Asylum Movies: Horror and Thrillers to Watch

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How awful is it to be betrayed by your own mind? These asylum horror and thriller films explore the abyss of madness and tackle this issue with unthinkable mental fears. Some of them definitely are must see movies at least once in a lifetime, many others are just scary entertainment, still others are hilarious trash movies to watch for their weirdness. Most of the horror film tells the horror of the outside world: devils, ghosts, killers and cruel ex-lovers with revenge in mind. Mental fear appears to be much deeper, because the danger comes from within. If it’s bad to be betrayed by someone else, how much worse is it to be betrayed by your own brain?


A Brief History of Asylums

The asylum was the precursor of the contemporary psychiatric hospital. The fall of the asylum and its definitive replacement with contemporary psychiatric hospitals coincides with organized and institutional psychiatry. While there were previous organizations, the conclusion that institutionalization was the appropriate option for dealing with individuals deemed “insane” came in the 19th century.

In the Islamic world, in the medieval period, the bimaristas were described by European tourists who described their wonder at the care and generosity reserved for the mad. In 872, Ahmad ibn Tulun built a health center in Cairo that offered treatment to the insane, which included music therapy. In Europe, however, throughout the Middle Ages, the mentally ill were often locked up in cages or kept within the city walls, or were forced to entertain members of the wealthier class. The development of Dave Sheppard’s mental health law and practice begins in 1285 with a case that linked “the instigation of the devil” with being insane.

The level of institutional organization for the treatment and control of insane remained limited in the early 18th century. Madness was seen primarily as a private matter that families and parishes dealt with. At the end of the 17th century, things changed and independently run asylums for the insane began to expand and multiply. Prisoners who were considered troubling or dangerous were chained.

During the Age of Enlightenment, the mentality towards the mentally ill began to change. It was regarded as a condition that needed thoughtful treatment that would aid in the patient’s rehabilitation. Mental disorder was seen as something that could be addressed and treated. In 1792 Pinel was the general practitioner of the Bicêtre hospital in Le Kremlin-Bicêtre, near Paris. Prior to his arrival, the prisoners were chained in confined cell-like spaces where there was poor ventilation, led by a man named Jackson “Brutis” Taylor. Taylor was killed by the prisoners and was replaced by Pinel.

In 1797, Jean-Baptiste Pussin first freed patients from their chains and prohibited physical punishment, although straitjackets could be used. Patients were able to move around the health center premises, and eventually the dark basements were replaced with warm, well-ventilated spaces. Pinel argued that the mental disorder was the result of extreme direct exposure to mental and social tensions, genetics and physiological damage.

By the 1800s it was clear that psychiatric institutions were hotbeds of abuse and sadism that would drive a completely normal individual mad. The following films address the double fear of being tortured by one’s mind while locked up in an organization where employees seem determined to never get back in touch with reality.


Asylum Movies in the 40s and 50s

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920 

One of the masterpieces of cinema history, an expressionist classic German which takes place partly in an asylum. Dr. Caligari’s cabinet is a expressionist film of 1920, directed by Robert Wiene and written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. It tells the story of a psychotherapist (Werner Krauss) who uses a sleepwalker (Conrad Veidt) to commit murders. The film includes a twisted and dark visual design, with oblique and curved lines, structures and landscapes that twist and lean at unusual angles and shadows and streaks of light painted directly on the sets.

Watch The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920 

Spellbound (1945) 

It is a thriller film starring Gregory Peck as an imposter trying to become the new director of an asylum. Dr. Constance Petersen is a psychoanalyst at Green Manors, a psychiatric hospital in Vermont. She is seen by other doctors as emotionless. The director of the medical facility, Dr. Murchison, quickly retired after a nervous breakdown. His replacement is Dr. Anthony Edwardes, who ends up being extraordinarily young.

Bedlam (1946) 

A film set in a London asylum in the 1860s, Bethlem Royal Hospital, a royal psychiatric institution also called “Bedlam”. Set in 1761 in London, the film chronicles occasions in an asylum for the mentally ill, a fictionalized variation of Bethlem Royal Hospital. After an associate of Lord Mortimer’s dies trying to escape from the asylum, Master George Sims calms Mortimer by having his “madmen” put his “lunatics” into a program for him. Mortified by the treatment of clients, Mortimer’s protege Nell Bowen seeks his help, then seeks the help of Whig political leader John Wilkes to reform the asylum, threatening Sim’s corrupt practices.


