In our daily lives, humans crave comfort: We work diligently to furnish our lives with modern amenities, from cutting-edge gadgets to new cars.

But when it comes to the deeper recesses of our imagination, many of us have an unquenchable bloodthirst. Give us assassination plots, jump scares, and death-by-hatchet any day … at least that seems to be the case in the U.K., according to a new study conducted by Public Lending Right, a program that collects borrowing data from libraries.

Published by The Guardian, the study reveals that in 2010, more than two-thirds of the hundred most checked-out novels fell into the crime and thriller genre. Such was the case with single title in the top 10.

What’s the explanation for the mounting trend of people reading these morbid tales? Are we all gore-loving serial killers in disguise?

The psychology of fear

According to “Social Learning of Fear,” an article published in Nature Neuroscience, fear is an essential tool in the emotional toolkit of mankind. Each time fear is invoked, it conditions us a little bit more to navigate the world safely.

By seeking out situations that trigger a fearful response in an environment that’s known to be safe — for example, curled up on the sofa with a cup of cocoa and a bloodcurdling book about a stalker — people enjoy a kind of productive fear.

In other words, we can feel as if we are honing our emergency response instincts without actually having to get caught up by an international drug cartel or falling into the clutches of a slasher. Exploration of fear-inducing hypothetical threats allows people to project themselves into new situations and plan for dangerous circumstances … however unlikely they may be.

For the same reason that we tend to be drawn to sensational, alarming news headlines, we also like to read titillating works of hair-curling suspense and terror.

The landscape of the genre

Crime and suspense books run the gamut. James Patterson, popular murder mystery author known best for his police-detective-cum-forensic-psychologist Alex Cross, tops Public Lending Right’s list. The genre also spans a range of subjects and tones, from gory thrillers penned by Patricia Cornwell to the fast-paced, plot-driven suspense of John J. Davis.

The genre’s range is expanding further as barriers to publication disappear. The newly born Wild West of self-publishing has lifted the velvet ropes to a new breed of writer — one that’s held back neither by the brand identities of publishing companies, nor the personal preferences of an editor.

As a result, new and intriguing styles are emerging as their own genres, ones that perhaps wouldn’t have had room to breathe in the arena of traditional book publishing: consider thriller-meets-chick-lit, crime crossed with comedy, fiction that courts controversy and steps on the toes of taboos, and even mockumentary-style horror.

With these fresh approaches expanding the options for reading, the future landscape and trends of thrillers is uncertain. Until the next Public Lending Right list is released, fans may have to remain in a familiar state: suspense.


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