Why are we so afraid of a place meant to symbolize wellness? Is it the fact that wounded bodies lie beyond every corner, bags of blood dangling around them? Or maybe it’s because dead bodies rest in the basement, their spirits left to wander sterile halls in search of a new host. The horror is the system and structure of medical care, rather than its patients.
Hospitals have a haunted history. 1967 saw the release of Titicut Follies, a documentary investigating Bridgewater State Hospital. Filmmakers captured the abuse that is common in mental health spaces. This frightened state officials enough for a Superior Court judge to order a ban on the film. Titicut Follies became the first film banned for reasons other than obscenity, immorality, or national security. Decades later, it finally found its way back to the public. Changes to institutions immediately followed, proving the impact a film can make.
While watching these films, you may come upon a terrifying realization: your freedom and safety depend on the flimsy definition of sanity. The characters in this article exist at different positions on the sanity and physical health spectrums. All wrapped in the horrors of healthcare facilities. Horrors that reach past the screen and into our world.
The Best Hospital Horror Movies
Picking up the story immediately after the end of Halloween (1978), Michael Myers follows Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) to the hospital where she is taken after surviving Michael’s earlier attacks. Michael murders many people inside and outside the hospital while searching for Laurie, significantly increasing the blood and violence when compared to John Carpenter’s original Halloween. Though this sequel is generally well-liked by fans of the franchise, director Rick Rosenthal returned to the series just over two decades later to direct one of the most maligned Halloween films, Halloween: Resurrection (2002).
Twin gynecologists Elliot and Beverly seduce and secretly share their patients. The corrupt practice turns catastrophic when one of the twins develops an opioid addiction that leads to delusional and dangerous behavior. Dead Ringers highlights abusive gynecology. Sexual predators hide in plain sight, sometimes hiding in white lab coats. Women’s pain is not only highlighted, but it is seen as humorous in this body horror movie. “There’s also an examination scene when a patent complains of something hurting, and Bev says, with more than an ounce of sarcasm, ‘This… hurts?’,” director David Cronenberg says, “that’s excruciatingly funny but, as many people pointed out, in the context of the scene, it ain’t so funny. [Stage Whisper] Well, it’s still funny, but not as funny. For women, especially.”
More than a decade after the the demonic possession of Regan MacNeil, one of the police detectives involved in her case, William Kinderman (played in Exorcist III by George C. Scott), becomes involved in a disturbing murder investigation. The case leads Kinderman to a mental hospital where he discovers an amnesiac patient who appears to be Damien Karras (Jason Miller), the priest who was thought to have died during Regan’s exorcism. To complicate matters, Karras may be possessed by the spirit of the serial killer that Kinderman is searching for. The Exorcist III is a wonderful sequel with chilling moments and one of the most absolutely terrifying jump scares in any horror movie ever.
Psychiatrist-turned-patient Miranda (Halle Berry) wakes up in the penitentiary she works at. She has no memory of the violent crime they accuse her of committing. Miranda is often visited by a haunting yet helpful ghost. This paranormal thriller set inside a psychiatric prison touches on truly horrific themes. Gut-wrenching moments of brutality illuminate this blood-soaked revenge narrative. “I had lots of nightmares while making this movie,” Berry says on acting her role, “and I think that’s my body’s way of processing all of this scary, freaky information that I pumped into it all day.”
In John Carpenter’s only film during the 2010s as a director, an asylum patient (Amber Heard) is terrorized by ghosts. Women in this ward are killed off by ghosts during invasive psychiatric procedures. Either by haunt or by humans, hospitals have a very real history of silencing women through psychiatric force. The Ward was shot on location at a functioning psychiatric hospital in Washington. According to John Carpenter, “a lot of the actors will tell you that they were spooked by being there… It has claustrophobic, dark, shadowy hallways.” He continues, “they built a fence around us! The crew was fenced in to protect the inmates from us!”
