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),>.


Published by

A.R. Duckworth

South Yorkshire England

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