Horror movies can be about a lot of things—ghosts, haunted houses, serial killers, possession, fantasy, science fiction—the possibilities are endless. An often overlooked theme in psychological horror, slashers, folk horror, and other subgenres are the roles that romantic relationships play in the story. Toxic partners and unhealthy romance are actually featured prominently throughout the horror genre. Obsessive exes, stalker ex-boyfriends, codependent partnerships, and gaslighting partners are part of that, but there’s also the quietly insidious kind of relationships that turn into something immensely sinister.
Being emotionally and spiritually bound to another person can be one of the most beautiful things that the human experience has to offer, but it can also come with danger and terror. It can even be lethal. Curated below are 20 horror movies (with a thriller or two sprinkled in there) that explore the hazards associated with romance, relationships, marriage, and the bad kind of love.
It all started with the 1938 play Gas Light, which had a U.K. adaptation in 1940, followed by an American one in 1944, both under the name Gaslight. It’s from this story that the term “gaslighting” originated—you know, the abusive form of psychological manipulation in which a person provokes self-doubt and confusion in another and distorts their reality. The film takes place in 1875 and follows Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman), a young woman sent to Italy to follow in the footsteps of her opera-singer aunt who has recently been murdered. She has gained access to her aunt’s estate. While in Italy, she quickly falls in love with Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), and after a two-week whirlwind romance the two get married. Soon, Paula starts to suffer from strange events: she forgets things, loses objects, she hears noises coming from the attic, and sees the house’s gas lights flickering. Her husband tells her this phenomena is just in her imagination and even accuses her of being a kleptomaniac. He isolates her from everyone and attempts to institutionalize her. Paula can no longer tell what is real and what isn’t.
Possession’s screenplay was written during a period of time where Polish writer and director Andrzej Żuławski was going through an excruciating divorce from actress Malgorzata Braunek. His pain is reflected in this viscerally horrifying, bizarre, and hypnotic masterpiece that basically functions as a colossal allegory for divorce. The film is, however, about so much more—like codependency, the male ego, loving only the idealized version of our significant others, the monsters love turns us into, the baggage we bring into new relationships, forcing new lovers into the roles of previous ones, how our history and trauma can take hold, how we refuse to let go of what’s not meant for us, and how sometimes our desire for possessing people triumphs over the love we may feel for them. Anna (Isabelle Adjani) grows increasingly histrionic in getting away from husband Mark (Sam Neill). His bottomless obsession with getting to the root of the dissolution of their marriage and the reason behind her erratic behavior drive him to commit criminal acts. The depths of disconnect, resentment, and betrayal in this story cause suffocation and excruciating pain in the likes displayed by its two main characters each time they interact.
The slasher-whodunit Scream (1996) gave us Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), one of the worst boyfriends to ever come out of horror cinema. Billy redefined the saying “revenge is a dish best served cold.” When he discovered that his girlfriend’s mom and his father were having an affair and that this is the reason his mommy abandoned his family, he didn’t talk it through with Sidney, he didn’t break up with her, and he didn’t go to therapy. Instead, he came up with an elaborate and intricate plan to murder Sidney’s mom, frame her lover Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber), and patiently wait a whole year to terrorize the town in a series of killings.
He wanted to murder his girlfriend and frame her dad for it. Billy acted like a loving, caring partner and pretended to be hurt after her initial suspicion of him being Ghostface. With the help of his equally deranged partner Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard) he manipulated Sidney into trusting him again. He gaslit his girlfriend time and time again, right up until that very moment after they had sex for the first time. Billy relished in the fact that Sidney chose him as her first sexual partner knowing his intentions thereafter were of the lethal kind.
In this criminally underrated psychological and body horror, Ashley Judd stars as Agnes, a waitress who survived a murder attempt by her abusive ex-husband. She meets the strangely charismatic and endearingly awkward Peter (Michael Shannon). The pair quickly connect over their mutual loneliness and develop a relationship. After displaying strange and unexplained behavior, Peter tells her that he served in the U.S. Army and that he was subjected to biological testing by the government. He claims their motel room has been infested with bugs planted by the military in order to continue their experiment and that tiny invisible insects are crawling underneath his skin. What’s more, there’s bugs infesting Agnes’ body now too. The movie explores the dangers of retreating into a relationship and isolating yourself from the world—how symbiotic relationships can lead to the eradication of the individual self. The message is clear: we shouldn’t lose ourselves in the one we love—true love is the elevation of two people complete on their own.
