Psychological thriller  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Psychological thriller is a thriller story which emphasizes the psychology of its characters and their unstable emotional states. In terms of classification, the category is a subgenre of the broader ranging thriller category, 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. Psychological thrillers often incorporate elements of mystery, drama, action, and horror, particularly psychological horror.


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

  • 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 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.
  • 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:

  • 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.

Philosophical issues

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.

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

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Roman Polanski – Polish director whose thrillers focus on the alienation and isolation of the characters.
  • Shinya Tsukamoto – Japanese director who infuses surrealistic elements within his narratives to exemplify both the characters’ mental and physical properties.

Examples in film

see List of psychological thriller films

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Psychological thriller" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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