Thrillers are films with the clear intention of making us uncomfortable and, ironically, we can’t get enough of them! Shock and suspense seem to be the basis of every horror and thriller film but it’s important to make no confusion between them. While shock relies on the visual and auditory stimuli provided by the film and simply intends to get an extreme reaction from the viewer – the jump scare is a great example of this technique – and is more often employed in horror films, suspense requires much more subtlety as it focuses on the handling of the information and no good thriller exists without it.
As Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, put it: “The element of suspense is giving the audience information.” There’s a classic example used to make this distinction, again provided by this renowned filmmaker:
“Now, you and I are sitting here. Suddenly, a bomb goes off. Up we go, blown to smithereens. What did the audience have watching this scene? Five or ten seconds of shock. Now, we do the scene over again but we tell the audience there’s a bomb underneath this table and it’s going to go off in five minutes. Now, this innocuous conversation about football becomes very potent! We say: ‘Don’t talk about football! There’s a bomb under there!’”
So, we can easily conclude that suspense relies on anxiety and creating a feeling of helplessness in the viewer and it seems we, as an audience, have “learned to love the bomb!”.
These two extreme genres of films really seem to prove the power of cinema. Just watch the posture of most viewers in the film theatre around you. While horror sends us to the back of the seat, as we try to protect ourselves from what’s inevitably coming for us, thrillers can push us over the edge as we make a useless effort to warn the characters about what we think is going to happen so that they can survive or achieve their vital goals.
So why do we want to feel anxious and scared, then? Why would someone in his or her right mind want to feel uncomfortable?
Dr. Stuart Fischoff, professor of psychology at California State University, concludes that the stronger the negative emotion a person feels while watching a film, the more likely it will enjoy the genre. The relief that comes after the tension is resolved can be profoundly cathartic.
If we continue to look to the psychology behind it, some experts also found that the reasons behind most viewers of these genres being mostly teenagers are quite probably linked to the obvious and natural seek for strong emotions in that age and, curiously, to an attempt to manage horror and distress in a safe environment.
The viewers can choose to succumb to what they see or face it head-on. In some cases, they can even come face to face with what scared them as kids. However, we can’t just ignore the huge social importance these films also assume since there’s a history of thrillers and horror films being screened on romantic dates. Studies have even proven that couples felt they had a more enjoyable viewing experience by watching and reacting to their partner’s own responses to the film.
We can’t deny there is a generalized idea that most films of these genres suck (and I understand, most really do), it’s even understandable most people don’t want to praise distressful experiences, and when critics try to find any deeper meaning behind them they come empty-handed almost every time. But most of these films aren’t intended to influence your philosophy on life or tell a profound story; they want to shake you up. They intend to make you sweat but, believe me, that’s not as easy as it sounds.
In a paper by Moritz Lehne and Stefan Koelsch titled Toward a General Psychological Model of Tension and Suspense, they identify six main components of tension but, in order to focus on suspense, we’ll discuss four of them. To also offer the best explanation possible, I believe it’s interesting to speak about this matter in a specific context and there’s perhaps a no better way to do that than to dissect the intricate opening of Inglourious Basterds by Quentin Tarantino.
Conflict, Dissonance, and Instability are the first elements Moritz and Stefan identify as necessary for tension. Without them, there won’t be an earning for a more stable and peaceful situation.
In Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino begins by presenting a normal day in the lives of a family of French dairy farmers. The farmer swings an ax at a tree stump and one of the daughters is hanging laundry. Everything seems peaceful and ordinary until… The Nazis approach from afar.
Here we are presented with the second element of suspense: Lack of Control. This basic ingredient is crucial to creating the required tension to push you over the seat as the film decided to remove control from the ones you care about, from the main characters, after making you empathize with them.
As the authors put it: “The intensity of suspense is proportional to our emotional investment in what is going on.” The Emotional Significance of Anticipated Events is, therefore, essential to make us feel the tension of the scene. If we don’t care about someone or something in the scene, if we aren’t hoping for a result (or the avoidance of one) we aren’t emotionally invested enough to feel the tension.
You need to feel it’s possible to surpass the difficulty ahead. There needs to be hope. When the farmer tells his daughters to mind their behaviour, we are told something is going to happen and they have to adopt conduct that’s vital for their survival and the suspense of the film: they need to watch their step and be careful.
Christoph Waltz beautifully portrays the danger in the scene through the character of S.S. Colonel Hans Landa and Tarantino has created him in such a charming and unpredictable way that he has managed to achieve another goal in creating suspense: Uncertainty. His uniform has made it clear how dangerous he is but his extremely polite behaviour, to the point of discomfort, makes him someone who doesn’t, at a first glance, fit the image of the strict Nazi official.
His intelligence, also clear by the mind games he plays with Monsieur Perrier LaPadite while he drinks a glass of milk and smokes his enormous pipe at his host’s table, shows him not as the typical ego-maniacal villain but as someone who clearly has a grasp on the situation, thus increasing the feeling of unpredictability.
We can’t deny this Inglourious Basterds scene has been tense up until this moment but Tarantino decides to take things up a notch by bringing suspense to the party. Lehne and Kolsch define suspense as a more specific type of tension, describing it as specific anticipation between clearly opposite outcomes and there’s hardly a better opposition than between life and death.
Instead of a bomb, the director decides to show us in the middle of the conversation between the dairy farmer and the S.S. Colonel that there’s a Jewish family hidden beneath the wooden floor. We’re presented with a bomb ready to go off but there’s no timer in this case. The ignition is instead something much more uncertain: Landa possibly finding what’s going on.
At this moment, any trivial piece of conversation assumes major importance and when Hans brings up his nickname of the “Jew Hunter” to the discussion, we slowly realize he isn’t in that position by chance, he isn’t easily fooled. He knows what’s going on and eventually confronts Perrier about it.
After the brief confrontation, the suspense hasn’t gone away. We just changed our concerns. Up until now, we were asking ourselves: “Will he find the family beneath the floorboards?” and now we wonder “What will he do?”.
Now’s the time for the payoff, the absolute need for catharsis after all the tension, the moment the rubber band breaks, and the events have naturally led (spoiler alert) to the assassination of the Jewish family with the exception of Shosanna, who will assume a great deal of importance later in Inglourious Basterds. The structure of suspense might seem simple at first but it can offer some challenges when one hopes to create a rewarding, meaningful, and memorable experience.
It requires a maestro and a top-notch orchestra to make us sweat in the darkness of the movie theatres but, trust me, there’s nothing the musicians want more than being ignored while we fill the room with sweat, screams, tears, and, maybe, a pinch of blood.