Movies that'll leave you feeling paranoid for days

In darker moments it can be tempting to believe that the people around you mean you harm. Sometimes society, or perhaps reality itself, isn't what it seems. If you've not even considered this, you should. Paranoid yet? Good. Many films build on these fears to create a compelling narrative. They might be action, suspense, sci-fi, or horror films, but what unites them is that pervasive paranoid sense that the world is unsafe and people are lying to you. Check out these films that will have your paranoia running away with you if you're not careful.

The Conversation

Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a surveillance expert and better than anyone else at listening to the private conversations of people who'd rather not be heard. But even though he insists that all he does is listen and pass on what he hears, his work has previously led to the deaths of those he's listened to. After he's hired to record a conversation between a couple (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams) in a crowded park, he begins to suspect that his work has once again become deadly serious. Caul is a man who's so protective of his own privacy that he barely lets himself have a life, and, as the movie's events escalate, it still seems likely that he's being spied on and manipulated. Director Francis Ford Coppola excels at creating a slow and steady buildup of tension, which makes The Conversation a movie that will stick with you long after you see it.

The Game

The Game was director David Fincher's follow-up to Seven, and while it wasn't as big of a hit, it remains an interesting and complex film. It follows Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas), a wealthy man who's having a bit of a crisis as he reaches the same age at which his father committed suicide. His brother (Sean Penn) signs him up for a supposedly life-changing "game" offered by a mysterious company. Nicholas is told he's been rejected by the game, but by that point he's already playing it whether he realizes it or not. His life quickly spins out of control as the game takes everything from him. He begins to suspect that everyone he meets is a part of the game, and he has nobody to trust. As the plot escalates, everything drives him toward a moment that will reveal just how much he has in common with his father after all.

It Follows

Something is coming for you. It knows what you did, and it's always walking toward you at a steady pace. But the really scary thing is that it can look like anyone. It could be someone you know, a random face in the crowd, or something terrifying. Once it reaches you, it's already too late…you're dead. That's the premise of It Follows, a horror film by David Robert Mitchell, starring Maika Monroe as the girl who's being followed. The film depicts a curse which makes its bearer increasingly paranoid. Staying away from crowds, avoiding rooms with only one door, always being on the move. Even knowing rationally that this creature does not exist, it's hard to look at the people around you in public after seeing it and not wondering if they're at all what they seem.

They Live

In John Carpenter's classic sci-fi action film They Live, a drifter named Nada (Roddy Piper) finds a very special pair of sunglasses. When he puts them on, the world is rendered in black and white, and the propagandistic messages behind media are revealed. Colorful magazines and billboards become stark white with black block letters reading "OBEY," "STAY ASLEEP," "DO NO QUESTION AUTHORITY," and so forth. At the same time, the sunglasses reveal that the wealthy of the world, the politicians, the cops, and everyone who's in control of the system, are all hideous aliens who've already taken over the world. Made in the 1980s, but still relevant today, it's a dark explanation for the state of the world that's as appealing as it is terrifying. When powerful people treat you as if you're not even a real person, could it be because they're the ones who aren't really human at all?

The Matrix

The Matrix, a breakthrough action film from the Wachowski siblings, starts out in a world that looks very much like the real world did at the time of its release in 1999. But Neo (Keanu Reeves) soon learns that the whole thing is a simulation. The world has long since been conquered by machines, and they're keeping humans trapped in this digitized mental projection so they can use their bodies like batteries. The movie explains things like déjà vu and the tendency of many other meats to "taste like chicken" as shortcomings of the Matrix that don't reflect the real world. But those are phenomena that we experience in real life. So are we all in the Matrix? A surprising number of intelligent people seem to think we might be. After all, it would be nearly impossible to tell from the inside. That's what makes The Matrix so compelling.

Dark City

Before The Matrix, there was Dark City, a cult film written and directed by Alex Proyas. It starts out like neo-noir with a sci-fi twist, in which a man with no memory named Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) is pursued by vampire-like ghouls, called Strangers, through a city where it's always night. He soon learns that the Strangers are aliens who are experimenting on the city's humans, constantly manipulating their memories and personalities in an attempt to understand individuality. But the really mind-blowing part comes when Murdoch and his allies reach the edge of the city and find that there's nothing beyond. They thought they were on Earth, but there's only the city, floating inside a forcefield in outer space. If you've ever questioned the reality of your world or your memories, Dark City will really mess with your head.

