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The 15 Best Psychological Thrillers to Keep You on the Edge of Your Seat

These movies may even leave you questioning reality.

There are moviegoers who live for the gore and jump scares of traditional horror movies, and then there are those who are much more affected by films that mess with their mind and leave them spinning for hours after the credits roll. If the latter sounds more appealing to you, then you're probably a fan of psychological thriller movies—the kind that have their characters and audiences questioning reality.

As a genre, psychological thrillers span back to the early days of cinema, so there are a lot of films to choose from within this category. Whether you're getting ready for your next movie night or just want to learn more about thrillers that will keep you on the edge of your seat, keep reading for 15 of the best and most influential.

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What defines a psychological thriller movie?

Carrie Coon and Tyler Perry in "Gone Girl"
20th Century Fox

Psychological thriller is a genre that exists not just in movies, but also in literature, television, and other media. When it comes to movies, first of all, what's a thriller? This overarching genre can encompass any movie that keeps viewers in suspense in some way. As an audience member, you generally want to keep following the plot to figure out what is actually happening—there's often an aspect of mystery—and the emotional response is that "edge of your seat" feeling. Whereas with a drama, the focus could be more on character development or with a comedy, on the jokes, a thriller is all about the twists and turns of the plot.

Psychological thrillers, specifically, incorporate a focus on the human psyche. For example, while a thriller could be about discovering who committed a crime, a psychological thriller might involve the person investigating the crime questioning their own reality, the perpetrator suffering a break from reality—or both. Psychological thrillers also often feature twists, unreliable narrators, and red herrings—plot points that could throw audiences off the scent and make them even more surprised when the truth is revealed.

Some famous filmmakers who've made renowned psychological thrillers include Alfred HitchcockDavid Fincher, M. Night Shyamalan, and Christopher Nolan. Writers whose works have been adapted into psychological thriller films including Patricia HighsmithStephen King, and Gillian Flynn.

Now that you know the definition, here are 15 psychological thrillers you might want to check out.

The Best Psychological Thrillers of All Time

1. The Silence of the Lambs

Jodie Foster in "The Silence of the Lambs"
Orion Pictures

Orion Pictures, 1991

Psychological thrillers don't have to be gory or gruesome, but this one most certainly is. Based on the Thomas Harris novel, The Silence of the Lambs is about an FBI agent in training, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), investigating a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), who skins women after killing them. To help with her research, she interviews an imprisoned cannibal and serial killer, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), who used to be a psychologist. Lecter provides Clarice with insight on Bill, while still going about crimes of his own and plotting his escape from prison.

The Silence of the Lambs is one of the most acclaimed psychological thrillers of all time: It won five Academy Awards in 1992: Best Picture, Best Actress (Foster), Best Actor (Hopkins), Best Director (Jonathan Demme), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ted Tally).

2. Black Swan

Natalie Portman in "Black Swan"
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2010

Another psychological thriller that skews towards horror is Black Swan, from director Darren Aronofsky. Natalie Portman (who won the Oscar for this film) stars as ballet dancer Nina, who's determined to star in Swan Lake. While she is the perfect fit for the white swan, she struggles to portray the darker character of the black swan. As rehearsals go on, Nina meets Lily (Mila Kunis), who becomes her rival. Nina grows increasingly jealous of her and while the two form a relationship, Nina loses her grasp on reality and suffers from hallucinations. This results in some pretty startling images, including swan wings sprouting from Nina's back as she believes she is turning into a bird herself. Watch at your own risk!

RELATED: Why Are the Academy Awards Called "Oscars"? The Nickname Has a Complicated History.

3. Mulholland Drive

Naomi Watts in "Mulholland Drive"
Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures, 2001

Speaking of hallucinations… Mulholland Drive. The 2001 surrealist film from David Lynch involves an up-and-coming actor in Los Angeles, Betty (Naomi Watts), coming into contact with a woman called Rita (Laura Harring), who says she has amnesia. Betty and Rita look into the latter's past, but both of their identities soon come into question. The plot is pretty difficult to explain—that's intentional—so audiences are still trying to figure out the real meaning of it all over 20 years later.

4. The Woman in the Window

Amy Adams in "The Woman in the Window"

Netflix, 2021

Based on the blockbuster hit book by A.J. FlynnJoe Wright's The Woman in the Window is about an agoraphobic woman, Anna (Amy Adams), who spies on her neighbors from her own home. She witnesses what she believes to be a husband killing his wife, only to find out that the woman she thought was murdered wasn't actually his spouse. The movie makes audiences wonder whether Anna is a reliable narrator or if she's suffering hallucinations caused by her medications. See if you can figure it out for yourself.

5. Gone Girl

Ben Affleck in "Gone Girl"
20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox, 2014

2014's Gone Girl, from psychological thriller regular Fincher, is based on Gillian Flynn's book of the same name—she also adapted it into the screenplay. When his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes missing, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) becomes the prime suspect in her disappearance. But while people around him find Nick's behavior suspicious, it's Amy who viewers learn the most shocking information about.

6. The Platform

Iván Massagué in "The Platform"

Festival Films/Netflix, 2019

The Platform has some psychological thriller elements, but could also be categorized as dystopian science fiction and horror, as well. In this 2019 Spanish movie, a man named Goreng (Iván Massagué) is imprisoned in a building in which there is one jail cell per floor, with two prisoners in each cell. It's unclear at the start how many floors there are in total, but Goreng finds out that a platform filled with food descends the prison each day, with each floor getting two minutes to take the food that they need. This means that those at the top floor get whatever they want, while those are the bottom are tortured without food and resort to desperate measures to stay alive. The psychological aspects play out from there as Goreng and the other prisoners suffer and move from floor to floor with some losing their connections to reality.