Crispian (A.J. Bowen) did not deserve to ever be in proximity to the badass, beautiful, and extremely fearless Erin (Sharni Vinson). He was gross and sketchy from the start, abusing his position of power as a professor and making the decision to date his TA. Erin becomes an unwitting pawn in the scheme of Crispian and his brother to murder their parents and siblings in order to inherit their vast fortune. He knowingly and willingly put her in danger. He had no idea how events would transpire or if she’d turn into a target, as she did. Erin could have died, and he didn’t care. In fact, “the pacifist who can’t deal with the violent stuff” left her there alone to fend for herself as he “went to get help.” Once he’s been caught, he tells her that he always planned on her staying alive, not because of his grand love for her, but to ward off suspicion. “You were supposed to be the witness, the person with the clean record that could attest our family and neighbors had been murdered by unknown lunatics,” he says to her. He wasn’t counting on her survival skills and determination to survive. He thought that offering to pay off her student loans, live lavishly, and go on vacation would save him from getting stabbed in the neck.
After carrying on a relationship with Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) for a handful of months, Rose (Allison Williams) brings him home to meet her parents. Soon he comes face-to-face with a racist suburban nightmare in which his Black body is to be commodified for the immortality of a white man. Rose Armitage, the racist white woman who lured multiple Black lovers to a fate worse than death itself, wins the worst girlfriend award in the genre. At first glance, she’s a liberal white woman who is cognizant of her privilege and uses it to defend her boyfriend when they’re pulled over by a racist cop. What Jordan Peele emphasizes later is that even white leftists and progressives perpetuate bigotry and racism by gaslighting and manipulating Black people, as well as by exploiting and fetishizing Black bodies.
In this Canadian psychological horror, a lesbian couple, Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) and Jules (Brittany Allen), celebrate their first wedding anniversary in Jackie’s secluded family cabin in the woods. Things start getting dicey and unpredictable when Jules discovers that Jackie’s real name is Megan. She begins to question what else she doesn’t know about her wife. It’s even on this trip that Jules witnesses Jackie talk about her father for the first time. By the time she comes to find out the truth about her wife, it may be too late and Jules may have nowhere to run. What Keeps You Alive is a homage to the pre-code horror film The Most Dangerous Game (1932) with a black widow twist. The film is about how we can never truly know every aspect about the person we’ve chosen to share a life with. It highlights the horrors of domestic violence—how the person we love so profoundly can be the hand that puts us in the grave. Through metaphors, What Keeps You Alive exemplifies abuse, psychological trauma, and the thread between love and violence. The film offers the perspective of the victim, and forces the viewer to acknowledge the reality that a victim of abuse can never simply “just leave.”
Andrzej Żuławski’s divorce birthed Possession and Ari Aster’s breakup with a lover gave horror cinema Midsommar. On the surface, Midsommar is about the horrors a group of friends experience at an ancestral commune in the Swedish countryside, but at its core the film is about the toxic relationship between Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor). Aster shared that “the goal was ultimately to make a big, operatic breakup movie that feels the way breakups actually feel: catastrophic, like the world is ending.” Throughout the film, Christian regularly gaslights Dani, minimizes her pain, and completely disregards her. When his friends badmouth Dani, he doesn’t stick up for her. He fails to provide her with the emotional support she needs as she’s grieving her parents and sister, and even forgets her birthday. He stays with her, even though he has wanted out of the relationship for quite some time, for all the wrong reasons. He’s not merciful, he’s just an asshole with a savior complex. And he is mistaken. Dani doesn’t need him. She needs someone who will support her, love her, and uplift her. Many people who have loved have come to the same painful realization Dani did when Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) asks her, “Do you feel held by him? Does he feel like home to you?”
