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.

Published by

A.R. Duckworth

South Yorkshire England

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