7. Seven

Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt in "Seven"
New Line Cinema

New Line Cinema, 1995

Another one to avoid if you don't like gore is David Fincher's Seven. Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt play two detectives investigating a serial killer (Kevin Spacey), who themes his murders after the seven deadly sins. (The "pride" victim is disfigured by the killer—and they only get more horrifying from there.) It all leads up to one final, horrifying twist that brings the cops themselves into the plan. If you've heard anyone repeat the infamous quote "What's in the box?," you can watch Seven to find out what it really means.

RELATED: 6 Old Hollywood Movies You Can't Watch Anywhere Now.

8. The Machinist

Christian Bale in "The Machinist"
Paramount Classics

Paramount Classics, 2004

Star Christian Bale famously lost a dangerous amount of weight using an extremely restrictive diet to play The Machinist's lead character Trevor Reznik, a machinist who becomes emaciated after suffering from extreme insomnia. Trevor's state means that he begins to experience hallucinations and paranoia as the dark cause of his insomnia, which involves a car accident, is slowly revealed.

9. Shutter Island

Leonardo DiCaprio in "Shutter Island"
Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures, 2010

Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, based on the Denis Lehane book, is about a U.S. Marshal investigating a psychiatric hospital… or is it? Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Teddy Daniels, who believes that he is looking into both the disappearance of a woman from a remote hospital and into the killer of his wife (Michelle Williams). But, Teddy is not who he seems and the people surrounding him—including characters played by Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Emily Mortimer, and Patricia Clarkson—aren't who he believes them to be, either. To give away anything more would be spoiling it.

10. Vertigo

James Stewart in "Vertigo"
Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures, 1958

James Stewart stars in Vertigo as ex-detective Scottie, who is hired privately to track a man named Gavin's (Tom Helmore) wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), after she displays suspicious behavior. The thing is, Madeleine is not actually Gavin's wife and is, in fact, not actually named Madeleine, either. As a murder plot involving Gavin and the woman unfolds, Scottie also confronts his fear of heights and diagnosis of vertigo. If that's not enough to convince you to watch, just know that this Alfred Hitchcock film is considered by many to be one of the greatest movies of all time.

11. The Sixth Sense

Bruce Willis in "The Sixth Sense"
Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, 1999

The Sixth Sense includes one of the most famous movie quotes of all time: "I see dead people." Haley Joel Osment stars as Cole, a young boy who begins visiting with psychologist Malcolm played by Bruce Willis, because he says he can see ghosts. As he tries to help Cole, Malcolm is attempting to reconnect with his wife (Olivia Williams). This hit put M. Night Shyamalan on the map and established the filmmaker as having a knack for twists, so if you somehow don't know the outcome of this one yet, know that it ends with one of the most iconic shocks of all time.

12. The Talented Mr. Ripley

Matt Damon in "The Talented Mr. Ripley"
Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures, 1999

The Talented Mr. Ripley is based on the Patricia Highsmith book of the same name from 1955. It follows Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), who is hired by the father of a man named Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) to convince Dickie to come back to the U.S. from Italy. Soon, though, Tom begins impersonating Dickie and inserting himself further and further into his target's privileged life. This eventually takes an even darker turn, and Tom's con becomes increasingly complicated with all the people who are pulled into his orbit.

13. Memento

Guy Pearce in "Memento"

Newmarket, 2000

Memento, from Christopher Nolan, has an unconventional format: Half of the scenes are in black and white and moving forward through time, and the other half are in color and moving backward in time. This is to help audience's follow the story of Leonard (Guy Pearce), a man with short-term memory loss, who is attempting to figure out who killed his wife (Jorja Fox). Because of his memory condition, Leonard regularly has to start over in his mission, forgetting the people he's met along the way and what he's discovered. He uses photographs, notes, and even tattoos to keep the story straight, while being unable to really trust anyone, even if they seem to be helping him.

14. Arrival

Amy Adams in "Arrival"
Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures, 2016

If you're into sci-fi and thrillers, check out Arrival, which combines the two genres. Amy Adams stars as linguist Louise, who takes on the task of trying to communicate with an alien species who have come to Earth. But this is no simple translation. Louise soon finds out that the alien language can alter humans' perception of time, which makes her question whether visions she's begun having are of the past or the future. She also has to figure out the message that the aliens are trying to give to people on Earth and what their motive is. Jeremy Renner and Forrest Whitaker co-star in the Denis Villeneuve film.

RELATED: 6 '70s Movies You Can't Watch Anywhere.

15. Psycho

Anthony Perkins in "Psycho"
Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures, 1960

Another classic Hitchcock psychological thriller—and horror movie—Psycho has been making viewers afraid of showers since 1960. The film begins with a woman named Marion (Janet Leigh) on the run after stealing money from her job. She hides out at the Bates Motel, where she is stabbed to death while taking a shower in her room. In true Hitchcock style, the actual plot of the movie kicks off from there, as it becomes about the investigation into Marion's disappearance, the suspicious the hotel owner—iconic villain Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins)—and his mother.

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Lia Beck
Lia Beck is a writer living in Richmond, Virginia. In addition to Best Life, she has written for Refinery29, Bustle, Hello Giggles, InStyle, and more. Read more
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