How novelty brings insane to the sane

Graphic by Emma Li

Warning: This column contains spoilers.

“Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn begins:

“When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. And what’s inside it. I think of that too: her mind. Her brain, all those coils, and her thoughts shuttling through those coils like fast, frantic centipedes. Like a child, I picture opening her skull, unspool­ing her brain and sifting through it, trying to catch and pin down her thoughts. What are you thinking, Amy?

Within the realm of psychological thrillers, the domestic thriller has been on the rise since the publication of “Gone Girl.” The subgenre of domestic thrillers, by definition, focuses on interpersonal relationships. It sifts through the dark secrets, twisted psychological states, and disturbances between two individuals.

For me, the reason for a domestic thriller’s burst in popularity can be whittled down to one chief element: the novelty of ideas and events in the genre’s narrative arc.

Domestic thrillers are marked by absurd events. Though the opening of “Gone Girl” provides an initial frame of mundane life, reeling us in with some commonality, the writing’s literary construction gives way to a domestic eeriness; Nick’s analysis of his wife’s impenetrable thoughts involves chilling images of fossils, skulls, dissection, and coiling centipedes. The admiration in his tone also conveys a somewhat psychotic effect.

These ideas create a novel representation of what could otherwise be normal and mundane, such as someone’s internal thoughts, and this novelty is taken to extremities as the book progresses. Amy frames her husband for murder, then plans on drowning herself so that her body can wash to the Gulf of Mexico. But when her plan is foiled, and she finds herself penniless, she sleeps with her ex, only to kill him later and beat herself up to concoct a story of abuse.

These events are psychologically bizarre and not easily relatable. Experiencing such ideas stimulates regions of our brains. And though many great writers aspire to depict the obvious in a way that inspires and demonstrates originality, psychological thrillers — appallingly violating expected norms of behavior — seem to achieve this by illustrating a novel absurdity that is universally stimulating.

Beyond the thrilling absurdity of the events that prompt this kind of mental stimulation, as readers, we are placed into a neurologically turbulent mind. Amy’s heightened and unstable state that propels her toward extremely perturbing acts insinuates her brain’s somewhat dissimilar, or insect-like, wiring. By placing ourselves into the mind of a character like her, a mind that doesn’t adhere to our typical mental norms, or our typical inhibitions of behavior and feeling, we are looking through a lens that is likely neurologically incongruent to ours. Being placed into the head of “all those coils shuttling like fast, frantic centipedes,” we copy those experiences into our own, and this tracing and its effects are, to us, a completely new and innovative experience.

With this extreme novelty, we are able to experience a dissolving sense of reality: a distancing from our own lives as we’re absorbed into another.

And really, isn’t that a purpose of all stories? We read to get away. Psychological thrillers may just be able to get us there faster.

Tarini Sipahimalani is an English major at Pomona College. She enjoys drawing, singing a cappella, and tennis, but mostly for social purposes.

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