Horror films where the haunting isn't really a haunting?
September 19, 2020 10:14 PM   Subscribe

Asking for recommendations. By nature of this question, there will be spoilers.

I recently finished the film Oculus (2013) about a haunted mirror, and while watching, I thought it would have been a really interesting -- and tragic -- story about siblings had the mirror just... been a mirror (but everything else remained the same).

I'm looking for films that use this premise of an unreliable narrative. Any suggestions? Genres other than horror welcomed, since mental illness and PTSD generally aren't treated well in horror to begin with.
posted by lesser weasel to Media & Arts (35 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Cabin in the Woods (though things really are happening, it is an unreliable narrative)
posted by ChuraChura at 10:15 PM on September 19, 2020 [8 favorites]

How about the haunted painting in Vertigo..
posted by johngoren at 10:17 PM on September 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

Vampire's Kiss is a cult classic where Nic Cage *thinks* he has become a vampire.

Along those same lines but a much better movie is American Psycho.
posted by muddgirl at 10:39 PM on September 19, 2020 [3 favorites]

if "horrible misunderstanding gone bad" works then "Tucker & Dale vs Evil"
posted by alchemist at 10:52 PM on September 19, 2020 [9 favorites]

Spoiling the entire thing but this is the premise of the 2019 film The Lodge (aka “Play Stupid Games, Win Stupid Prizes: The Movie”).
posted by arha at 11:03 PM on September 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

"The Babadook," "the Witch," and "La Llorona" (the 2019 one, NOT "the curse of la llorona") are all plausibly unreliable narrator type stories at least for the bulk of the films.

I love this type of thing! I have more but can't think of them right now ...
posted by librarina at 11:03 PM on September 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

In terms of an unreliable narrator in a psychological horror film, the classic example is The Innocents (1961), a superb adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. You could watch it ten times in a row and change your mind each time as to whether the events of the film are psychological or supernatural.
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 11:10 PM on September 19, 2020 [5 favorites]

On a related note, I’ve noticed what seems to be a new horror sub-genre: You Think Your House is Haunted, But Actually Some Dude is Living In Your Crawlspace.

The Pact (2012) is the earliest example of this subgenre I can think of, but others include the NZ horror comedy Housebound (2014), Within (2016) and to some extent I See You (2020).

If anyone knows of other examples or if this trope has a name, please do let me know!
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 11:11 PM on September 19, 2020 [9 favorites]

Unreliable narration achieves a kind of penultimate expression in Nabokov's novel Despair (the ultimate in my opinion was Lolita, in which the unreliable narrator's unreliability is itself unreliable), and Despair was made into a 1978 movie by Fassbinder, starring Dirk Bogarde and adapted for film by no less than Tom Stoppard(!).

And a sort of mirroring happens to play a pivotal role. If you end up seeing it, I'd love to hear what you think of it.
posted by jamjam at 11:31 PM on September 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

A favorite early example that comes to mind is Diabolique - seemingly supernatural horror with a perfectly logical (though horrific) explanation.

I know it more from literature, but I think of this as a variant of the Scooby Doo trope? Scooby Doo cribbed from something that was pretty common in pulp literature in the first half of the previous century - e.g. many of the Doc Savage and Hardy Boys books involved a seemingly supernatural horror that turned out to be a wonder of science or some other conspiracy with a rational, non-magical explanation. There are films of many of these, of varying (mostly awful) quality. And of course it's a basic plot point of the Wizard of Oz.

House of Sand and Fog tickles this itch for me - it's not so much that there's an unreliable narrator, as that tiny assumptions about the principle antagonists could radically change your interpretation of the film.

Along those same lines but a much better movie is American Psycho.
Would suggest the same films but rank them opposite. American Psycho did have the bigger budget . . .

IIRC Wes Craven's The People Under the Stairs is in the You Think Your House is Haunted, But Actually Some Dude is Living In Your Crawlspace vein. But it's been a bit. I do think that trope is also not particularly recent, but comes in waves.

Recently, I'd say Parasite meets the stated criteria, as well as the dude is living in your crawlspace trope.
posted by aspersioncast at 11:58 PM on September 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

I can think of a bunch of silent films like this, e.g. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920; the viewpoint character turns out to be in an asylum), The Phantom Carriage (1921; the viewpoint character wakes up--IIRC not clearly answering if it was an otherworldly vision or a dream), The Fugitive Futurist (1924; the 'futurist' has escaped from an asylum), The City Struck by Lightning / The City Destroyed (1924; it all turns out to be someone telling the plot of their novel), and many more where the ghost / haunting turns out to be just people.

But maybe the most interesting near match is A Page of Madness, a 1924 film from Japan about a man working in an asylum that mixes in a ton of imagery from shifting viewpoints to show that the horror isn't real--but then it begins to affect the main viewpoint character too. It is incomplete, missing ~25% of the film and the benshi narration, which likely contributes to the feeling it's experimental, but it's still amazing--also, the $2 rental from Amazon is worth it to get the modern soundtrack.
posted by cpound at 2:11 AM on September 20, 2020

Rebecca (which is suspense, rather than a horror film)

I see The Witch was mentioned above...it's a really interesting case, I'd actually call it an inversion of this trope rather than a straight example.
posted by phoenixy at 2:13 AM on September 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

Another literal inversion of the trope might be The Others.
posted by Fuchsoid at 3:28 AM on September 20, 2020 [4 favorites]

Not a film, but the recent adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix has some hauntings that are "real" hauntings but at least one that isn't at all.
posted by Athanassiel at 4:23 AM on September 20, 2020

I See You. I thought this was a horror film but it twists in an unexpected way.
posted by essexjan at 4:52 AM on September 20, 2020


The Boy is a pretty good example of a haunting that's really just some dude in the walls (by "pretty good", I mean that the movie is a fitting example of what's being asked for, not that it's a very good movie).
posted by ambulatorybird at 5:00 AM on September 20, 2020 [4 favorites]

Candyman has an aspect of this although it is a straight-up horror movie that remains resolutely ambiguous. (Also a great score by Philip Glass.)

