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What Makes a Film a “Psychological Thriller”?

Are sanity-based story lines really the keys to a quality fright film?

The season for spooks and ghouls is upon us. So too has come the time for scary flicks to have the limelight. Noteworthy of course is the fact that frightful flicks are hardly limited to the Halloween season. I recall one funny moment in a theatre getting ready to watch a romantic comedy when one of the previews was for a horror film to debut on February 14th. One of the older ladies in the theatre turned to her friend and said, “Valentine’s Day?”


Scary films are practically an American staple. Over time the genre of horror films has evolved significantly due to a host of factors. Technological advancement is certainly one such contributing element. However, smart audiences appear to be intrigued by complex storylines that when thoroughly plausible in real life heightens their sense of fear. Aliens taking over the earth are a far less threatening fate than having someone climb into your second story window. Worse is thinking your friendly neighbor or roommate who you once thought of as possibly quirky is actually a serial killer.

Practically a genre unto itself is the exorcism series of films. These are the ones whose previews lead me to quickly mute the screen and cover my eyes, or just run out of the room. This is notable not because I have a low threshold for such content, but rather because these are the very films often touted as “psychological thrillers.” As a therapist, I’ve certainly worked with individuals across the continuum with respect to mental health disorders. I’ve sat with actively psychotic clients and those with mania. And never have I run screaming from the room. The truth is that these are often some of the saddest cases to sit with. While intriguing to listen to the content of the stories these clients share, I’m often struck by what it must be like to live a reality that is parallel but not entirely rooted in the one the rest of us reside in.

To be honest, I don’t know that I can exactly tell you what a psychological thriller is. There are top 10, 15, and 50 lists that give one an idea of what is considered “psychological.” But in reality, “psychological thrillers” are more creepy than psychologically relevant. They sometimes exploit and glamorize notions of severe mental illness and do not do justice to the complexities of these conditions. Most often the information they provide is incomplete, if not incorrect. If there is one thing they actually do well, it is heightening paranoia of film audiences. They leave people trying to determine the “signs” of sociopaths and psychopaths even though neither term is actually used clinically by psychologists.

Undoubtedly more of such films will be flooding the airwaves and theatres this season. Certainly have fun with all the tricks and treats. Watch that disturbing Chucky doll terrorize people or stories of ghosts haunting homes or entire towns. Just know that those “psychological thrillers” are hardly such. If anything, they’re the trick, not the treat!

Follow me on Twitter at MillenialMedia

Goal Auzeen Saedi, Ph.D., received her doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology from the University of Notre Dame.

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