Bringing Back the Psi-Horror

Mario Bava’s final film, 1977’s Shock, offers up exactly the dreamlike take on the psi-horror cycle of the period you’d hope for from him. Ultimately it goes in a more supernatural direction than more pseudoscience-oriented titles like Carrie, The Fury, Firestarter, or Scanners. That’s just one of the ways in which it prefigures Kubrick’s The Shining. Seven years after her first husband’s death, a woman moves her son and current husband into the old house. It doesn’t take long for the kid to turn into both a psychokinetic and psychosexual menace.

Psi-horror picked up in the 70s as the demon horror cycle initiated off by The Exorcist trailed off. The Omen can be seen as a transitional title, with a definitively demonic kid killing from a distance in a decidedly psionic way.

Our current demonic horror cycle, which has merged with the haunted house movie and is typified by the Paranormal Activity series, has now gone on longer than the original 70s wave. I keep wondering if a psi revival will follow it. Certainly attempts have been made, like Beyond the Black Rainbow, but so far they’ve been more about evoking retro influences than tapping into the current zeitgeist.

The most popular property to draw on this imagery lately has been “Orphan Black”, though it’s more on the thriller side of the fence than an example of pure horror.

For a psi-horror one-shot or limited series, I’d use Fear Itself, dropping the supernatural trappings of the Outer Dark for weird pseudoscience. The straight up version would have the group of ordinary people at first menaced by the TK or firestarting powers of a pint-sized GMC relative or charge. Then they have to get the kid to safety as the evil corporation or government research agency responsible for the forgotten experiment. You could steal some Night’s Black Agents mechanics for the ensuing chase scenes, especially if you then bring in elements of the spy genre, the way “Orphan Black” does.

Or you could start out that way, going for Bourne-meets-Scanners, with adult experimental subjects waking up to their new powers (borrowed from Mutant City Blues), then having to figure out who did this to them before they get captured and packed off to the vivisection lab.


Fear Itself is a game of contemporary horror that plunges ordinary people into a disturbing world of madness and violence. Use it to run one-shot sessions in which few (if any) of the protagonists survive, or an ongoing campaign in which the player characters gradually discover more about the terrifying supernatural reality which hides in the shadows of the ordinary world. Will they learn how to combat the creatures of the Outer Black? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Night’s Black Agents by Kenneth Hite puts you in the role of a skilled intelligence operative fighting a shadow war against vampires in post-Cold War Europe. Play a dangerous human weapon, a sly charmer, an unstoppable transporter, a precise demolitions expert, or whatever fictional spy you’ve always dreamed of being — and start putting those bloodsuckers in the ground where they belong. Purchase Night’s Black Agents in the Pelgrane Shop.

Mutant City Blues is an investigative science fiction roleplaying game by Robin D. Laws where members of the elite Heightened Crime Investigation Unit solve crimes involving the city’s mutant community. Purchase Mutant City Blues in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

7 Responses to “Bringing Back the Psi-Horror”

  1. Nook Harper says:

    I think there’s been a partial Psionic undercurrent in recent films.
    I’m thinking of the subplot in Looper, specifically. I was surprised by how prominent the psi element was.

  2. FMD Robert says:

    Its an interesting thought I’m not sure if it will take. In the post Snowden world the government knows everything about us. But for all the information they take in, stuff sometimes falls through the cracks for very mundane reasons (like the cunning use of large hats, and written messages that never see the internet). If psychics are the manifestation of knowing “everything” then the horror would be what falls through the cracks. I don’t know what would fit in there.

    Then again I’m not a brilliant filmmaker, but horror movies seem to be in a rut right now. Torture porn and zombies are kinda out (thank the maker), but nothing has slid in to become the new fad.

  3. […] this talk about psionics and occult transhumanist conspiracies made me think of a couple of related ideas I’ve had […]

  4. MisterE says:

    To be honest, I’ve never really been a fan of the Psi-horror genre. I never found films like Scanners or even Carrie (despite being based upon one of King’s) all that frightening or compelling. I’d much rather have the haunting/occult horror genre on my screen – even if a good portion of the films produced in said genre are hideously bad (but there are always a couple of stand out gems).

  5. Antonio Eleuteri says:

    The recent “Midnight Special” seems to fit the bill quite well.

  6. RCAUTELA says:

    This kind of horror harkens me back to early Cronenberg (classics).

  7. Kynligbein says:

    This reminds me of the movie Banshee Chapter. And now I have an idea for changing “The Circle” up if I get to run it again at GenCon or elsewhere. (I never got to add the Psi elements during events.)

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