Narcissism goes beyond just self-absorption and vanity: it can escalate into cruelty, vindictive obsession, long-lasting deception, and covert sabotage. As we know from research, narcissism can include a serious lack of empathy, an excessive sense of entitlement, malicious envy, and aggressive behavior. Psychopathy takes it one step further with a lack of remorse, sadistic violence, and criminal behaviors. Narcissists and psychopaths often use manipulation tactics such as gaslighting to distort the reality and perception of their victims. In this article, we’ll look at some of the best movies, television shows, and books that depict narcissism and gaslighting in powerful ways that victims of abuse resonate with.
Starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, this supernatural thriller takes us on an eerie emotional rollercoaster down to the depths of truth. Claire and her husband Norman discover what appears to be a spirit haunting their house – a haunting that has the power to expose much deeper and darker secrets about Claire’s husband. What Lies Beneath is beautifully crafted to creatively portray the subtle ways gaslighting can be used to pathologize victims of deception and keep the wool over their eyes. In the film, one victim helps the other come to the truth about what lies beneath the surface through a series of unsettling paranormal events. This is a powerfully moving gesture – even if that help does come from beyond the grave.
One of my favorite movies of all time, Enough is ultimately about strategic survival and learning how to fight back. The main character of the movie is Slim (played by Jennifer Lopez), an abused wife who learns to defeat her narcissistic abuser through self-defense training in Krav Maga. The love bombing and gaslighting tactics her husband uses to “hook” Slim in the beginning, portraying himself as a caring knight in shining armor only to begin abusing her once she’s “trapped” and has a child with him are classic abuse tactics of the malignant narcissist. The depiction of her narcissistic husband as a predator who feels entitled to abuse, betray, and mistreat Slim and “always gets whatever he wants,” even going so far as to stalk and harass her endlessly when she escapes will resonate with many survivors of narcissists and psychopaths.
Gone Girl depicts the brutal tactics of a psychopathic and narcissistic woman who weaponizes the stereotype of the “damsel in distress” to gaslight and punish her husband and the world around her. Amy Dunne weaponizes pity ploys and fakes her own murder (eventually kidnapping) to evoke sympathy in the masses while placing the spotlight of the blame on her husband. This is a carefully constructed plot that she orchestrates after she discovers her husband’s affair with a student. We learn in the movie just how far a psychopathic person will go to get revenge and regain power and control, and moreover, we also see how chameleon-like they are, shifting into different roles and identities to meet their agendas. Although many have rightfully identified Amy as a psychopathic female narcissist, there are many ways to interpret this hit movie. It is clear her misogynistic husband exhibits some garden-variety narcissistic traits and qualities – although he is way out of his league when it comes to his calculated wife. This is the quintessential movie you want to watch if you ever wanted an answer to the question, “What happens when a psychopath encounters a narcissist in the never-ending mind games of a toxic marriage?”
Rachel Watson is a recently divorced woman who spends her days drinking and riding the train. She begins observing the life of a seemingly happy couple, living next door to her ex-husband and his new wife. One day, she witnesses something startling in this seemingly idyllic relationship that causes her to later become a part of a homicide investigation that unravels her life and the truth about what really happened in her marriage. Spoiler alert: what she discovers is that her husband has continually attempted to undermine her sense of reality and has caused her to doubt her memories of key events. The Girl on The Train is a terrific psychological thriller that covers many of the key elements of gaslighting – including the role that substance abuse coercion can play in the realm of domestic violence.
Another phenomenal survival thriller, The Girl Who Escaped is based on the real-life kidnapping of Kara Robinson. The kidnapper exhibits many of the characteristics of malignant narcissism and psychopathy – including a grandiose sense of self, paranoia, sadistic violence, and a disturbing sense of entitlement. Fortunately, this film also captures the bravery and resilience of the survivor, Kara, which makes it an inspirational albeit disturbing tale of how a survivor strategically escapes a man without conscience – and lives to tell the tale.
