From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Psychological thriller is a specific sub-genre of the wide-ranging thriller genre. However, this genre often incorporates elements from the mystery genre in addition to the typical traits of the thriller genre.
Generally, thrillers focus on plot over characters, and thus emphasize intense, physical action over the character's psyche. Psychological thrillers tend to reverse this formula to a certain degree, emphasizing the characters just as much, if not more so, than the plot.
The suspense created by psychological thrillers often comes from two or more characters preying upon one another's minds, either by playing deceptive games with the other or by merely trying to demolish the other's mental state.
Sometimes the suspense comes from within one solitary character where characters must resolve conflicts with their own minds. Usually, this conflict is an effort to understand something that has happened to them.
Deconstruction of the definition
- Psychological – Elements that are related to the mind or processes of the mind; they are mental rather than physical in nature.
- Thriller – A genre of fiction that attempts to “thrill” its audience by placing characters at great risk. This constant unease throughout the story makes the narrative suspenseful to the reader by creating a tense atmosphere.
- Psychological + Thriller – By combining these two terms, the definition changes to a narrative that makes the characters exposed to danger on a mental level rather than a physical one. Characters are no longer reliant on physical strength to overcome their brutish enemies (which is often the case in typical action-thrillers), but rather are reliant on their mental resources, whether it be by battling wits with a formidable opponent or by battling for equilibrium in the character’s own mind.
Literary devices and techniques
- Stream of consciousness - a literary technique which seeks to describe an individual's point of view by giving the written equivalent of the character's thought processes. In psychological thrillers, the narrative tries to manifest the character's psyche through word usage, descriptions, or visuals.
- First-person narrative - a literary technique in which the story is narrated by one or more of the characters, who explicitly refers to him or herself in the first person, that is, "I." This direct involvement that the characters have with the story in turn makes the reader more involved with the characters themselves, and thus able to understand the mechanics of the characters' minds.
- Back-story - the history behind the situation extant at the start of the main story. This deepens the psychological aspect of the story since the reader is able to more fully understand the character; more specifically, what the character's motivations are and how his past has shaped his current cognitive perceptions.
Many psychological thrillers have emerged over the past years, all in various media (film, literature, radio, etc). Despite these very different forms of representation, general trends have appeared throughout the narratives. Some of these consistent themes include:
- Reality – The quality of being real. Characters often try to determine what is true and what is not within the narrative.
- Perception – A person’s own interpretation of the world around him through his senses. Often characters misperceive the world around them, or their perceptions are altered by outside factors within the narrative (see unreliable narrator).
- Mind – The human consciousness; the location for personality, thought, reason, memory, intelligence and emotion. The mind is often used as a location for narrative conflict, where characters battle their own minds to reach a new level of understanding or perception.
- Existence/Purpose - The object for which something exists; an aim or a goal humans strive towards to understand their reason for existence. Characters often try to discover what their purpose is in their lives and the narrative's conflict often is a way for the characters to discover this purpose.
- Identity - The definition of one's self. Characters often are confused about or doubt who they are and try to discover their true identity.
With its intense focus on psychological issues such as mental processes, behavior, and human interaction, psychological thrillers often touch upon several philosophical issues. These theoretical and conceptual ideas usually focus on humanity's role in the universe.
Metaphysics is the most dominant philosophical area present within psychological thrillers since it tries to explain the world and define reality, a task that psychological thrillers try to do themselves. There are specific areas within this broad category that these thrillers focus on:
- Existentialism - Regards human existence as unexplainable and unknown. Thus humans are entirely free from any controlling factors and are responsible for what they make of themselves. In psychological thrillers, the world the characters inhabit becomes bleak and meaningless since they don't have any sense of security or feeling of safety; they can only rely on themselves and their own minds while the world around remains uncertain and mysterious. Pulp fiction and noir films often makes this the central theme of their stories.
