The Paradox of Suspense XII – Criticisms of my Account

In this article I will raise some potential criticisms of my account. I will conclude that my account can successfully answer these issues and is therefore a psychologically and philosophically acceptable of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense.

 

The first criticism of my account relates to whether we may feel suspense in response to characters we do not feel for/with/as. Aaron Smuts would argue that in Michael Clayton we feel suspense in response to a scene where two “unsympathetic” killers attempt to bug the protagonist Michael’s car. Smuts explains:

 

Before they can finish, Michael starts walking back to his car. The scene is incredibly suspenseful, but what desire is frustrated? I cannot recall desiring to warn Michael… [and] it is not clear why audiences would desire to see the installation complete, since our sympathies certainly lie with Michael and not his pursuers.[1]

 

The issue then is that the two killers appear to be unsympathetic characters. Yet Smuts claims to have felt suspense in response to this scene. Smuts may indeed be correct that he doesn’t or cannot be sympathising with these two killers. However, it is also true that he could still feel as/with them. That is, we have all been in situations where we have been caught or feared capture in the act of committing some transgression (imagined or otherwise) and we are capable of feeling as those killers in this particular situation.

 

The second criticism of my account concerns diminishing returns. As I noted previously diminishing returns refers to the progressive decrease in the vividness or strength of our experience of suspense. In response to this criticism I would highlight that though powerful our attention is fallible. In everyday life we often get distracted, overwhelmed and weary. In our interaction with fiction we may feel less suspense in response to certain scenes because they have a lessened impact on us. That is, if the narrative does not capture our attention the way it did the first-time we encountered it, or for as long, then on future repeated viewings it is only natural that we feel less suspense and less vivid suspense. It is also possible that certain elements of a narrative will so strongly activate a memory that we cannot help but remember either the scene’s outcome or elements of a situation’s solution.

 

The third criticism of my account is the same raised against Carroll’s account. On an original viewing of a Manchester United-City derby match both sets of supporters will experience immense suspense in response to pressured, tense situations such as the last ten minutes or a penalty kick. However, on subsequent viewings of this match supporters will not experience suspense. The supporters will experience the same joy, delight or sorrow at a refused penalty, missed goal or booking but they will not, however hard they try, re-experience suspense. This inability to re-experience suspense appears to be a natural feature of sports spectatorship. In response to this issue I would argue that the sight of the penalty kick situation, in conjunction with the time displayed and score in the left hand corner, is such that it would be hard for it not to trigger the memory of the penalty kick and its emotional valence in the United or City fans. That is, all the fans will do is remember the save, the miss or goal that sunk or revived their chances of winning the league or cup.


[1]Aaron Smuts, ‘Paradox of Suspense’, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2009/entries/paradox-suspense/>.

 

The Paradox of Suspense XI – Features of the Attention as Engine of Suspense

Essential to our ability to feel suspense on repeated viewings then is our attention. The attention is best understood as the system by which we select (focus on) which information or stimulus we should process.[1] That is, the attention is the system that allocates where and to what end our processing resources should be allocated. Visual attention is the process by which we can focus on specific visual stimulation such individual words on a page (without which of course reading would be difficult if not impossible). Auditory attention is the process by which we can choose to focus on our friends’ voice or the whistling of the wind.[2] So, the attention allocates how much of our (limited) processor power gets allocated to tasks such as listening, seeing, feeling, recalling and encoding data. Because our attention (our processor power) is limited we prioritise tasks to focus on.[3] This limitation explains why we fail to carry on a meaningful conversation with a friend while simultaneously attempting to work out who is sleeping with who in our favourite soap.

This ability and propensity to focus on certain information or stimuli over other information or processes also extends to our ability to process enfolding stimuli over recalling stored experience. Encountering an ambulance on the road is a vivid instance of our ability and propensity to favour processing enfolding stimuli over stored experience. That is, when we are driving along a road and hear a blazing ambulance siren we do not focus (draw our attention) on explicitly remembering our last encounter with a similar or identical situation[4]. Rather, we focus (draw our attention) on where the ambulance is, where the noise is coming from, which direction the ambulance wants to go and what, if any, actions we should take to avoid holding the ambulance up. That is, in response to the ambulance’s siren we prioritise processing the immediate stimuli[5] (flashing lights, the noise) over recalling similar or identical past encounters stored in the long-term memory. So, when we encounter vivid and emotionally arousing stimuli we can, and often do, focus on processing unfolding events as a priority over integrating it with our memory[6]. In regard to narrative fiction, they offer many vivid and emotionally arousing scenes, situations and scenarios which we explicitly attempt to focus on understanding and processing with the consequence being that we may not recall past encounters with those scenes and ones similar to them[7]. Therefore, we may experience uncertainty in response to narratives we have certain knowledge of because we can prioritise processing immediate and unfolding stimuli over recalling similar scenes or situations stored in our long-term memory.

