“During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was – but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.“
- The Fall of the House of Ushers by Edger Allen Poe
Modern psychological thriller is considered to be an intellect genre, whose birth-mother is Classic Gothic fictions from the Victorian Era. Such thrillers explore psychological narrative in a thrilling setting. Creative compositions of authors like Ann Redcliff, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Daphne De Maurier bore marks of the earliest prototypes of the genre. The short-stories of Edger Allen Poe are ideal examples of 19th century’s Gothic Literature. Dame Agatha Christie’s And Then There were None, the plot of which is structured around the ten lines of the children's counting rhyme "Ten Little Niggers", is considered to be the greatest mystery/psychological thriller ever written. Modern writers like Stephen King, Sidney Sheldon, Patricia Highsmith, and Lee Child have raised psychological thrillers to an incredible height. An interesting fact is the popularity of psychological horror/thriller novels has escalated by almost 65% in recent years. Despite the ever-changing hue of the genre, it is still beloved by people and will be continued to be loved by generations hence.
A well-written psychological thriller is a page-turner; its tangled and descriptively constructed plot, layered with frequent twists, fragments of interconnected mysteries, surprises and often unresolved endings appeal to the human intellect. A good psychological thriller must have a gripping opening. The writing style must be stylistic, compelling and elegant in nature. For instance, the use of Personification can provide an unsettling mood to the story. The characters of the story are motivated by anxiety, paranoia, or thirst for vengeance, and often have complex and tortured relationships between its obsessive and pathological characters. The identity of the antagonist in thriller fiction is often revealed in the beginning, unlike mystery fiction. Thrillers also may or may not contain a lot of physical action such as car chases and fights. Unlike action-adventure, the tone of thrillers is usually more subtle, poignant, psychological or even melodramatic in that the excitement is more emotional than physical. Setting of the story plays an important part in the tone of the story, vice-versa. Therefore, the tone is often edgy, disturbing, ominous, chilling, eerie, unsettling and foreboding. Measured pace of storytelling with intense mental activity drives the story to terrorize, frighten and disturb, and unnerve the reader, as in Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Ushers, Stephen King’s The Misery, Martin Scorsese’s film Shutter Island .
Take George Orwell’s 1984 for another example, where horror is subtle and portrayed as the lack of control. Throughout the book, horror is produced by mere surveillance of the state, not by physical threats. Surveillance ranges from incriminating people for thought crime to limiting communication among people through Newspeak. The tone of 1984 is so bleak and suffocating that readers feel Winston Smith, the protagonist, who is trapped inside his own mind. There is something very dry and business-like about George Orwell’s writing style, which makes 1984 so maniacing, haunting and a timeless classic in the genre of dystopian horror, a subgenre of thriller.
Often storytelling/narrative reflects the mental construction of the characters, as in British screenwriter and director Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan’s films Memento and Following. The flim is the adaption of Jonathan Nolan’s Short-story Memento Mori (Latin: remember you will die) Thrillers can be omnibus and dark, often consisting of contradictory double narrative, or focusing corely on the psychology of a definite gender e.g. men, as in David Fincher’s Se7en and Fight Club. Psychological horror, like any other literary genre, deals with several philosophical issues. Amongst metaphysical aspects, the most dominant philosophical area present within psychological thrillers since it tends to explain the world and define Reality, includes Existentialism (Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Noir genre uses this the central theme of their stories), Determinism, Fatalism, Ontology, Dualism. Ethics, on the other hand, investigates what is right and wrong. Moral dilemmas and internal conflicts are often portrayed in psychological thrillers. Ethics in thrillers includes Morality, Nihilism, Utilitarianism, and Moral Scepticism. Crime and Punishment by Russian Novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky is the finest presentation of Nihilism and Utilitarianism in Literature. Dostoevsky was clearly ahead of the curve.
Relatable or not, books have always appealed to its readers because it helps to clean up forever-buzzing minds. Studies have claimed that reading exercises the imagination, as well as increases empathy and concentration. When it comes to reading thrillers, the game comes at a hard bargain. In flims, violent and disturbing scenes and sounds increase shock value. While books, with same violent scenes and no sensory inputs from sight or sound, can desensitise people to violence, gore and mental distortion. Which, consequently, makes books superior to different visual representations. However, some studies have shown that the human brain is rather fascinated by such things, despite its claim of repulsion. It is probably due to a primitive lure of death and violence, like any other beasts. Meanwhile, Reader Response Theory encompasses various approaches to literature that explore and seek to explain the diversity of readers' responses to literary works. In RRT, a reader is authorised not only to give meaning to a given text but also treat herself as a scholar who had the right and duty to stand in judgement on the text. This theory has made literature become more interesting to be read and analysed. Such analysis has revealed that thrillers truly exercise the reader’s imagination. Mental visualisation and emotional response to the same story varies from one reader to another. It is because when it comes to books, there is no reality, but perceptions. How a reader interprets a story solely depends on her understanding of the language, vulnerability, how much she can relate herself, her point of view to the philosophy and ethic of the idea. For example, some readers find Stephen King’s novella Apt Pupil triggering and extremely violent and disturbing. On the contrary, some hail the author for his versatility and masterful narrative. Amidst different opinions and complex responses to a thriller, the basic emotional response is a fine line between these two parties of readers. Books of psychological horror/thriller and its sub-genres use tension and melodrama rather than fear of supernatural entities to prey on its readers. Sometimes they focus on anxiety, dark sides of the personality, and wars. Thriller blends fear and tension so perfectly that the readers often confuse while distinguishing them. Since there is less action than action-adventure, our brain releases adrenaline in a check way, which is essential for our well-being. You feel tense, your muscle stiffens, your heart races – all for the elements of thrillers. How many other ways do reading Thrillers impact us, the readers?
The Science Behind Reading Thriller
Science has revealed that reading psychological thriller books actually changes the reader’s mind. It is also believed to improve critical thinking. MRI scans demonstrate that reading involves a highly complex network of circuits and signals in the brain. Those networks get stronger and more sophisticated as the reader’s reading habit matures. In 2013, a study involved its participants to read Pompeii by Robert Harris over a period of 9 days. As tension built in the story, more and more areas of the brain lit up with activity as brain connectivity increased, especially in the somatosensory cortex, the part of the brain that responds to physical sensation e.g. movement and pain. Such activities of the brain keeps the mind clear and sound, lowers blood pressure and heart rate. Reading thrillers helps the readers to be more open-minded and empathetic as the story moves in different directions than what the readers’ might have predicted. It is the prime way to boost creativity. A reader, even in her subconscious mind, attempts to connect fragments of interconnected details of the story and tries to draw her own conclusions which improves reasoning and decision making. These all consolidate to help a reader become a better problem-solver, interpret a situation effectively and provide alternative solutions to the problem. Another study revealed that aged people who are engaged in mentally stimulating activities like reading are less likely to develop diseases like Alzheimer’s, a type of dementia that causes short-term memory loss, and affects behaviour and thinking.
British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton once wrote, “Consolation from imaginary things is not an imaginary consolation.” Thriller fiction often takes us to a journey which we cannot afford in reality. That is what makes them so appealing. Hail to all thriller book authors, who make our lives better!
© 2022 Yusrat Sadia Nailat