A woman, ignored by the police, investigates a murder on her own. To save an old couple from loan sharks, a man must fight competing criminal gangs. Friends fishing at a remote lake in the North Woods are stalked by a malevolent Watcher. Check any list of best-selling novels; you will find thrillers well-represented there.
Just as our species evolved to enjoy sex, we evolved to be aroused, excited, and thrilled by risk and danger. Pleasure in sex encouraged our ancestors to reproduce; pleasure in risk and danger encouraged them to not be passive prey, but to act in courageous ways that helped them to survive, then to proliferate.
Leaving Threats to Authorities
Yet human instinct is also to avoid danger and risk. In the contemporary United States, being “kept safe” —emphasis on kept—Is a national preoccupation. We are encouraged not to deal with serious threats on our own but to leave the job to authorities — parents, teachers, committees, and law enforcement. A child bullied at school is enjoined not to fight back, but to tell a teacher. A cheated customer is told, “Take it to court.” One of the worst things people can do, we learn, is to “take the law into our own hands.”
A nation of vigilantes would quickly devolve into anarchy. Yet, the more we look to authorities and experts to keep us safe, the more fearful, anxious, and infantilized we become if they succeed, the more disillusioned and bitter if they do not.
The rules of life for early hominids were the same as for any animal: kill or be killed; eat or be eaten; procreate or go extinct. Nature was, in the poet Tennyson’s words, “red in tooth and claw.” Children had to be trained to overcome, on their own if need be, terrifying threats and obstacles. This training might involve great physical risk or pain — killing a lion, say, or being circumcised with a sharp shell. The training might also involve the handing down of secret knowledge about how life works, or ought to work.
Thrilling stories helped prepare listeners for the struggles ahead.
Imagine yourself in Greece, the 8th century BC, seated around a fire as you listen to a bard perform The Iliad or The Odyssey. These epic poems are essentially thrillers, teaching that the world is dangerous, and that people must fight for their lives. Potential enemies include sorcerers and all manner of monsters. One kind has many heads and grows back two for every one that is cut off. Another seems to be a beautiful, sweetly singing woman, but rips to pieces any man lured by her song. There are cyclopes that eat men like hors d’oeuvres, and ghosts that feed on human blood. There are merciless forces of nature, controlled by capricious gods happy to destroy humankind’s best-laid plans. There are demigods like “swift-footed Achilles,” against whom even the most-skilled warriors have no chance, and heroes like “wily Odysseus,” able to kill by trickery as well as the sword. As if this is not enough, there are run-of-the-mill humans who, given the chance, will steal everything that you possess, split your skull, and spill your innards on the ground.
Anxiety Replacing Terror
In the West today, people struggle less with magic and monsters than with backbiting co-workers, inept bosses, stifling laws, crooked politicians, unfair competitions, hostile competitors, angry spouses, and imperfect police. How do we reason with unreasonable people, or fight through a phone-tree, or get satisfaction from a bureaucracy that works like a game of whack-a-mole? Anxiety has largely replaced terror in our lives. And, yet, crises of the old kind still occur: the shootings at Tops Friendly Market and Robb Elementary School; Russia’s attack against Ukraine.
Thrillers re-enact the primal struggles of our ancestors. Protagonists must often cope with danger on their own, skirting, evading, and, when necessary, trampling “the rules.” Thrillers initiate us into the mysteries of the human clan, shedding light on truths that most of us forget, deny, and ignore. Thrillers remind us that civilization is a small and flimsy bow tied around the world’s wildness. They lead us into the Jungian “shadow” and whisper that the game of life offers no trophies for good sportsmanship. As in ancient times, genes that die, lose; genes that live, win. Period.
The United States is suffering through a plague, not just of COVID-19, but also of depression and anxiety. Many factors contribute, but one is surely that, as Freud brilliantly explained in Civilization and Its Discontents, we have smothered essential parts of our psyches under thick blankets of rules, laws, and proprieties. Having outsourced our own defense, we face life with neither the confidence that we can take care of ourselves nor that the “experts” and “authorities” to whom we turn in crises deserve our trust.
Our Primal Instincts
Thrillers are often dismissed as mindless entertainment. The best of them, though, invite us to define and redefine good and bad, virtue and vice. They ask implicitly, what constitutes right action? What makes a hero? Thrillers give our most primal instincts a chance to stand, stretch, and remind our modern selves, “I’m still here.”
The popularity of thrillers is ultimately based on their ability to connect with and rouse the old, animal brain — to remind us that we are not inherently weak, timid, and defenseless. We carry genes that, in the most dangerous and difficult circumstances, allowed our ancestors to do whatever was needed to survive.