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Psychological thriller

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Title: Psychological thriller  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Hannibal (TV series), Mad Dogs (TV series), A Dark-Adapted Eye, Dolores Claiborne, La Bête humaine
Collection: Film Genres, Narratology, Psychological Thrillers, Thriller Genres
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Psychological thriller

Psychological thriller is a thriller story which emphasizes the psychology of its characters and their unstable emotional states.[1] In terms of classification, the category is a subgenre of the broader ranging thriller category,[1] with similarities to Gothic and detective fiction in the sense of sometimes having a "dissolving sense of reality", moral ambiguity, and complex and tortured relationships between obsessive and pathological characters.[2] Psychological thrillers often incorporate elements of mystery, drama, action, and horror, particularly psychological horror. They are usually books or films.


  • Definition 1
  • Literary devices and techniques 2
  • Themes 3
  • Examples 4
    • Screenwriters and directors 4.1
    • Video games 4.2
    • Film 4.3
    • Television 4.4
    • Literature 4.5
  • References 5
  • External links 6


Peter Hutchings states that varied films have been labeled psychological thrillers, but that 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."[3] A distinguishing characteristic of a psychological thriller is a marked emphasis on the mental states of its characters: their perceptions, thoughts, distortions, and general struggle to grasp reality.[4] 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 that their lack of spectacle and strong emphasis on character have caused them to decline in popularity in Hollywood.[5] Psychological thrillers are suspenseful by exploiting uncertainty over characters' motives, honesty, and how they see the world.[6] Films can also cause discomfort in audiences by privileging them with information that they wish to share with the characters; guilty characters may suffer similar distress by virtue of their knowledge.[4] James N. Frey instead defines psychological thrillers as a style, rather than a subgenre; Frey states that good thrillers focus on the psychology of their antagonists and build suspense slowly through ambiguity.[7] Distinguishing psychological thrillers from horror films can be difficult; marketing is used to differentiate the genres, though fans may reclaim films in contravention to the original marketing.[3] Creators who seek to distance themselves from the negative connotations of horror may categorize their work as a psychological thriller.[8] The same situation can occur when critics label a work to be a psychological thriller in order to elevate its perceived literary value.[7]

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.[9]
  • Unreliable narratorAndrew 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.[10]
  • 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.[11]


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:[4]

In psychological thrillers, characters often battle their own minds: they attempt to determine what is real, who they are, and what life's purpose is. 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.[4] Psychological thrillers can be complex, and reviewers may recommend a second or third viewing to "decipher its secrets."[12] Common elements may include stock characters, such as a hardboiled detective and serial killer, involved in a cat and mouse game.[13] 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.[14] Water, especially floods, is frequently used to represent the unconscious mind, such as in What Lies Beneath and In Dreams.[15] 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.[16] 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".[17]


Screenwriters and directors

Video games





  1. ^ a b, 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....",
  2. ^ 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)..."
  3. ^ a b Hutchings, Peter (2009). The A to Z of Horror.  
  4. ^ a b c d Packer, Sharon (2007). Movies and the Modern Psyche.  
  5. ^ Bowie-Sell, Daisy (2012-01-23). "John Madden on Psychological Thrillers".  
  6. ^ Whitney, Erin (2012-11-15). "'"Gretchen Mol Returns to the Stage in 'The Good Mother.  
  7. ^ a b  
  8. ^ Barton, Steve (2008-05-27). "Six Things that Still Drive Me Psycho".  
  9. ^ a b Breznican, Anthony (2005-08-11). "This Shocking Twist Is ... Secret".  
  10. ^ a b  
  11. ^ Santoski, Teresa (2012-08-13). "The Week in Preview: "I am a typed director. If I made Cinderella, the audience would immediately be looking for a body in the coach." – Alfred Hitchcock".  
  12. ^ Holden, Stephen (2011-04-14). "Romance or Film Noir? Both, and a Thriller".  
  13. ^ Wright, Chris (2011-07-31). "Your Psychological Thriller".  
  14. ^  
  15. ^ Indick, William (2004). Movies and the Mind.  
  16. ^ Hutchings, Peter (2009). The A to Z of Horror Cinema.  
  17. ^ Flint, Peter B. (1980-04-30). "Alfred Hitchcock Dies; A Master of Suspense".  
  18. ^ Anderton, Ethan (2010-05-14). "Brad Anderson Helming an Amnesiac Serial Killer Film 'Jack". Retrieved 2013-11-03. 
  19. ^ Hutchings, Peter (2003). "The Argento Effect". In Jancovich, Mark; Reboll, Antionio Lázaro; Stringer, Julian; Willis, Andy. Defining Cult Movies: the Cultural Politics of Oppositional Taste. Manchester:  
  20. ^ Vilkomerson, Sara (2010-12-10). "Darren Aronofsky: The Swan King".  
  21. ^ Morgan, Jason (2008-04-08). "Aronofsky Thrilled by Psychology". Cinema Blend. Retrieved 2013-11-03. 
  22. ^  
  23. ^  
  24. ^ Canby, Vincent (2004). "Dressed to Kill". In Nichols, Peter M.; Scott, A.O. The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made.  
  25. ^ "Shoot to Thrill; the Stunning Psychological Thrillers That Made David Fincher One of Hollywood's Hottest Directors".  
  26. ^  
  27. ^ Jensen, Jeff (2006-12-01). "David Lynch wants to get in your bloodstream".  
  28. ^ Breznican, Anthony (2010-07-16). "With 'Inception,' Chris Nolan's head games continue".  
  29. ^ Johnston, Sheila (1995-04-13). "Great Minds Share a Cesspool".  
  30. ^ de Semlyen, Phil (2010-08-27). "Satoshi Kon Dies At 46".  
  31. ^ Lawrence Eng. "In the Eyes of Hideaki Anno, Writer and Director of Evangelion". Retrieved September 7, 2013. 
  32. ^ John, Tracey (2009-12-29). "'"Choose Your Own Adventure in Psychological Thriller 'Heavy Rain.  
  33. ^ Lammers, Dirk (2010-06-01). Alan Wake' combines psychological thriller with shooter"'".  
  34. ^ McNamara, Mary (2007-07-24). "This lawyer earns her fee".  
  35. ^ Barney, Chuck (2008-02-15). "'"There will be blood on CBS via 'Dexter.  
  36. ^ "Fox takes chances with Fringe, Dollhouse". 2008-07-14. Retrieved 2013-11-03. 
  37. ^ "Exile, BBC One, final episode, preview".  
  38. ^ Ng, Philiana (2013-01-21). The Following': Natalie Zea Previews Fox's Psychological Thriller From Kevin Williamson"'".  
  39. ^
  40. ^ Levin, Gary (2011-09-29). "At heart of 'Homeland' is a psychological thriller".  
  41. ^ de la Fuente, Anna Marie (2011-08-31). "'"DirecTV Latin America nabs 'Mad Dogs. Retrieved 2013-11-03. 
  42. ^ Korbren, Gerri (1992-01-26). "Private Eyes".  
  43. ^ Unsworth, Cathi (2011-07-13). "Blue Monday by Nicci French – review".  
  44. ^ Levesque, John (2002-01-24). "Stephen King's miniseries makes about as much sense as our traffic".  
  45. ^ Cogdill, Oline H. (1997-03-23). "Homeless, Home to Die".  
  46. ^ "Patricia Highsmith; U.S. Mystery Novelist".  

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