 


[1] John R Anderson, Cognitive Psychology and its Implications, 6th Edition, (London: Worth Publishers Ltd, 2004), p. 519.

[2] Elizabeth A Styles, Attention, Perception and Memory, (Hove: Psychology Press, 2005), p. 185

[3] Ibid, pp. 212-214.

[4] That is, we do not integrate it into memory by squaring our current experience with those we have encountered in the past. This is not to say that past experiences cannot shape our intuitions and instincts, they are however, implicit processes not controlled or under the remit of the explicit processes of the attention.

[5] An article that illustrates our propensity to focus on processing vivid and emotionally arousing stimuli see L M  Hulse & A Memon ‘Fatal impact? The effects of emotional arousal and weapon presence on police officers’ memories for a simulated crime’, Legal and Criminological Psychology, 11, (2006), pp. 313–325.

[6] For the many ways this propensity affects the encoding state of memory see A Burke, F Heuer & D Reisberg, ‘Remembering emotional events’, Memory & Cognition, 20, (1992) pp. 277–290.

[7] Without this ability many films and novels would be unbearable. If we did automatically recall similar or identical encounters with fiction every time we encountered a new action film we would spend half the film thinking about old films and the similarities between them all. Of course this is not to say that we cannot recall similarities between what we are seeing now and past experiences similar to them. However, if we were all obliged to do this and did so often then it seems unlikely that more than one Steven Seagal film would ever be made.

The Paradox of Suspense X – Early Steps of a Solution

In the previous sections I provided my characterisation of suspense. I held that uncertainty is integral to suspense. Whether in regard to a particular scene or a complete narrative uncertainty concerning how it will be resolved is essential to experiencing suspense. However, because I hold that suspense requires uncertainly I am threatened by the paradox of suspense. As I noted here, the paradox of suspense can be stated like this:

1. Suspense requires uncertainty.

2. Knowledge of the outcome of a narrative, scene or situation precludes any   uncertainty

3. We feel suspense in response to fictions we know the outcome of

All of the individual elements are acceptable in isolation however; in conjunction they pose a problem for my account of suspense (because it holds that suspense requires uncertainty).  To escape the paradox of suspense I will illustrate that knowledge of the outcome of a narrative, scene or situation does not necessarily preclude uncertainty. I will argue that the function and processes of our attention is responsible for this ability to become, momentarily, uncertain about a particular scene even if we have certain knowledge concerning how that scene turns out.

            We are able to experience uncertainty in response to scenes, situations and narratives we know the outcome to because we do not (automatically) use prior knowledge (stored in our long term memory) when processing the information provided by a particular narrative. That is, when we are reading a suspense thriller we are not obliged to recall our knowledge of how a scene turns out. To establish whether we are obliged or not to recall specific information Richard J Gerrig conducted several experiments. These experiments attempted to gauge whether we do use prior information about former president George Washington when reading a short narrative about his life. In order to judge whether we are or are not obliged to access specific information about George Washington Gerrig introduced an obstacle to our comprehension of the well-known story of his acceptance of the role of first president of the USA. Gerrig explains:

In our experiments, we created small emendations to nonfictional aspects of American history and culture. We began with assertions that were selected to be unproblematic, such as George Washington was elected first president of the United States. We then wrote stories that presented obstacles to these well-known outcomes.[1]

The obstacle in the first experiment was changing the narrative to conclude that George Washington had rejected the presidency because he was too frail and that John Adams has become the first president. If we are obliged to utilize prior knowledge we have about George Washington then there should be no difference between the time needed to respond to questions by readers given the truthful story and those with the altered ending. The results of Gerrig’s experiments were staggering.[2] In some cases the altered stories produced an increase of nearly 50% in processing time required to answer the question correctly. Gerrig explains:

The results of this experiment indicate that uncertainty can be induced by immersing readers in story episodes. Verification latencies suggested that the subjects entertained the implied conclusions of the [narratives], even when they had information available in memory that directly contradicted these conclusions.[3]

Gerrig concluded that this evidence shows that there is ‘a limit on the way that prior knowledge is put to use in moment-by-moment understanding’.[4] That is, Gerrig’s experiment illustrates that we can be momentarily uncertain about outcomes or situations we have prior knowledge of because we do not automatically utilise prior knowledge of a scene (or situation or narrative) when processing the information provided by that scene. Gerrig’s experiments affirm then that it is quite possible to be uncertain about a scene, scenario or narrative even if we know how that particular scene, scenario or narrative turns out. What remains to be explained is why and how this natural ability comes about and how exactly it can explain features of our experience of repeat suspense. I will show that it is our attention which is responsible for our ability to become, momentarily, uncertain about a particular scene even if we have certain knowledge concerning how that scene turns out. That is, it is a feature of the way our attention works that we are able to (and do so frequently) prioritize processing new, important or vivid information over recalling previous encounters from the long-term memory. So, when we re-watch Die Hard we are not obliged to recall how particular scenes turn out with the consequence that we can experience uncertainty and ultimately suspense.