The Wicker Man

Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) is a good cop and a good man. True, he might be a little bit intolerant of things that conflict with his Christian beliefs, but in 1973 Scotland that's hardly considered a flaw. So when Howie gets a letter from a secluded island village saying that a young girl has gone missing, he soon makes his way there to investigate. Once there, everyone claims she never existed, and he's watched by strange eyes wherever he goes. When he realizes that the people of Summerisle practice an ancient pagan religion, he suspects that the girl is a sacrifice to those gods. However, even when Howie thinks he's getting to the bottom of things, he never really has a clue. The girl is perfectly safe—she was merely bait to lure him there. Sergeant Howie is the intended sacrifice, and every moment since he received the letter has been planned out by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) to manipulate him into position to be burned inside a giant wicker effigy. He thought he was smarter than the pagans, but he was their puppet all along. And that's what he's left thinking about as he burns to death while they sing. There have been attempts to remake The Wicker Man, but nothing compares to the paranoia of Robin Hardy's original film.

Vanilla Sky

Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky is similar to The Matrix in that it's a film where life turns out to be a simulation. This simulation, however, isn't a digital trap for all of humanity, it's a custom dream designed for just one man, David Aames (Tom Cruise). 

Aames was a wealthy playboy who had an amazing life until a car accident left him disfigured and distraught. He hired the cryogenic preservation company that created the dream he's living in, although he doesn't remember any of that. The dream is supposed to be a fantasy where the problems that led him to take his own life are fixed, and he gets to live happily while he waits in hibernation for a future when he can be revived and his disfigured face repaired. Unfortunately, the dream has been corrupted by his own subconscious, turning it into a nightmare from which he cannot escape. As the company that built his dream attempts to save him, his brain resists and keeps him trapped. Ultimately, the most unsettling aspect of Vanilla Sky is that it will make you paranoid not so much about the intentions of others … but the workings of your own mind.

The Parallax View

The Parallax View, directed by Alan J. Pakula, is perhaps the most paranoid of the post-Watergate American conspiracy thrillers. It stars Warren Beatty as Joseph Frady, a reporter who begins investigating a series of deaths and discovers that the shadowy Parallax Corporation is in the business of political assassination (and who knows what else). Frady never really stands a chance, because ultimately this film tells a story about how the lives of regular citizens are meaningless to the powerful institutions that shape politics and history. Anyone you encounter might be a pawn of these powers, but even scarier is the realization that you might be their pawn too.

Eyes Wide Shut

Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut also revolves around a secret and dangerous organization. But this time around it's not a corporation dedicated to political manipulation. It's a secret society that mostly seems to revolve around hedonism, and that might be even creepier. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) attempts to infiltrate a ritualistic masked orgy but is immediately recognized as an outsider. As he investigates what he saw, he begins to suspect that the secret society is following him as well. The friend who told him about the gathering vanishes, and Harford comes to believe he's putting his family in danger. Ultimately, there's no big revelation or solution. Bill just has to accept that some things are too big, too hidden, to challenge, and he has no choice but to return to his family and his normal life– and do his best to forget the existence of the dark forces that may be secretly manipulating everything from behind the scenes.

Contagion

Human conspiracies can get pretty scary, but a contagious disease can be far more terrifying. A virus doesn't make plans. It doesn't care who you are or whether or not you stand in its way. All it does is reproduce and infect as many living bodies as it can. That's what makes Contagion, a 2011 film from Steven Soderbergh, so creepy. As a new hybrid virus spreads across the Earth and kills millions, people react in all sorts of ways. But actually avoiding the deadly disease seems nearly impossible. Even when a doctor discovers a vaccine, there's no time to give it to everyone who needs it. Many of the films on this list are about the idea that any person you meet on the street might secretly mean you harm. The thing about an epidemic, like the one in Contagion, is that the person on the street might be friendly and sincere and not mean you any harm at all. However, if they're a carrier, and they touch you or just breathe on you, they might kill you just the same.