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Psychological thriller is a thriller narrative that 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 the overlapping psychological horror genre, 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.
MacGuffin - Alfred Hitchcock pioneered the concept of the MacGuffin, a goal or item that initiates or otherwise advances 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.
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.
The Stanley Parable - A Choose Your Own Adventure-styled first person game which discusses at points the nature between the narrator, the player, and the protagonist, the eponymous Stanley and the way the three entities interface.
Hotline Miami - A top-down shooter with a story that explores the psychology of its protagonist and questions his violent actions through the use of the psychological thriller and neo-noir genres, and surreal storytelling. The game also features an unreliable narrator.
^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)..."