McClain hanging from tower


[1] Richard J Gerrig, ‘Suspense in the absence of Uncertainty’, Journal of Memory and Language, Vol. 28, No. 6, (December 1989), p. 633-648, p. 634.

[2] For brevity I will not copy the numbers created by Gerrig’s experiment though it is important to note that the difference in latency between true stories without obstacles (2.33 seconds) to stories that were false with obstacles (3.12 seconds) is a massive difference in response to a story with very little counter-factual information to process.

[3] Gerrig, ‘Suspense in the Absence of Uncertainty’, p. 639.

[4] Ibid, p. 645.

The Paradox of Suspense IX – Further Conditions of Suspense

As well as arising from uncertainty regarding the possibility that undesired things have a good chance of happening, suspense is engendered by those undesired things happening (vi) to characters we feel for/with/as. I have used feeling for and feeling as/with so as to cover both sympathetic and empathetic emotional responses to characters. In the scene in Die Hard where Sgt. Powell is slowly walking towards his potential death we feel for him because he is oblivious to his fate. In a later scene when McClain is hiding in an air duct and we just hear footsteps slowly coming closer we feel with McClain because we are responding to his facial and bodily expressions regarding the close proximity of the terrorist (and his potential capture or death). Both of these characters inspire the desire not to see them get hurt (with the consequence that suspense arises) but through different techniques: Sgt. Powell through feeling for him and McClain by feeling as/with him[1].

So by feel for/with/as I mean that we feel suspense when a character we empathise or sympathise with is the target of an undesired event. One way to further illustrate the importance of the audience feeling for/with/as characters is to highlight our inability to experience suspense in response to characters we do not empathise or sympathise with. In Die Hard with a Vengeance (Dir., John McTiernan, 1995) the main antagonist Simon Gruber is an intelligent, sophisticated but evil man who destroys part of the New York subway system in order to steal a vast quantity of gold from the Federal Reserve. Though at times we may find him witty, we are ultimately unable to sympathise or empathise with him[2]. Because of this when he is attempting to escape capture by helicopter and we are shown some perilously close power lines we do not experience suspense[3]. That is, as we find him an unsympathetic character we do not form any desire to see him survive or escape punishment. In fact, our inability to feel for/with/as him in conjunction with his evil deeds motivates us to desire his destruction by McClain. Obviously a criticism could be raised that our inability to experience suspense in response to Simon’s fate is that we do not like him (with the reason that we experience suspense in response to McClain’s fate is that we do like him). However, we are able to experience suspense in response to characters we do not like[4] (but are able to feel for/with/as). An example of this can be found in L’Avventura, in this film we may not particularly like Sandro at all – he is a disaffected, cheating, pompous man – but I can still experience suspense in response to his plight because I am able to sympathise with his efforts to find his lost girlfriend Anna[5]. Therefore, suspense (ii) arises from uncertainty (iii) regarding the possibility that undesired things have a good chance of happening (vi) to characters we feel for/with/as.

            The final element in my characterisation of suspense is that suspense can only be a negative emotional or affective response. I hold that suspense can only be (i) a negative emotion because uncertainty regarding possible undesired outcomes cannot produce positive feelings. Zillmann explains regarding desired outcomes that ‘the experience of uncertainty about a desired outcome should prove noxious because of the relatively high perceived likelihood that the outcome will not materialize’.[6] Likewise, uncertainty regarding the possible chance that a character we sympathise will suffer a horrific fate can only be negative. Obviously once we are certain that the character will or will not suffer a horrific fate we experience joy or sorrow. Therefore, suspense is a (i) negative emotion (ii) arising from uncertainty (iii) regarding the possibility that undesired things have a good chance of happening (vi) to characters we feel for/with/as.


[1] This is not to say that in much of the film we aren’t feeling for McClain. The important element is that these are characters we are capable of feeling for and do so engendering the desires to see them thrive and not get hurt.

[2] Partly this is due to his and his team’s callous indifference to the lives that stand in the way towards his end goal. This is not to say that he is a total villain as the bomb he plants in a school to distract the police is a fake. However, in the terms of the narrative he is quite successfully painted as unsympathetic.

