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Our Love Affair with Thrillers and Suspense

Why do we love or shun thrillers, dark suspense, and bloody bodies?

Simon James Flickr Creative Commons
Source: Simon James Flickr Creative Commons

I am currently revising a novel that according to my editor falls within the new genre of “Suburban/Domestic Noir,”  launched by bestseller “Gone Girl.”  I rather like the sound of “Noir” — much sexier than plain old “Psychological Suspense” which is what I thought it was. I am not a great fan of thrillers generally (and cannot read horror stories, including those by Stephen King), but I do like select psychological suspense novels. How hard can these be to write, thought I, and had a go at writing one.  According to my editor, thrillers suit me because I am good at plotting and narrative suspense. It is pleasing to know that my life-long planning and a list making behaviors (not uncommonly considered over-the-top by my husband) have some spin-off for this type of fiction writing!

In truth I’d sooner be writing more bookclub fiction, but a psychological suspense–or even better, a Domestic Noir­–might garner more readers, given of course it is good enough and ever gets published. It got me thinking about why thrilllers and suspense are so popular; indeed they are right up there along with “Romance” in the reader popularity stakes. One explanation is that a thriller is escapist and reassures us that cruelty, violence and suffering have causes that stem from rational intentions, however gruesome, and that the forces of right and justice will struggle against them and in most cases win. This seems a bit feeble to me, as there are many pleasanter ways to escape through reading (for example, a thought-provoking book-club read, or a laugh-aloud book by Bill Bryson).

For me, reading psychological suspense is only enjoyable if there is an intellectual challenge, along with the page-turning suspense, and if there is minimal or preferably no graphic physical violence, and no graphic descriptions of mutilated bodies. When it comes to watching thrillers and suspense on film, however, I admit to being addicted to Nordic Noir. Indeed my husband and I only watch these series if we have the complete set on DVD so we don’t have to wait a week to watch the next episode. We have been known to miss riveting social occasions in order to stay home and watch three episodes in a row. If it weren’t for the need of sleep we’d watch the whole series without a break. Part of the reason we love these dark TV dramas is the characterization, and the incredible, intelligent plotting that typifies them. Characterization and intelligent plotting, even without the “noir” is also the reason we enjoy more sedate British detective series like “Morse” and the clever US series “Breaking Bad,” (although parts of that are fairly noir!)

So do we enjoy reading and watching these types of stories for their pure entertainment value? There is no doubt that they are so involving that nothing else has a chance of sneaking into our minds, thus giving us a break from everyday worries. Even if we know that terrible things like this do happen, in some form, in the real world, we can reassure ourselves that these stories are pure invention. Yet the film Schindler's List remains one of the best and most memorable movies I have ever seen, and I know it is based on fact. These terrible stories based on fact clearly can’t be viewed as escapism, but what they have in common with made-up stories in the thriller or suspense genres is the power to stir up intense emotion. Our brains release neurotransmitters like dopamine, and oxytocin when we are intensely emotional (intensely happy as well as scared, or horrified) and these can serve to consolidate memories, and even strengthen bonds between us and others sharing the same experience. (So if you want to make an impact on a new date this Halloween, take her or him to a very scary movie, or creep around a haunted house!)

You may have your own ideas why you like certain thriller or suspense novels or film genres more than others, or why you dislike them. Can you see any connection with your upbringing, or previous experiences? Perhaps you are a quiet, gentle person, yet you love violent thrillers. Perhaps you are a nurse who works in Emergency Medicine, and sees real-life horrific trauma every day, yet you cannot watch or read thrillers where bloody bodies and body parts are graphically depicted. (Or the reverse; perhaps you are an Emergency nurse because you love gory thrillers!) What is it specifically that attracts or repels you, and what is it that make your responses different to those of friends who have different tastes? If you feel inclined, do comment below, and go deeper, psychologically, than the simplistic page-turning, entertainment explanations. I suspect there are many and varied reasons behind our very individual responses. But one thing is certain, as expressed eloquently and often by my Yorkshire mother-in-law: “There’s now’t stranger than folk.” And she’s not referring to the characters in the thrillers and movies! 

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