daily californian logo

BERKELEY'S NEWS • FEBRUARY 01, 2023

Ring in the New Year with our 2023 New Year's Special Issue!

Psycho thrillers: Illuminating darkness within

article image

ASHLEY XU | STAFF

SUPPORT OUR NONPROFIT NEWSROOM

We're an independent student-run newspaper, and need your support to maintain our coverage.

OCTOBER 31, 2022

“Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.” 

— Carl Jung 

P
sychological thrillers reveal to the audience a window from which to view humankind. On a day-to-day basis, we rarely consider the psyches of those around us, fixated on our own thought processes. What makes this genre so captivating is that it invites us into the mind of another; as we observe how a third party acts in a given scenario, we experience their anxieties and share their perspective and values.

Think “Donnie Darko;” at the beginning of the film, Donnie, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, wakes up on a mountain road at sunrise, picks up his bike, and proceeds to head home. We follow him winding down a long narrow road, entering his neighborhood, and passing by neighbors for the length of an entire song (“The Killing Moon”) before any meaningful dialogue is introduced. We are immediately drawn into his frame of mind as we peruse his neighborhood with him, and later on, hear his innermost thoughts as they replay in his head and form into words on his therapist’s couch. 

Comparably, Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan,” starring Natalie Portman, takes us into the thoughts of Nina, a ballerina, as we try to contend with her self-destruction in the feat for perfection. As viewers, we are launched into the troubled mind of Nina through her bone-chilling hallucinations and acts of self-harm. We follow her as she tries to climb the ladder of competitive ballet, root for her, and feel her frustrations towards an overbearing mother and creepy ballet instructor. Along with the connections we form with the characters, however, we are often left with more questions than answers.

We are left to piece together the parts of the film, the metaphors, the meaning, and curate our own theory about what the subliminal message really is. Did Nina actually stab herself with glass, or is it a hallucination? Left to reconcile with what is real and what is merely an allegory for mental illness or pressurized professions, the viewer cannot simply turn off the movie and move on. These images and hidden meanings resonate with us long after the credits roll. 

Left to reconcile with what is real and what is merely an allegory for mental illness or pressurized professions, the viewer cannot simply turn off the movie and move on.

In “Donnie Darko,” for instance, we watch as Donnie navigates the Primary and Tangent alternate universes to save the world, experiences paranoid schizophrenia, or simply has a wild dream. That’s the best part of a psychological thriller — no theory necessarily leads to the “right” analysis.

It is up to the viewer to interpret the film through psychoanalysis of the characters, as well as through their motives and morals. And in the end, we never really know what the producers and writers had intended for us to walk away with. According to Psychology Today, the reason we love psychological thrillers is that they “explore their characters’ innermost thoughts and motivations,” which “allows us to examine how their decisions propel the plot forward into the extremes of human ethics and morality.” There is something almost exhilarating about guessing someone else’s next move or trying to read their mind. 

Both films, “Donnie Darko” and “Black Swan,” draw us into the minds of others as we explore the duality of the characters, but what’s more, the duality of humanity. 

Psychological thrillers force us to come to terms with the darkness lurking below our consciousness — transcending the ego — and in doing so we learn more about ourselves and get to know our own psyche on a deeper level. 

Psychological thrillers force us to come to terms with the darkness lurking below our consciousness — transcending the ego — and in doing so we learn more about ourselves and get to know our own psyche on a deeper level. 

Take “The Machinist,” an incredibly dark yet enchanting movie. Christian Bale, known for his extreme method acting, reportedly lost 173 pounds for the role, weighing only 110 pounds during filming, according to IMDb. The commitment to the act — while extremely unhealthy and borderline concerning — enhances the darkness felt in viewers as we recoil over Reznik’s exposed spinal cord as he hunches over, or wince as we watch him wash his hands with bleach.  

The gray coloring of the film visually propels us into a darker mood immediately, and the plot’s twists and turns are so surreal that we can only guess what’s going to happen next. And that’s just what psychological thrillers allow us to do: to anticipate how the next scene will unfold — the character’s next move and what they are thinking. They allow us to play psychologist for the night, to analyze the experiences of somebody else, and to reflect on how those experiences shape their deepest emotions and thought patterns.  

But usually, we are left without a simple diagnosis. It may take some Reddit threads and deep scrolling to decipher the various messages of the film — it is seldom just handed to us, at least, not if the film is well done. 

While we might be led to believe that Reznik is experiencing extreme insomnia or psychosis, what lies below the surface, according to most interpretations, is the more terrifying reality, which is that (spoiler alert) the whole movie is an exploration of grief. For Reznik, the grief he tries to cope with after a traumatic hit-and-run is seen externally in his withering figure, but mentally in his delusions and hallucinations. His attempts to bury the past and come to terms with this burden of truth — the deadly hit-and-run — through his imaginary relationships and adventures keep us intrigued, but the most chilling aspect of the film is the more mundane reality. What is so thrilling about “The Machinist,” and other psychological thrillers, is that they force us to confront real human emotions, ones we should but are not always ready to face. 

His attempts to bury the past and come to terms with this burden of truth — the deadly hit-and-run — through his imaginary relationships and adventures keep us intrigued, but the most chilling aspect of the film is the more mundane reality.

The essence of a successful psychological thriller, according to Masterclass’s article “How to Write a Psychological Thriller,” is “that the biggest questions revolve around the minds and behavior.” We, as viewers, can only analyze what we are given, and sometimes what we are given is a web of confounding storylines and unreliable narrators. The themes of “morality,” “mental illness” or a “dissolving sense of reality” become clear only through a close analysis of the characters’ minds and inner conflicts. Oftentimes, when stepping into the consciousness of another, we come face-to-face with our own afflictions of the mind. It is eerie to realize that Nina from “Black Swan” could be staring back at us in the mirror of psychoanalysis. 

No one wishes to be crazy, psychotic or mentally ill. But in reality, that is what makes us thrilling. The excitement of humanity can sometimes be found in its danger. Not necessarily in the physical sense — a murderer around the corner for example — but rather in the sense that we truly don’t know all the mysteries of the mind, and why we think or behave the way we do sometimes. Simple things can be confusing or irrational to others, and so self-explanatory or standard to ourselves. A simple diagnosis may explain these idiosyncrasies, but the lure of art, and films in this instance, is that a labeled illness or habit cannot always be encapsulated with words or writing. Sometimes it must be seen, felt, and understood; sometimes, it must be thrilling and terrifying, yet beautiful all at once. 

Sometimes it must be seen, felt, and understood; sometimes, it must be thrilling and terrifying, yet beautiful all at once. 

True horror is not in the possibility of demons or ghouls but instead resides in the canals and curves of our brains. True horror is the pain we feel, the emotions we attempt to process, and how we do so, all the while observing those around us — calculating their next move. 

Psychological thrillers are an exploration of the subconscious — or the shadow self — of a person, and subsequently, an exploration of the darkness buried within ourselves.

Contact Khristina Holterman at 

LAST UPDATED

OCTOBER 31, 2022