Sleeping with The Enemy is a classic depiction of narcissistic and psychopathic abuse starring Julia Roberts. The main character, Laura, fakes her own death to escape a possessive and controlling man named Martin. Martin polices Laura’s actions to isolate her from the world and abuses her when he perceives that she has captured the attention of other men, like their neighbor. Like any other narcissist, he often feigns remorse and buys her flowers after incidents of abuse to keep her in the relationship. When Laura has finally escaped and finds herself in a loving relationship with a new man, Martin continues to stalk them both. Sleeping with the Enemy is an accurate portrayal of the horrors involved when a malignant narcissist just won’t let go.
Dakota is a survivor of kidnapping who experiences trauma symptoms a year post-escape. In Her Worst Nightmare, you follow Dakota’s journey as she is stalked by an unknown predator while in college, studying psychology and enrolled in a course called “Advanced Psychology of Trauma.” Unbeknownst to Dakota, her stalker is closer to her than she thinks and has been gaslighting her the entire time. Her Worst Nightmare provides an enlightening illustration of how trauma can live on long past the traumatic event in symptoms such as hypervigilance, avoidance, and susceptibility to re-traumatization. It also highlights narcissism in the various predatory characters that Dakota comes into contact with – from her kidnapper to her boundary-trespassing professor Dr. Campbell – to the young man eventually revealed to be her stalker.
A haunting film that perverts what should be the joys of motherhood, The Ones Below documents the harrowing tale of a young couple expecting a child. Their downstairs neighbors, a mysterious couple also expecting a child, face a horrific tragedy that unravels a series of terrifying schemes. Throughout the movie, the viewer is led to question the main protagonist’s perception of events as she is continually gaslit by the people around her. You also get a frightening and rare glimpse of what a partnership of two narcissistic individuals working together looks like. The Ones Below will keep you on the edge of your seat questioning what is real and what isn’t.
Not for the faint of heart, Hard Candy is what some wished the movie Promising Young Woman could’ve been – a hard-hitting, gory vigilante film that shows no mercy to either the predator in the film or its viewers. Starring Elliot Page as the adolescent Haley, who serves as a kind of karmic Little Red Riding Hood to the pedophilic predatory wolf in sheep’s clothing Jeff, Hard Candy is an enthralling movie that captures what occurs when the roles of victim and perpetrator get reversed and the victim takes on the role of the one in power. As Jeff tries out every pity ploy and rationalizing sob story in the book to gaslight Hayley about his true nature, viewers get a glimpse of what it looks like when an enlightened victim takes on a psychopath and is ruthless in how she dishes out what she perceives to be justice.
The talented Mr. Ripley is ultimately a dysfunctional “love” story about a chameleon-like psychopath named Tom Ripley who develops a dangerous obsession with his friend, Dickie. If you want similar films that explore this theme, also be sure to check out movies such as Single White Female or The Roommate. As Tom Ripley takes on the fake identity of Dickie’s former classmate in Princeton, he inserts himself into Dickie’s wealthy lifestyle, eventually resulting in disastrous consequences when his love for Dickie is unrequited. A man on the run, Tom Ripley resorts to desperate, narcissistic measures to maintain his new lavish lifestyle, even going so far as to impersonate Dickie and gaslight those around him to prevent himself from being caught. This film accurately portrays the extremely obsessive “love” of a psychopath and how they view their objects of infatuation as just that – possessions to be obtained and disposed of when no longer useful to them.
Fear is an oldie but a goodie – a psychological thriller about 16-year-old Nicole (played by Reese Witherspoon) who becomes ensnared in the abusive charm of a much older narcissistic psychopath named David (played by Mark Wahlberg). As her family tries to protect her from David, Nicole becomes more entrenched in an abusive relationship with David, who develops a fixation on Nicole as she finally ends the relationship. The movie escalates into a fight for survival as David and his friends plot revenge and stage a home invasion. Fear highlights how psychopathic predators ingratiate themselves with their victims while isolating them from their loved ones. It highlights the consequences of getting involved with a manipulator who eventually takes over your entire life.