[3] Another vivid example of this can be found in the original series of Star Trek. In the away missions a security officer in a red jersey would routinely get killed or seriously injured. These characters were never given any back-story or sympathetic treatment (they were basically walking props) with the consequence being that the viewers never felt any suspense when they faced danger. In contrast to these characters, when Spock, or some other character we routinely felt for, was placed in jeopardy we could easily feel pangs of suspense. Another reason why I have chosen character’s we feel for/with/as is that it ensures my account can explain why we sometimes feel suspense to response to morally dubious characters as well as why we don’t always feel suspense in response to morally correct, but unsympathetic characters.

[4] There is no doubt that liking a character helps us to form the sympathetic or empathetic relationship required to experience suspense in response to a character’s plight. It is not, however, essential to experience suspense.

[5] For a whole catalogue of ways we feel suspense in response to the works of Michelangelo Antonioni (which features many unlikeable characters) see Peter Wuss, ‘Narrative Tension in Antonioni’ in Peter Vorderer, Hans J. Wulff and Mike Friedrichsen (eds), Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations, (London: Routledge, 1996),  pp. 51-70.

[6] Zillmann, ‘The Psychology of Suspense in Dramatic Exposition’ p. 200.

The Paradox of Suspense VIII – Suspense as Arising From Uncertainty Regarding…

(My apologies for the delay in this sections publication. The Journal is undergoing some restructuring and once the changes have been established we can devote more energy to the actual publishing of great writing on film, art and aesthetics!)

In the previous articles I explored Carroll’s account of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense. I explained that Carroll held that we experience suspense by (a) entertaining uncertainty (b) regarding an unfolding event (c) which has two logically opposed possible outcomes (one moral the other immoral) of which (d) the moral outcome appears improbable and the immoral outcome appears probable. Carroll’s solution was that rather than actual uncertainty all that we require to experience suspense is entertained uncertainty. I also explored several reasons for rejecting Carroll’s account of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense. In this section I will put forward my account of suspense.  I will assert that suspense[1] is a (i) negative emotion (ii) arising from uncertainty (iii) regarding the possibility that undesired things have a good chance of happening[2] (vi) to characters we feel for/with/as.

 

An important element in my account is that uncertainty is the engine behind suspense. Holding uncertainty to be integral to suspense sits with intuitions concerning everyday encounters with suspense. When we are watching a penalty shoot-out our uncertainty regarding the possible outcome causes us to experience suspense. Once the penalty kick is saved or successful our suspense disappears and transforms into joy or sorrow. Obviously if we are a particularly pessimistic or fatalistic fan we do not experience any suspense because we are almost certain that when high pressure situations arise our team will fail. Similarly if we a particularly wildly optimistic fan we can convince ourselves that the outcome will always been positive, and if we are deluded, experience no suspense about the result of the penalty shoot-out. In regard to fiction, in Die Hard we feel suspense when we see the oblivious cop Sgt. Al Powell walk towards the lift where an armed terrorist is waiting to shoot him. As he walks slowly closer and closer the tension and feelings of suspense rise. In regard to this scene not knowing whether Sgt. Powell will survive or be shot creates suspense. Once we see that Sgt. Powell is no longer in peril we stop experiencing suspense and experience relief[3]. Therefore, suspense appears to (ii) arise from uncertainty.

 

Suspense is not however, just uncertainty. Suspense arises from uncertainty (iii) regarding the possibility that undesired things have a good chance of happening. In our consumption of fiction we are led, through certain narrative techniques, to form particular desires concerning how characters should act, what should happen to them and whether or not they deserve their treatment. Films often get us to form these desires by showing us some humanizing details. In Commando, John’s relationship with his daughter, full of laughter and care, signals that he is genuinely good man. Conversely, when we are introduced to the antagonist Arius we see him to be callous, violent and sadistic. These details help us to form desires that John be successful in his endeavours to the extent that we do not mind him committing some rather violent and sadistic acts of his own. The desires that we form in response to narratives shape how we react to potential and actual plot developments. Our desire that the antagonists receive punishment in Commando causes us to feel joy and excitement when John finally vanquishes them. Similarly our desires that Annie and Sam get together in Sleepless in Seattle cause us to first feel frustration at their inability to meet and ultimately joy and relief when they do. In regard to suspense our desire that, at the very least, Sgt. Powell is unhurt conflicts with the threat of his possible impending demise. That is, as this scene progresses we are uncertain whether an undesired outcome (Sgt. Powell’s demise) will materialize with the consequence that we experience suspense. Obviously, the undesired outcome must have a good chance of happening. That is, in terms of suspense caused by potential jeopardy to a protagonist[4], the danger they encounter must be credible. Dolf Zillmann explains:

