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Paranoid Thriller

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A sub-genre of Psychological Thriller revolving around characters who believe they have uncovered shady goings-on beneath the veneer of everyday life and/or are pursued by some kind of conspiracy. The key difference from Conspiracy Thriller is that the work focuses on the unstable mental state of the protagonist rather than on the exact nature of the conspiracy, and the audience is never sure (at least not until the end) whether the character is really uncovering something or just imagining it.

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May overlap with World of Mysteries (this is how the characters in this genre usually see the world around them), Mockstery Tale, and Mockspiracy (if it turns out that the whole conspiracy never really existed).


Examples

Anime & Manga

  • Serial Experiments Lain has the protagonist uncover a transhumanist conspiracy using the internet, all while leaving it ambiguous as to how much of the plot is her schizophrenic delusions.

Film

  • In A Beautiful Mind, a young gifted mathematician is hired by the intelligence services to find hidden messages in newspapers by a secret Communist organization; he soon becomes paranoid, suspecting nearly everyone around him of being a Communist spy. It turns out that he suffers from schizophrenia, and the whole story of his involvement with intelligence services was a delusion.
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  • Eyes Wide Shut has the protagonist infiltrate a mysterious masked orgy apparently thrown by rich and powerful members of the society. He is exposed, and though he manages to make it out, he starts feeling that he's pursued by the members of the conspiracy, and a couple of other people are seemingly Killed to Uphold the Masquerade. However, the details are never clarified, and there are some hints that the whole story was a dream.
  • Flightplan (2005) is about a woman whose daughter disappears from a plane in the middle of a transatlantic flight, but there are no records of the girl on the flight and no one will admit she was ever there. Two thirds of the film is spent unsure of whether the mother is delusional or being conspired against, but it turns out to be the latter.
  • In The Game, the main character joins a mysterious Alternate Reality Game which soon becomes threatening, and begins to interfere with his everyday life, driving him to paranoia, since he doesn't know the intentions of the people behind it, and who is and who isn't involved in it. It turns out that The Game Never Stopped, and almost everyone was in on it.
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  • In Jacob's Ladder, a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD believes he is pursued by government agents who want to silence him, as well as by demons and fantastic monsters. Throughout the movie it remains unclear which, if any, of his bizarre experiences are real, and which are hallucinatory, but in the end, it turns out that all of it was his Dying Dream, and he never made it out of Vietnam; demons pursuing him are actually angels who want to help his soul ascend to Heaven.
  • In Sunset, a Hungarian 2018 film, a young woman is looking for her lost brother in pre-World War I Budapest. It is implied that her brother was a revolutionary fighting against a group of decadent nobles who kidnap young women for some sinister purpose, hiding beneath the facade of a prestigious hat store. However, the exact nature of this conspiracy is never clarified (as well as whether or not it exists at all), and the movie hints that the young woman is slowly descending into madness.
  • In The Tenant, a shy tenant in an apartment complex starts to believe that his neighbours are conspiring to gaslight him. The Gainax Ending leaves it unclear whether he just went off his rails, or something sinister is indeed going on at the apartment complex.
  • In Under the Silver Lake, a young slacker in his 30s spends his days investigating the disappearance of a young woman he fell in love with by looking for hidden clues in pop music, video game magazines, and cereal boxes. He encounters some weird characters, including a Hobo King and a woman in an owl mask who seduces and kills men in their sleep, and eventually gets to the bottom of the conspiracy... However, a number of scenes imply that he is an Unreliable Narrator, and at least some of this stuff may be happening only in his head.

Literature

  • The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet by Stephen King is about the paranoid writer Reg Thorpe who believed in the existence of Fornits (a kind of luck-elves who lived in typewriters and brought inspiration to writers), and that some sort of sinister conspiracy was about to kill the Fornit that lived in his own typewriter. The protagonist, who is Thorpe's editor, gradually loses his grip on reality and starts to believe in Reg's fantasies, largely due to his own alcoholism. The story leaves it unclear whether or not the fornits and the conspiracy really existed, but there are some implications that they did.
  • In Blow-Up (also known as The Devil's Drool) by Julio Cortázar, a photographer takes picture of what he believes is a young woman flirting with a teenage boy. A closer examination of the picture apparently reveals a much darker subtext: the woman was trying to lure the boy into the clutches of a pedophile, a creepy man waiting in a car nearby. This story leads the narrator to contemplate the murkiness of reality and the sinister undertones of everyday situations. The style of narration is also extremely idiosyncratic and incoherent, reflecting the unstable mental state of the main character.
  • In The Crying of Lot 49, the protagonist Oedipa believes that she uncovered a centuries-old conspiracy involving an underground mail delivery company, Trystero. The novel implies that the whole Trystero story may be a practical joke by Oedipa's late husband or even hallucination of hers, but it might be real as well; the open ending never resolves this.
  • In Foucault's Pendulum, the three main characters invent a parody conspiracy theory to mock the real-life conspiracy theorists and occultists. Eventually they come to believe in it themselves, and become targets for an actual secret society. From this point, the narrative becomes increasingly paranoid and incoherent, with the protagonist believing that nearly every item has a hidden meaning, and nearly every bystander is following him, and the novel doesn't clarify which of the events happened in reality, and which were hallucinated by the protagonist.

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