The Snake Pit (1948)

This is among the first films made in an asylum and is the first movie ever to seriously address the issue of mental disorder, The Snake Pit is based on a Mary Jane Ward account of her bad experiences in psychiatric organizations. The title of the book describes obsolete methods of throwing patients into pits full of snakes, with the “thought” that since such an experience would make any normal individual insane, throwing a mad person into a snake pit would have the opposite result. . 

The novel, although a bestseller, was incredibly questionable at the time as until then no one had any idea that asylums were hotbeds of abuse where patients were not treated much better than animals . The film had such a significant achievement that 13 states quickly changed their laws on mental health organizations. Once hospitalized, Olivia DeHavilland plays a schizophrenic woman whose condition deteriorates further. 

Harvey (1950) 

It is a film based on a successful play from 1944 and stars James Stewart as the only man who has the ability to see a five-foot-eight-foot-tall bunny. Harvey name. Elwood P. Dowd is an eccentric man whose friend is an invisible white bunny, 1.92m tall named Harvey. As explained by Elwood, Harvey is a pooka, a mean but benign animal from Celtic folklore. Elwood spends most of his time taking Harvey around town, drinking at numerous bars and introducing him to almost everyone he meets, much to the perplexity of strangers, although Elwood’s friends have accepted Harvey’s presence. His older sister Veta and niece Myrtle Mae deal with him on his large estate, however they ended up being social outcasts because of Harvey.

3 Faces of Eve (1957) 

It is a black and white film that shows a woman who has a split personality with incredible realism. In 1951, Eve White is a shy and shy wife and mother who has blinding headaches and serious and periodic blackouts. Eventually Eve visits psychiatrist Dr. Luther and, during an argument, a new character emerges, the wild and fun-loving Eve Black. Eve Black understands everything about Eve White, however Eve White is not informed about Eve Black.

Asylum Movies in the 60s and 70s

Splendor in the grass (1961) 

A film with Natalie Wood as a woman who gradually goes mad after her love for a handsome boy (Warren Beatty) is unrequited. In 1928 in Kansas, teenagers Wilma Dean “Deanie” Loomis and her partner, Bud Stamper, long for a more intimate relationship, yet they follow their parents’ suggestions to prepare for college. Bud’s sister Ginny is more worldly having returned from Chicago after an abortion cancellation to Mr. and Mrs. Stamper’s dissatisfaction and embarrassment. Bud saves Ginny from attempted rape at a New Year’s Eve party, though troubled by what he saw, informs Deanie that they have to stop messing around and they separate.

David & Lisa (1962) 

The film tells the story of a young couple who live in an asylum and fight to cling to freedom. David Clemens receives psychiatric care from his caring mother. He ends up going crazy as he thinks being touched can kill him. Cold and distant, he generally focuses on his research studies, especially that of watches. It is later revealed that he has a repeated dream in which he kills people by means of a huge clock.

Shock Corridor (1963) 

With the aim of winning a Pulitzer Prize, journalist Johnny Barrett wants to discover the realities behind the unsolved murder of Sloan, a prisoner in a mental hospital. He convinces a psychiatrist, Dr. Fong, to look crazy when he talks about incest with his “sister”, who is played by his girlfriend, Cathy. The girl is persuaded to report him to the authorities and the man is jailed. Johnny is upset by the habits of his fellow prisoners and on one occasion is whipped by a group of nymphomaniacs who attack him in his ward.

Strait-Jacket (1964) 

In this film, Joan Crawford plays the role of a mother who returns home to her son after investing 20 years in an asylum for murder. After discovering her partner in bed with his girlfriend, Lucy Harbin beheads them both with an ax. Her three-year-old son, Carol, is a witness to the murders. Lucy is admitted to a psychiatric hospital and considered insane. Twenty years later, after discovering she is mentally healthy and reformed, Lucy is expelled from the asylum. He settles on the farm of his brother Bill Cutler and sister-in-law Emily. Carol, now an artist and carver, also lives on the farm, having actually been taken in by the Cutlers after Lucy was released.

The King of Hearts (1967)

King of Hearts is a film about World War I and mental hospitals. Alan Bates plays an Englishman who is sent to a deserted French town during World War I to watch out for intruding adversaries. The only residents of the city are mentally ill who have left a health facility and mistake him for the king. As he endures their madness and his role as “king”, he desperately searches for a bomb the Germans have hidden to blow up the city. 