One of the best thrillers depicting narcissists, psychopaths, and gaslighting is the television show Tell Me Your Secrets. Not only does the show masterfully depict psychopathic traits across multiple predatory characters with chilling accuracy and follows a kind of ongoing war among them (think Fight Club but for manipulative psychopaths), it has one of the most mind-boggling plot twist endings, exposing that covert wolves in sheep’s clothing can come in many forms. The show, starring Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater, skillfully creates suspense as we follow the journey of three characters who are all connected to a dangerous serial killer. Karen Miller is the ex-partner of notorious serial killer Kit Parker. Due to the traumas she’s experienced, Karen suffers from large gaps in her memory which makes her unable to discern how involved she was in Kit’s murders of various women – although she begins to get gradual flashbacks of the night of one of the murders. The erosion of her memory and identity and her confusion post-trauma will be relatable to many survivors of gaslighting. Kit and Karen’s “love story” also resonates with partners of narcissists and psychopaths as it illustrates the struggle between reconciling a psychopath’s false mask and fairytale romance with the ruthless reality of their true nature.
Karen is placed into witness protection with her new alias “Emma” under the supervision of a mysterious psychiatrist, Pete, after her release from jail. Viewers are unclear about how involved Karen is in Parker’s killings, and we are led to believe that she may have been a co-conspirator in the murders – something that the world also believes, labeling her “Killer Miller.” Mary Barlow is the mother of one of the possible victims, Theresa, and will do anything to discover the truth about her daughter’s disappearance. Throughout the show, Karen is being hunted down by John, a convicted rapist hired by Mary to find out information about her daughter. Yet the most vicious predators of this show are unlikely to be guessed until the very end, and this thriller reminds us that some of the worst monsters are not the ones who are readily identified but rather are the ones who hide in plain sight.
Dirty John is a true crime series based on the real-life con artistry of narcissistic manipulator John Michael Meehan. In this show, John pretends to be an anesthesiologist as he love-bombs and gaslights successful businesswoman Debra Newell into a fantasy relationship to exploit her for financial gain. Dirty John showcases the extent to which narcissistic psychopaths can lead double lives and hook their victims through love bombing, all while targeting the vulnerabilities of their victims for their own gain. It also depicts the strength of the trauma bonds victims tend to develop with their perpetrators, leading to denial and avoidance of the red flags.
Similar to Dirty John, the Tinder Swindler is another exposé of a conman by the name of Simon Leviev who financially scammed his targets through the dating app Tinder. Pretending to be the son of a diamond mogul, Simon charms and love bombs his victims with lavish dinners and gifts, only to then pretend that his “enemies are after him” in order to get “loans” from his dating partners – loans he never plans to pay back.
Through the relationship of characters Perry and Celeste, the show Big Little Lies captures the secrecy of an abusive relationship and the subconscious coping methods the victim often engages in to survive such a toxic relationship. The scenes of Perry and Celeste at couple’s therapy with their therapist Dr. Reisman are some of the most illustrative scenes of gaslighting ever to hit the screen.
Perhaps there is no better opportunity to catch narcissistic traits and behaviors in the wild than there is on the reality television show Love is Blind – an experiment where two people “date” and communicate with one another in isolation without ever seeing each other’s faces until they decide to get married. Spanning four seasons, the show is chock full of examples of narcissistic manipulative tactics like jealousy induction (deliberately provoking jealousy to maintain power and control over others), ego-fueled rage attacks, love bombing, and even partner poaching. While we won’t name any names, Season 4 in particular was rampant with the behaviors associated with female narcissists, specifically, the covert sabotage of other relationships and exhibiting sadistic glee at the pain of others. If you enjoyed Love is Blind, Married at First Sight, Catfish, The Bachelor, and 90-Day Fiancé are other similar reality television shows about deception and narcissistic behaviors I would recommend.
