A mind is a terrible thing to lose to someone else — the idea of relinquishing control of something so internal and integral to your experience of self is scary. Mind control narratives have always had a sure foothold in horror, especially in times of uncertainty (and anytime we find fears of Communism are resurgent). These days mind control and brainwashing narratives feel even more relevant as most of us are stuck negotiating online spheres. We know that the information that we consume, and the conversation circles that we build are low-key curated for us by unseen algorithms. What tools we have at our disposal to wrestle back our online agency — like ad-blockers (and good fact-checking habits) can sometimes feel about as helpful as tinfoil hats.
In horror, mind manipulation can take myriad forms from technological brainwashing to psychic control. I’ve narrowed the scope down a little to specifically exclude ghost and demonic possession narratives to focus on non-haunting takeovers. I’m also steering clear of gaslighting for this list, since that specific form of manipulation easily deserves a list of its own.
10. Kate Davis — Thirst (1979)
This wouldn’t be a proper mind control list without at least one vampire movie. The Thirst, one of the many Elizabeth Báthory-inspired vampire movies to come out of the 1970s, doesn’t focus on the classic vampiric thrall, however; it’s a shady organization known as “The Brotherhood” that has committed itself to brainwashing tactics. Kate (Chantal Contouri) is at the centre of it all, as a woman whom The Brotherhood belief is a direct descendant of the vampiric countess, alongside a number of brainwashed strangers who’ve been abducted to serve as blood-providing sacrifices.
9. Adam — Hungerford (2014)
Seemingly random acts of violence begin popping up in a small English town. Weird parasitic bugs are at the root of the bloodshed— they bury into the heads of human hosts and control of their behaviours. I chose this less-discussed budget found footage horror over more popular parasitic invasion movies like The Faculty (1998), Slither (2006) or Shivers (1975) because, rather than being a strict assimilation plot where being a host seems to feel pretty good, Hungerford takes a step back to explain how an unpleasant infestation experience feels on the inside. “It told me to kill you and I couldn’t do anything. Nothing.” Adam (Tom Scarlett), one of the main group who manages to survive being de-bugged, explains. While the infected appear-zombie like, the experience is actually something more like being puppeted by something inhabiting your skull alongside your own consciousness — and that’s spooky.
8. Max Renn —Videodrome (1983)
Max Renn (James Woods) is the executive of a small television broadcasting station who is on the lookout for new and sensational programming to pirate. He gets way more than he bargains for when he stumbles across Videodrome, a strange illegal satellite program that features people apparently being tortured and murdered for entertainment. If that isn’t grotesque enough, it soon becomes clear that not only are the scenes of torture and death real, but Videodrome is only the most visible layer of a conspiracy to control the minds of American’s through television broadcasting signals (and hallucinogenic brain tumours).
7. Alex DeLarge — A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is a Beethoven-bingeing delinquent whose nights of ultra-violence come to an abrupt end when he is caught and imprisoned (rightfully) for murder. He becomes the subject of an experimental reform project called the Ludovico technique, which involves stripping the subject’s free will through aversion therapy. While aversion therapy is real, the Ludovico technique is extreme, and Alex‘s eyes are mechanically forced open as he is injected with a nausea-inducing drug and made to watch scenes depicting sex and violence. As a form of control, the rehabilitation is successful, but not without its unintended consequences.
6. Wayne Peters — The Love Witch (2017)
In the words of The Supremes, “you can’t hurry love”, and you especially can’t do it with witchcraft. Elaine (Samantha Robinson) uses her powers to seek out college professor Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise) and insert herself into his life. After she feeds him a hallucinogenic love potion and he becomes too enamoured with her. Even after things come to the worst possible end with Wayne, Elaine shows no sign that she’s learned anything whatsoever, and moves on to similarly “seducing” her neighbour’s husband with a similar concoction — and it goes almost as badly.
Important honourable mentions go to Practical Magic (1998) and The Craft (1996) who both see well-meaning witches trying to protect their hearts by conjuring love through magic — with similarly disastrous results.
5. The Blue Ribbons — Disturbing Behavior (1998)
Unlike its predecessor The Stepford Wives (1975), where wives are replaced with inorganic versions of themselves, the teens in Cradle Bay are “improved” with a brain implant sanctioned by their concerned parents. The idea is to give initiates into the “Blue Ribbon” club every advantage: they are model students and allegedly morally-upstanding students. As an outcast group of high schoolers watch their delinquent numbers dwindle and adhere to the “Blue Ribbon” standard, they realize that they have to put a stop to the insidious plot to force Cradle Bay’s teen population to become weirdly robotic — and potentially dangerous — conformists.
4. Kris — Upstream Color (2013)
This strange, intentionally opaque sci-fi, Kris (Amy Seimetz) is attacked at a club one night and force-fed a strange larva that makes her extremely suggestible. Her unnamed attacker spends days taking advantage of her state, controlling her into believing that she can subsist on only water and guiding her through signing over all of her savings. Upstream Color gets bonus points for an additional layer of mind manipulation: a farmer uses infrasound to draw larval hosts to him, so he can recover the larvae and transplant them into pigs. When Kris meets Jeff (Shane Carruth) who is likewise lost after being forced to become part of the larval’s life cycle they find themselves mutually looking for their places in their post-parasite existences.
3. Everyone — They Live (1988)
Through a strange broadcasting signal and subliminal messages, aliens have come to Earth and put all of humanity under their control with hardly anyone noticing. Their goal? To alter the planet’s climate (whatever the alien version of terra-forming might be called) to prepare for a total alien takeover. Armed with message-revealing sunglasses and quotable one-liners, it’s up to new-in-town Nada (Roddy Piper) to find the source of the alien signal and destroy it.
2. Anja — Thelma (2017)
Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a lonely college student who just wants to connect to someone. When she meets Anja (Kaya Wilkins) she finds herself repressing deeply queer feelings and jointly manifesting psychogenic seizures and a god-like power to warp reality to her secret desires. After a normal night out, Anja mysteriously wakes up and walks across campus to stand outside Thelma‘s apartment right when Thelma happens to be fantasizing about her, despite not knowing where Thelma lives. From that moment, what might have been a supernatural meet-cute quickly unspools.
At first glance, Anja and Thelma seem to have a happy ending, but it’s hard to tell just how much agency Anja — or anyone, really — has when Thelma is in control.
1. Cesare — The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
In the “flashback” arc of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari we meet Cesare the Somnambulist (Conrad Veidt), said to have been sleeping for twenty-three years continuously, who is awakened by Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) as part of a sideshow act. When a pattern of murders emerges alongside Dr. Caligari‘s show, it becomes apparent that there is more to the act than meets the eye, and that the control that the doctor exercises over the ghoulish Cesare might be something more than the simple act of waking up a sleepwalker. I won’t go into any more detail, because if you’ve never caught this silent-era classic, the less you know going in, the better.
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