“When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.”
– Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl
Hello, fellow book (and movie) fans! In this installment of our genre series, we’ll visit the dark side of the human psyche by looking at psychological thrillers and psychological suspense. Psychological thrillers and suspense are subgenres of the overarching thriller genre, but have some very specific characteristics that make them different from other types of thrillers, such as spy thrillers, medical thrillers, and supernatural thrillers. The terms “psychological thrillers” and “psychological suspense” are often used interchangeably, due to the fact that both deal with characters’ mental states. The main difference between the two is that a psychological suspense novel generally involves a murder and its repercussions. However, since both genres are very similar, we’ll stick to the terminology of “psychological thriller” for this post.
Psychological thrillers generally emphasize the unstable or delusional mental and emotional conditions of the characters, and focus on the devious depths of the human mind. The story is often told from the point-of-view of psychologically stressed characters, revealing their distorted mental perceptions, and sometimes featuring a "dissolving sense of reality" or a sense of spinning out of control. Psychological thrillers often incorporate elements of mystery, drama, and action, and characters may have some sort of abnormal psychological state, such as agoraphobia, anxiety, split personality, or paranoia. These books focus on the mental states of the characters, to include their perceptions and thoughts, as well as possible delusions, distortions, and an inability to fully grasp reality. Additionally, psychological thrillers are particularly suspenseful because they exploit uncertainty over characters' motives, honesty, and how they see the world. Psychological thrillers don’t only play with the characters’ minds; they also play with the reader’s mind.
Tension and suspense are characteristics of the thriller genre in general, and are a crucial feature in psychological thrillers. This suspense can keep readers on the edge of their seats as the plot leads to its conclusion. Psychological thrillers often contain elements of terror like dread and fear, or elements of horror like trauma and shock. The fear and anxiety experienced by the characters can drive the psychological tension in unpredictable ways, often surprising the reader with twists or different angles on the same problem.
In a psychological thriller, characters rarely rely on their physical strength to overcome their enemies, but rather on their mental resources. Often the enemies are not external (other characters or circumstances) but internal (phobias, insanity, urges, feelings, fears). Even when the enemies are other characters, the conflicts are usually played out through mind games, deception and manipulation, or even sustained attempts to demolish each other’s mental equilibrium, as opposed to the typical physical action in classic thrillers. Characters may explore and exploit the cunning and often disordered psychological motivations of others, as well as question their own emotional stability.
Typical plot devices in psychological thrillers often include unreliable narrators, plot twists, first person narrative and stream of consciousness showing the character’s (sometimes delusional) thought processes. Characters often battle their own minds in an attempt to determine what is real.
While psychological thrillers are extremely popular now thanks to high profile books like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, such books have been around for a very long time. Edgar Allan Poe wrote novels and short stories in the early 1800s that can be considered psychological thrillers, Daphne du Maurier’s classic book Rebecca was published in 1938, and Alfred Hitchcock was directing and producing psychological thriller films in the mid-1900s. All of these earlier examples feature characters experiencing mental, emotional, and psychological stress.
Why not visit the library to check out a book or movie that will take you into a world of suspense, confusion, and the depths of the human mind?