into an abandoned lunatic asylum, a group of adolescents discovers… The instruments of a lesbian punk band with communist emblems. What will happen if all of these obnoxious characters collide? However, the property is also home to a psychotic coroner…. To find out, you’ll have to see this dreadful film. Mother! (If you haven’t seen the film, you won’t get the humor.) This film contains no depictions of mental illness, including dissociative identity disorder.
8. Girl, Interrupted (1999)
Winona Ryder bought the rights to Girl, Interrupted, based on Susanna Kaysen’s memoir of her 18-month stay in an asylum in the late 1960s, and she waited on the script for seven years before finding someone prepared to produce it. For the sake of their survival in the facility, Ryder and Angelina Jolie play two patients at a psychiatric hospital who forge an unlikely bond. An Academy Award-nominated Jolie plays a sociopath who manipulates Ryder’s personality throughout the film. According to a rumor, she wouldn’t even glance at Ryder while filming because it would have weakened her role as an awful villain. The Harrisburg State Hospital in Pennsylvania served as the backdrop for numerous scenes.
9. Session 9 (2001)
While working on an abandoned mental hospital, an asbestos removal crew comes across an audio recording of a previous prisoner who appears to have multiple personalities. They begin acting suspiciously after hearing what they had on tape. There is no doubt that the audio recordings are some of the most horrific aural concoctions in horror films since Black Christmas, according to Mondo-Digital.
10. Gothika (2003)
Halle Berry almost avoided a Razzie nomination for Worst Actress for her role as a female psychiatrist who wakes up in a psychiatric hospital with no recollection of what she did or how she arrived.
That doesn’t mean Roger Ebert wasn’t impressed with the film: “Any criticism of this movie that argues it doesn’t make sense is missing the point. If a reviewer criticizes the film for going over the top, they are attacking its most endearing feature.
11. The Ward (2010)
A beautiful but disturbed young woman (Amber Heard) is imprisoned in a mental facility and progressively understands that she and other inmates are being brutally abused by unknown powers. John Carpenter directed this thriller. She is horrified to discover that the ghost of a once institutionalized lady named Alice is responsible for the unexplained power.
12. Shutter Island (2010)
Shutter Island, directed by Martin Scorsese, is a surreal picture full of conspiracies and paranoia that has you scratching your head and doubting your own reality. A classic of American cinema is guaranteed when Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio team up. Watching this film is an excellent opportunity to learn more about the psychology of mental illness while enjoying some of the most beautiful cinematography you’ll see in a long time. It was until after The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s next film, that Shutter Island became his highest-grossing film of all time until it was overtaken by The Wolf of Wall Street. Grizzled US Marshal Leonardo DiCaprio stars as an inmate at a criminally insane hospital who has mysteriously vanished. He said, “The movie’s primary influence is on the senses. It’s a chilling prelude to horrible mysteries that lurk in the shadows.”
13. Stonehearst Asylum (2014)
He’s the head of a psychiatric hospital, and Ben Kingsley (Gandhi) plays him. An Oxford graduate comes at the facility to complete his medical training, and he’s suspicious of Kingsley’s techniques. As long as the patients are responding to treatment, a scream from the cellar one night is enough to convince a medical student that something is badly wrong.’
14. Nise: The Heart of Madness (2015)
Docudrama based on the true story of Brazilian psychiatrist Nise da Silveira, who in 1944 joined a psychiatric hospital but refused to employ electroshock therapy or perform lobotomies because she thought they were cruel. Her approach is to treat patients as people rather than animals and to help them overcome their mental anguish via art and compassion.
15. Joker (2019)
Only in the last minutes of this devastating investigation of mental illness do we see the protagonist in a mental hospital, long after it is too late—he has already gone on a murderous rampage and may have even killed his therapist there. As Arthur Fleck, a gentle but battered guy whose murderous rampages are misinterpreted by political organizers for some sort of revolutionary declaration, Joaquin Phoenix received the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal.