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To Be or Not to Be—a Psychopathic Dilemma

Psychological thrillers often incorporate elements of mystery and themes of crime, morality, mental illness, substance abuse, multiple realities or a dissolving sense of truth, and dubious narratives given by unreliable narrators. The movie Joker immediately comes to mind when the above terms are stated, but is that stereotype real? Are psychological thrillers just about madmen dancing to the seemingly melodious tunes of dystopia? The madman being referred to here is not just any illiterate stranger who does not know better, but in fact, a normal working-class man—the difference being that he has collapsed to the very last bit of his existence. This makes him break society down in whatever way he deems reasonable and logical. After all, we all are walking on a fine tightrope where, if tipped over—we either end up destroying ourselves or our surroundings.

The Persistence of Fear

Psychological thriller movies often involve the complicated mental state of one or more of its characters, usually the narrator or the antagonist. Sometimes, the narrator is paranoid or delusional. At other times, the narrator is the criminal in the story-line—thereby giving viewers an insight into the inner workings of a disturbed soul. Many people find movies involving cold-blooded murder, revenge stories, or even mentally disturbing scenes terrifying to watch. However, people love watching psychological thrillers as it lets us experience fear in a controlled manner and allows us to delve into the minds of the many morally ambiguous characters in the film.

Se7en, a 1995 film, is popular among psycho-thriller enthusiasts for depicting society and its various facets realistically. [Image Credits: IMDB]

Despite these very different manifestations of a psychopath’s perspective in psych-thrillers, general trends appear that span all these narratives. Death, existential crises, perception of life, identity crises, and coping with reality are some of the main themes that repeatedly surface. In recent years, there have been two ideologies that have constantly popped up—guilt and obsession. Even one of each of these themes can form the core of a film. These movies manage to paint an ambiguous theme that blurs the fine line between reality and fiction.

The Essence of Thrillers Over Time

Psychological thrillers can be tricky to understand, and this is evident from the fact that critics and reviewers recommend a second or third viewing to ‘decipher its secrets’. The characters in psychological thrillers face no moral dilemma, which makes this genre unpredictable with many plot twists. It creates an exciting possibility, with respect to the audience, for bizarre situations to occur.

There are quite a few similarities between all these movies, but it would be criminally inaccurate to say that they have a common blueprint. Psychological thrillers are more than a dark plot with a generous casting of dark characters. The offender is not just a crazy person. In most cases, they are depicted as normal citizens in a normal society, who aren’t driven by a moral agenda.

Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock was one of the first films of its kind and created an appetite for psychological thrillers in the general audience. The film portrayed a son hell-bent on protecting his mother, even if it meant covering up a murder. What makes Psycho immortal is the fear that a seemingly normal and morally adept person might impulsively commit a crime, given the wrong set of circumstances, or conversely, the fear of becoming the victim of such a person.

The iconic shower scene in psycho depicted murder and insanity in its elemental forms with frightening reality. [Image Credits: Business Insider]

Since then, Hollywood has had its fair share of nail-biting thrillers. Se7ven, a 1995 psychological crime thriller film directed by David Fincher, showcases the killer revealing the real face of society. The film’s protagonist is shown giving into his fantasy of revenge and becoming a murderer when circumstances overwhelmed his sense of justice. Widely known for the iconic line “What’s in the box?“, this movie serves as a classic example of how people started admiring the genre as a whole. More recently, Shutter Island, a 2010 film directed by Martin Scorsese, depicts the complexity of the human mind. The movie is delivered from the viewpoint of the protagonist, Leonardo DiCaprio. It is not till the end that the audience is let in on the fact that there is just a fragile line separating insanity from sanity. The movie breaks the ideal hero stereotype.

Closer to home, Bollywood has also seen a few such thrillers. Raman Raghav 2.0, a 2016 psychological thriller film directed by Anurag Kashyap, is an entertaining mix of great acting and splendid direction. The movie revolves around a short-tempered police officer who had to deal with a maniac with a thirst for blood. It was inspired by real-life killer Raman Raghav, who operated in Mumbai during the 1960s.

Behind The Scenes

This genre requires the cast to train their minds—to live like a psychopath, think like one, and transform fictional fanaticism into real-life drama. Needless to say, it takes a lot of dedication and immense skill to perfect. Actors and actresses resort to method acting to play their parts, which undoubtedly takes a toll on their minds and bodies. Method acting is a technique of acting in which an actor aspires to deliver sincere and emotionally expressive performances by fully inhabiting the character’s role. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, for example, playing the lead in Raman Raghav, spent a few weeks in a local village to get the character’s emotions right. “If you take anything from the character, the character also takes something from you,” said Siddiqui, remarking on his role in the film.

As a result of immense dedication, immaculate make-up, and frame perfect shots, Joker will undoubtedly be remembered for its realistic depiction of a psychopath for ages to come. [Image Credits: Los Angeles Times] 

Famous for the standout performance by Joaquin Phoenix, Joker, a 2019 film directed and produced by Todd Phillips, had a more profound meaning to convey in terms of the character’s personality. It portrayed how even a harmless clown can turn into a psychopath because of the vices and cracks in society. Joaquin Phoenix studied various personality disorders in his efforts to bring his character to life. Phoenix also had to break into fits of laughter at inappropriate times, which he learnt from patients suffering from Pseudobulbar Effect (PBA, a disorder that causes inappropriate and involuntary laughing or crying).

Janet Leigh, starring in Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Psycho, publicly admitted to being shaken by the iconic shower murder scene in the movie. She claimed that when she finally saw it, she no longer took showers unless she had to—she would lock all the doors and windows and leave the bathroom and shower door open. She never realised ‘how vulnerable and defenceless one is’ until she first watched the film.

As much as the actors play their roles out to perfection, numerous other things like the location of the set, the scenes being enacted in the background, or the soundtrack being played affect the storytelling in the movie. The immaculate job carried out by the make-up artists in recreating a murder scene also plays a major role in determining the degree of thrill a film can dole out to its audience.

A Reel Life Roller Coaster

Behind all these fancy Hollywood drapes lie the bitter reality of the pertinent topic of mental illness being exploited for an agreeable story-line. In films such as Psycho (1960) and Halloween (1978), characters with mental illnesses were portrayed as violent and dangerous. Most of their female counterparts were depicted as stereotypical, seductive women. This leads the unversed stratum of society to associate females with a loose character instead of accepting the truth—mental illness does not differentiate between genders. 

Halloween' 1978

The film Halloween (1978) depicted a mentally unstable murderer and his thirst for kills. [Image credits: New York Times]

Films over time, have echoed superstitions and stigmas that are already deep-rooted in various cultures and beliefs—including the idea that mental illness is, in some convoluted way, otherworldly and supernatural. Cinema often takes advantage of these stigmas to make sense of crimes that otherwise cannot be understood or explained to the audience satisfactorily. Stigmas allow us to cope with our fears of the unknown and separate ourselves from the ‘others’. 

Psycho thrillers’ real beauty lies in the fact that they usually do not have a happy ending and steer away from glorifying the protagonist. Instead, they give the audience an almost accurate depiction of society with all its positive and negative facets. They also portray a hardly believable reality where there are no good guys or villains—only people who have been pushed enough for them to start pushing back. This is one genre that makes people question their philosophies, morals, and perceptions of life. It makes you wonder how close you are to being a psychopath—and literally, puts everything in perspective.

Featured Image Credits: Unsplash