Why We Love Psychological Thrillers

 I must specify by Psychological Thrillers, I also include the suspense, horror, disturbing and fucked up stuff we enjoy reading or watching. Since the definition of each genre is totally subjective in my opinion, someone might consider a book horror and I didn’t even flinch while reading it or vice versa.

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What is it about thrillers, suspense, dark twisted stories that attract us? How can we be fascinated by psychopaths, cruelty and evil?  I’ve been wondering these questions as I look at my “Fucked Up” bookshelves row where House of Leaves, Chuck Palahniuks’ Books, the Hannibal series and The Alienist stand there. After spending 24 hours digging for scientific reasons, verify the sources (you can never be too critical), vulgarize and organize the information, I end up finding 4 main possible factors that may explain why we love the thrill feeling :

EXCITATION TRANSFER THEORY

Published by Zillman in the early 1970s, the theory stipulates that the residual excitation from one stimulus can be transferred to influence behavior related to another stimulus.

“Residual excitation from essentially any excited emotional reaction is capable of intensifying any other excited emotional reaction.”

Zillmann, D. (2006). Dramaturgy for emotions from fictional narration. In J. Bryant & P. Vorderer (Eds.), Psychology of entertainment (pp. 215-238). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

What does this mean for reading/watching thrillers?

Take a book describing a scene where the protagonist discovers slowly that she’s been standing not in a basement but in a psychopath’s lair : a drop of blood starts dripping, the instruments displayed on the table… These little sensations where the author builds up the tension contribute to our excitement, and when the book finishes, all these excitements will add up.

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The moment we finally close that book and go to bed, this is where the residual emotional reaction kicks in, transferred to enhance other emotions afterwards, make it look like what we just read becomes more striking and vivid. 

A CONTROLLED ENVIRONMENT

How many times do you hear someone saying they love watching psychopaths show and serial killers documentary? Way too often. That is because we get to experience fear and anticipation through a medium, a medium we can turn off whenever we want, or close the book or even know that it’s not completely happening to us right know. But I bet, if giving the chance, no one would want to be at the same place as the characters. In fact, this control environment allows us to escape our daily quiet routine and spice it up with some suspense. In fact, the rare people I know who work directly with criminals are the ones who avoid these kind of stories and retreat to softer and lighter ones.

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THE PLOT TWISTS

What I noticed in the psychological thrillers genres are they often finish beautifully with a plot twist. The surprise element is one thing but what is very satisfying is the intellectual challenge itself. It makes us realize that we have been tricked by the author all along and appreciate the set-up he/she has built to make it happen.  So when looking back at the clues, we appreciate them more for their subtlety and quality.

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FORBIDDEN THOUGHTS

Everyone has a dark side. Thinking thoughts we’d rather not have. You know what they are and I don’t even need to mention examples. Those forbidden thoughts convey curiosity and fascination for the unknown. The what ifs of a situation where we will be free from the social norms and rules. Watching murder series or reading about taboo subjects are channeling the release those inner impulses, which prevent us to not act on those thoughts. 

Related imageSee also : Why I love Villains 

SURVEY TIME

There were so many other concepts I wanted to explore here. I hesitated in bringing science onto this blog but I find it more interesting to share what I learned while combining with my bookish hobby.

Do you like this kind of post format? 😀 Let me know in the little survey if you are interested in these future topics or leave your thoughts in the comments section !

31 comments

    • Thank you so much! ❤ I'm happy you like it 😀 What are some of your favourite psychological thrillers?

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  • I love your idea of a ‘fucked up’ bookshelf. Brilliant.
    We love to be scared. Good art, no matter what the medium, manipulates the beholder’s emotions. Good post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much! Very well said 😀 And yes, the fucked up bookshelf creates itself when I noticed a similar theme on my shelves LOL

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  • First of all, I LOVE the aesthetic of this post, not just because how pretty it is, but the formatting really makes it easier to read! Amazing research Trang, I totally love that “oh shit” moment, when you realize the danger is THERE and the twist is just so crazy you just can’t compute. Those are the best moments when you’re reading thrillers. But I never know about excitation transfer, or think about controlled environment. This is a really interesting and well-written article ❤

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    • Thank you Tasya ! 😀 It means so much to me, I always keep in mind what are the blogs’ users experience while reading the blog. It makes me happy that you love the format and it’s easier to read 🙂 Definitely, the plot twist moment or THE OH SHITs are always the best !! You can’t compute for a while and slowly realizing how everything makes sense too.

