The Psychological Thriller

A previous version of this article appeared in Pulse, July 1st, 2016


cheap thrillsI 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.[2] 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 were Henry James, Patricia Highsmith, Stephen King and Nicci French (a husband and wife team). I am surprised Ingmar Bergman was not mentioned.

For the most part, literature deals with characters characterized by emotional ups and downs as they deal with challenging events, otherwise, we tend to find them uninspiring or even boring. 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. 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 (the moving back and forth, like a pendulum) between trauma and healing vortices, or if you will, 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 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 we have 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 our own autonomous nervous system (ANS). 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 and parasympathetic branches of the ANS.

Most if not all literature, but more so the thriller/psychological thriller, presumably because of their tempos, allow the reader to immerse himself (or herself) in a generally acceptable amount of anxiety – after all, it is the book’s characters who are dealing with the anxiety-provoking themes (e.g., separation anxiety, fear of object loss, fear of loss of love, annihilation anxiety), and not the reader proper. 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 (e.g., go for a swim) and that releases some of the activation. 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 and immersing oneself in something else, presumably something 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.


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 (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 (from the word “pendulum”) 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 (i.e., discharge) this activation in a constructive rather than destructive way (e.g., picking a fight with our partner, devouring a bar of chocolate.) Via the practice of somatic experiencing (SE), one can learn how to help the body/mind discharge excess survival energy when the ANS is overwhelmed and no longer does so on its own. The discharge functions as an “all-clear” sign to the brain’s innate warning system, the amygdala (see my body/mind posts), and allows the body to stop pumping out stress hormones and to reset itself.


Recent Posts

What Somatic Experiencing (SE) has to offer writers and readers

Ruth Shidlo, PhD

Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a body-based therapy first developed by Dr. Peter Levine in the late seventies. Since then, it has been increasingly refined, and used with great success in many parts of the world, primarily as a trauma therapy. This is because trauma is understood as characterizing the response of one’s nervous system to a specific event (or events), rather than as characterizing the event itself. “The body keeps the score” (Van Der Kolk) and its inherent wisdom can be harnessed to help resolve trauma.

When faced with an imminent threat, certain elective physiological processes are inhibited, in order to free up resources for the Fight or Flight stress response. The amygdala (part of the limbic system that mediates emotion) sends out a distress signal to the hypothalamus, a “command center” that communicates with the rest of the body via the autonomous nervous system. When the sympathetic nervous system springs to action, digestive processes are put on hold. Stress hormones such as epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol are released, and the heart beats faster than before, working hard as it pushes blood to the muscles and limbs, heart and other vital organs. Pulse and heart rate go up, and the person begins to breathe more rapidly. Extra oxygen is directed to the brain, increasing alertness. Sight, hearing, and other senses, necessary for survival, become sharper. Meanwhile, epinephrine triggers the release of blood sugar (glucose) and fats from temporary storage sites in the body. These nutrients flood into the bloodstream, supplying energy to all parts of the body.

As Peter Levine has pointed out, surplus energy left over from that recruited to deal with threat will have nowhere to go, especially when Fight or Flight were not possible, or we responded with Freeze, a third and equally valid response of the nervous system to threat. Over time, this accumulation of energy may lead to symptom formation, as the body-mind remains in a chronic state of activation and stress. The “all-clear” signal has not yet fully registered.

In SE, we work with one physical sensation at a time, and learn how to release trapped energy in the body. This may require completing Fight or Flight responses, which were not possible at the time (e.g., a car accident, surgery), so that a natural process of releasing or discharging the energy did not occur.

Bottom line:

It pays to become increasingly attuned to our bodily sensations, something one learns and practices during SE. Moreover, all feelings have bodily referents. For example, sadness may be accompanied by one’s eyes tearing, a trembling of the chin, a wavering voice, bursting into tears; a sense of shame may be expressed by averting one’s eyes or looking downwards, joy by smiling or dancing. Being aware of our bodily sensations informs an emergent awareness of our feelings.

In SE, we practice utilizing convergent channels of multimodal information, all of which flow towards and co-create the overall “gestalt” we have of a certain object, person, situation–what Eugene Gendlin has termed, the Felt Sense. These channels are:


Image (whether visual, auditory, tactile)

Behavior (and the impulse toward movement)

Affect (feelings and emotions)

Meaning (thoughts, beliefs)

How is this relevant to the process of writing or reading?

For the writer, this bodily attunement and its expression can bring characters alive, especially when interwoven with additional channels, such as the character’s thoughts, feelings or behavior. This allows the reader to respond in similar vein, tapping into his or her own feelings.

It is not necessary to literally share an actual situation or an event with a character, for the reader to empathize with his or her plight – rather, it’s about conveying enough multimodal information for the reader to be able to understand the shared experience of an emotion e.g., what if feels like to experience the loss of a loved one, to be shamed and humiliated, to overcome what has hitherto seemed like an insurmountable obstacle. Reading helps us be in touch with ourselves and work through our feelings.

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