Too Abnormal, or Too Cliché: Why Thrillers and Horrors Have to Be Perfect
Psychological thriller and horror films juxtapose reality and hyper-realism, navigating a deeper discussion of real-world themes presented exclusively in high-stakes circumstances, to entertain audiences.
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Both horror flicks and psychological thrillers have the ability to tamper with an audience’s perception of reality. However, in horror films, the audience’s reality is bent and stretched to a degree that maintains an aspect of believability but also contains evidently fake elements. In psychological thrillers, the audience’s conception of reality tends to be preserved, while the themes and the circumstances of the film are heightened to an abnormal degree.
What is it about messing with our concept of reality that excites audiences? Both genres—horror and thriller—utilize suspense to their advantage. The plot of horror revolves around a sense of expected and predictable doom, which the audience moves closer to as the movie progresses. On the other hand, thrillers use the same looming demise but are layered on top of unpredictable plots.
Horror movies are well known to be a common genesis of non-medical sleep deprivation, and the plot twists from psychological thrillers keep audiences thinking even years after viewing. But what makes these genres so appealing?
The answer: they’re relatable.
At first glance, that may seem counterintuitive: psychological thrillers shift the audience’s opinion or view of reality, and horrors shift reality altogether. What about living, murderous dolls is relatable? A family preserving ancestry by transferring their conscience?
Psychological thrillers and horror films lie across the very small boundary between fear and curiosity—though horror films are naturally closer to the fear side. Audiences are naturally drawn to relatable themes explored in many of these films, which uniquely invoke an element of fear through the hyper-realistic circumstances. This combination is exactly what makes psychological thriller and horror films so intriguing and addicting.
Intuitively, viewing an image that would make anyone shudder is a repulsive force—however, in horror and thriller films, such reactions create a perverse attraction between the film and its audience. There are several elements which contribute to this phenomenon: tension, relevance, and unrealism. The tension is standard and provides the viewers with a sense of suspense that keeps them wanting more from the storyline. Relevance establishes a sense of personal connection to the situations and themes from pressing societal issues such as racism or classism to smaller mundane appearances such as creepy neighbors in the movie, making a film’s fear feel real. Lastly, unrealism separates the actual events in the film from one’s real life, allowing the film to maintain its role as an entertaining movie instead of a nightmare which is purely disturbing to watch.
Additionally, unrealism plays a key role in the audience’s attraction to a film, as it invokes the notion of heightened circumstances. Audiences are introduced to a seemingly normal setting, until the first hint is dropped that these characters are in a scenario that is anything but that. Horror movies and psychological thrillers are distinct in the fact that their characters are thrust into situations of danger that can range from minimal, like uncertainty, to catastrophic, such as death. This influences the viewer’s response to the scenes playing out before them, manifesting in the form of “flight or fight” response. Only, the audience can’t actually do anything about it. As the film progresses, characters are faced with decision after decision revolving around the theme of ‘revolt now, and risk my life’ or ‘play along, and figure it out later.’ More often than not, the characters lean towards risking their lives because the adrenaline rush being experienced often overpowers their brain’s capacity to make the smartest decisions. The dire situations on screen paired with the viewers’ complete lack of control of the characters’ decisions captures the audience’s attention as they desperately wait to see how the characters’ fates will play out before them.
Another integral component in the audience’s desire to stick it through to the end of horrors and physiological thrillers is figuring out the movie's twist. What makes audiences follow the character into life-threatening scenarios is the notion that they too can imagine themselves in the same situation. This notion, preserved throughout the entirety of thriller and horror films, makes them so addicting: the characters’ reality isn’t that different from the audience’s, save for one key detail. This central point culminates into the core of the film, keeping audiences biting their nails until the credits roll.
This is exactly why the ending to a psychological thriller or a horror film is so key: it makes or breaks the entire movie. The best films of these genres have endings that expertly toe the line between being too complex and overwhelming, and being simple and cliché. The ending of the film has to neatly tie up all the bows on this storyline while also leaving one of them tied imperfectly.
Culminating a psychological thriller is no easy task, as the audience can very easily become frustrated with a lack of clarity or sufficient answers. It can just as easily become under-stimulating, and the audience is left satisfied, but without wanting more. The best psychological thrillers, like “Get Out” (2017) and “Shutter Island” (2010), share the common theme of being able to tread the line between crime/science fiction and horror expertly. They also combine unrealism and relevance with a flawless ending and superb acting and storytelling. Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” navigates a modern day manifestation of slavery and privilege, taken to the extreme, to exemplify the experience of minorities in America. Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” navigates the difficult discussion of the mentally insane, subtly maintaining the important discussion throughout a riveting plotline. These films are more horror-oriented, as audiences are taken on a frighteningly relatable journey with unrealistic, heightened manifestations of everyday, normal life problems. This is exactly what makes psychological thrillers so riveting and so addicting; they’re subtly relatable, while making audiences question their entire reality.