A favorite of many survivors of narcissists, Law and Order: SVU is bursting with episodes featuring narcissists, psychopaths, and gaslighting – 23 seasons worth, in fact. This is one of the few shows where victims often get justice and perpetrators get held accountable. Many fans find comfort in empathic detective Olivia Benson reminding many victims it was not their fault, as well as in the show’s resident psychologist, Dr. George Huang, skillfully diagnosing the perpetrators as narcissists and psychopaths. Some notable episodes exploring malignant narcissism and gaslighting include: Born Psychopath and its sequel Post-Graduate Psychopath, Behave, Motherly Love, Annihilated, Doubt, and Surrender Benson.
If you want to play “spot the psychopath,” no better show allows you to do so than Criminal Minds. A crime drama that follows the FBI profilers of the Behavioral Analysis Unit, the show masterfully examines the personalities and motives of serial predators who commit horrific crimes. Other similar and highly recommended crime-focused dramas that feature psychopathic and narcissistic personalities include: Dexter, Succession, Alias, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, Veronica Mars and Breaking Bad.
A Flicker in the Dark by Stacy Willingham appears to explore the question, “What if your father was a serial killer?” But not everything is what it seems – and the truth is much more complicated and terrifying. Following psychologist Chloe Davis twenty years after her father was imprisoned for the murders of six missing teenage girls, Chloe begins to lose her grasp on reality when her past comes back to haunt her in the form of another missing girl. This time, however, she learns the truth of what actually happened twenty years ago. A Flicker in the Dark is an exquisite mystery thriller that will leave you guessing who the true “monsters” are and reminds you of the convincing masks people wear to gaslight and dupe others.
Unmissing by Minka Kent is a shocking thriller that will keep you off-balance through the multiple perspectives of the characters. When Merritt and Luca receive an unexpected visitor at their coastal home late at night, they are surprised to see Luca’s first wife Lydia who went missing ten years ago. Yet both Luca and Lydia have secrets and the true “gaslighter” and perpetrator in this book is not so easy to spot. Kent’s other book, The Silent Woman is another book I would recommend which also portrays a skilled gaslighter and a twisted “love” triangle.
Edge of Collapse by Kyla Stone is a beautifully written apocalyptic survival thriller that explores what an apocalyptic world looks like for someone who’s already been imprisoned by a psychopathic predator for the last five years. For the main character, the world essentially ending is what finally grants her the door to freedom. On her journey, she encounters another survivor who helps her find shelter. At the heart of it all, this book is about possibility, love, and resilience after abuse.
Verity by Colleen Hoover is the quintessential “gaslighting” novel. When writer Lowen Ashleigh gets assigned an offer by seeming “nice guy” Jeremy Crawford to complete his wife Verity’s book, she encounters an unfinished autobiography that appears to reveal bone-chilling secrets about Verity and her marriage to Jeremy. This book exposes the devastating consequences that can occur when you rely on possible misinformation to dictate your actions and explores the idea of “two truths” – you must choose to live in one version of reality or the other, but they cannot be true simultaneously. You will be “gaslit” by the book itself as its ending will leave you questioning everything you already read.
My Sweet Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell is a book that skillfully illustrates how narcissistic predators can prey on the vulnerable and gaslight them into believing that their love together is special, unique, and morally sound to keep them invested in the relationship. Fifteen-year-old Vanessa is the victim of her English teacher Jacob Strane, who lures her into a sexually exploitative relationship that spans for years. The novel shifts between past and present, showcasing how Vanessa processes her experiences with Strane years later as other victims of Strane come forward and she shares her own story with the world. Vanessa begins to identify how Strane manipulated and gaslighted her, using her vulnerabilities and inexperience against her to get what he wanted, leaving a devastating impact that affected her well into adulthood. This process of heartbreaking “discovery” and resolving cognitive dissonance will be all too familiar to survivors of narcissists and psychopaths who often experience emotional whiplash as they uncover the truth.
These books, movies and television shows serve as a powerful and tragic reminder of the price victims inevitably pay when they’re swept up into the twisted love story with a narcissist that is really not a love story after all – it’s a nightmare they have to slowly wake up from. If you are in a relationship with a narcissist or psychopath, it’s important to seek help. You may want to process your traumas with a validating mental health professional on your journey to healing, and check out my book, Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse for more insights and information.