Thrillers are a genre of literature, film, video gaming and television programming that uses suspense, tension, and excitement as the main elements. The primary subgenre is psychological thrillers. After the assassination of President Kennedy, political thriller and paranoid thriller films became very popular. The brightest examples of thrillers are the films of Alfred Hitchcock.
Thrillers heavily stimulate the viewer's moods such as; a high level of anticipation, ultra-heightened expectation, uncertainty, anxiety, suspense, excitement, tension, terror. Literary devices such as red herrings and cliffhangers are used extensively. The cover-up of important information from the viewer and fight/chase scenes are common methods in all of the thriller subgenres, although each subgenre has its own characteristics and methods.
Common methods in crime thrillers are mainly ransoms, captivities, heists, revenge, kidnappings. More common in mystery thrillers are investigations and the whodunit technique. Common elements in psychological thrillers are mind games, psychological themes, stalking, confinement/deathtraps, horror-of-personality, and obsession. Elements such as fringe theories, false accusations, paranoia, and sometimes action are common in paranoid thrillers.
"Homer's Odyssey is one of the oldest stories in the Western world and is regarded as an early prototype of the thriller." A thriller is villain-driven plot, whereby he presents obstacles that the hero must overcome.
An atmosphere of creepy menace and sudden violence, crime and murder characterise thrillers. They mostly are adrenaline rushing, gritty, rousing and fast-paced. Thrillers often present the world and society as dark, corrupt and dangerous. Characters in thrillers include criminals, stalkers, assassins, innocent victims (often on the run), menaced women, characters with dark pasts, psychotic individuals, terrorists, cops and escaped cons, private eyes, people involved in twisted relationships, world-weary men and women, psycho-fiends, and more. The themes of thrillers frequently include terrorism, political conspiracy, pursuit, or romantic triangles leading to murder.
A genuine, standalone thriller is a film that provide thrills and keeps the audience cliff-hanging at the "edge of their seats" as the plot builds towards a climax. The tension usually arises when the character(s) is placed in a menacing situation, a mystery, or a trap from which escaping seems impossible. Life is threatened, usually because the principal character is unsuspectingly or unknowingly involved in a dangerous or potentially deadly situation.
Thrillers mostly take place in ordinary suburbs/cities. Though sometimes, they may take place wholly or partly in exotic settings such as foreign cities, deserts, polar regions, or the high seas. The heroes in most thrillers are frequently ordinary citizens unaccustomed to danger. However, more common in crime thrillers, they may also be "hard men" accustomed to danger, like police officers and detectives. While such heroes have traditionally been men, women lead characters have become increasingly common.
Thrillers often overlap with mystery stories but are distinguished by the structure of their plots. In a thriller, the hero must thwart the plans of an enemy rather than uncover a crime that has already happened. While a murder mystery would be spoiled by a premature disclosure of the murderer's identity, in a thriller the identity of a murderer or other villain is typically known all along. Thrillers also occur on a much grander scale: the crimes that must be prevented are serial or mass murder, terrorism, assassination, or the overthrow of governments. Jeopardy and violent confrontations are standard plot elements. While a mystery climaxes when the mystery is solved, a thriller climaxes when the hero finally defeats the villain, saving his own life and often the lives of others. In thrillers influenced by film noir and tragedy, the compromised hero is often killed in the process.
In recent years, thrillers have been slightly influenced by the horror genre; they have more gore/sadistic violence, brutality, terror, and body counts. Recent thrillers which took this route include Eden Lake, The Last House on the Left, P2, Untraceable and Funny Games
Similar distinctions separate the thriller from other overlapping genres: adventure, spy, legal, war, maritime fiction, and so on. Thrillers are defined not by their subject matter but by their approach to it. Many thrillers involve spies and espionage, but not all spy stories are thrillers. The spy novels of John le Carré, for example, explicitly and intentionally reject the conventions of the thriller. Conversely, many thrillers cross over to genres that traditionally have had few or no thriller elements. Alistair MacLean, Hammond Innes, and Brian Callison are best known for their thrillers but are also accomplished writers of man-against-nature sea stories.
