I. What is a thriller?
A thriller is a genre of literature, film, and television whose primary feature is that it induces strong feelings of excitement, anxiety, tension, suspense, fear, and other similar emotions in its readers or viewers—in other words, media that thrills the audience.
II. Example of a Thriller
Read the story below:
The woman crept down the hall in the dark, holding baseball bat above her head, her arms shaking, lungs begging for air as she tried not to breath. She knew it was here, the one who stalked her, terrorized her, tried to kill her—she didn’t care what everyone said. She knew it was all of it was real, and now she was going to catch it and prove to everyone that she wasn’t insane. She was almost at the doorway. 5 more steps. 4 more steps. 3. 2. 1…BANG! She threw open door, and swung the bat with all of the force in her being—
The short passage above is a small part of a thriller—it builds tension and suspense in both the audience and for the main character, drawing the audience in to find out what happens—one way or another, whether the woman is crazy or sane, the outcome promises to be exciting.
III. Types of Thrillers
There are a seemingly endless number of types of thrillers, as they can be combined with nearly any type of conflict to produce emotions that thrill the audience. Below are the most prevalent types of thrillers:
a. Psychological Thriller
Thrillers that focus on characters that have extreme psychological disorders, such as psychopaths and people with split personalities. These disorders accordingly cause serious personal issues, that eventually lead to conflicts with strangers and other characters. Sometimes, the main character is a psychopath that serves as both the protagonist and the antagonist.
b. Crime Thriller
Thrillers that have crime and justice as their primary focuses, usually with topics like murder, kidnapping, drugs, robbery, mistaken identity, etc. Usually the main character is a person who is fighting for justice, like a cop, lawyer, special agent, or even superhero (for example, Batman).
c. Mystery Thriller
A thriller that begins with a mystery that needs to be solved, typically with negative consequences at stake. Suspense and tension build as the audience gets closer and closer to learning the answer to the mystery.
IV. Importance of Thrillers
Thrillers are an important genre because they exist to excite audiences—their whole purpose is to induce the strongest emotional responses possible. They allow the audience to experience feelings that they typically do not feel on a normal basis, providing a level of (usually) fearful excitement that would regularly be difficult and unusual to achieve. Readers and viewers do not typically want to experience these emotions in their own daily lives; but because thrillers are fictional, the sensations thrillers produce in the audience are exhilarating rather than actually threatening.
V. Examples of Thriller in Literature
A very famous classic thriller in literature is Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a story that follows a mentally ill doctor who suffers from a “split personality.” Dr. Jekyll creates a potion that is made to suppress his immoral urges, however, he is unaware that what he has is a dissociative disorder, and the potion actually brings out his other personality, rather than suppress it. By day, he remains Dr. Jekyll, a man with many friends; by night he becomes Mr. Hyde, who is violent and immoral. Below is a passage from the first time Jekyll takes his potion:
The most racking pangs succeeded: a grinding in the bones, deadly nausea, and a horror of the spirit that cannot be exceeded at the hour of birth or death. Then these agonies began swiftly to subside, and I came to myself as if out of a great sickness. There was something strange in my sensations, something indescribably sweet. I felt younger, lighter, happier in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a millrace in my fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown but innocent freedom of the soul. I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine.”
Note the language used in this passage—racking pangs, grinding bones, deadly nausea, horror, agonies, swiftly, sickness, strange, recklessness, disordered, wicked, evil—all of the words are specifically chosen because they create feelings of anxiety, wonder, tension, and so on. The readers anticipate that things are about to change in the story, likely for ill, but either way, the initial change into Mr. Hyde seems stimulating and electrifying.
There are many examples of thrillers in the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, the famous and highly influential American horror writer. The following passage is the opening from Poe’s story “The Cask of Amontillado”:
The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely settled—but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved, precluded the idea of risk.
The introductory paragraph immediately sets up mystery, fear and anticipation with words like injuries, insult, revenge, threat, avenged, and perhaps the most compelling word used—risk. The narrator tells us very little about himself and his foe—we don’t know what happened, or who is guilty, and we are clueless about what is about to occur. But this creates a deep air of suspense, anticipation, and foreboding for the audience; and the knowledge that something thrilling is about to come.
VI. Examples of Thriller in Pop Culture
The currently running television series Bates Motel is a prime example of a psychological thriller. The story precludes the famous American horror film Psycho, featuring the teenage Norman Bates as the main character. Bates Motel is a particularly interesting thriller because Norman is simultaneously protagonist and antagonist. His role is emotionally perplexing for the audience, because on the outside Norman is a kind, caring, and protective person; when his personality splits, however, and he blacks out, Norman is a psychotic killer, as in the following clip—
At this point in the series, the depth of Norman’s psychotic nature is becoming more prevalent, and the scene in this clip is essentially the first time that the audience is positive that he is in fact a killer. Depicting the situation as if his mother is murdering Bradley—when truly Norman believes he is Norma, and he himself is the murderer—makes this a psychologically complex and horrific scene that is the perfect example of what constitutes a thriller.
The hugely popular television series Breaking Bad is an example of a crime thriller. This show about a high school teacher turned crystal meth dealer keeps the audience’s heart racing for what sometimes seems like every moment of an episode. Below is a well-known clip that captures Walter’s infamous speech, often called “I am the one who knocks,” in which he actually reveals to his wife who he has become:
This is a key moment for Walter, Skyler, and the especially the audience. Letting his wife know the truth about what type of person he is, and suggests that now he is truly capable of anything—which is both stirring and terrifying to the audience.
VII. Related Terms
Horror is a genre in literature, film and television that has the intention of inducing fear, anxiety, terror, disgust, and other similar feelings in an audience. They may include supernatural elements (ghosts, demons, monsters, curses) or focus on things like crime, morality, nightmares, psychological terrors, and so on. A thriller can be a horror, and vice versa—the two genres often go hand in hand across all types of media.
Action is a genre in which the characters are faced with an abundance of conflicts or challenges to overcome, usually involving physical tasks (action). Action movies very often involve crime, adventure, and topics of heroes and justice, usually with a protagonist fighting against extreme odds with a small chance of success, all for the greater good. Like horror, action media frequently overlaps with thrillers, as the two are oftentimes dependent on each other for the success of the plotline.
In conclusion, thrillers provide a level of excitement and emotion in its audience that few genres can achieve. It allows its readers and viewers to be entertained by their own intense reactions to what is going on in the story, producing emotions that they normally wouldn’t experience outside of fiction.