Being fascinated by scary stories, true crime cases, and chilling tales is nothing new. If you’re anything like me, you have memories dating back to the ’90’s of watching Dateline with your mom, being disturbed by The Sixth Sense way too early, or picking up a John Grisham book when you had no business reading anything but Harry Potter. There’s something captivating about stories that are so horrific and so far out of our realm of possibility that when we get our hands on a particularly interesting one, we crave another. I know I can’t be the only one impossibly loyal to thriller novels and has questioned her sanity more than once asking why I can’t get enough.
Finally, I’ve decided to stop my wondering and turn to an expert for her take on exactly why thrillers are so addictive. The source? None other than bestselling author Stacy Willingham. If you haven’t already breezed through her debut novel, A Flicker in the Dark, you’re going to want to do so immediately as it is a gold standard in the genre. After finishing this novel in record time, I knew without a doubt that Stacy had an undeniable grasp on the thriller genre. And in her second novel, All the Dangerous Things, it became even more clear she knows what it is about this genre that has readers in a chokehold.
We couldn’t think of anyone more qualified to shine a light on why readers become so addicted to thrillers. When we decided to get to the bottom of it, we asked her all of the important questions. Here’s what we’ve found out.
Why are thrillers so addicting?
1. We have a curiosity for the unknown
Much like the endless amounts of true crime content out there, from podcasts to Netflix specials and beyond, readers are drawn to thriller novels because of their curiosity in the unknown. We asked Stacy for her take on this and her thoughts were really insightful. She explained, “People are curious about what we can’t understand, so if there’s a particularly baffling true time case or twisty thriller that keeps us guessing, we can’t get enough of it. There’s probably an aspect of escapism to it, too—the idea of getting to quasi-experience something you’ve wondered about or are afraid of at a safe distance.”
Fortunately, a lot of the instances we read about in thriller novels are outside the realm of reality for many of us. Take, for example, Stacy’s book A Flicker in the Dark (don’t worry, no spoilers here). The story is told from the POV of a serial killer’s daughter. This is not a reality many are ever going to experience, which adds a level of curiosity to the readers. As Stacy said, from a safe distance, the reader can put themselves in the shoes of someone entirely different and consider the choices they would make if that were their reality.
There’s probably an aspect of escapism to it, too—the idea of getting to quasi-experience something you’ve wondered about or are afraid of at a safe distance.
2. It gives readers the opportunity to solve puzzles
Another reason so many of us go feral for thrillers is because there are few things more satisfying than solving a puzzle, cracking the code, or what-have-you. There’s a reason we have the terms “armchair detective” and “websleuths” to describe regular people who research unsolved mysteries to try to find the solution. According to Stacy, “It almost feels like you’re an active participant in the story, trying to solve some big riddle alongside the characters themselves, as opposed to just a passive consumer of it.” And we couldn’t agree more.
By nature, humans want to find a solution when a question is presented. Finding that solution, or predicting the outcome of a story before finishing it, can be highly satisfying. On that same note, you’ll be even more impressed by the stories that keep you guessing until the very end (again, we recommend picking up one of Stacy’s novels, stat).
3. We enjoy being scared
If there’s one thing we can learn from the billion dollar horror industry, it’s that a lot of people enjoy being scared. While not all readers are looking for Evil Dead levels of gore when picking up a paperback, it’s safe to say most thriller readers enjoy the adrenaline rush that comes from being frightened. Luckily for all of us, there are plenty of options no matter what your preferred scariness level is. It’s those spooky page turners that we finish and instantly recommend to every other thriller fan we know that keep us coming back for more. There’s an added level of excitement in consuming something scary, like a horror movie or thriller novel, from the comfort and safety of your own home. Stacy captured this idea perfectly when she said, “I just love to be scared. There is no better feeling to me than finding a book that unsettles me, but at the same time, feels impossible to put down.”
4. Thrillers play on women’s emotions
Research shows that more women than ever are claiming a place in the thriller genre, both as consumers and writers. Is there a reason women tend to be interested in this genre? We believe so, and so does Stacy. She shared, “I think, for one, that women are naturally inquisitive, so the concept of trying to piece together a puzzle is appealing. We seek to understand, but we’re also empathetic, so an emotionally-driven story is something we can connect with.”
Thrillers play on emotions a lot of us don’t experience everyday, like fear (thankfully) and adrenaline. But, as Stacy mentioned, most women tend to be empathetic creatures. When we connect empathetically with characters that are having experiences outside of our own, whether that be cheering them on as they fight or thinking about what we’d do in the situation, we can put ourselves in the character’s shoes.
