The thriller goes 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. Although it is often classified as a genre, in practice the thriller spreads itself across several recognized genres. One may speak of detective thrillers, horror thrillers, spy thrillers, and police thrillers, to name just a few. On the other hand, within a single genre—say, science fiction—there may be some films that are clearly thrillers (e.g., the 1956 alien-invasion drama Invasion of the Body Snatchers ) and others that do not fit the label so well (such as the 1971 satiric fable A Clockwork Orange ). The thriller can be thought of as a metagenre that gathers several other genres under its umbrella, and also as a band in the spectrum that colors certain thriller-receptive genres.

The slippery concept of the thriller is best grasped by comparing it to a closely related and sometimes overlapping form: the adventure tale. Both involve a sense of departure from humdrum existence into a realm that is more dangerous and exciting. In adventure tales like Treasure Island (1934), The African Queen (1951) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), that sense of departure is obtained by a movement out of the everyday world and into another world that is clearly removed from the sphere of mundane, modern-day life: the South Seas, the Amazon jungle, the Arabian desert. The thriller, on the other hand, remains rooted within the ordinary world, into which are brought those transforming elements (a murder, a monster, a vital secret) that charge it with a spirit of danger and adventure. Rather than transporting us to an exotic other world, the thriller creates a double world, one that is both exotic and everyday, primitive and modern, marvelous and mundane.

Other, secondary characteristics of the thriller include: vulnerable protagonists; a corresponding sense of vulnerability created in the audience through suspense and ambivalent feelings (e.g., anxiety/pleasure, sympathy for the villain); labyrinthine settings and narrative structures, the better to entangle both hero and audience; and, mainly in earlier eras, exotic elements evoking the Mysterious East.

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