Common Themes in Psychological Thrillers: Part 2

Recently I pointed out two themes that are prominent in psychological thrillers — guilt and obsession — and listed several films that convey these themes. Now, to build on that (and to appease some people’s comments on that article), this entry will briefly explore why these themes are so prevalent and what makes them work in these aforementioned movies and in this genre of film as a whole.

First, let’s look at the theme of guilt. As mentioned in my last article, three films that feature this film heavily are Shutter Island, Inception, and The Machinist. This theme is a natural fit in psychological thrillers because guilt is such a strong personal, individual feeling. It is something that is typically internalized, because the person/character in question feels terrible about an act or event but is scared about the ramifications that will arise should the truth be revealed. This fear of revelation — or of facing the consequences head on — collides with the feeling of guilt to create a perfect storm of psychological disarray. This is why we often see ambiguous realities in psych thrillers about guilt — these films show us, in a hyperbolic way, that the main character is in such a damaged mental state that he/she cannot even discern reality anymore.

In Shutter Island and The Machinist, the main characters are heavily plagued by guilt, but since they are simultaneously overwhelmed with fear, their mental states deteriorate and their minds create elaborate fantasies that help them avoid facing the consequences of their actions. However, the signs always manifest themselves, and ultimately, each character inevitably confronts his past actions. At this point, both films show us that the only way to overcome guilt is to also overcome fear, which is achieved by accepting the truth and the resulting consequences. Once each character does this, he is at peace.

Inception conveys the theme of guilt in a slightly different way. As discussed to this point, guilt is an intensely internalized feeling that provides a root for psychological unrest. This does hold true in Inception, but since this film is about dreaming and people’s subconscious minds, Dom Cobb’s guilt is exposed to others, and very nearly destroys his team’s mission. Despite this slightly different presentation, however, Cobb still achieves his peace by facing his guilt head-on (he confronts the projection of his wife and later reunites with his children — at least in his mind).

Obsession, like guilt, is another feeling that entails fear and is typically internalized. Three psych thrillers that convey this theme, as discussed before, are Black Swan, Take Shelter, and Zodiac. Obsession is often driven by fear and can become so extreme that people/characters have difficulty being fully transparent with others, as they feel that they are the only ones who can understand what they are facing and what they are trying to achieve. In Black Swan, Nina is obsessed with achieving perfection. Thus, she fears imperfection. Like the previous examples with guilt, fear comes into the equation to distort Nina’s mental state. Her obsession and fear are so internalized that we cannot even tell the difference between what is actually going on around her and what is simply going on as a fantasy in her head. In Take Shelter, the main character’s fear more clearly drives his obsession — he thinks a huge storm is coming and that his family is in danger, so he becomes obsessive in building a storm shelter and taking all precautions to prevent tragedy from befalling him and his family. Like in Black Swan, he mostly keeps these feelings to himself, at his own peril.

Zodiac is a bit different in its portrayal of Robert Graysmith’s obsession in trying to track down the Zodiac killer. His obsession appears to be driven more by a thirst for knowledge and truth than by fear. However, one could argue that he does have some deep rooted fear related to the implications of the murderer never being apprehended, as well as to the inner turmoil he would face in taking on this investigative task but never truly completing it. This latter idea is where we see that accompanying theme of internalization pop up once again. We also see that Graysmith’s obsession has similar consequences to these other films with regards to how he becomes alienated from those around him. His obsessive quest becomes more important than his family and colleagues.

Thus, while not all psychological thrillers might portray the themes of guilt and obsession in exactly the same way (and thankfully so, as these movies would eventually become redundant and uninteresting if this were the case), we see that the most effective ones often group these themes with fear. Fear can be a byproduct of guilt (like in Shutter Island and The Machinist), a driver of obsession (like in Black Swan and Take Shelter), or simply an accompanying theme. It is also apparent that guilt and obsession are effective and common themes in psychological thrillers because they are such strongly internalized, personal emotions. This trait makes it natural to delve deeply into a character’s mind, which, of course, puts the “psychological” in psychological thriller.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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My name is Tom Dianora. I'm a 23-year-old yuppie (though not like Patrick Bateman) living in LA. I have a passion for film that I like to tap into through writing.

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  1. Petra Foster

    Very good followup Tom. I still think that there are more themes in Psych Thrillers that can be explored and analyzed to make a complete article about this subject. There are many foreign psychological thrillers that needs to be included in the research too.

    • Thanks. There are of course more themes but these are two that I’ve noticed in particular. I figured it was worth going into more detail about them with respect to why they work so well. I think trying to make a complete article about this subject would take quite a bit of time and research, and would result in an extremely long piece of writing. Maybe if this was my profession I’d look into that. 🙂

  2. Interesting post. Michael Shannon’s performance in Take Shelter really did it for me. He is great in Boardwalk Empire!

  3. Read both of the parts and found it very intriguing. Thanks for writing it.

  4. Rosanne

    Nice insights, this is a good follow up!

  5. Yes, certain driving, negative emotions are big factors of this type of movie.

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