The nightmare in Ready or Not isn’t just a significant other, but also the in-laws. Their tradition of choosing a game at random to play to officially welcome someone new into the family isn’t all just fun and games. At best, they’ll play a board game. At worst, the bride will be ritualistically sacrificed to the devil in a sadistic game of hide-and-seek. Alex (Mark O’Brien) marries Grace, played by iconic scream queen Samara Weaving, knowing full well that when she pulls the card determining the game there’s a possibility that she’ll be sentenced to be hunted down and killed by the rest of them. He kept secrets from her from the very beginning and chose to continue omitting the truth about his family right up until the moment after they said “I do.” Grace always wanted a family and he could have been that for her without the marriage license if only he told her the reasons for his trepidation. They could have lived a true happily ever after, but he had no integrity, courage, or consideration for her life. Once Alex senses that things will never be the same between them—that she could never be with him or forgive him—he joins his family in their sick game. Instead of redeeming himself and helping “the woman he loves” escape, he helps his family catch her, all in the name of selfish self-preservation. His willingness to place her in such a lethal situation and to then stand over her tied body with a knife makes him the worst husband. He was just like the rest of his family, afterall.
The 2020 re-imagining of the nefarious Universal monster, The Invisible Man, gave horror fans an even more wicked and evil villain than the 1933 film. Optics scientist Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) may not be determined to completely dominate the world through a reign of terror, but he is hellbent on exerting his will over others, particularly his ex-girlfriend Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss). The film opens with her executing her elaborate plan of escape by drugging him to get away in the middle of the night. Any survivor of abuse or domestic violence found the scene all too relatable and horrifying—the way she’s careful in making no noise, the terror in her face when the car alarm goes off, her fear when a furious Adrian pursues her. When she receives news of his suicide, there’s still no reprieve for a traumatized Cecilia. A series of eerie coincidences leave her convinced Adrian is still alive—and she’s right. He’s faked his death and is terrorizing her through the use of an invisibility suit that he’s invented. The amount of psychological torment, gaslighting, and terror he puts this woman through is incredibly difficult to watch. The Invisible Man is a visceral tale of abuse that depicts how abusive men will stop at nothing to keep hold of the women they wrongfully view as one of their possessions.
More relationship horrors…
The Shining (1981) is more than just an isolation horror story about a haunted hotel full of ghosts—it’s also a terrifying tale about domestic violence.
The Fly (1986) the relationship between a scientist and a journalist has catastrophic consequences when he tests his teleportation device on himself. He begins to transform into fly and becomes increasingly aggressive, unhinged, and barbaric. It functions as a metaphor for entering a relationship only to discover that the person you thought you knew is someone else.
Fear (1996) a cult classic psychological thriller starring Reese Witherspoon and Mark Wahlberg about a teenage girl who falls for a handsome and charming young man who turns out to have a sadistic, dark side.
What Lies Beneath (2000) Claire Spencer (Michelle Pfeiffer) begins to believe her Vermont lakeside home is haunted by a ghost. Her husband insists it’s all in her head.
Antichrist (2009) is written and directed by Lars von Trier. It centers around a toxic marriage, an unnamed married couple who travel to a remote cabin to cope with the wife’s grief from the death of their son. The husband acts as her therapist and sole emotional support.
Swallow (2019) a suffocated and oppressed wife begins swallowing increasingly dangerous objects in order to gain some sense of control in her life and marriage.
Till Death (2021) an unhappily married woman who has been unfaithful finds herself handcuffed to the corpse of her husband as part of his revenge plot. She must fight like hell to survive the killers he hired to end her life.
Dark Nature (2022) a woman freshly free from an abusive relationship finds herself face to face with a monstrous entity at an isolated retreat in the mountains with her therapy group.
Significant Other (2022) stars Maika Monroe and Jake Lacy as a young couple on a backpacking trip through the scenic PNW where things begin to go downhill after a marriage proposal. They may not be alone out there. The movie challenges traditional marriage relationship views. It examines the blurred lines between love and assimilation—between romance and control.
Fair Play (2023) a Netflix psychological thriller about a pair of secret workplace lovers whose engagement is threatened when one of them receives a promotion at their hedge fund. It examines toxic masculinity and its oppression of women, emotional and physical abuse, and how ambition and jealousy can tear a couple apart.