The History of The Psychological Thriller Genre
If you’re not a fan of gore or jump-scares, the horror genre may often leave you wanting
something else. If horror movies leave you nauseous or bored, consider the psychological
thriller as an alternative to get your heart racing. It may not have the same blatant fear factor of
true horror media, but it can be hair-raising in it’s own right, with great writing and a pervasive
sense of dread throughout the story. Let’s look at the history of the genre, and give some
recommendations for great options across many mediums.
What sets a psychological thriller apart from the rest of the thriller genre is the focus on the
mental aspect of it’s characters, on their emotional state, and the instability that comes from
their fickle state. Often, the mental stability of the character’s are more important/interesting than their physical stature or assets.
One of the most prominent figures in the genre when writing and poetry are concerned, is Edgar
Allen Poe. Poe’s works like ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ and “The Raven’ start with rather unassuming
narratives, but as more and more is revealed, the reader can see that things are not as they
seem. Poe is a master at building out a scene that is normally mundane, and putting a layer of
fear over the top of it. He sets the stage with haunting ambiance and unreliable narrators that tip
the viewer off that his story is not of the norm.
In many ways, the first keystone in the genre in film was Alfred Hitchcock’s aptly named
‘Psycho’. In the film, the eerie quality is built from the jump, and we watch as a man’s voyeurism
becomes deadly and his mentally stable facade crumbles. The key to Psycho and most
psychological thrillers is the slow burn that comes as the story unravels. A good story will build
unease and dread as the audience watches the characters slowly reveal their true natures over
the course of the rising action.
Psychological Thrillers have continued in film for years, with craftsmen like David Fincher and
Christopher Nolan headlining the industry for decades now. Movies like ‘The Game’ and
‘Memento’ continue to draw audiences with their suspenseful and mysterious narratives, despite
existing alongside the horror genre descending into full bore into gore and shock. In the last
decade, new entrants like ‘Nightcrawler’ and ‘Gone Girl’ have held great acclaim, and both
showcase twists that make initial viewings truly memorable. Twists like these have been around
from the beginning with stories like ‘Psycho’, but continue to be the hallmarks of thrilling stories.
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