- Determinism - Every event in which the character is involved, including cognition and action, is causally determined by an unbroken chain of prior occurrences. This concept creates characters that are desperate and feel hopeless since they are unable to change what is occurring around them, that is, the world is out of their control. See also causality.
- Fatalism - Similar to determinism, fatalism is the view that human deliberation and actions are pointless and ineffectual in determining events, because whatever will be will be, regardless of our actions. In psychological thrillers, characters fight a losing battle to gain control of their own lives in a meaningless and chaotic world. This is often integrated with existentialism.
- Ontology - Tries to determine what truly exists and what is fabricated by asking the question "what actually exists?" Characters in psychological thrillers often ask these very thought-provoking questions and try to answer them, but sometimes the answers become more confusing and ambiguous than the questions.
- Dualism - The view that the world surrounding us is divided into two separate entities: mind and matter. Often in psychological thrillers, characters find it difficult to separate these two elements. As a result, characters are unable to determine what is physically present and what is a fabrication of their minds.
Ethics is the investigation of what is right and what is wrong. Characters within psychological thrillers often struggle with this determination. They often face the dilemma where both right and wrong seem the same, and the boundaries between the two are blurred into an unrecognizable grey area.
- Morality - The concepts of what is right and what is wrong. Often, these values are instilled in us by society. This can result in conflict; do we listen to our own conscience or follow societal standards?
- Nihilism - This concept argues that the world, and especially human existence, is without objective meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. This issue is often incorporated into the narrative with existentialism, determinism, and fatalism. Characters often feel hopeless and depressed, living within a meaningless world.
- Moral skepticism - The concept that morals are always false or can never be determined.
- Existentialist views - The concept that man is free to create his own determinations of what constitutes morality. Some claim this view to be first expressed by Friedrich Nietzsche.
Other philosophical issues
Kübler-Ross model - The process by which people deal with grief and tragedy. Psychological thrillers often feature this concept, having the characters explore the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Either the characters can not cope with the death of another character or can not accept their own death.
Writers and Directors
- Brad Anderson – Works effectively in the psychological horror genre. He is the director of The Machinist and Session 9.
- Dario Argento – Italian director considered the master of giallo. He often create mysteries that are very psychological in nature, with the past of characters influencing their present actions.
- David Cronenberg – Canadian director who focuses on the psychological horrors of our minds. His storylines often make issues of the mind explicit, as in The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, The Dead Zone, Dead Ringers, and Spider.
- Brian DePalma – Infuses eroticism with the thriller genre. Often uses the motifs of doubling and splitting in the characters minds, as in Sisters, Obsession, Dressed to Kill, Body Double, and Raising Cain.
- David Fincher – Dark and omnibus thrillers that focus on the psychology of men, as in Se7en and Fight Club.
- Alfred Hitchcock – The master of suspense, Hitchcock often applied Freudian concepts to his thrillers, as in Rebecca, Spellbound, Vertigo, Psycho, and Marnie.
- Satoshi Kon - Japanese anime director, his works often revolve around emotionally cornered people, as in Perfect Blue and Paranoia Agent.
- Kiyoshi Kurosawa – Japanese director whose thrillers are often strong character studies, with surrealistic imagery to reflect the minds of the characters.
- David Lynch – Surrealistic director whose mysteries are usually puzzles of the mind. Both the audience and the character themselves must figure out what is real and what is not.
- Takashi Miike – Japanese director who infuses surrealism with extreme violence and sexuality.
- Christopher Nolan – British director whose narrative structures often reflect the mental construction of the characters, as in Memento and Following.
- Roman Polanski – Polish director whose thrillers focus on the alienation and isolation of the characters.
- M. Night Shyamalan - Indian American director well-known for making psychological thrillers which often have a twist ending in them. He directed successful psychological thrillers such as The Sixth Sense.
- Shinya Tsukamoto – Japanese director who infuses surrealistic elements within his narratives to exemplify both the characters’ mental and physical properties.
Examples in film