Heart Racingly Good: The History of Psychological Thrillers

We’re spotlighting a popular genre this week. We’re breaking down what it is, where it began, and what elements make up psychological thrillers.

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creepy hand in background with three psychological thriller book covers

There is something intrinsically pleasing about picking up a good thriller and getting the perfect spine-tingling, heart-racing feeling as you read. The best psychological thriller writers know how to keep you on your toes, guessing what will happen next while forcing you to read with one eye shut like a child watching a horror movie. But when did the genre start, and what tropes / literary devices make for the best psychological thrillers? Let’s find out.

How did the psychological thriller genre begin?

There’s some speculation as to the true origins of the genre. Some will say that James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy (1821) was the first literary thriller. I agree it was the start of the “thriller” genre. But psychological thrillers have a far more ominous and horror-based theme. Others say that Wilkie Collins’ 1859 publication of The Woman in White coined the genre, though it was known as “sensation novels” at the time.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, book cover old drawing cover of the authors side portrait

I argue that Edgar Allan Poe was the inventor and perfector of the genre as far as literature is concerned. Short stories like The Tell-Tale Heart (1843) and The Cask of Amontillado (1846) took the idea of a thriller and twisted it from an action-packed, fast-paced story into one that creeps into your psyche, forcing existential questions to be raised. While many have dubbed these stories Gothic Horror, the macabre psychological factors that plagued the protagonists make them Psychological Thrillers.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, book cover of a cowering woman in black satin dress.

Moving into the 20th century, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) brought societal expectations to the forefront of the genre’s themes. Again listed as a gothic horror, it’s the lingering spirit of a deceased wife that permeates a home and family that plagues the mind of a new household member that pushes this into the psychological thriller genre.

What elements make up the genre?

A Protagonist Who Experiences an Inner Conflict Started by External Factors

The novel’s conflict typically occurs within the protagonist’s mind, which is exacerbated by those around them. The character descriptions of psychological thrillers are more often further developed and more important than the plot itself. As the protagonist’s psyche is the main concern, we can’t have our protagonist doing something out of character; it would throw off the whole novel.

In the Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware, book cover of a black and white bramble bush.

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware is a “what happened” psychological thriller. There is a duel timeline narrative, one that happens in the present, where the protagonist, Nora, is in the hospital trying to remember how she got into a car accident. The other timeline is a spotty recollection of said bachelorette party, which takes place in, you guessed it, a dark, dark wood.

A Focus on the Macabre and Darker Elements of Life

This includes focusing on death, perception of reality, existence and purpose, and sense of identity. Psychological thriller needle at the human trait of questioning existentialism. It’s the spine-tingling, anxiety-ridden internal dialogue of why we’re here and what the purpose of our existence is that adds to this genre’s innate ability to reel the reader in and simultaneously have them questioning these things themselves.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, book cover of blurry passing scenery

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins uses themes of alcoholism, societal concepts of the role of women, perception, and memory recall to amp up the suspense and plot of the novel. The protagonist rides the same train every day. Her daily commute includes an obsessed observation of an idyllic family the train passes by. Everything changes when she looks over and witnesses something criminally unexpected in a split second. When she tries to report the incident, her life unravels.

Increasing Suspense and Tension Arc of the Plot

Whereas traditional thrillers are full of physical action, adventure, and suspense, psychological thrillers are more mental in nature. The sequence of events tends to lend itself to a slower progressive plot as it’s the inner musings of the protagonists and antagonists of the novel which is the focus.

Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante, book cover of an elderly woman's blurry profile.

Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante is a beautifully written psychological thriller that happens almost exclusively in the head of the protagonist, an aging surgeon with dementia. With themes of aging, impending death, questioning the reality of one’s perception, and the ties of friendship.

Fall, especially October, is a great time to pick up a novel in this suspenseful genre. Grab a warm blanket and a steaming cup of tea and relax in a comfy chair because relaxed is the last thing your mind will be as you devour psychological thrillers.

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