Horror films don’t require monsters or supernatural forces to terrify audiences. While demons, boogeymen, and beasts still appear on screen, there’s another monster that has long dominated the horror space—the human. Stories that concern human monsters are part of a sub-category of horror called Horror of Personality.
The villains in these stories are people with horrific personalities. They’re shown as normal people who either slowly descend into madness or are revealed to be evil at the end of the film. Ordinary and peaceful settings, such as suburban neighborhoods, are used to deceive the viewer into a false sense of security, while also emphasizing the horror waiting to be revealed.
Horror of Personality Examples
Here are a few examples of films under the horror of personality subgenre. Most of these were made during the 1960s, which is considered this genre’s era of inception.
Having stolen $40,000 worth of cash, Marion Crane is on the run. Nothing is heard of her, or the money, ever again.
Concerned loved ones begin a panicked search. They find themselves gravitating toward a lonely motel, where the mother and son who manage it struggle to keep a secret.
2. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Jane is an aging former child star who’s stuck taking care of her paraplegic sister, Blanche, who is also a former actress. Inside the walls of their aging mansion, Jane regularly mistreats her own sibling.
But Blanche isn’t one to take things lying down. As her sister plots to get rid of her, Jane begins to tighten her grip on Blanche while scheming to take back the fame that was stolen from her.
3. The Collector
Lonely and socially awkward Freddie has stalked art student Miranda Gray for a while now. No longer able to restrain himself, he abducts her and imprisons her in his cellar.
He intends to keep her there until she gets to know him—and until she learns to love him, whether she likes it or not.
4. Pretty Poison
Out on parole, mentally disturbed youth Dennis Pitt becomes attracted to teenager Sue Ann Stepenek. He pretends to be a secret agent and takes her on imaginary missions.
But Sue Ann gets too much of a taste for these “adventures.” And when her bloodthirst becomes uncontrollable, Dennis must take on the monster he’s accidentally created.
5. The Bad Seed
Christine and Kenneth Penmark dote on their eight-year-old daughter Rhoda. Pristine and proper, to their eyes she can do no wrong. That’s until Rhoda loses in a penmanship contest.
When the winning kid is found dead, Christine begins to suspect something’s wrong with her daughter. And when her own, true origin is revealed, she worries it may be her fault.
Sx-year-old Michael Myers stabs his sister to death with a kitchen knife. He is sentenced and locked away in a mental hospital, under the watchful eye of his psychiatrist.
Fifteen years later, he escapes and returns home. There, he begins to stalk a group of teenagers, intent on making them his next victims.
7. Black Christmas
Winter break begins and a group of sorority girls starts receiving obscene phone calls from an unknown number. They egg the caller on, who promises to kill them.
One by one, the girls begin to disappear. Those who remaim begin to suspect that a serial killer’s on the loose—but they don’t realize just how close they are to the murderer.
8. Dressed to Kill
Sexually frustrated housewife Kate Miller has sex with a stranger. Later on, she is brutally murdered with a straight razor. Liz, a prostitute, witnesses the crime.
While the police think Liz did the crime, the real culprit schemes to kill her. Only the victim’s son believes Liz, and they work together to uncover the real killer.
9. Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte
Charlotte plans to elope with her married lover, only for him to back out. He is later decapitated by an unknown attacker with a cleaver. Charlotte finds the body and is believed to be the one responsible.
Thirty-seven years later, Charlotte, now a spinster, prepares to fight an impending construction project that will see her evicted from her property. To help her cause, she summons a distant cousin who, unbeknownst to her, may know what really happened all those years ago.
Finding her husband and his mistress in bed, Lucy Harbin takes an axe and decapitates them both. Her three-year-old daughter, Carol, witnesses the crime. Lucy is later considered criminally insane and is committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Twenty years later, she is finally released and sent to live with her brother and his family, including Carol. While she slowly reconnects with the world, a slew of axe murders makes her doubt whether she’s really cured.
Human Monsters in Film
Classic horror films dealt with literal monsters—creatures that were distant from man, whether in an aesthetic or metaphysical sense. Furthermore, these villains were justified in their stories by supernatural or pseudoscientific means. Dracula is a vampire, Frankenstein’s monster is an animated corpse, and the Thing is a hostile alien.
However, a new kind of horror film came about sometime in the 1960s. Instead of demonic possession, supernatural violence, and monstrous destruction, the darkness of the human psyche that was explored. This is the era where deeply disturbed people became the villains of horror.
At its core, horror of personality concerns itself with the idea that humans are the real monsters. It’s a concept that’s been popular ever since, remaining a staple in modern horror cinema. Though now it exists more within genres such as psychological horror and thriller, dark drama, and black comedy.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is considered to be the catalyst of this genre. It’s inspired many films of the same vein and is still regarded as relevant in today’s cinematic landscape.
The horror comes from a viewer’s discomfort with the emotions, thoughts, and fears that people normally deny or repress. As such, these movies often carry heavy elements of suspicion, paranoia, doubt, trauma, and anger. Usually, the narrators are unreliable, creating a narrative that challenges the audience until the truth is revealed.
Cole is a blog writer and aspiring novelist. He has a degree in Communications and is an advocate of media and information literacy and responsible media practices. Aside from his interest in technology, crafts, and food, he’s also your typical science fiction and fantasy junkie, spending most of his free time reading through an ever-growing to-be-read list. It’s either that or procrastinating over actually writing his book. Wish him luck!