80s and 90s Thrillers: The Art of Crafting Suspense
Today, we’re going to take a bit of a trip down memory lane for Millennials, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, back to the 1980s and 1990s, a time when mobile phones were a luxury, the internet was in its infancy, and you had to actually remember phone numbers. Can you imagine? But as much as we might shudder at the thought of being without our beloved tech, this era provides a goldmine of opportunities for crafting suspense in thrillers. Let’s dive in, shall we? If any of this technology doesn’t give you feelings of nostalgia, then congratulations: you are young and you make me feel old!
The Art of the Chase
Envision this: you’re being pursued, adrenaline surging, and you need to call for assistance. No mobile phone at your disposal, no app to track your location. Spotting a payphone, you wonder if you have any coins. Cash, let alone coins, is a rarity in many wallets or purses these days. The tension escalates as you fumble, drop the coins, and scramble to pick them up. You dial a number, hoping for a response. But silence greets you. Your pursuer is closing in, a smile spreads across their face as they see you cornered in the phone booth. Terrifying, right?
Now, let’s escalate the situation. You’re in a car, pursued by an unyielding adversary. You need to alert the police, but again, no mobile phone. A payphone is in sight, but using it means stopping the car. You’re faced with a split-second decision: do you continue driving, hoping to outrun your pursuer, or do you stop and make the call, risking capture? These high-stakes scenarios are a product of the technology of the 80s and 90s. They echo the chase scenes in films like The Terminator (1984), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), where characters resort to payphones and public phones while on the run.
However, it’s not just about the chase and communication. The absence of mobile technology also influences how characters navigate their surroundings. In the pre-smartphone era, if you were lost, you couldn’t just pull up a map on your phone. You had to rely on physical maps, ask for directions, or use landmarks to find your way. This could lead to characters getting lost, taking wrong turns, or stumbling into dangerous situations, thereby adding another layer of suspense to the story. They had to rely on public transportation or hitchhiking to escape danger, as they couldn’t simply summon an Uber or use a GPS to find the quickest escape route.
The Era of Anonymity
In our current era of social media and constant connectivity, it’s challenging to imagine a time when you could just disappear ‘off the grid’. However, during the 80s and 90s, staying anonymous was much easier. When you left work, you were essentially uncontactable until you got home, and vice versa. In the film The Fugitive (1993), Dr. Richard Kimble manages to evade capture for a considerable time, partly because he could stay off the grid. Drones and spy satellites weren’t as prevalent as they are today (they existed, of course, but there are a lot more of them nowadays). This anonymity adds a layer of mystery and suspense to thrillers, making the story more engaging. Similarly, in The Terminator (1984), Sarah Connor has to check a phone book to realise she’s the next target, a chilling moment that wouldn’t have the same impact in the digital age. Do people even have their names, phone numbers and home addresses listed online?
In the film Blow Out (1981), a sound technician accidentally records a car accident and becomes embroiled in a political conspiracy. In our current world, he could simply upload the recording to the internet and let the public decide. But in the pre-digital era, he has to navigate a world of secrecy and deception, adding to the suspense of the story. In an era of paper records, it was much easier for characters to disappear without a trace, change their identities, or live off the grid. This anonymity could be used by both protagonists and antagonists in thrillers, making it a benefit for heroes and villains alike.
The Age of Instant Gratification
We live in an era of instant gratification. We want things, and we want them now. However, during the 80s and 90s, things moved at a slower pace. No 24/7 media cycle, instead waiting for the news to come on the radio or TV at certain set times. Having to wait for your favourite show to air on TV, and unless you could record it you had to watch it live, no ability to pause, using ad breaks as toilet breaks. Or when you had to wait days, or even weeks, for a letter to arrive. The lack of instant communication and the patience it required can add a unique tension to thrillers set in this era. In the film The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Andy Dufresne’s painstaking plan to escape from prison over many years is a testament to the patience of that era. In our current world of instantaneous communication with almost anywhere on the planet, such a slow-burning plot might be less believable. Not impossible, of course, people still work on long-term projects today, but there is a lot more of a sense of NOW! NOW! NOW!
The absence of digital technology also influences how characters interact with each other. During the 80s and much of the 90s, if you wanted to communicate with someone, you had to call their landline, send a letter, or meet them in person. This could lead to missed connections, miscommunications, or delays in communication, adding another layer of tension to the story. Characters had to wait for news broadcasts or newspapers to get information, or they had to physically go to a location to find out what was happening.