 

The successful creation of the gripping experience of suspense… depends on the display of credible endangerments. The audience must think it likely, for example, that the motor will catch on fire, or that the driver will fly out of the curve and tumble down the mountain.[5]

 

In order for a narrative to engender suspense it must appear credible that the protagonist be in a situation in which harm or injury is likely or a “live” option. If, in the scene in which Sgt. Powell walks towards oblivious towards an awaiting terrorist, the terrorist is a six year old child armed with a water pistol we would fail to experience any suspense. This is because the potential threat fails to be perceived as credible. The importance of credible endangerments to suspense also helps explain why so many formulaic dramas fail to engender any feelings of suspense. In Murder, She Wrote the last few minutes always concludes with Jessica Fletcher trapping the murderer into confessing how and why they committed the particular crime. At the moment the murderer decides they have to fulfil their promise to silence the meddling amateur detective a sheriff or policeman storms through the doors and neutralises the threat. The sheer repetitiveness and obviousness of this trap renders the threat posed by the murderer almost laughable and therefore unable to engender suspense. However, this is not to say that episodic dramas cannot engender suspense. Though it is clear that central protagonists will remain unharmed in any serious degree (due to their featuring in future episodes) there may still be credible threats to their well-being as well as to guest characters. As Zillmann notes:

 

In the microstructure of drama, specific plots can show the liked protagonist credibly endangered. Scores of secondary protagonists can suffer fatal blows. Similar loss of life may not be viable threat to primary protagonists, but loss of limb may have considerable credibility for these characters.[6]

 

Even if death or destruction is seen as improbable, there is often the considerable possibility of beatings, torture, and other painful and humiliating treatment befalling the primary and secondary protagonists. Therefore, suspense appears to arise from uncertainty (iii) regarding the possibility that undesired things have a good chance of happening.


[1] This is an account of suspense as engendered by fictional narratives.

[2] This can also be written another way: (III)b that desired things have a slim chance of happening

[3] Our relief in this scene is solely for the Sergeant’s personal well-being. In the larger context of the story however, once we are reminded of McClain’s situation, we also experience some frustration in regard to the Sergeant failing to notice that the Plaza has been take over by terrorists.

[4] Obviously suspense caused by the apparent low likelihood that two star-crossed lovers will finally meet is not always caused by credible endangerment to their personal well-being. There is, however, a dimension whereby we must take that their plight is a credible one. That is, we take it that (fictionally speaking) there is a real danger that they will not live happily ever after together.

[5]Dolf Zillmann, ‘The Psychology of Suspense in Dramatic Exposition’, in Peter Vorderer, Hans J. Wulff and Mike Friedrichsen (eds), Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations, (London: Routledge, 1996),  pp. 199-232,  p. 203.

[6]Ibid, p. 207.

The Paradox of Suspense VII – Further Criticisms of Carroll’s Account

In response to these two criticisms Carroll highlights a difference between our everyday moral assessment and fictional morality. Carroll starts by explaining that we often alter our notions of right and wrong in regard to the imagined or presented fictional world. Carroll illustrates this point by arguing:

For example, caper films represent persons involved in perpetrating crimes that we do not customarily consider to be upstanding ethically. However, the characters in such fictions are standardly possessed of certain striking virtues such that… we are encouraged to ally ourselves morally with the caper.[1]

