What makes Suspense so Suspenseful? according to Psychology

What makes Suspense so Suspenseful? according to Psychology


A unique sensation- that of excitement, a little bit of fear, maybe nervousness and anxiety that makes you embrace yourself to be surprised. You’ve surely experienced this feeling known to humans as suspense. Maybe you’ve felt this way in your day-to-day life when your best friend refused to tell you that secret till you both met in person. Then there are those times when you are seated in front of your television, clenching your pillow close to your chest while watching a slow-paced movie with shady characters. But do you think that the experience of suspense changes based on how you encounter it?

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This article further explores this feeling, letting you understand the roots of suspense. It lets you reflect on your relationship with this feeling and how movie producers might use it to catch the eye of the audience.

The Mind and Suspense:

Suspense is an intense feeling that makes your entire body alert. It makes you present in the moment, engaging you in a way that nothing else can take your attention away. While experiencing suspense, your body will likely reflect it. You might blink very slowly, have a stiff body and even sweat, waiting for the truth to greet you. If you’ve watched the movie ‘Merry Christmas’, it is likely that you experienced this situation in the movie hall as the plot picked up pace. Naturally, this means that the mind has an important role in making you experience this feeling. Let’s understand why you might feel the way you do.

1. Your mind tries to grasp onto something, thus being in control

Where does the anxiety in suspense come from? To answer this question in one word, it is ‘uncertainty’. The uncertainty that you experience in a situation is exactly what creates the element of suspense. This engages the mind, making it ask ‘what next?’ As the suspense builds, the mind tries to find solutions before it is given to them. That is its desperate attempt to gain control. When you are finally offered the solution, the quench of suspense is satisfied. At this point, a person is subjected to extreme relief, and sometimes shock. The stimulation that the mind goes through drops suddenly. This might provide a state of euphoria in an individual, making them crave suspense more.

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2. A neurochemical rush is taking place as you engage with the source

The Amygdala, a region of the brain that plays an important role in fear, is activated while experiencing suspense. This feeling also activates the adrenal glands. You’ve probably heard the word ‘adrenaline rush’. This feeling takes place as the fight-or-flight response in a person is triggered, to prepare a person to escape a dangerous situation. However, this feeling is craved by many. As suspense activates these parts in the body, a heightened neurochemical rush is experienced by the body.

3. Your mind desperately needs to complete that narrative

This is the point where restlessness comes in. Let’s face it, as you sit down and watch something suspenseful, you can’t wait to find out what’s next. The mind then gets restless. As a result, it starts to find different narratives to form an entire story in your head. That’s why, while watching a suspense thriller, endless possibilities go through your head. Many times, producers manage to think so creatively that a storyline doesn’t even occur to people. This brings an element of surprise to the table. Now, do you get why your mind is blown?

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4. It is fully drawn into the process of finding the solution

People enjoy suspense, not only because of an adrenaline rush or the narrative. Consider any form of entertainment offering its audience suspense in the storyline. If you think carefully, all the evidence is embedded in the plot itself. It’s much like a difficult puzzle. Sometimes you can solve it by yourself. Other times, someone gives you the solution, and you realize how obvious it truly has been. The first case is what the mind hopes to have, as it goes into the thrill of suspense to find a solution. When that successfully happens, you feel competent. ‘I figured it out’ is something that anyone would love to gloat about. Suspense is just one means for you to feel that way.

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Suspense in Fiction:

Fiction goes a long way, but the most common forms of interaction with it are through books or movies. While writing the scripts, writers focus on intensifying these emotions to engage the audience. They understand theories surrounding the interaction of humans with any kind of media and the attitudes they have towards it. This helps them consider different factors and answer their questions. Would someone re-watch a suspense thriller? Is there a point in modern productions of classics? It is important to know what sells and what doesn’t, not only to make a profit but also to utilize resources in the right manner. Noël Carroll talks about the concept of ‘entertained uncertainty’, through which he argues that uncertainty does not have to be actual. This is because humans are capable of navigating a book or a movie using guided imagination.

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This allows you to feel suspense, even when you more or less know the rest of the plot. This is where adaptations also come in. Even though the audience might know a plot, they are still capable of engaging with it. Aaron Smut’s desire-frustration theory of suspense explains that the creation of suspense is easier in fiction. This is because suspense is a result of the failed desire to affect the outcome. While in real life, a situation can take a turn if you truly work towards it, the fictional plot is already set, and no matter how much you try to predict it, the outcome is already set, waiting to be revealed to you.

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The recently released movie ‘Merry Christmas’, starring Katrina Kaif, Vijay Sethupathi, Vinay Pathak, Sanjay Kapoor and Luke Kenny, has made a banging entrance into the world of suspense. A true delight for the fans of suspense thrillers, the movie started very slowly in the first half, building suspense, and then picking up speed in the second half. While some wouldn’t address the glory of the first half of the movie, it gave the viewers the base of the movie, eliciting the feeling of suspense. A build-up that one could only sit through uncomfortably, the audience was presented with little details giving hints that something was not right.

Whether you pay attention to Albert’s body language around the police, or Maria’s behavior in her apartment. The presence of a mute child, the narration of incomplete stories, a fortune ticket saying ‘the night is darkest before the dawn’- even if you didn’t consciously note these little things out of place, they have a way of getting to you, sending shivers down your spine. Any suspense movie is incomplete without heart-dropping music and tunes. As the movie gained momentum, the audience would probably need a seatbelt if they were planning on feeling stable. A piece of art that made everyone hold their breath, the praise for this move broke the internet.

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While ‘Merry Christmas’ is a strong addition under the belt of suspense thrillers, there are many more works of fiction that would take your breath away. Whether it is ‘And Then There Were None’ by Agatha Christie or Silence of the Lambs, you are sure to love the thrill you get from suspense. While this is a feeling that people might enjoy feeling, its existence in fiction is more appreciated. This is because fiction provides a distance for the audience from the horrors taking place on the screen or the pages. Thus, you are more likely to yearn for it. The basic mechanism behind the enjoyment of suspense is the cycle of tension and relief. Unpredictability makes your imagination go wild, giving you more room for success. The popularity of this genre shows how widely this sensation is enjoyed by the population. Plotting the success of suspense also helps writers understand what is valued by the audience. This also guarantees that it’ll thrive as time moves on.

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References +
  • https://crimereads.com/the-psychology-of-suspense/
  • https://lifebeyondnumbers.com/merry-christmas-review/#google_vignette
  • https://www.filmcompanion.in/reviews/bollywood-review/merry-christmas-review-sriram-raghavans-film-is-exceptional-and-remarkably-moving
  • https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/paradox-suspense/
  • https://www.suspense-in-storytelling.de/what-is-the-feeling-of-suspense

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