October 26, 2015, by Guest Blogger

Do you like scary movies?

Keith Bound from the School of Cultures, languages and Area Studies discussed cinematic suspense and his Terror and Tension film experiment earlier this year. 

Susan Smith’s suspense narrative model defines four forms of suspense:

  • Direct: we see the film in the first person – as if we are the character in the film.
  • Shared: when we empathise with fictional character’s situation.
  • Vicarious: the viewer knows a fictional character’s life is threatened but they are not aware of the danger.
  • Composite: direct, shared and vicarious suspense synchronised together.

Terror and Tension film experiment

Using Susan Smith’s suspense narrative model, 32 film clips (1-90 seconds in duration), were selected from eight horror films: (Grave Encounters 2, The Descent, Pitch Black, Silent House, The Strangers, Sinister, Quarantine and Cloverfield), which were classified into four sub-genres: supernatural, zombie, home invasion and science-fiction. Twenty-seven participants watched the clips and had their physiological responses recorded. We assessed their experience of suspense by recording electrodermal activity (EDA) which detects emotional sweating from the eccrine glands. These glands react when we experience anxiety, fear or stress – making our palms sweat. Participants also gave verbal feedback after watching each clip to help contextualize their physiological responses.

One of the outcomes of the experiment was a physiological model of suspense that identifies two types of skin conductance responses that generate suspense in horror films – sudden-fear and anticipatory fear – which are defined by four levels of intensity. Four film case studies provided a deep insight into the four types of suspense and which ones produced the most intense form of suspense.

We learnt that:

  • the participants were more likely to experience an intense form of suspense when the fictional character wasn’t aware of what was about to happen
  • vicarious suspense elicited an intense level of anxiety even when participants had seen the film before
  •  Alfred Hitchcock’s assumption that vicarious suspense is a consistent method to generate an intense form of anxiety and suspense is probably correct
  • cinematic techniques such as cinematography, editing, sound, set design also play an important part to increase the intensity for all types of suspense.

We can create a model of suspense based on what causes viewers to feel suspense in terms of narrative and cinematic elements, which helps us to understand which film making techniques are more effective than a purely creative approach. This means pre-production of a film would include analysing a storyboard to provide multiple options to a director who wants to create optimum suspense – bringing science and film making together.

The research also has a broader reach beyond film making such as Transmedia storytelling, using suspense to engage people through short films clips, text, voice and image messaging, and the internet. This is particularly significant as horror films increasingly extend into franchises. Experimental horror too, whether that’s in theme parks or in standalone ‘scary experience’ such as a haunted house experience.

The Popular Culture Lecture Series starts on Wednesday 4 November 5.30pm, B13 Physics Building, University Park with a discussion of James Bond. The Series is free to attend and open to all. 

Image credit: Jason Edmiston

Keith has just stated his own psychophysiological film consultancy Receptive Cinema™ and is part of the United Kingdom Trade & Investment mission to the American Film Market (AFM) in Santa Monica, from 4-11 November, which is the largest film industry event. Receptive Cinema™ and will be offering film studios a scientific model of suspense, creating predictable viewer response using short film sequences in horror films.

Posted in FilmPopular Culture Lecture Series