Although unsuccessful at the time of its release, King of Hearts ended up being a staple of “Midnight Movies” in the mid to late 1970s alongside other films such as Pink Flamingos and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.


Asylum (1972) 

is a film centered on a young doctor looking for a position in a psychiatric institution who, as part of the application procedure, needs to interview 4 patients whose stories complement each other strangely. Dr. Martin reaches a remote asylum. He needs to start a new consultation there as a doctor, but is initially received by authoritarian director Lionel Rutherford. Rutherford remains in a wheelchair due to alleged assault by a patient, and appears to have no desire for any improvement in his condition. As part of the interview, Rutherford challenges Martin to recognize Dr. B. Starr, the former head of the asylum, who has gone through a total psychological breakdown, among the prisoners. Martin has to speak one by one with the few patients.

Horror Hospital (1973)

Lobotomy is the theme of this film set in an asylum, and there are also zombies. This horror comedy shows a group of individuals being sent to “Brittlehurst Manor”, which is apparently a health clinic but is actually a “Horror Hospital” where an evil doctor lobotomizes kidnapped hippies. It’s a wacky and fun horror movie, not a masterpiece, however with the right mindset you could enjoy this little one indie film that has long been neglected.

Don’t Look In The Basement (1973) 

The film is set in an asylum and the plot focuses on a nurse who is hired in a psychiatric hospital and slowly discovers that the truly insane people are the ones running the facility sanitary. The film is set in the Stephens Sanitarium, a remote rural asylum whose general practitioner thinks the best way to deal with the insanity is to allow clients to easily recite their truths in the hope that they will come out of it. The film begins with a nurse from Stephens Sanitarium making her rounds. After an unfortunate event in which a patient threatens his life, he chooses to retire and goes to see the chief physician, Dr. Stephens, to inform him of the choice. In the treatment procedure, the insane former magistrate, Oliver W. Cameron, mistakenly drops the ax into Dr. Stephens’ back, killing him.

7 Beauties (1975) 

It is a film by independent author Lina Wertmuller that shows a normal man who is sent to an asylum for killing a pimp who tortured his sister. The picaresque story follows the main character, Pasqualino (Giannini), a dandy from Naples in fascist and World War II Italy. To preserve the family honor, Pasqualino eliminates a pimp who had turned his sister into a street woman. To take care of the victim’s body, he disassembles it and puts the parts in the luggage. Captured by the authorities, he is found guilty and imprisoned in an asylum.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

This film is based on Ken Kesey’s 1962 book of the same name, and among only 3 films in Hollywood history to win all 5 major Oscar for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actress and Actor. The Cuckoo’s Nest is based on a book by Ken Kesey that uses psychiatric abuse as a metaphor for the ruthlessness of the state. In the fall of 1963, Randle McMurphy is found on an Oregon farm for the rape of a 15-year-old woman. He pretends to be psychologically unstable to be transferred to a psychiatric institution and avoid forced labor. The ward is controlled by head nurse Mildred Ratched, a cold passive-aggressive autocrat who scares her clients.

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1977)

The film is based on a very popular novel about a schizophrenic teenager from a wealthy family who stays 3 years in an asylum after a suicide attempt. It was also the title of a hit country and western melody by Lynn Anderson. The graceful and fortunate Deborah is, at the age of 16, a borderline schizophrenic who spends most of her waking hours in a strange dream world. After a suicide attempt, he ends up in a psychiatric institution, where the hostile environment threatens to further destabilize his condition. It is only through the attention of supportive Dr. Fried that Deborah slowly becomes able to distinguish dreams and truth once again.

Halloween (1978) 

It’s a classic that redefines John Carpenter’s slasher horror genre whose villain, Michael Myers, reaches his hometown after coming out of an asylum. On Halloween night 1963, in the fictional rural town of Haddonfield, Illinois, six-year-old Michael Myers stabs his sister Judith to death with a chef’s knife. For the next fifteen years, he was imprisoned at Smith’s Grove Sanitarium. On October 30, 1978, Michael’s psychiatrist Dr. Samuel Loomis and his colleague, Marion Chambers, go to the sanatorium to escort Michael to court for a hearing; Loomis hopes that the outcome of the hearing is that Michael will be jailed for life. Michael takes their cars and escapes, killing a mechanic from whom he takes an overalls.