Consider the film Se7en (1995), where the detectives have to painstakingly research each of the seven deadly sins to anticipate the killer’s next move. In our current world, they could simply Google it. But in the pre-digital era, their research takes time, adding to the suspense as the killer remains one step ahead. You would have to go to a library, look up books or articles, and read through them to find the information you needed, which could lead to characters missing crucial information, misinterpreting information, or discovering information too late, adding another layer of suspense.
The Impact of Technological Advancements on Plot Development
The technological advancements of today have a significant impact on the plot of a thriller. If the film Speed (1994) were set in today’s world, the entire plot could be foiled by a simple GPS tracker, a mobile phone call or signal jamming technology (I might be oversimplying, but you get my point). Hell, instead of filming a loop of the security camera inside the bus to trick the antagonist that an escape plan wasn’t being undertaken, they could just use AI to deepfake it.
The technological limitations of the 80s and 90s force characters to come up with creative solutions, making the story more engaging. Or in the film Die Hard (1988), John McClane has to rely on a walkie-talkie to communicate with the police, while the villains use CB radios. In our current world, McClane could simply call or text the police on his mobile phone, and the villains could use encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp or Telegram. Similarly, in Back to the Future (1985), Marty McFly has to use a lightning strike to power his time machine, a creative solution that wouldn’t be necessary with today’s technology. While the amount of power required (1.21 gigawatts!) is still a massive amount of power today, Doc Brown would have many more sources of energy available to steal from than back in 1985, or even 1955 (bear in mind he was able to miniaturise nuclear power to fit inside a DeLorean in the 80s!).
However, it’s not only about the limitations of technology. The technology of the 80s and 90s also provides unique opportunities for plot development. For example, characters could use technology in creative ways, like rigging a VCR to record a surveillance camera, or using a pager to send coded messages. These creative uses of technology can add another layer of intrigue and suspense (I’m saying suspense a lot, but it’s kind of unavoidable when you’re talking about thrillers!).
The Decline of Unexplained Phenomena
Once upon a time, grainy photos of UFOs, Bigfoot, or the Loch Ness Monster were enough to spark intrigue and debate. And while some diehard believers still exist, with the advent of mobile phone cameras, these unexplained phenomena have become less common because more credible evidence should be available today if these things exist.
This shift reflects the broader impact of technology on what is considered mysterious or unexplainable. The 90s TV show The X-Files thrived on these unexplained phenomena, with FBI agents Mulder and Scully investigating strange occurrences that often had no clear explanation. Or the film Blair Witch Project (1999), with its grainy, handheld footage that added to the sense of realism and terror. In our current world, with high-definition cameras in every pocket, the footage would be much clearer, potentially reducing the sense of fear and mystery. Is it a ghostly spectre? No, it’s a dude in a mask.
However, it’s not solely about the quality of the footage. The absence of digital technology also influences how characters like Mulder and Scully investigate and interpret unexplained phenomena. During the 80s and 90s, characters had to rely on physical evidence, eyewitness accounts, and their own observations. This could lead to misinterpretations, false leads, or dead ends, adding another layer of suspense to the story. Nowadays so many people have dashcams that we have more footage of meteors falling than ever before, but not so much for little green men.
The Replacement of Physical Resources and the Impact on Memory
In the pre-digital era, characters had to rely on physical resources like encyclopedias, phone books, and maps. This reliance on physical resources can add a unique tension to thrillers set in this era. We no longer need to remember phone numbers or directions; Google and GPS technology is just a click away, satellites in orbit ready to do our bidding. But in the 80s or 90s, a character might have to find a phone book to look up a number, or use a map to find a location, adding to the suspense of the story. The movie Die Hard (1988) showcases this well, with John McClane using a physical map of the building to navigate his way around. In The Shining (1980), Jack Torrance is isolated in a hotel without internet or mobile phones, and his descent into madness is all the more terrifying because of his isolation.
In The Terminator (1984), Sarah Connor’s life is saved because the Terminator has to look up her address in a phone book. In our current world, he could simply (as an AI), hack into government computer systems and get her address from tax records. The technology of the 80s and 90s can create unique challenges for characters.
The reliance on physical resources isn’t the only aspect, though. The absence of digital technology also influences how characters remember and recall information. During the 80s and 90s, characters had to remember phone numbers, addresses, and other important information. I can still remember my home phone number and my grandparents’ home phone number, even though both were disconnected years ago in lieu of mobile phones. As for addresses, the only current address I can remember is my own, but I’ll never forget my childhood home address or my grandparents’ address despite it being years since I’ve visited. This reliance on memory can add more pressure in the story, as characters struggle to remember crucial information under pressure.
