Psychological thriller is a thriller narrative which emphasizes the unstable or delusional psychological states of its characters. In terms of context and convention, it is a subgenre of the broader ranging thriller narrative structure, with similarities to Gothic and detective fiction in the sense of sometimes having a "dissolving sense of reality". It is often told through the viewpoint of psychologically stressed characters, revealing their distorted mental perceptions and focusing on the complex and often tortured relationships between obsessive and pathological characters. Psychological thrillers often incorporate elements of mystery, drama, action and paranoia. Not to be confused with psychological horror, which involves more terror than psychosomatic themes.
Peter Hutchings states varied films have been labeled psychological thrillers, but it usually refers to "narratives with domesticated settings in which action is suppressed and where thrills are provided instead via investigations of the psychologies of the principal characters." A distinguishing characteristic of a psychological thriller is it emphasizes the mental states of its characters: their perceptions, thoughts, distortions, and general struggle to grasp reality.
According to director John Madden, psychological thrillers focus on story, character development, choice, and moral conflict; fear and anxiety drive the psychological tension in unpredictable ways. Madden stated their lack of spectacle and strong emphasis on character led to their decline in Hollywood popularity. Psychological thrillers are suspenseful by exploiting uncertainty over characters' motives, honesty, and how they see the world. Films can also cause discomfort in audiences by privileging them with information they wish to share with the characters; guilty characters may suffer similar distress by virtue of their knowledge.
However, James N. Frey defines psychological thrillers as a style, rather than a subgenre; Frey states good thrillers focus on the psychology of their antagonists and build suspense slowly through ambiguity. Creators and/or film distributors or publishers who seek to distance themselves from the negative connotations of horror often categorize their work as a psychological thriller. The same situation can occur when critics label a work to be a psychological thriller in order to elevate its perceived literary value.
Literary devices and techniques
- Plot twist – Films such as Psycho and The Skeleton Key have advertised the fact that they contain plot twists and asked audiences to refrain from revealing spoilers. Psychological thrillers with poorly received plot twists, such as The Village, have suffered in the box office.
- Unreliable narrator – Andrew Taylor identifies the unreliable narrator as a common literary device used in psychological thrillers and traces it back to Edgar Allan Poe's influence on the genre. Criminal insanity may be explored as a theme.
- MacGuffin – Alfred Hitchcock pioneered the concept of the MacGuffin, a goal or item that helps to move the plot. The MacGuffin is frequently only vaguely defined, and it can be used to increase suspense.
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:
In psychological thrillers, characters often have to battle an inner struggle. Amnesia is a common plot device used to explore these questions. Character may be threatened with death, be forced to deal with the deaths of others, or fake their own deaths. Psychological thrillers can be complex, and reviewers may recommend a second or third viewing to "decipher its secrets." Common elements may include stock characters, such as a hardboiled detective and serial killer, involved in a cat and mouse game. Sensation novels, examples of early psychological thrillers, were considered to be socially irresponsible due to their themes of sex and violence. These novels, among others, were inspired by the exploits of real-life detective Jack Whicher. Water, especially floods, is frequently used to represent the unconscious mind, such as in What Lies Beneath and In Dreams. Psychological thrillers may not always be concerned with plausibility. Peter Hutchings defines the giallo, an Italian subgenre of psychological thrillers, as violent murder mysteries that focus on style and spectacle over rationality. According to Peter B. Flint of The New York Times, detractors of Alfred Hitchcock accused him of "relying on slick tricks, illogical story lines and wild coincidences".
Screenwriters and directors
- Brad Anderson – Ethan Anderton of firstshowing.net describes Anderson's psychological thrillers as "unique" and covering the theme of memory loss.
- Dario Argento – Italian director known for his cult films in giallo, horror, and psychological thrillers. He is often referred to as "the Italian Hitchcock".
- Darren Aronofsky – Frequently covers themes of madness, pursuit of perfection, and psychology.