Watch Halloween

The Fifth Floor (1978)

The prisoners rule the asylum in The Fifth Floor. A sane college student named Kelly overdoses while dancing in a nightclub, is misdiagnosed as suicidal, and is then sent to the 5th floor of a psychiatric hospital, where a perverted man takes an interest in her. Most of the fear comes from the girl realizing that she is sane, yet no one, not even her love, will believe her.

Asylum Movies in the 80s and 90s

The Ninth Configuration (1980) 

It is a horror comedy about former Marines residing in a castle that is also a federal government asylum. It was directed by William Peter Blatty, best known for writing the short story for the film The Exorcist. At some point in the early 1970s, near the end of the Vietnam War, as mentioned in the opening narrative, a large castle in the Pacific Northwest is being used by the U.S. federal government as a lunatic asylum for the military. Among the many patients is a former astronaut, Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), who aborted a launch to the moon and was dragged into an obvious psychological breakdown.

The Sender (1982) 

A boy with amnesia is saved from drowning and ends up in a psychiatric hospital. A disheveled young boy is woken by the side of a carriageway by passing traffic. He goes to a nearby lake and tries to drown by stuffing his clothes with stones and walking in the water, however he is taken out and admitted to a nearby psychiatric hospital for treatment. He is struggling with retrograde amnesia, unable to keep his name or information from his life in mind. Without any kind of identification, the client is called John Doe # 83 and placed under the care of psychiatrist Dr. Gail Farmer. Almost instantly, John begins to exhibit strange habits, with another patient nicknamed “The Messiah” suddenly appearing to be decapitating him.

Frances (1982) 

A film starring Jessica Lange as Hollywood starlet Frances Farmer, who suffered a psychological breakdown after being blacklisted. Born in Seattle, Washington, Frances Elena Farmer is a rebel from a young age, winning $ 100 in 1931 from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards for a high school essay titled God Dies. In 1935, he ends up being popular once again when he wins a trip to the USSR to visit the Moscow art theater. Chosen to become a starlet, Frances doesn’t want to play the Hollywood video game: she refuses to give in to promotional stunts and insists on appearing on screen without makeup. She marries Dwayne Steele, regardless of whether she was advised not to, however, she cheats on him with the avowed Communist Harry York.

Doom Asylum (1987)

A group of teenagers want to go to an asylum and discover a problem. This is a crazy 80s slasher movie, and those with a sense of humor will appreciate the fun and terribly tacky storyline.  A group of teenagers cross over to a deserted asylum, but what do they discover there? A lesbian punk band with communist symbols on their instruments. What will happen in this crazy fight? There’s even a crazy coroner on the property … You’ll have to watch this terrible, trashy movie to find out. There is no dissociative identity condition in this film or any mental disorder in reality, it is just trash. 


Dogra Magra (1988) 

It is a surrealist artwork by Japanese director Toshio Matsumoto that shows a psychologically troubled boy who is disappointed that the doctors in his asylum try to treat him from an oriental point of view. A man kills his woman on her wedding day and goes mad. He wakes up in an asylum devoid of memories, at the mercy of two mysterious doctors who relate his condition to his biological identity.

In the Mouth Of Madness (1995) 

A patient in an asylum tries to persuade his therapist that a well-known author’s books are driving people crazy. In the midst of an indefinite catastrophe, Dr. Wrenn goes to John Trent, a client in a psychiatric hospital, and Trent tells his story: Trent, a freelance insurance coverage detective, has lunch with an insurer, who asks Trent to deal with of its largest client by investigating a complaint from New York-based Arcane Publishing. During their discussion, Trent is attacked by a man with altered eyes who wields an ax who, after asking him if he knows the famous horror writer Sutter Cane, is shot and killed by the police.

Latest Asylum Movies

Session 9 (2001)

When an asbestos removal team wins a bid to care for a deserted psychiatric hospital, they discover a tape recording of a previous patient with dual personality. After listening to the tape, the squad leader begins to behave strangely. After watching this movie it’s hard to forget those audio recordings, some of the most chilling sounds of horror cinema.