To Carroll, we alter our notions of moral and immoral to match the central protagonists’ world-view. We do this because the central protagonists are shown to be virtuous. The virtues Carroll has in mind are ‘strength, fortitude, ingenuity, bravery, competence, beauty, generosity, and so on’.[2] In certain cases then, in which the central protagonist’s commit immoral acts, it is their overriding virtues in contrast to the fiction’s antagonists that make us ‘cast our moral allegiance with them’.[3] To illustrate this point Carroll highlights Zulu (Dir., Cy Endfield, 1964) as a prime example of a film in which ‘we are drawn into the film’s system of moral evaluation by its portrayal – or lack thereof – of characters with respect to virtues’.[4] According to Carroll, we align ourselves towards the British soldiers because, even if we are staunchly anti-imperialist, they are shown to be courageous, brave and ingenious[5]. In regard to Goodfellas, Carroll would argue that though Henry Hill is a criminal he displays more virtues, or less vice, than the other characters which motivates us to support his actions. Carroll would also argue, in relation to the particular scene I brought attention to, that within the fictional world and in regard to Henry’s character hitting the neighbour is the moral action (with hitting the wife and neighbour being the logically opposed outcome). Carroll would also use a similar explanation for The Godfather. That is, within the context of the film, and the context of the film’s moral context, Michael assassinating the two rival gangsters is the moral option. However, though Carroll’s replies appear to answer the first two criticisms there are significant problems with his response. The first is that Henry does not display any virtuous characteristics. Henry steals, lies, murders in cold blood and for little reason, he abuses his wife emotionally, cheats on her, is jealous, self-centred, deals and takes drugs, back stabs his friends and betrays those who help him and the Mafia honour code he swears to live by and is, for the want of a better phrase, a viscous scum-bag. We do not side morally with Henry because he shows some virtues that other character’s do not, we feel suspense and care about Henry because we witness and become seduced by his glamorous lifestyle and uninhibited attitude[6]. In regard to The Godfather, even if we accept that within the film’s moral context killing the two gangsters is a permissible course of action; this does not mean that not killing the two gangsters is also seen as immoral. That is, if killing is morally acceptable in the context of the film and calling for a truce is also morally acceptable (though may be disappointing) then there is still a problem for Carroll in that there isn’t two logically opposed possible outcomes[7].  The problem with Carroll’s characterisation is that suspense derives from two logically opposed possible outcomes (one moral the other immoral) is that it seems more than possible to experience suspense without there being just two possible logically opposed moral outcomes. There is also a further issue with Carroll’s position in that it also seems possible to experience suspense in response to fictions that do not feature any moral dimension. A striking example of this can be found in L’Avventura. In the scene where Sandro thinks he has seen Anna again we experience some suspense. However, nothing about this scene has a moral dimension. That is, this scene is not suspenseful because it is morally correct that Sandro find Anna. We do not even know if Anna wants to be found. Our suspense in this scene is also nothing to do with Sandro’s virtuous nature as he is not shown to be likeable and after a few days he starts a sexual relationship with Anna’s best friend Claudia (and up until this scene Claudia and Sandro have all but forgotten about Anna and their “search” for her). Another example of a film that creates suspense without a moral dimension could be one that depicts a divorce in a realistic and objective manner. The film follows both sides in the preceding court case showing that the mother and father both have legitimate grievances and claims for the sole custody of the children. As the final verdict draws close we experience suspense regarding which outcome will materialise. In the case of this hypothetical film it would not be immoral for the mother to win; neither would it be immoral if the father won. Our feelings of suspense in response to this film would not be based on there being two possible logically opposed moral possibilities but rather on subjective personal opinion and past experience.[8] That is, our desire that the mother or father win would be based on if we could identity with them, understand their position or like them. Therefore, Carroll’s argument that suspense is created by a conflict between two logically opposed moral outcomes is flawed because it is possible to experience suspense in response to non-moral situations and instances where there is no conflict between two moral outcomes.

Central to Carroll’s solution to the paradox of suspense is the ability of “mere thoughts” to motivate emotional responses. However, there seems to be many instances where merely entertaining in thought a proposition does not cause us to respond emotionally. A common instance of this, at least to philosophy students and tutors, is the philosophical thought experiment. Many philosophical thought experiments often include horrific, bizarre and disturbing premises that, if we believed them, we would react in distinct ways. Thankfully however, we do not respond to thought experiments as if we believe them because we are able, in Carroll’s terms, entertain them nonassertedly (that is, without having to hold that x is true). Shaun Nichols highlights one particular thought experiment as a paradigm example of a thought experiment that would be disturbing if we responded emotionally to: ‘Imagine that you’re red-green colour blind and that all sentient life in the universe except for you is destroyed. In that case, does the colour red still exist?’.[9] This thought experiment asks us to entertain the possibility that all sentient life in the universe is destroyed bar us. However, when imagining this possibility within the framework of the thought experiment we don’t respond to it how we would if we believed all sentient life in the universe was destroyed nor do we respond to it with any emotional response. There appears then to be mere thoughts have the power to motivate us to respond emotionally and those that do not. This is an issue for Carroll insofar as it appears that there is more to explain behind the ability of thoughts to motivate emotional responses – especially if Carroll wants to avoid falling back on beliefs to explain the difference. I do however, believe that there is a possible explanation and solution and that is to introduce desire as the difference between instances where thoughts do provoke an emotional response and instances where thoughts do not provoke an emotional response. That is, in the case of entertaining the thought that my footing is loose on a high building I have an active desire (because I’m on an observation deck on a tall building) not to see that outcome realised. If I was in an office building behind a desk and imagined that my footing or the floor wasn’t secure it is unlikely that I would experience any pang of vertigo. This is because I do not have an active desire to avoid falling as I am in a secure building. Likewise, in the case of the thought experiment I do not have an active desire to avoid see the whole universe being destroyed. In regard to fiction then, we are drawn (through several techniques) into desiring that McClain survive and thrive in Die Hard with the consequence that when we are confronted with a scene in which we entertain the thought that he may be in mortal danger we respond emotionally. Therefore, whether a fiction is successful in engendering an emotional response is contingent on us experiencing a corresponding desire and, as Nichols explains, whether we have the right desire to respond emotionally depends on ‘the context, the intent of the author, the tone of the work, the point of the thought experiment, and so on’.[10] To conclude then it is not enough just to entertain the thought that McClain is in danger, we must also have the relevant desire to see him come to no harm.

