Which elements of films, novels, or plays are able to produce suspense in the viewer or reader? (We will use the term “viewer” in the rest of this article to cover viewers, readers, and users.) This question immediately indicates that the concept of suspense has to be treated on multiple levels because it is a multilayered phenomenon. First, suspense is a cognitiveemotional strategy in the dramaturgy of a written, auditive, audiovisual, or performed “text,” which usually possesses a narrative structure. Second, the recipient has to be able to experience the suspense potential of this text. In order to manage this task, her or his cognitive architecture and socio-emotional as well as motivational makeup have to fulfill specific prerequisites. Finally, if the suspense construction has achieved its effect, the question that follows is which processes take place in the viewer. Usually cognitive analyses of suspense phenomena are carried out by focusing either on the text, as a calculated structural proposal for information processing by the viewer, or on the viewer’s reception process.
The best-studied case for a suspense-evoking text is a film telling a single narrative, prototypically a thriller in the style of Alfred Hitchcock. This prototype also defines a single genre: suspense. But television serials like 24 also unfold a broad range of (new) suspense-inducing techniques, and suspense may be evoked by non-narrative events, e.g., news stories or sports events.
Most theories of suspense concentrate on cognitive structures and functions, but it is not always precisely clear which analytical level is exposed: the text or the viewer’s information processing. All cognitive theories of suspense focus on one or another aspect of uncertainty. Suspense will arise if the further development of a plot is uncertain. It will also arise if the possible outcomes for a protagonist in a specific scene are unsure. Some scholars (e.g., Ohler & Nieding 1996) assume that suspense peaks when the odds for a positive or a negative outcome for a protagonist are 50–50; others (e.g., Carroll 1996) assume that the highest degree of suspense will be experienced when one outcome for the protagonist is positive but unlikely and the other bad but highly probable.
Cognitive approaches differ in explaining suspense experience via different cognitive processing mechanisms. Two examples may be mentioned briefly. Gerrig (1996) assumes an analogy with problem-solving processes: viewers will experience more suspense if possible problem solutions for the protagonist have been cut off. Ohler and Nieding (1996) model the experience of suspense using schema theory: viewers will experience more suspense if some slots in the multiple schemas that are activated during story comprehension cannot be filled with values. This effect peaks at the turning points of plots and when the expectations of the viewers are transcended systematically by the suspense narrative.
Other approaches suppose that emotional processes play an important role in the experience of suspense. For Zillmann (1996), viewers develop affective dispositions toward protagonists (positive) and antagonists (negative) by salient cues offered from the beginning of a narrative. This leads to reactions of empathic stress when the probability of a liked protagonist’s positive outcome in his fight against antagonistic forces is reduced (high subjective certainty of a negative outcome). This is followed by euphoric feelings when the liked protagonist has against all odds been able to overcome the invincible obstacles. The reverse pattern holds for antagonists. The viewer fears their highly probable positive outcomes and is euphoric about their highly improbable failure. The seeming paradox that most viewers like to expose themselves to suspense narrations despite their evocation of dysphoric affects is solved in this approach via Zillman’s (1983) excitation transfer theory.
Vorderer (1996) points out that protagonists are often not portrayed as unambiguously sympathetic. It therefore seems not to be necessary to assign a specific morally good–bad dimension (morally correct but improbable outcome tied to the protagonist) to every scene as Carrol (1996) demands. New serials like 24 prove impressively that Vorderer’s claim to replace Zillmann’s sympathy variable with one like “viewers’ subjectively (parasocial) experienced relationship with protagonists” is very profound.
One specific phenomenon requires special attention: suspense can also arise when you read a book or view a film for the second time. Brewer (1996) was able to show that rereading short, written suspense narrations leads to a strong overall reduction in suspense ratings. An interesting question is whether this would also be the case in re-viewing a suspense thriller. Newer results in the neurosciences concerning mirror mechanisms in the human brain (e.g., Gallese et al. 2004) allow the prediction that viewing a protagonist automatically establishes a neurophysiological internal simulation of his actions and emotions. As a consequence a viewer will experience a higher degree of empathy than will a reader. Therefore in re-viewing films the suspense experience may be on a higher level.
So far only one compendium of the different approaches to suspense and problems associated with the concept exists (Vorderer et al. 1996).
- Brewer, W. F. (1996). The nature of narrative suspense and the problem of rereading. In P. Vorderer, H. J. Wulff, & M. Friedrichsen (eds.), Suspense: Conceptualizations, theoretical analyses, and empirical explorations. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 107–127.
- Carroll, N. (1996). The paradox of suspense. In P. Vorderer, H. J. Wulff, & M. Friedrichsen (eds.), Suspense: Conceptualizations, theoretical analyses, and empirical explorations. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 71–91.
- Gallese, V., Keysers, C., & Rizzolatti, G. (2004). A unifying view of the basis of social cognition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 396–403.
- Gerrig, R. J. (1996). The resiliency of suspense. In P. Vorderer, H. J. Wulff, & M. Friedrichsen (eds.), Suspense: Conceptualizations, theoretical analyses, and empirical explorations. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 93–105.
- Ohler, P., & Nieding, G. (1996). Cognitive modelling of suspense-inducing structures in narrative films. In P. Vorderer, H. J. Wulff, & M. Friedrichsen (eds.), Suspense: Conceptualizations, theoretical analyses, and empirical explorations. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 129–147.
- Vorderer, P. (1996). Toward a psychological theory of suspense. In P. Vorderer, H. J. Wulff, & M. Friedrichsen (eds.), Suspense: Conceptualizations, theoretical analyses, and empirical explorations. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 233–254.
- Vorderer, P., Wulff, H. J., & Friedrichsen, M. (eds.) (1996). Suspense: Conceptualizations, theoretical analyses, and empirical explorations. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Zillmann, D. (1983). Transfer of excitation in emotional behaviour. In J. T. Cacioppo & R. E. Petty (eds.), Social psychophysiology: A sourcebook. New York: Guilford, pp. 215–240.
- Zillmann, D. (1996). The psychology of suspense in dramatic exposition. In P. Vorderer, H. J. Wulff, & M. Friedrichsen (eds.), Suspense: Conceptualizations, theoretical analyses, and empirical explorations. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 199–231.