Surveillance and Privacy
In our current world, surveillance is everywhere. From CCTV cameras on every corner to smartphones that can record audio and video at any time, it’s harder than ever to do anything without leaving a digital footprint. This constant surveillance can add a layer of tension to modern thrillers, as characters have to navigate a world where they’re always being watched.
However, during the 80s and 90s, surveillance was much more limited. CCTV cameras were less common, and recording audio or video required bulky, specialist equipment. This lack of surveillance could add a layer of mystery and suspense to thrillers set in this era, as characters could carry out actions without the fear of being recorded. Since the World Trade Centre attacks of 2001, intelligence agencies in many countries, but especially in the US, have gained unprecedented mass surveillance powers over their own civilian populations, collecting and collating shockingly vast amounts of information and rendering privacy moot, and that’s without even getting into the data collection of your online browsing and shopping habits by large corporations like Facebook Google and Amazon, to name just a few.
The Rise of Digital Forensics
In our current world, digital forensics plays a crucial role in solving crimes. From analysing computer data to tracking mobile phone signals, digital forensics can provide crucial evidence in a case. The ubiquity of payments with credit cards, smartphones and bank transfers over cash make forensic accounting a much more potent field. However, during the 80s and 90s, digital forensics was in its infancy. Computers were less common, mobile phones were a luxury, and cash was king. This lack of digital evidence could add a layer of suspense to thrillers set in this era, as characters could carry out actions without leaving a digital trail. In Pulp Fiction (1994), the characters commit crimes without leaving a digital trail.
The Impact of the Internet
The rise of the internet has had a profound impact on our lives, and this is reflected in our ability to research any topic at the click of a button to the rise of social media and online communities. The internet has changed the way characters interact and gather information. However, during the 80s and 90s, the internet was in its infancy and wasn’t a mainstream resource. Information was harder to come by, and characters had to rely on physical resources like books and newspapers. This lack of information could add a layer of suspense to thrillers set in this era, as characters had to work harder to find the information they needed. In Blade Runner (1982), despite being set in a futuristic alternative history (well, a retrofuturistic take I would term it), the characters have to physically track down each replicant, a task that would be much easier with our timeline’s 21st Century technology.
The Ubiquity of Listening Devices
Today, our smartphones can be listening at all times, and smart speakers like Amazon’s Alexa are common in many homes. This constant potential for surveillance can add a layer of paranoia to modern thrillers. However, in the 80s and 90s, listening devices were more conspicuous, and characters had to go to great lengths to bug a room or tap a phone line. This could add a layer of suspense as characters try to avoid detection or discover the bug. The movie Enemy of the State (1998) showcases this well, with the protagonist being pursued by a rogue NSA team using a variety of surveillance techniques.
My Own Thrillers
As a speculative thriller author myself, I like to play around with different time periods. In my short story Don’t Go Back, a child goes on the run with his Walkman, and a backpack weighed down by coins from his mother’s purse, as well as the home’s phone book and a street directory to avoid getting lost. Today he’d just use a smartphone. Also, two characters learn of events taking place in the world by relying on the news: not internet news, that is updated and refreshed at any time, but print newspapers and TV bulletins.
In an upcoming supernatural thriller short story I’ve written titled Ethereal Allurance, a photograph technician in the early 80s develops film for a customer and discovers his deceased walking past a newly-installed water fountain. And in my upcoming debut supernatural thriller novella Ethereal Malignance, the protagonist John Wedgewood asks for a map and a phone book to track someone down. He also lacks the ability to call for help when in trouble, and has to look for a public payphone, with antagonistic forces in hot pursuit. Don’t Go Back is freely available to read now on my website, Ethereal Allurance will be released for free by the end of the month (join my mailing list so you don’t miss out!), and Ethereal Malignance will be available for preorder by the end of this month (again, join my mailing list for updates).
The technology of the 80s and 90s provides a very different backdrop for thrillers than todays. The limitations and opportunities of the technology of the time can add layers of suspense, mystery, and intrigue to the story. From the reliance on payphones and physical maps to the absence of constant surveillance, the technology of the 80s and 90s can create unique challenges and opportunities for characters. While our current technology provides its own unique opportunities for plot development, there’s something about the simplicity and limitations of the technology of the 80s and 90s that adds a unique charm to thrillers set in this era.
Just think of the suspense you can create with a payphone and a handful of coins.
And here’s the cover of my upcoming book Ethereal Malignance!