The Psychology Behind “It Comes at Night”


What’s better than a horror movie? A horror movie that’s a psychological nightmare. The trailer to It Comes at Night introduces us to a family holed up in a cabin in the woods in what appears to a post-apocalyptic scenario. Another family appears, someone gets tied to a tree, people put on gas masks, fires are set, and creepy dimly lit scenes follow. I am psyched!

But what makes this movie particularly interesting is the clever use of psychology. Truly phobic imagery is subtle yet abundant. In a 2 minute trailer, I counted 13 phobic references including the following:


Xylophobia -Fear of being in the woods;

Nyctohylophobia- fear of being in the woods at night;

Nyctophobia – fear of dark;

Nosemophobia- fear of being sick;

Germophobia- fear of contamination or germs;

Cynophobia- Fear of dogs;

Necrophobia- fear of dead or dying things;

Seamusphobia- fear of being set on fire;

Thanatophobia- fear of death;

Claustrophobia- fear of enclosed places;

Haphephobia- fear of being touched;

Maskaphobia- fear of masks;

Merinthophobia- fear of being tied or bound.

This movie has something for every phobic person out there!

When does the need for survival lead death?

But, let’s just focus on the fear of the dark for a moment. Nyctophobia is actually quite common in both children and adults. It’s a natural and evolutionary-based fear. However, people can also develop fear of the dark due to experiencing what are called hypnagogic (occur when falling asleep) and hypnopompic (occur when waking up) hallucinations. Ever hear of hat man? Google it.

Hat Man is one of the most common hypnagogic hallucinations. Other common examples are seeing figures, shadows, demos, hearing voices, feeling movement on the bed, etc. Sleep paralysis (the inability to move or speak) can also occur during hypnagogic or hypnopompic states. These experiences can lead to an intense fear of the dark as well as the development of a sleeping phobia (somniphobia).

Along with an unsettling sense of claustrophobia, an underlying theme of paranoia also emerges.

The trailer to It Comes at Night mentions, “fear turns men into monsters.” As a psychologist, I am beyond intrigued. I find myself wondering who is the real monster in this movie. When does natural survival instinct become paranoia, and when does the need for survival lead death?



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