Gothika (2003)

The film tells the story of a lady who transforms from doctor to patient. Halle Berry plays a psychiatrist who is one day in a psychiatric hospital with no recollection of what she did or how she got there. It is not a film for those who like to find logical explanations in the plot. It is precisely the senseless excesses that are its main quality. It’s not a cult movie but it can be interesting to watch. 

Lunacy (2005) 

It is a Czech film set in an asylum inspired by the work of Edgar Allan Poe and the Marquis de Sade that blurs the lines between a mentally ill and the world of a psychiatric hospital. Jean Berlot (Liska) is a deeply distressed boy who was actually haunted by violent hallucinations of being put in a straitjacket by 2 nurses after the death of his mother, who had been admitted to a psychiatric institution. While organizing his mother’s funeral, Jean meets a guy who claims to be the Marquis de Sade (Triska) and lives as if he has stayed in 18th century France instead of 21st century Czech Republic. Jean forms a friendship with the marquis, however he is frightened by the marquis’s debauchery, especially the orgy that Jean spies through an open window.

The Ward (2010)

John Carpenter tells the story of a girl in a psychiatric institution from the 1960s. Horror genius John Carpenter directed this thriller about a troubled but beautiful girl (Amber Heard) locked up in a psychiatric institution who gradually recognizes that she and other patients are being physically brutalized by hidden forces. With terror, he realizes that the hidden force is the ghost of a woman previously hospitalized in the asylum called Alice.

Palata N ° 6 (2009) 

It is a Russian film whose title mentions the department n. 6 run by a psychiatrist in an asylum. A psychiatrist gradually goes crazy after listening to a patient’s ideas. Encouraging and nihilistic at the same time, Ward No. 6 is based on a story by Chekov, in which a psychiatric doctor ends up being a patient in his own asylum. Set in modern Russia, the film is a mix of puzzles, tension and suspense, showing how simple it is to become what we fear.

Shutter Island (2010)

Leonardo DiCaprio stars in this thriller set in a 2000s asylum of Martin Scorsese. It is an intriguing film full of conspiracy and fear that leaves the truth unfinished. In 1954, United States Widower Marshal Edward “Teddy” Daniels and his new partner, Chuck Aule, board a ferry to Shutter Island, where Ashecliffe Hospital for criminally insane is located, to investigate the disappearance of a patient, Rachel Solando, who was jailed for drowning her three children. Despite being kept in a locked cell under constant supervision, she escaped from the hospital and the island.

This is a must-see movie if you’re looking for a clever noir that engages with intriguing philosophical concerns about psychiatry while delivering sensational imagery. Despite all its previous successes from the 1970s onwards, Shutter Island ended up being Martin Scorsese’s highest-grossing film until it was surpassed by The Wolf of Wall Street. The impact of the film on the senses is devastating. 

Reel Evil (2012) 

The film tells the story of 3 directors who try to shoot a documentary in an asylum, and discover that it is haunted by ghosts. Filmmakers who are having a hard time – Kennedy, Cory and James – try to shoot a “behind the scenes” documentary for a large studio production. Their task becomes complicated when they visit an asylum and discover something far worse than anything Hollywood can produce. Caught inside the asylum with no escape route, the team is tortured by evil presences.

Nise: The Heart of Madness (2016)

This film challenges the fears of frontal lobotomy and electroshock therapy. It is a Brazilian docudrama based on the real story of the doctor Nise da Silveira, a doctor who worked in a psychiatric hospital in 1944, however she refused to perform electroshock and lobotomies as she considered them inhumane. Rather, he won the patients’ trust by treating them as people rather than animals and sought to free them from their mental torture through empathy and creative expression.

A Cure for Wellness (2016)

A Cure for Wellness was filmed in a real World War I health facility where Hitler himself could have been hospitalized. A psychological thriller set primarily in a remote “health” spa in the Alps that has all the visual characteristics of a tuberculosis-era asylum. Lockhart, an executive at a New York financial firm, is sent by the board to meet with CEO Roland Pembroke, who has suddenly chosen to stay in a “health club” in the Swiss Alps. At the spa, Lockhart faces resistance from the staff and Dr. Heinreich Volmer in an attempt to speak to Pembroke. Lockhart leaves, however he is involved in a car accident and wakes up in the center, presumably 3 days later, with his leg in plaster. Despite the horrendous mishap, both he and the driver suffered only minor injuries. Lockhart meets a strange girl named Hannah who heals herself with a strange fluid from small cobalt-colored bottles.



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