A previous version of this article appeared in Pulse, July 1st, 2016
I often see books advertised as psychological thrillers, and have used this term to describe my Helen Mirkin series. I feel that as both a psychologist and writer in the thriller, mystery and suspense genre, I can thus describe my work. But what are psychological thrillers, and how might they differ from “regular” ones? I will attempt to address this, and welcome your thoughts as well.
For starters, I looked up the definition in Wikipedia:
“Thriller is a broad genre of literature, film and television, having numerous subgenres. Thrillers are characterized and defined by the moods they elicit, giving viewers heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety.”
I am tempted to add that music also performs this function admirably, as does theatre, and would like to highlight what I consider to be the queen of all performing arts – opera. Opera combines elements of storytelling and drama with music and often dance, and it can certainly evoke mood, including one fraught with suspense and anxiety. Consider, for example, Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, based on the Henry James novel and libretto by Myfanwy Piper. Does it qualify as a thriller?
So what is a thriller, and what makes it a psychological one?
Again, I first turn to Wikipedia, the modern day encyclopedia of cyberspace, that library of Babel. Among other things, it states that the psychological thriller is “a thriller story which emphasizes the unstable mental and emotional states of its characters.” Moreover, it is described as a sub-genre of the thriller, “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. Psychological thrillers often incorporate elements of and overlap with mystery, drama, action, and horror (particularly psychological horror). They are usually books or films.” Examples given of writers and film directors in this genre included Jonathan Kellerman (a psychologist), as well as Alfred Hitchcock, so I am in good company of two “masters” of the genre, am familiar with their work, and have for the most part, enjoyed it. Others cited included Henry James, Patricia Highsmith, and Stephen King. I am surprised Ingmar Bergman was not mentioned.
For the most part, literary fiction deals with characters undergoing emotional ups and downs as they deal with challenging events, as otherwise, we tend to find them unidimensional, uninspiring or even boring. We become emotionally involved and drawn into a story when it somehow touches us, and triggers memory traces of familiar experiences. We may resist reading it when the experiences depicted are completely alien to us, and we are not motivated to befriend them. Generally speaking, via its focus on dramatic action rather than on in-depth revelations of inner states (e.g., thoughts and feelings), the thriller introduces a certain pace or tempo to the unfolding of the story. The sequence of events and the unexpected twists of the plot (e.g., conflict) move the story along so that it achieves page-turning thriller status. Thus, I would be hard-pressed to consider Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain or Joseph and His Brothers a psychological thriller, although both authors demonstrate outstanding psychological acumen.
When the thriller is characterized by psychological themes that get into the nitty gritty of the protagonist’s sensations, thoughts and feelings (or those of other characters) – the pendulation (moving back and forth, like a pendulum – a word coined by Peter Levine) between trauma and healing vortices (or if you will, between the forces of destruction and the life force) becomes more pronounced. How do we know this? We get activated when our protagonist is challenged i.e., our heart beats more quickly as we hurriedly turn the pages to see how he or she is faring. We breath (exhale) with relief when safety is reached or order is temporarily restored within the fictional world we are immersed in. This “discharge” allows our emotional container to grow, and now we have more room for, and can better withstand the next cycle or twist in the storyline.
The quicker the pace, the greater the rhythm of the pendulation provided by the author, which is matched by the reader’s autonomous nervous system (ANS). This parallel process presumably involves mirror neurons. As we read a thriller, our ANS may work overtime in its efforts to continue to maintain homeostasis between the movements (configured as waves) of the sympathetic (arousal/stress related) and parasympathetic (relaxing) branches of the ANS.
Some readers may be overwhelmed by the events depicted in the book they are reading, which may trigger memory traces of “undischarged” traumatic events from their life experiences. This may result in activation of the autonomous nervous system (e.g., a pounding heart, a pulsating carotid artery, increased blood pressure, shallow/faster/more constricted breathing, clammy hands, tightening of the stomach or chest, etc.) The reader unconsciously attempts to titrate the amount of “trauma vortex” his (or her) nervous system can deal with at that precise moment by rhythmically pendulating back and forth between the “trauma vortex and “healing vortex” (see previous posts that deal with self-regulation.) The earlier readers are able to notice these signs in themselves (or in their partners), the easier it may be to cope with this activation (via discharge of excess survival energy) rather than to be managed by it destructively (e.g., picking a fight with our partner, devouring a bar of chocolate.)
Most, if not all literature, but more so the thriller/psychological thriller – presumably because of its tempo – allows the reader to immerse himself (or herself) in a generally acceptable amount of anxiety – after all, it is the book’s characters, and not the reader proper, who are dealing with the anxiety-provoking themes (e.g., separation anxiety, fear of object loss, fear of loss of love, annihilation anxiety). On the part of the reader, there is a dual awareness (perhaps made possible by a creative dissociation) which provides the transitional space between fantasy and reality. To the extent that the protagonist meets the challenges he or she is faced with and survives, so does the reader – this provides a vicarious sense of mastery. When the challenges the characters are dealing with come too close to comfort, some readers may associatively move on to recall how they dealt with similar situations and survived.
There is usually a spontaneous yet unique branching out of associations – the resonance of these memory traces within each reader may lead to the healing vortex.
Depending on what happens next, the physical act of putting the book down may be another way of initiating the movement from the trauma vortex to the healing vortex, for example when the reader goes off to do something that makes him (or her) feel good and resourced (e.g., go for a swim) and in thus doing, naturally releases some of the activation that was building up in his or her nervous system (body/mind). Alternatively, he or she may move on to a cognitive task that takes them out of the felt sense of sensations altogether – taking a break may be a way of “grounding” by leaving the sensations of the “felt sense” (Gendlin,1982) and immersing oneself in something else that involves the neocortex, such as making a shopping list or deciding which clothes to put in the washer.
Via the linear act of reading, with its potential for putting the book down and taking a break, there occurs a process of “cutting” the literary narrative into tolerable pieces.
In sum, there are various ways to break down the literary narrative into small pieces that can be digested, and we usually do this unconsciously, as we naturally pendulate from the trauma vortex to the healing vortex, or if necessary, simply ground ourselves. If we find ourselves getting activated to such an extent that on our own, we are unable to release the survival energy recruited by our sympathetic system to deal with the vicarious challenges posed by the book we were reading (or other work of art, such as a play, opera, film), then perhaps it is time to reach out for a significant other and share how we are feeling.
When our ANS is overwhelmed and no longer discharges enough on its own, we can help the body/mind resume its innate discharge of excess survival energy. The discharge functions as an “all-clear” sign to the brain’s innate warning system (amygdala) and allows the body to stop pumping out stress hormones and to reset itself (see my body/mind posts for more information.)