Thrillers may be defined by the primary mood that they elicit: fearful excitement. In short, if it "thrills", it is a thriller. As the introduction to a major anthology explains,
|“||...Thrillers provide such a rich literary feast. There are all kinds. The legal thriller, spy thriller, action-adventure thriller, medical thriller, police thriller, romantic thriller, historical thriller, political thriller, religious thriller, high-tech thriller, military thriller. The list goes on and on, with new variations constantly being invented. In fact, this openness to expansion is one of the genre's most enduring characteristics. But what gives the variety of thrillers a common ground is the intensity of emotions they create, particularly those of apprehension and exhilaration, of excitement and breathlessness, all designed to generate that all-important thrill. By definition, if a thriller doesn't thrill, it's not doing its job.||”|
Writer Vladimir Nabokov, in his lectures at Cornell University, said that "In an Anglo-Saxon thriller, the villain is generally punished, and the strong silent man generally wins the weak babbling girl, but there is no governmental law in Western countries to ban a story that does not comply with a fond tradition, so that we always hope that the wicked but romantic fellow will escape scot-free and the good but dull chap will be finally snubbed by the moody heroine."
The thriller genre can include the following sub-genres, which may include elements of other genres:
- Conspiracy thriller: In which the hero/heroine confronts a large, powerful group of enemies whose true extent only he/she recognizes. The Chancellor Manuscript and The Aquitaine Progression by Robert Ludlum fall into this category, as do films such as Awake, Snake Eyes, Edge of Darkness, Absolute Power, Marathon Man, In the Line of Fire, Capricorn One, and JFK.
- Crime thriller: This particular genre is a hybrid type of both crime films and thrillers that offers a suspenseful account of a successful or failed crime or crimes. These films often focus on the criminal(s) rather than a policeman. Crime thrillers usually emphasise action over psychological aspects. Central topics of these films include serial killers/murders, robberies, chases, shootouts, heists and double-crosses. Some examples of crime thrillers involving murderers include, Seven, No Country for Old Men, Silence of the Lambs, Untraceable, Mindhunters, Kiss the Girls, Along Came a Spider and Copycat. Examples of crime thrillers involving heists or robberies includes The Asphalt Jungle, The Score, Rififi, Ocean's 11, Entrapment, The Killing and Reservoir Dogs.
- Erotic thriller: In which it consists of erotica and thriller. It has become popular since the 1980s and the rise of VCR market penetration. The genre includes such films as Basic Instinct, Chloe, Color of Night, Dressed to Kill, Eyes Wide Shut, In the Cut and Lust, Caution.
- Legal thriller: In which the lawyer-heroes/heroines confront enemies outside, as well as inside, the courtroom and are in danger of losing not only their cases but their lives. The Runaway Jury by John Grisham is a well known example of the type. Other examples include The Client, Fracture, A Time to Kill, Primal Fear, The Firm, A Few Good Men, Presumed Innocent and The Juror.
- Political thriller: In which the hero/heroine must ensure the stability of the government that employs him. The success of Seven Days in May (1962) by Fletcher Knebel, The Day of the Jackal (1971) by Frederick Forsyth, and The Manchurian Candidate (1959) by Richard Condon established this sub-genre. Examples include, The Sentinel, Topaz, Notorious, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Interpreter, Proof of Life, State of Play and The Ghost Writer.
- Psychological thriller: In which (until the often violent resolution) the conflict between the main characters is mental and emotional, rather than physical. Characters, either by accident or their own curiousness, are dragged into a dangerous conflict or situation that they are not prepared to resolve. Characters are not reliant on physical strength to overcome their brutish enemies, 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. 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. The Alfred Hitchcock films Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, and Strangers on a Train and David Lynch's bizarre and influential Blue Velvet are notable examples of the type, as are The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Machinist, Don't Say A Word, House of 9, Trapped, Flightplan, Shutter Island, Secret Window, Identity, Red Eye, Phone Booth, Psycho, The River Wild, Nick of Time, P2, Breakdown, Panic Room, Misery, Cape Fear, The Collector, Frailty, The Good Son and Funny Games.