Search Party might be of interest in a different way, I won't explain how because I don't want to give away any spoilers.

Definitely check out The Babadook, already mentioned.
posted by riddley at 5:26 AM on September 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

I also came to recommend the NZ horror-comedy Housebound.
posted by FirstMateKate at 5:56 AM on September 20, 2020 [3 favorites]

The Columbian movie La Cara Oculta fits your description. But, I'm not going to say any more because the spoilers would ruin it! Don't watch the trailer (which, weirdly, gives away all the plot twists), just go straight into watching the movie. It's great!
posted by EllaEm at 6:21 AM on September 20, 2020

Shutter Island is horror adjacent; I don’t think anyone in the film believes the island is haunted, but the narrator is unreliable.
posted by castlebravo at 6:40 AM on September 20, 2020 [3 favorites]

Two that came to mind were Martyrs (France 2008) and the Orphange (Spain 2007).
posted by saucysault at 7:16 AM on September 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

So looking over my list before posting I've noticed that only one of them actually feature ghosts as the thing doing the haunting, so I'll mark what the suspected evil because I know some types of horror just don't do it for some people. Also, the a couple of these are ambiguous about the question of supernatural involvement, rather than straight up "this didn't happen". As a bonus I believe both the Alchemists Cookbook and Under the Shadow have casts that are entirely POC.

I think the only example of exactly what you're talking about on this list is The Orphanage.

Jacob's Ladder is a good one from 1990 is about a man struggling to return to a normal life after the Vietnam war, there's a remake that's an update that has a more diverse cast, and I remember enjoying, but I watched it while pretty sick, so can't for sure recommend it (demons).

The Alchemist's Cookbook is a great one about isolation that doesn't take place in an old victorian manner (Demon).

I think The Wind is the most compelling western\horror movie I've ever seen, it also deals with isolation, but this time in the open prairie post Homestead Act. (demon)

Under the Shadow, hits a lot of the same notes as The Babadook, and is set Tehran in the 1980s. I know at least one of the hosts of the Facility of Horror podcast likes it better than Babadook (if you're looking for two academics discussing horror movies The Faculty of Horror is an amazing podcast). (Djinn)

Speaking of mothers, Goodnight Mommy is very good, and your feelings will change repeatedly about the main characters. It's a hard watch though, with pretty graphic realistic violence and definitely not for everyone. Imagine if like Home Alone showed the actual effects of the traps the kid laid. (Mother being replaced)

I also enjoyed the Cronenberg film Spider, but I wouldn't necessarily call it horror, similar to Goodnight Mommy in a lot of ways, but much less violent. (mother being replaced)

Oh, and also non-horror (although plenty scary) Pan's Labyrinth is pretty ambiguous as to the reality of the supernatural elements, and so visually stunning. (Dark Fairytale World).

I think the 2006 movie Bug, might fit as well, it's been awhile since I've seen it. (Bugs\Evil military experiments)
posted by Gygesringtone at 7:18 AM on September 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

Housebound (2014)
posted by forbiddencabinet at 8:11 AM on September 20, 2020

Session 9 is a great horror film that plays with this ambiguity
posted by supermedusa at 8:46 AM on September 20, 2020

I'll suggest the recent The Invisible Man. For a good part of the film, it's unclear whether there really is an "invisible man," or whether the narrator is just losing her marbles.
posted by SPrintF at 8:47 AM on September 20, 2020 [3 favorites]

Kubrick's version of The Shining, the phantasmagoria could be Jack Torrance hallucinations, if one interprets it that way. Which is a more disturbing thought than the Stephen King trope that imaginary monsters are real.
posted by ovvl at 9:04 AM on September 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

the recent adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix

Relatedly, while it's been forever since I read or watched them, the original Shirley Jackson novel and the first film version (The Haunting from 1963) leave it ambiguous as to whether there's an actual supernatural presence at work, or whether it's that the main female character (Eleanor) is psychologically disturbed. (IIRC correctly Stephen King thinks Jackson & the filmmakers may also have been hinting at the possibility that Eleanor is causing the "hauntings" unconsciously via psychic powers she's not aware she possesses.)
posted by soundguy99 at 9:25 AM on September 20, 2020

Session 9 is a great horror film that plays with this ambiguity

Holy cow yes, seconding this hard.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:38 AM on September 20, 2020

Not a horror movie but there's La moustache.
posted by Ashwagandha at 11:47 AM on September 20, 2020

They Look Like People. Criminally underrated horror.
posted by holborne at 7:35 PM on September 20, 2020

Session 9 is a great horror film that plays with this ambiguity

If you like Session 9, you might like The Machinist, by the same director. It is not so much a horror film, though it plays as one on the surface.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 12:59 AM on September 21, 2020 [2 favorites]

Not quite a horror movie, but there's atmospheric creepiness and a great twist/unexpected narrator in Shutter Island.
posted by hydra77 at 9:20 AM on September 21, 2020

So, I've been thinking about this, and I think you'll have more luck if you try a different genre, because horror movies aren't as much about uncovering the truth as the other genres. I think where you're going to have the most luck with what you're looking for is mystery or suspense/thriller movies.
posted by Gygesringtone at 8:20 PM on September 21, 2020

Two of my favorite horror films recently: Hereditary and Lake Mungo.
posted by Aquifer at 9:17 PM on September 21, 2020

« Older Setting up an intro for a series of educational...   |   Astronauts Who Have Publicly Criticized Missions... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments