The thriller goes against the grain of mundane modern life while at the same time remaining immersed in it. This concept indicates that the thriller is an essentially modern form, whose rise coincides with the arrival of urban industrialism, mass society, middle-class lifestyle, and the twentieth century. In other words, the thriller is a response to a modern world that is perceived under normal circumstances to be fundamentally not thrilling. As Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) observed in a 1936 magazine article ("Why 'Thrillers' Thrive," in Gottlieb, p. 109), "Our civilization has so screened and sheltered us that it isn't practicable to experience sufficient thrills at firsthand." The thriller seeks to redeem the unadventurous modern world with a spirit of old-fashioned adventure.
Although the thriller did not fully emerge until the early part of the twentieth century, it has relevant roots reaching back to the eighteenth century. Three literary antecedents are especially important: the Gothic novel,
The roots of the thriller can be more generally related to the rise of urban-industrial society in the nineteenth century, which created a new mass audience, along with new popular entertainment forms to serve that audience. One of the most important was the melodramatic theater, which placed a premium on action and visual spectacle, including suspenseful, last-minute rescues of heroes and heroines tied to railroad tracks, menaced by buzz saws, and dangled from precipices.
Another relevant area of nineteenth-century popular entertainment encompasses amusement parks, fairgrounds, and their thrilling rides and attractions (e.g., the roller coaster, Ferris wheel, and fun house). Like these attractions, the thriller works primarily to evoke visceral, gut-level feelings, such as suspense, fright, excitement, speed, and motion, rather than subtle or weighty emotions, such as tragedy, pathos, pity, love, and nostalgia. The thriller stresses sensations more than sensitivity; it is a sensational form.
Amusement parks and fairgrounds were among the main venues for early motion picture exhibition, which was dominated by novelty-oriented short films. A large group of these films highlighted the sensation of motion by placing the camera on moving vehicles such as trolleys, trains, boats, and elevators. Such sensations were eventually incorporated into an early film genre known as the chase film (of which the Edison Company's 1903 hit The Great Train Robbery is an unusually ambitious example), using a minimal story set-up as the springboard for an extended pursuit.
The period from 1907 to 1913 saw the movie industry's growing domination by narrative filmmaking, a development most closely identified with the American director D. W. Griffith (1875–1948). Among the techniques of film storytelling that Griffith refined, the one most pertinent to the thriller is cross-cutting (i.e., cutting back and forth between related actions occurring in different places). He applied this suspense-enhancing device to melodramatic last-minute rescue situations in a number of short films made for the Biograph Company, such as The Lonedale Operator (1911), in which a locomotive engineer races to save his besieged sweetheart, and Death's Marathon (1913), whose climax intermixes a distraught wife, her suicide-bent husband, a telephone connection, and a speeding automobile.
An eccentric contributor to the evolution of the movie thriller was the serial, whose episodic structure enabled action and suspense sequences to dominate a lengthy narrative with a nearly constant succession of thrills. Evolving in the mid-1910s, early American serials frequently featured female protagonists in recurring situations of jeopardy, as indicated by such titles as The Adventures of Kathlyn (1913), The Perils of Pauline (1914), and The Mysteries of Myra (1916). In Europe, the serial achieved greater artistic stature, particularly in the work of France's Louis Feuillade (1873–1925). In his celebrated serials Fantômas (1914), Les Vampires (1915–1916), and Judex (1916), supercriminals and secret societies transform sturdy bourgeois Paris into a surreptitious, almost surreal battleground, riddled with trap doors and hidden panels, infiltrated by hooded blackclad figures who scurry over rooftops and shimmy down drainpipes, and undermined by a constant succession of reversals and disguises.