- Rape and Revenge films: Out of the sub-genres of exploitation film, this focuses more on the thriller elements such as suspense, tension, some action and fast-pacing rather than scares and the supernatural. Some famous rape and revenge films are The Last House on the Left, Irréversible, Thriller - A Cruel Picture, Baise-moi and I Spit on Your Grave.
- Supernatural thriller: In which the film brings in an otherworldly element mixed with tension, suspense and plot twists. Sometimes the hero and/or villain has some psychic ability. Examples include, Lady in the Water, Fallen, Frequency, Knowing, In Dreams, Flatliners, Jacob's Ladder, The Skeleton Key, What Lies Beneath, Unbreakable, The Gift, and The Dead Zone.
Although most thrillers are formed in some combination of the above, there are some however that are formed with other genres, which commonly are the horror genre, spy genre (i.e. espionage), science fiction, action and the adventure genre.
Fiction and literature
Ancient epic poems such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer's Odyssey and the Mahābhārata use similar narrative techniques as modern thrillers. In the Odyssey, the hero Odysseus makes a perilous voyage home after the Trojan War, battling extraordinary hardships in order to be reunited with his wife Penelope. He has to contend with villains such as the Cyclops, a one-eyed giant, and the Sirens, whose sweet singing lures sailors to their doom. In most cases, Odysseus uses cunning instead of brute force to overcome his adversaries.
"The Three Apples", a tale in the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), is the earliest known murder mystery and suspense thriller with multiple plot twists and detective fiction elements. In this tale, a fisherman discovers a heavy locked chest along the Tigris river and he sells it to the Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid, who then has the chest broken open only to find inside it the dead body of a young woman who was cut into pieces. Harun orders his vizier, Ja'far ibn Yahya, to solve the crime and find the murderer within three days. This whodunit mystery may be considered an archetype for detective fiction.
Novelists closely associated with the genre include Eric Ambler, Sydney Bauer, Ted Bell, Dan Brown, Lincoln Child, Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, Michael Crichton, Nelson DeMille, Ian Fleming, Ken Follett, Frederick Forsyth, Graham Greene, John Grisham, Robert Ludlum, Alistair MacLean, Andy McNab, David Morrell, James Phelan, Douglas Preston, and Matthew Reilly.
Notable contributors to the thriller genre
There have been at least two television series called simply Thriller, one made in the U.S. in the 1960s and one made in the UK in the 1970s. Although in no way linked, both series consisted of one-off dramas, each utilising the familiar motifs of the genre.
24 is a fast-paced television series with a premise inspired by the War on Terror. Each season takes place over the course of twenty-four hours, with each episode happening in "real time". Featuring a split-screen technique and a ticking onscreen clock, 24 follows the exploits of federal agent Jack Bauer as he races to foil terrorist threats.
Lost, which deals with the survivors of a plane crash, sees the castaways on the island forced to deal with a monstrous being that appears as a cloud of black smoke, a conspiracy of "Others" who have kidnapped or killed their fellow castaways at various points, a shadowy past of the island itself that they are trying to understand, polar bears, and the fight against these and other elements as they struggle simply to stay alive and get out of the island.
Prison Break follows Michael Scofield, an engineer who has himself incarcerated in a maximum-security prison in order to break out his brother, who is on death row for a crime he did not commit. In the first season Michael must deal with the hazards of prison life, the other inmates and prison staff, and executing his elaborate escape plan, while outside the prison Michael's allies investigate the conspiracy that led to Lincoln being framed. In the second season, Michael, his brother and several other inmates escape the prison and must evade the nationwide manhunt for their re-capture, as well as those who want them dead.
- Adventure novel
- International Thriller Writers
- Spy film
- Mystery film
- Horror film
- Action film
- Crime film
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