A second and more significant criticism of Carroll’s solution to the paradox of suspense concerns his accounts inability to convincingly explain “diminishing returns”. As I noted in section 1.2 diminishing returns refers to the progressive decrease in the vividness or strength of our experience of suspense (or any emotional reaction) to fiction.  According to Carroll when we watch Die Hard for the third or fourth time and entertain the possibility that John McClain will be discovered eaves-dropping on the terrorists and killed we will still experience suspense. However, if all that is required to experience suspense is to entertain that an outcome is uncertain then it seems strange that our suspense diminishes at all. Carroll cannot reply that it is due to the audience not entertaining the possibility because they still experience some suspense in response to Die Hard’s narrative. This is a serious issue for Carroll because diminishing returns is a common feature of our interaction with narrative fiction and his account’s failure to provide a possible explanation provides us with good reason to be sceptical about his account.

A further criticism of Carroll’s account also concerns his solution to the paradox of suspense. Carroll account holds that all that is required to engender suspense is entertained uncertainty. However, if we accept this then it raises the question why any viewers fail to feel suspense on repeated viewings. That is, Carroll’s account struggles to explain “absent suspense”. In many repeat viewings of action genre films we may still be gripped by a sense of thrill and excitement. On our seventh or eighth viewing of Commando (Dir., Mark L Lester, 1985) we still enjoy the scene in which the protagonist John Matrix dangles the antagonist Sully off a cliff while interrogating him about the location of his kidnapped daughter. One particular element of this scene we routinely enjoy concerns when Sully reminds John that John had promised to kill him last to which John relies “I lied” before dropping him to his death. We enjoy this scene repeatedly because we can, in Carroll’s terminology, entertain nonassertedly that Sully is an evil man embroiled in a plot to install an evil dictator in a peaceful South American country and that he deserves (in the fiction’s moral system) his gruesome death served with a pun. However, we do not experience suspense in response to any scene in Commando on repeat viewings. Though we still entertain that John’s daughter is in mortal danger and unlikely to survive any rescue attempt we do not experience suspense in response to this film. Carroll’s reply to this would obviously be that we have just failed to entertain that the outcome is uncertain and this is why we do not experience any suspense. However, this reply appears disingenuous in that it seems odd that we have successfully entertained every other element essential to re-experience the joy, thrill, excitement of viewing Commando but failed to entertain that the outcome of the narrative is uncertain (which would seemingly diminish our enjoyment?). Though this criticism is far from conclusive in defeating Carroll’s account of suspense it gives us further reason to be dissatisfied about its ability to explain even the most common features of our engagement with narrative fiction.

Another related issue for Carroll’s account concerns its inability to explain why we do not experience suspense in repeat viewings of sports matches. On an original viewing of a Manchester United-City derby match both sets of supports will experience immense suspense in response to pressured, tense situations such as the last ten minutes or a penalty kick. However, on subsequent viewings of this match supports will not experience suspense. The supporters will experience the same joy, delight or sorrow at a refused penalty, missed goal or booking but they will not, however hard they try, re-experience suspense. This inability to re-experience suspense appears to be a natural feature of sports spectatorship. However, if all that is required to experience suspense is to entertain the possibility that we are uncertain how a corner, penalty turns out then we should be able to experience suspense in response to repeated live sports events like football matches. The problem cannot be that we do not have the sufficient desire that our favourite team not concede or score a goal. There is obviously an answer to why we do not experience suspense in response to repeated live sports events however; Carroll’s account appears unqualified in offering us a clear and comprehensive answer.


[1] Noel Carroll, ‘Paradox of Suspense’, p. 79.

[2] Ibid, p. 79.

[3]Ibid, p. 79.

[4]Ibid,  p. 79.

[5]  This characterisation appears to be unfair in regard to the representation of the AnZulu warriors. Though they are not given much of a role in the film’s narrative other than as antagonists they are shown to be resourceful, brave and fierce warriors. If they were not shown to have these warrior virtues their song at the end of the film would have little meaning. That is, if they weren’t shown to have every virtue required of a great warrior nation or people (including honour and respect) then their singing tribute towards the Welsh regiment wouldn’t be such a touching and striking symbol of respect. It could also be argued that the Welsh regiment – essentially a lazy, incompetent, argumentative rabble with a few good men chucked in – are shown to have many more vices than the AnZulu warriors.

