Is a sub-genre of thrillers with heavy focus on characters? It often incorporates elements from the
mystery and drama genre along with the typical traits of the thriller genre. In addition,
psychological thrillers contain elements of and often overlap with the horror genre, especially seen
in psychological thrillers.
Psychological thriller is a fictional thriller story, which emphasizes the psychology of its characters
and their unstable emotional states. In terms of classification, the category is a sub-genre 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.
Characters are no longer reliant on physical strength to overcome their enemies but are reliant on
their mental resources by battling for equilibrium in the characters own mind. The suspense
created by psychological thrillers often comes from two or more characters preying on one
another's mind. E.g. playing deceptive games.
Psychological thrillers tend to follow certain themes which is the center of the story. Some of them as
• Death-Particularly murder plays a strong role in psychological thrillers
• Reality-Commonly the protagonist feels a loss of reality
• Identity-usually in Psychological thrillers the main protagonist will face a struggle with their identify
or multiple identity's
• Guilt –Characters in psychological thrillers often feel guilty and often seek some sort of redemption as
a form of forgetting/covering up what they feel guilty about.
Psychological thrillers commonly focus on a character mind often by having a
first person narrative, this gives the audience an insight into the mind of the
The idea of what is real and what is not is commonly used in psychological
thrillers such as Inception inception or Trance. This is often used as a tool to
focus the audience to pay very close attention and make them think so that
when they decipher the story they feel a sense of achievement.
Location and Costumes
The locations typically used within psychological thrillers are usually set within
and Urban or Modern area for e.g. City and suburbia, and not a secluded
setting which is usually associated with horrors to create a sense of realism for
the main character and also to show that the main character fits the social
norms of society in addition makes the audience wonder where the element of
danger is going to come from in the story .
Much like locations Costumes in psychological thriller are normally quite
colloquial or formal as psychological thrillers convey many surreal themes so
therefore using normal clothing creates the sense of realism for the characters.
The most frequently used colours in psychological thriller film openings are red, black
and white. Red and black are closely related to the genre of horror as they primarily
connote danger, violence, evil and mystery. However, these colours used in a horror film
openings usually connote a literal meaning where as a psychological thriller simply
implies these implications not revealing too much. This is achieved commonly through
low-key lighting to create an enigma, uneasy atmosphere and create a sense of mystery.
Codes and Conventions
Low key lighting is often used in psychological thrillers to create a dark, tense atmosphere and to create shadow and
make the audience feel fear and tension. In addition low key lighting is also use to create enigma for the audience
causing them to question the narrative.
Sound- the music used in psychological thrillers tend to use low pitched, miner key and ominous Eerie music with a few
unexpected and sudden harsh high pitched notes usually without any clear rhythm, structure or melody. Atmospheric
sound and sound effect are typically used to create an eerie sound and build tension but to also connote psychological
thriller main protagonist multiple personality's and disarray.
Camera Movement and editing is often fast pace, this is done to build tension and panic amongst the audience to reflect
what is happening on screen.
Font/colour of title- displaying the opening credits in a certain way to emphasise the theme of the film.
Directors of thrillers
Alfred Hitchcock - also known as the 'Master of suspense' uses these conventions to an extent that it’s so effective and
really encapsulates the audience. You can find it in one of his best films 'Psycho' which does this really well.
David Lynch - is a surrealist director whose mysteries are usually puzzles of the mind. The audience and the characters
themselves must figure out what is real and what isn't. E.g. Mulholland drive.
Martin Scorsese - director of 'The Departed' & 'Shutter Island’.
Knives- Knives are a typical symbol associated with a psychological thriller as they have connotations
of blood, death, pain and brutality. A typical representation of this would be in the famous knife scene
from Hitchcock's film 'Psycho'. Knives are often used to show that somebody is going to get killed and
thus it acts a common device to keep the audience engaged.
Silhouettes and shadows are what give a psychological thriller the enigma and mystery for the
audience. Shadows are a common piece of iconography associated with the psychological thriller genre
because they build up fear in the audience, by instigating that the protagonist is being watch by a
human being or some kind of animal/monster. The protagonist is often oblivious to this but can often
sense that something isn't right, which leads them on their journey. They often induce thoughts of fear
and darkness for the audience as well as giving them clues and they ask questions out of suspense. A
character with a silhouette is most likely to be the protagonist, which usually isn't revealed until the
end of the film.
