Horror films are moving away from schlocky jumpscares and branching into sophisticated, elevated horror. One of the most popular avenues for directors to explore is the descent into madness trope. This happens when a character becomes obsessed with a thought or idea. An innocent infatuation can quickly turn into a heart-pounding danger as the audience can't help but watch the disaster unfolding on the screen.
Here are 20 movies that perfectly exemplify the journey into madness.
Mia Goth is Pearl, a wannabee starlet capable of going to great lengths to achieve the dream she wants. Released as a prequel to the slasher homage X, Pearl revolved around a young woman destined for the big screen, or so she thought. Pearl starts as a shy, kind girl living on a farm with her sick father and overbearing mother. Soon, the farmhouse's confines and Hollywood's outstretched arms absorb her every thought. Pearl descends into a swirl of madness.
Goth’s performance alone makes her one of the best new horror names in the 2020s.
When Dani’s parents and sister all die in a murder-suicide, Dani resorts to the only remaining support system: her estranged boyfriend, Christian. Dani, Christian, and their friends all travel to a Swedish ritual on behalf of their friend, Pelle. A peaceful outing between friends and family spirals into a terrifying cult celebration.
Dani’s depression manifests into terror, but you won’t be able to peel your eyes off Florence Pugh’s masterful performance, no matter how brutal the film gets — and it gets brutal.
3. Saint Maud
Saint Maud follows a nurse-turned-religious zealot, determined to save everyone around her. Saint Maud’s release date was pushed back and bounced around during COVID-19. The incredible film never received the official theatrical release it deserved (although it did have a limited release in 2021). Still, that didn’t stop this religious tale from searing into the minds of horror enthusiasts everywhere.
Saint Maud delivers one of the best stories about religious obsession ever. Plus, the film's final scene stays burned in your brain forever.
Gaspar Noe’s avant-garde dance is a literal descent into madness. When a group of dancers ingests LSD-laced punch, they embark on a trip that doesn’t end swimmingly. Stakes rise, and tensions run high while the troupe tries to uncover the culprit that laced the punch.
What elevates the dive into instability is that Climax begins at the end. The film starts with a credit roll before launching into video interviews with the dancers. The color schemes and editing sequences make the viewer feel like they are on the same acid-fueled trip as the dancers. Climax is definitely not for everyone.
5. We Need To Talk About Kevin
This movie is eerie for a few reasons. Ezra Miller approaches Kevin with such deftness it becomes difficult to discern fiction from reality. We Need to Talk About Kevin nods to Kevin’s upbringing, how the parents tried to assuage him and give him an outlet for expression, but he is pure evil.
We witness Kevin’s actions through his mother’s viewpoint. Tilda Swinton’s character harbors a ton of internalized guilt, resentment, and shame around Kevin. This film opens up two distinct descents, Kevin’s descent into evil and his mother’s descent into incessant guilt.
6. Black Swan
The world of competitive dance is cutthroat- sometimes literally. In this critically acclaimed film, Nina, played by Natalie Portman, begins to experience intense hallucinations while rehearsing for a leading role in the ballet Swan Lake. As the opening night of the show approaches, Nina's hallucinations escalate, ultimately leading her to physically attack the doppelganger plaguing her waking moments.
Black Swan ends on a cliffhanger, leaving the audience to wonder if Nina escaped the madness surrounding her or if she succumbed to the pressure of being on stage.
7. Requiem for a Dream
Drug addiction can send the most sane person down a wormhole of madness. In Requiem for a Dream, the audience witnesses the descent of the four main characters as their drug use goes from bad to worse.
The realistic nature of this movie makes it all the more intense, and while you watch the addicts struggle on the screen, you can't help but be reminded of the ones struggling in real life.
8. The Machinist
We've all had trouble sleeping from time to time, but the experience of Trevor in The Machinist takes insomnia to a whole new level. His lack of sleep leads him to behave erratically, then pushes him over the edge of paranoia. As the movie goes on, Trevor frantically tries to chase down his delusions, only to be confronted with them in a way he never expected.
9. The Lighthouse
When a new employer tells you you're replacing someone who went insane on the job, you should probably heed the warning and look for another place to earn some cash. Ephraim Winslow does not. Over the course of a one-month stint in a lighthouse with only its longtime keeper, Thomas Wake, Winslow begins to lose his sanity, and it becomes clear Wake may have lost his long ago.
Beautifully acted by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, this movie explores the impact of isolation on the human mind.
10. The Shining
After arriving at a hotel with a dark history, Jack falls into a downward spiral of hallucinations and violence. Though Jack's madness was kicked off by ghosts lingering in the hotel's halls, the performance Jack Nicholson brought to the screen has stood the test of time, making The Shining among the most iconic horror films of all time.
11. They Look Like People
This film is not for the faint of heart. Under the pressure of his recent breakup, Wyatt slowly becomes convinced the world is about to be overtaken by demons. He phone calls warning him of the imminent danger, then sees his friends transform into hideous monsters. Wyatt doesn't realize what he's seeing is a delusion until it's almost too late.
12. 12 Monkeys
In the future, the world is devastated by disease. With no real leads on how to fix everything, the government sends a convict named James (Bruce Willis) back in time to gather information about the man-made virus that has wiped out the population on Earth. But as he learns more about the Army of the Twelve Monkeys and the virus, he starts to lose himself more.
A corrupt cop with bipolar disorder is trying to manipulate his way through a promotion, all with the hope that it will bring his wife and daughter back to him. His whole life starts to take a toll on his sanity, and will he be able to hold onto himself? The movie stars James McAvoy, Jamie Bell, and Eddie Marsan.
14. Shutter Island
In Shutter Island, two U.S. marshals are sent to investigate the disappearance of a patient at a remote asylum. But one of the marshals arrives with their own history of mental health issues, leading the team to uncover the sinister nature of the treatment center and head down a road of insanity.
15. Clean, Shaven
A lot of people warn that Clean, Shaven is a tough watch. It follows a man who has schizophrenia and wants to get his daughter back, who was placed with another family when he was institutionalized. It's hard to watch him balance his new life and the struggles of finding out where his daughter is.
16. Taxi Driver
In Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro plays Travis Bickle, a mentally unstable taxi driver who is driving his taxi around the streets of New York City. But as he sees darker things each night, it fuels his want to be violent.
17. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Apocalypse Now is dramatic movie about a US Army officer while serving in Vietnam and as the death and destruction unfolds around him, he sees himself as a god within this war. This movie does a great job at adapting a story, showing the depths of war, and the mental health struggles some find themselves in while in such a harsh and terrifying environment.
18. The Babadook (2014)
The Babadook is a dark and sinister movie about grief and death. When a single mother deals with the death of her husband that she never really got over, she and her son fall into paranoia when they stumble upon a creepy children's book.
19. Memento (2000)
Memento is a dark thriller about a man named Leonard (Guy Pearce) who has short-term memory loss. But while he deals with this, he's trying to track down the person who murded his wife, but remembering everything gets harder and harder for him.
20. It's Such A Beautiful Day (2012)
It's Such a Beautiful Day is a animated film about a man named Bill who is struggling to put his mental health back together. The film is shot and created in an interesting style, with all of it being shot on 35 mm film.