Stacy also pointed out that by creating and consuming thriller content, women are pushing back on the belief that the genre is meant for men. She shared, “Not too long ago, crime fiction used to be primarily written by and marketed to men, so the fact that women are now writing and consuming so many thrillers and just owning these darker stories is both exciting and refreshing.” Perhaps we’re finally getting to a society standard that women can enjoy whatever they d*mn well please (Oh no—we must alert the church elders!).
What does the future hold for the thriller genre?
Stacy’s predictions for the future of the thriller genre are to die for. Now that women are claiming a space in the world of thrillers, can we expect more in the future? Stacy thinks so, and so do we. According to Stacy, “For the last few years, thrillers have really been exploring complicated and “unlikeable” women—call it the Gone Girl effect, but I think writers and readers still really enjoy exploring some of the darker impulses of women, especially since that isn’t what society typically deems as acceptable or attractive, so I anticipate more of that.”
As an avid thriller reader, I find this very exciting. There’s nothing more intriguing than a character with depth—someone you’re not sure you would like if you met them in real life. I believe this makes a story seem more real, and draws us in more than a “damsel-in-destress” trope that few people can relate to.
Not too long ago, crime fiction used to be primarily written by and marketed to men, so the fact that women are now writing and consuming so many thrillers and just owning these darker stories is both exciting and refreshing.
Stacy also predicts we’ll be seeing more “villain origin stories—or, at the very least, stories that show the more human side of traditionally bad characters.” Perhaps for the same reasons viewers are so interested in series like Dahmer, we are fascinated by what makes a bad guy a bad guy. There’s something fascinating about a nature versus nurture debate, or the process of making killer, and I for one would be open to seeing more of this in the genre going forward.
What’s next from Stacy Willingham?
Stacy Willingham has quickly rose to thriller royalty with two killer novels, and she has no plans of slowing down. She does, however, plan on branching out into a sub-genre that we couldn’t be more excited about: dark academia. Her next thriller is set to be published in 2024. Here’s what we can expect from it: “As college students, they’re all much younger than the characters in A Flicker in the Dark and All the Dangerous Things, which means they have different backstories, insecurities and motivations I’m having fun exploring. I’m really excited about it!” So are we! We can’t wait to see what she makes of a story like this, but know we can expect complex characters, tons of shocking turns, and a plot twist (or two) like we’ve never seen.
Read Stacy Willingham’s Work
Told from the perspective of a serial killer's daughter, readers will be hooked on this story from the very first chapter. When she was just 12 years old, Chloe Davis found out her father was responsible for the murder of 6 young girls in their small Louisiana town. She spent years coming to terms with the truth, and grew up to become a successful psychologist who is busy planning her wedding. Everything seems to be going well for her until a series of murders take place with eerie similarities to those from her past. She feels the need to take it upon herself to solve the case, and her journey leads to more twists and turns than anyone could have imagined.
Isabelle Drake's world was flipped upside down one year ago when her son was stolen out of his crib while she and her husband were asleep in the next room over. The case has gone cold, but Isabelle quite literally won't rest until she brings her son home. Not knowing what to do, she agrees to an interview with a true crime podcaster. When asked about specifics from her past she didn't anticipate answering, she begins to wonder who she can trust, including herself.
Read Stacy Willingham’s Recommendations
Death row inmate Ansel Packer is set to be executed in twelve hours. He knows what he's done and now holds the same fate as he forced upon his victims. Through the perspectives of the women in Ansel's life, we hear his story—the making of a serial killer.
Oliver Marks is no stranger to acting, as he is part of a group of Shakespearean actors at Dellecher Classical Conservatory. And a decade ago, he and his group took on the biggest roles of their lives: acting innocent. He has since been in jail and, upon his release, is finally ready to speak his truth to the man that put him behind bars.
Peyote Trip has found himself in hell. It's not as bad as he imagined, though, as he's got himself a decent job in the 'deals department.' However, he is in the midst of hatching a master escape plan. All he needs is one more member of the Harrison family to sell their souls. When the family heads to their lake house with their daughter's gifted friend, Peyote sets his plan in motion, but it may not be as foolproof as he thought.
Jeanie's life as she knew it was over in the blink of an eye the night she lost her brother, no longer had a family, and lost the boy she thought she could love, Maddox. Now, twenty years later in London, she's managed to somewhat keep her sanity through a series of destructive choices. That is until Maddox reappears in her life claiming that he has found her dad. She must decide whether she wants to continue running from her trauma, or confront the one person who holds the answers about what took place the night her world turned.