In The Void, a group of silent, robed cultists trap people inside an isolated hospital as an otherworldly force emerges from within the building. The movie feels like a mashup of John Carpenter movies (especially, but not limited to, Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing, and Prince of Darkness) with an added layer of Lovercraftian mythos. The skin-peeling, tentacled horrors of The Void were done mostly with practical effects which gives the movie an authentic feeling. Such extensive creature and makeup effects are impressive for a low-budget, independent film like this, and, wisely, the filmmakers turned to crowdfunding to help pay for the time and resources needed to complete their vision.
Escaping your stalker is hard. It’s nearly impossible when you are committed to a mental institution where they work. That’s the position Sawyer finds herself in. Being a patient in a mental hospital brings her perception into question. Is she a reliable narrator, or is she simply unsane? Shot entirely on an iPhone 7 Plus, director Steven Soderbergh had a lot of freedom in shooting. “He was just experimenting all the time. We shot it entirely chronologically,” Claire Foy says of the film’s unusual shooting style.
After his 6-year-old daughter’s arm is fractured, Ray and his wife rush to the hospital. There, doctors lead his wife and daughter to the basement for evaluation. When Ray awakes from his waiting room nap, hospital staff claims to have no record of his family. This twisted tale hints at the existence of a black market where human organs are sold. The director of this thriller comes from a past of making romcoms. This dual reality helped him relate to his main character. In discussing this odd duality, Brad Anderson says, “maybe . . . I am a bit bipolar myself.” He continues, “we all have multiple personalities, in a way. It’s about which one you are acting out in this point in time.”
Can fear be weaponized? Dr. Wright wants to find out, so he forces people into simulations of their phobia. Using their fear, the doctor plans to create a catastrophic weapon. This anthology horror film plays out in five parts with each segment representing a different phobia. Every segment has its own director. “Movies and their stories don’t connect unless you care about the characters,” says Maritte Go, director of the Vehophobia segment. “I set out to create characters who have many secrets and layers, just like us.”
More Hospital Horror Movies
- Patrick (1978) – While comatose, Patrick uses his telekinetic powers to kill anyone who comes between him and his nurse.
- X-Ray (aka Hospital Massacre, 1981) – A crazed man disguised as a doctor goes on a murder spree in a hospital in this straightforward, bloody slasher movie.
- Visiting Hours (1982) – A journalist (Lee Grant) is attacked by a serial killer (Michael Ironside), but she survives and is taken to a hospital. That doesn’t stop the killer though…
- A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) – Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) interns at Westin Psychiatric Hospital where a group of the “last” Elm Street kids are dream-stalked by Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund).
- Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988) – After the events of the first Hellraiser, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) is admitted to a mental hospital where a deranged doctor becomes obsessed with the franchise’s iconic puzzle box.
- The Eye (2002) – A woman gets a cornea transplant to restore her sight. This works a little too well, however, when she begins to see ghosts.
- Infection (aka Kansen, 2004) – A horrific infection spreads through a hospital in this gruesome Japanese body horror movie.
- The Jacket (2005) – In a hospital for the criminally insane, a war vet (Adrian Brody) is experimented on by a doctor.
- Fragile (2005) – A ghost lurks within the halls of a children’s hospital. A nurse (Calista Flockhart) tries to protect the children from this malevolent force.
- Shutter Island (2010) – A U.S. Marshall (Leonardo DiCaprio) investigates a hospital for the criminally insane. While exploring, he fights haunting visions of his past as a World War 2 soldier.
- Grave Encounters (2011) – A reality TV crew locks themselves in a psychiatric hospital. Here, they film their final episode.
- The Facility (2012) – A group of people are locked inside a hospital when a medical trial begins turning its participants murderously violent.
- Cult of Chucky (2017) – This seventh installment of the Chucky franchise follows Nica Pierce (Fiona Dourif) during her stay in a mental hospital after being blamed for murders committed by Chucky (Brad Dourif).
- The Dead Center (2018) – A doctor uncovers the dark secrets of his “John Doe” patient in a psych ward.