- Park Chan-wook – Korean director who explored the genre in his "vengeance trilogy" (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) and Stoker.
- David Cronenberg – Philip French states that Cronenberg is a "prime exponent" of a subgenre of psychological thrillers, body horror: "stories of terror involving parasites, metamorphoses, diseases, decomposition and physical wounds".
- Brian De Palma – Called a cineaste by Vincent Canby, de Palma is known for his psychological thrillers and horror films influenced by Alfred Hitchcock.
- David Fincher – Dark and ominous thrillers that focus on the psychology of men, as in Se7en, The Game, Fight Club, Gone Girl and Zodiac.
- Alfred Hitchcock – Hitchcock often applied Freudian concepts to his thrillers, as in Rebecca, Spellbound, Vertigo, Psycho, Marnie and Rear Window.
- David Lynch – His surreal films have inspired the descriptor "Lynchian", which Jeff Jensen of Entertainment Weekly defines as "bizarrely banal, or just plain trippy."
- Christopher Nolan – British-American director whose films deal with the mind, memory, and the line between fantasy and reality.
- Roman Polanski – Described as a "world class director" by Sheila Johnston of The Independent, she states that his reputation was established by his "superb early psychological thrillers".
- M. Night Shyamalan – Indian-American director known for making psychological thrillers that often have a twist ending in them.
- Martin Scorsese – American director known for psychological thrillers such as Cape Fear and Shutter Island.
- Satoshi Kon – Japanese anime director known for making psychological thrillers, such as Perfect Blue, Paranoia Agent, Millennium Actress and Paprika.
- Hideaki Anno – Japanese anime director whose best known work, Neon Genesis Evangelion, delves into heavy psychological themes in its latter half.
- Silent Hill
- Heavy Rain – Time called Heavy Rain a combination of Choose Your Own Adventure and psychological thriller in which players hunt down a serial killer.
- Alan Wake – Combines psychological thriller with shooter gameplay.
- Until Dawn – a combination of Inception and Choose Your Own Adventure third-person game.
- We Happy Few
- Overclocked: A History of Violence
- The Stanley Parable
- Black Swan
- The Brave One
- The Silence of the Lambs
- Taxi Driver
- Blade Runner
- Mr. Nobody
- The Machinist
- Jacob's Ladder
- The Game (1997)
- Gone Girl
- Shutter Island
- Ex Machina
- The Following
- Mad Dogs
- Mr. Robot
- Jessica Jones
- Puella Magi Madoka Magica
- Jonathan Kellerman – The Baltimore Sun described Kellerman's Alex Delaware novels as "taut psychological thriller[s]".
- Henry James – Known for The Turn of the Screw and other horror stories.
- Nicci French – The pseudonym of husband-and-wife team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, authors of eleven best-selling psychological thrillers.
- Stephen King – John Levesque of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer called Stephen King a "master of the psychological thriller".
- Minette Walters – The Sun-Sentinel stated that Walters has a gained a cult following for her "dark, well-constructed psychological thrillers."
- Patricia Highsmith – Reuters described her psychological thrillers as "intricately plotted" which existed in a "claustrophobic and irrational world".
- Humayun Ahmed – Known for a series of Bengali psychological thrillers based on a professor of psychology named Misir Ali, which The Daily Star called unique in Bengali literature.
- Dictionary.com, definition, psychological thriller (definition), Accessed November 3, 2013, "...a suspenseful movie or book emphasizing the psychology of its characters rather than the plot; this subgenre of thriller movie or book – Example: In a psychological thriller, the characters are exposed to danger on a mental level rather than a physical one....",
- Christopher Pittard, Blackwell Reference, Psychological Thrillers, Accessed November 3, 2013, "...characteristics of the genre as “a dissolving sense of reality; reticence in moral pronouncements; obsessive, pathological characters; the narrative privileging of complex, tortured relationships” ( Munt 1994)..."
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element of a psychological thriller because ... suspenseful feeling of who did what, who's being honest ... about perception...
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