Domestic thrillers have been on my radar for quite some time. My first dip into the genre came when I discovered Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson in 2012. It was the first domestic thriller that impacted me, and the plot has stayed buried in my psyche. I wasn’t new to the thriller genre, having devoured Karen Rose novels and detective stories before that. This felt new, invigorating, and frightening on some deeper primal level. Imagine waking up every morning in an unrecognisable bed, next to an unrecognisable man, and having that man explain that he is Ben, her husband and that she had an accident twenty years ago meaning she can’t form new memories.
Reading Before I Go to Sleep felt like a new experience. The twist literally felt like a slap with a brick. This was my first introduction to twists that could simply spin my world on its uncontrollable axis.
From this moment forward – I was hooked. I knew that reading thrillers was never going to be the same for me again. I searched for psychological thrillers that would change my thinking, change my outlook on the world and change my viewpoint on human behaviour.
So why the Domestic Thriller? Stories surrounding husbands and wives, families, brothers, and sisters are extremely relatable. We all have these types of relationships and witnessing just how they can go wrong intrigues us. So, what is it that affects us about the genre? I think it gives us the experience of something most of us can’t have. We live relatively boring lifestyles, but more importantly, we live in relative safety. We don’t spend every day hiding from an abuser, we don’t know what it’s like to discover an explosive secret hidden by a family member. It gives us a different take on the human condition, how people react in different situations, and the events that lead to that spiralling conclusion.
Something I have found interesting after conducting a poll is that some people crave this genre because of past experiences in their own lives. The option with the highest votes was that women enjoyed reading these stories because they themselves had suffered a traumatic past (there are obviously exceptions to the rule), and others enjoyed it because they loved the way it made them feel. The immediate feeling of adrenaline pumping through their body was an exhilarating feeling.
That’s to say that they aren’t looking to revisit the past in person, but it helps them to come to terms with their own experiences. It can give closure and help them understand events with more precision. It’s a very different experience reading about them on paper as opposed to living them in your everyday life. I know from my experience of reading domestic thrillers that it can induce the flight or fight response – during different scenes my heart rate can spike, sweat can start dripping down my back and I start to read the words quicker – I must know how things will pan out. I find it quite addictive!
It seems like I’m not the only one – you only must look at the bestsellers list, with titles dominating it with the likes of YOU by Caroline Kepnes, stories by Lisa Jewell and Ruth Ware you get a real feeling of just how popular they are. Most of these stories feature heavily with women being hurt – kidnapped, stalked, attacked, abused, and taken advantage of. It makes you question if feminism plays a heavy role in these stories…is it bad that you enjoy stories with this kind of violence being perpetrated against them? What people who don’t read the genre may not realise is that we don’t just read these stories to see how they deal with the wrongs being done to them but how the women SURVIVE. Take Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris for instance – Grace on the surface has it all, the perfect marriage, the perfect husband, the perfect home. However, looks can be deceiving and Behind Closed Doors catalogues the psychological abuse that her husband, Jack puts her through. It’s devastating. It’s a very hard novel to read and more than once I wanted to put it down, but you are rooting for Grace, that unwavering support for a woman who is at rock bottom, the reader is empowering that character whether they are aware of it or not.
The domestic setting within the genre is nothing new. Du Maurier’s Rebecca and Brontë’s Jane Eyre paved the way for the Domestic thriller. They did so much for feminism and displayed the female’s will to survive in glaring high definition on a world stage. It was examined through a fine-tooth comb that women no longer want to be viewed as a victim, they want to be portrayed as the strong, independent females that they are. We as women are undeniably interested in reading about stories that are linked to our safe spaces, our home being just one of them. Why does the setting of the home pose such danger? Such fear? When we spend most of our time there. The home can be the backdrop to relationship breakdowns, death, infidelity, and secrets. Women enjoy stories that examine self-identity and the lifecycle of relationships, so this genre feeds into their fears and interests.
The formula that keeps readers interested and coming back for book after book after book is not only the plot but the characterisation. We love characters that we can relate to – not just the protagonist but the ones that are abhorrent too. They can have committed the worse deeds imaginable but if there are aspects of their character or personality that the reader can relate to it will keep them hooked. It’s the humanness of their actions – were there genuine reasons, what’s the backstory, after all the human condition is flawed but with immense purpose.