Iconography Associated with the psychological
Iconography Associated with the psychological Thriller
confined space -The use of confined spaces in a thriller also makes the audience feels as though they
are too trapped. Being in a confined space often leads the protagonist to start breathing heavily and
panting to inform how they are trapped and cannot escape, or it often leads to the start of their
struggle as they try to break free.
Woods are locations often used for psychological thrillers. This is because they create a sense of being
lost as the characters find themselves trying to figure out how to escape. Woods are often isolated too,
which creates a sense of vulnerability and it seems inevitable that the characters will ever find any
help. There may be one house in the woods, which often turns out to be the protagonist.
Running water is often a symbol of death as it suggests the draining of life or it is often associated with
blood dripping and suggests that the characters are in danger.
Most psychological thrillers are set within modern/urban areas to reflect the character as seemingly
“normal”. Specific locations include: police stations/prison cells, family homes and hospitals Also the
costume of characters does tend to be casual as well again reflecting a “normal life”.
Mirrors- Mirrors are commonly used in psychological thrillers to portray the use of reflection of the main
protagonists inner self, as well as representing ‘the dark side of specific characters.
Iconography Associated with the psychological
Psychological thriller in which (until the often violent resolution) the conflict between the main
characters is mental and emotional, rather than physical. Characters, either by accident or their own
curiousness, are dragged into a dangerous conflict or situation that they are not prepared to resolve.
Characters are not reliant on physical strength to overcome their brutish enemies, 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. The suspense created by psychological thrillers
often comes from two or more characters preying upon one another's minds, either by playing
deceptive games with the other or by merely trying to demolish the other's mental state.
The majority of main characters within the psychological thriller usually appear to be heterosexual to
make them as typical and more normal to fit in within norm of sociality and not to be seen as different
Narrative Theory's of psychological thrillers
Vladimir Propp came up with the theory that characters have a narrative function and they also provide the structure for the narrative. This theory relates to the influence of
typical characters. e.g. the hero, helper, donor, villain and the princess. These 5 typical characters influence the narrative as the characters are able to act as a base for the
narrative due to them providing known situations such as the villain fighting the hero over something or someone.
Propp's theory relates to the thriller genre as it includes conventional and expected characters. For example in a thriller film the audience would expect the film to contain a
villain/evil character, this character would be the main cause of pain/ suffering caused in the film or they would be the main cause of surprise, suspense/ tension built within
the audience. The audience would also expect a thriller film to have a hero; this character would be the counter-action of the villains bad deeds, they will be a main character
within the film and they will be the cause of the downfall of the villain.
Tzvetan Todorov had a complex interpretation of film texts; this was his theory of equilibrium and disequilibrium. Equilibrium means that the fictional environment begins
normally so that the audience can relate to that calm situation. Disequilibrium means that the environment then suffers some disruption, which may excite or shock the
Claude Levi-Strauss - Binary Opposites
Levi-Strauss used the idea of binary oppositions as a way of understanding the production of meaning within narratives. He argued that all constructed meaning depended
on opposites, meaning that they were paired to something. Every element of a story has something meaning completely the opposite that it is paired with. Some examples of
binary opposites found in moving image narratives are:
Male vs. female
Good vs. evil
Hero vs. villain
Roland Barthes - Action & Enigma Codes
Barthes decided that films are made up of narrative codes such as action and enigma codes. These codes are ways in which suspense is created in narrative.
Enigma codes: Are plot elements which cause the audience to ask questions about the event and why something happened.
Action codes: Are actions on screen which result in further action. These cause the audience to ask questions as to what is going to happen next which is highly typical
within psychological . Suspense is created by the audience's wish to understand the reasons behind an action.
Enigma is used frequently in psychological thrillers in order to captive the audience’s
attention. A dilemma that the target audience can relate to is introduced and then played
around with and resolved or left unresolved. To catch the audience’s attention and entice
them, directors may use sub genres to suit the intended target audiences taste. For example,
horror thriller, psychological thriller, comedy thriller and etc. Thrillers regularly coincide
with mystery stories, but are differentiated by the structure of their plots. Thrillers take place
on a much grander scale - the crimes that must be prevented are serial or mass murder (such
as ‘Se7en’), terrorism (such as ‘Unthinkable’), assassination, or the overthrow of
governments. Jeopardy and violent confrontations are conventional plot elements. A thriller
climaxes when the hero finally defeats the protagonist, saving others lives and his own.