[6]Our seduction towards accepting (at least provincially) the Goodfellas’ lifestyle and attitude is mirrored simultaneously in the film through the scenes featuring Henry’s wife.

[7] On moral grounds at least. The difference between the two options appears to be that one is desired (the killings) and the other undesired (the truce).

[8] Another example may be a film a young aspiring West Indian cricketer. In this film we are given a glimpse of a likeable character who dreams of playing one day for the West Indies. The film features young lad, from a rough background, shows significant determination and as reward is given a chance of impressing in a T20 game for his home side the Leeward Islands. In a dramatic scene, with the national selectors watching, he is given the task of bowling the last over with only seven runs to spare. Though there is no moral dimension to this scene – he is a likeable lad but he doesn’t deserve to succeed any more than the other players in contention for a spot in the team – we would still feel suspense in response to every ball, every moment, not because it is morally right that he succeed, but because we want him to succeed and there is a significant possibility that he won’t. That is, there is no conflict between a moral or immoral outcome, but rather a conflict between desired and undesired outcomes.

[9] Shaun Nichols, ‘Just the Imagination’, Mind & Language, Vol. 21, No. 4, September 2006, pp. 459–474,  p. 465.

[10] Ibid, p. 472.

The Paradox of Suspense VI – Criticisms of Carroll’s Account

In the previous section I explored Carroll’s account of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense. I explained that Carroll held that we experience suspense by (a) entertaining uncertainty (b) regarding an unfolding event  (c) which has two logically opposed possible outcomes (one moral the other immoral) of which (d) the moral outcome appears improbable and the immoral outcome appears probable. In this section I will start by evaluating and analysing his account of suspense. I will then consider whether his solution to the paradox of suspense is successful. I will conclude that neither his account of suspense or solution to the paradox of suspense are acceptable and should therefore be rejected.

The first criticism of Carroll’s account concerns whether we are able to experience suspense in response to immoral characters and situations. Carroll argued that fictions engender suspense by creating a situation where only two logically opposed outcomes, one moral and the immoral, appear possible. However, many fictions include immoral, or at least morally dubious, characters and situations of which we support, sympathise and root for and whose actions do not appear to offer a simple dialectic between moral and immoral action. One vivid example of this is Goodfellas (Dir., Martin Scorsese, 1990). Goodfellas is primarily about the protagonist Henry Hill’s career as a gangster in the Italian Mafia. Throughout the film we witness Henry’s rise from street-kid to violent gangster. Rather than see his acts (beatings, robberies and hold-ups) as horrific we identify with him, his glamorous lifestyle and his desire to become a “made man”. In one scene Henry comes home to find his wife distressed. This is because her neighbour has made a pass at her and when Henry’s wife refused the neighbour’s advances he hit her. When Henry comes home we are unsure how he is going to react (will he hit/kill his neighbour or his wife or both!) and we experience some suspense in response to this scene. When, in front of his wife, Henry pistol whips the neighbour we are relieved and enjoy the rough treatment the neighbour receives. In regard to this scene it appears that there is no choice between two logically opposed outcomes. That is, the suspense we experience in response to this scene springs from two possible options both which appear to range from the immoral (hitting the neighbour) to the extremely immoral (dispatching his wife and the neighbour).

Another similar issue for Carroll regarding his notion of two logically opposed moral outcomes is that he holds that we pull for the moral outcome over the immoral outcome. However, this doesn’t appear to be correct. An instance of this can be found in The Godfather (Dir., Francis Ford Coppola, 1972). In one scene the central protagonist Michael attends a meeting with two rival gangsters who have previously attempted to kill his father. On the surface Michael’s reason for attending the meeting is to discuss a truce but he actually intends to kill both gangsters. The two rival gangsters set up the meeting in a neutral restaurant and frisk Michael as he enters to ensure he hasn’t brought a weapon. Because of this Michael has an accomplice hide a pistol in the bathroom before he arrives. Later in the scene when Michael leaves the bathroom with the pistol he stands in front of the two gangsters and hesitates. This moment is immensely suspenseful and we are led to wonder whether Michael will kill the two gangsters. Once Michael kills both of the gangsters we stop feeling any suspense and are relieved that they both get their just deserves. In regard to this scene then, we pull for the immoral outcome (murder) over the moral outcome (the truce or reporting them to the police). That is, we experience suspense because we are unsure whether Michael will go through with the immoral act (the murder of which we want him to do).

In the next section I will include some possible replies to these criticisms and add some further issues with Carroll’s account.