In the opening of his 1936 article, ‘Why Thrillers Thrive’, Alfred Hitchcock wrote:
Why do we go to the pictures? To see life reflected on the screen, certainly – but what kind of life? Obviously, the kind we don’t experience ourselves – or the same life with a difference; and the difference consists of emotional disturbances which, for convenience, we call “thrills”
Biologically speaking, being ‘thrilled’ is a physiological response to certain types of stimuli, whereby the individual may experience a rush of excitement usually after a period of anticipation and/or suspense. As Hitchcock indicated, there are a variety of ways in which this reaction may be elicited from film audiences. Drawing up a list of commonly held associations with the thriller genre, descriptive labels, such as: ‘suspicious’, ‘desire’, ‘betrayal’, ‘twists in the plot’, ‘mystery’, ‘tension’, and ‘murder’, will often surface.
However, these tropes and techniques are not modern inventions developed for cinema; they are centuries old, and predictability can often work against the function of a thriller. For example, M. Night Shyamalan is increasingly criticized for having twist endings in his films, such as Signs (2002) and The Village (2004), because film educated audiences are expecting and predicting the twist, thereby negating the emotional impact, or ‘thrill’ of the experience.
Unlike what we may see in genres such as the western, war film, or period drama, the substance of the thriller relates more to the comedy or horror genres, wherein the principle emphasis of the genre is not narrative coherence, the plausibility of character actions or a consistent setting across films: what these genres are preoccupied with is the emotional effect that the film has on a viewer…
As such, whilst Rosemary’s Baby (1968) may appear to have as little in common with The Manchurian Candidate (1962), as King Kong (1933) has with 12 Angry Men (1957), these are all films that are designed to exploit and engage with the audience’s capacity for a certain type of socially shared, and intuitively emotional, ’disturbance’ – and in this regard they can all be considered thrillers…
The full 1,500 word version of this essay is published in Directory of World Cinema: American Hollywood 2, edited by Lincoln Geraghty, published by Intellect Books, 2015.