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    • HAHAH I can totally understand ! Thank you so much Inge, I’ve misseed you!! it’s been quite chaotic lately but I’ll be back soon to blog hop on your blog !! ❤

      Liked by 1 person

      • Don’t worry lovely and I’ve had a lot on my mind as well.. I only seem to run behind on everything lately :-). I’m struggling to be much present online but I won’t forget about you and I’ll be back as soon as I can :-)! xxx

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  • “Watching murder series or reading about taboo subjects are channeling the release those inner impulses, which prevent us to not act on those thoughts”

    Now, what are you basing that assumption that it releases those impulses instead of feeding them and making them stronger and stronger? I’m curious.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A really good observation! The best way I can vulgarize it, is you have to look at it two ways. The psychology behind the forbidden thoughts work differently for two populations: the more you become obsessed with it (which counts for the rare portion of the population (maybe sociopath and psychopath) vs the people who still have them but are not compulsively thinking about it. They don’t need to act on it because they have an outlet which are books and movies. I’m talking about the “normal” population. Normal in this case meaning the statistically average population. For most of people, this allows them to channel those inner thoughts through a medium and then lessen the need to act on it.

      So the answer is yes, there will be the rare people who by watching movies and reading these kind of books will feed them even stronger ad eventually act on them but most of the time, and the reason “We” as the average population would read them are a way of pushing those thoughts into a medium.

      Liked by 1 person

  • Great post! I love reading psych thrillers for all of these reasons. Your comment on forbidden thoughts actually reminded me of something I read a while back, related to thoughts that we’ve learned to suppress (the article talked about thinking about driving your car off a cliff/into a post/etc even though you wouldn’t actually do that). I think it was something about how we’re socialized and taught to think/act, but that we have these inherent impulses regardless? I don’t quite remember (making this comment semi-redundant), but you’ve made me want to go research this again.

    Post format is beautiful, also. Very easy to read, and aesthetically pleasing 🙂

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  • Loved the science and the format. The science brings a new way of considering the topic and I’m a fan of science and the humanities mixing so yeah, more science topics please. And the format made it all easy to digest. I’m all for more. Great one Trang.

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  • This was an amazing post! I’d say most of my shelves would be classfied as “Fucked Up” lol so this was an interesting read for me 🙂

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  • Haha: Trang research mode: on, that was seriously funny. Well, I do love the dark stuff I’m not going to deny that, which is why I certainly love thrillers and serial killers. The darker the better. No idea why…always been that way really 😊 This was another great read: highly enjoyed it 😀

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  • I LOVE this post!! 😍 Really, that’s so interesting and you’re bringing very good arguments ! I love psychological thrillers as well, books and movies. What I like the most is to see how the author (writer or director) builts suspense, which clues he leaves to let us guess the end and stuff like that. Mostly I like to see how they chose to link individual characteristics like personal history, personality traits and so on, to some behaviours (from the killer but also the “victim”)!
    One of my favourite is called The Blue Nowhere from Jeffrey Deaver. Can’t even remember what happens in the book, just that it was one of the best books I’ve ever read 😄

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  • Great topic! I think personally I enjoy them to escape, and of course to get all the chills while reading and to just sit back and think about the twisted-ness of the story after I finish the book 😉

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  • Great post Trang (also I will be sure to take part in your survey in a couple of days when I have my laptop. WordPress isn’t as good using the app on my iPad as it is using the website itself on my laptop!)
    I haven’t read many psychological thrillers, they’re not usually my genre, but I loved reading this post. Personally when I pick up thrillers it’s for the twists, the sense of the unknown and as I’m reading what keeps me hooked is trying to guess how it will end, picking up all the little clues the author has dropped and trying to make something out of them.
    Again great post! 🙂 ❤️

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  • Great post! I have never really thought about why I enjoy thrillers so much and true crime documentaries. This is an insightful read 🙂

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  • I am a big fan of mystery novels, but once it veers into the horror territory I turn chicken. I think it’s that fine line between the detecting of finding a killer and getting into the killers mind that really gets to me! Horror is not a genre I read. If it’s too real, I steer away. However, if you stuck that horror story in another world so that it wasn’t so “real” I could get into it. Weird I know. I loved the format of this post. It reminded me of a magazine article. Very cool!

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  • I haven’t seen too many of psychological thrillers, and I’ve read even fewer, but they’re always great when they’re well done. At least with movies, when you find a good one, make sure you only watch it rarely, so there’s enough time that you forget pretty much everything that happened in it. They’re always best served fresh.

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