The Sunday Magazine: Is It Suspense or Horror?


Earlier this week in the hive mind that is Facebook a friend put out the following question, “Could you recommend a not bloody horror movie to watch with her teenager?” Always happy to participate in these kinds of things I immediately typed out “The Sixth Sense”. That was when it got interesting as one of the other worker bees responded, “that isn’t horror that is suspense.” As soon as I saw it I knew I agreed which got me thinking about the difference.

Alfred Hitchcock

I began my thought experiment with Alfred Hitchcock who was dubbed the “Master of Suspense”. His movies were all about slowly bringing a viewer along with a plot where the threads slowly braid together, then continue to tighten until the strands break. One of the best examples of this type of suspense is in the 1954 film “Rear Window”. The main protagonist is confined to a wheelchair and spies on the neighboring building. Early on he thinks he sees a murder. The rest of the movie is the question of whether he saw what he saw and if he did is he in danger?

Much of what we consider suspense these days are new artists riffing on the playbook Mr. Hitchcock created. Despite the sobriquet lauding his skill at suspense he also made two of the all-time horror movies; “Psycho” and “The Birds”. The difference in both is the monster is evident with our heroes trying to find a way to survive.

Which is what makes “The Sixth Sense” suspense. The movie spends its running time revealing a secret. The pinnacle of modern suspense is director David Fincher’s “Se7en”. The movie chronicles two detectives tracking down a serial killer inspired by the Seven Deadly Sins. As each murder scene is discovered it brings the policemen ever closer to the killer until the movie reaches a chilling climax. “The Silence of the Lambs” is another movie where the monstrous villain is but a piece of the ever-tightening tension within the overall movie. Because both are seen from the perspective of law enforcement instead of the killer we are drawn in as an audience to want resolution while it seemingly stays out of reach.

Horror displays its wares out in the open from early on. From the moment the young girl Regan is possessed by the demon in “The Exorcist” the question is not where is the monster but how can we stop this? It applies equally as well to the slasher automatons like Michael Myers of “Halloween”, Jason of “Friday the 13th” or Freddy Krueger of “Nightmare on Elm Street”. One of my favorite scenes in this movie is after Michael Myers has been stabbed in “Halloween” the young child says, “Don’t you know you can’t kill the boogeyman?” Just as he rises up in the background. The audience screams and the final act is underway.

There are elements of both horror and suspense in many of the films mentioned but in the end they tend to reside mostly on one side of the horror/suspense divide more completely. It is the time of year to for fear to be in the air whether it is through suspense or horror it is part of what makes movies magical.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Suspense v. Surprise

Last year I saw the documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut. In that movie 30-year old Francois Truffaut interviewed 63-year old Alfred Hitchcock in 1962. If you love movies on the making of film it is a must-see. What stuck with me from the moment I saw the film was the response Mr. Hitchcock gave when asked by M. Truffaut on what differentiated surprise over suspense. It made me think of moviemaking differently. I was very strongly reminded of this quote after the opening 20-minutes of the season 6 finale of Game of Thrones. Here is the quote:


Francois Truffaut (l.) and Alfred Hitchcock

“There is a distinct difference between "suspense" and "surprise," and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I'll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!"

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

From the moment I heard this from Mr. Hitchcock’s mouth I knew it explained my fascination with suspense on the screen. I am a gigantic fan of Quentin Tarantino and he is perhaps the modern-day “Master of Suspense”. In nearly all of his movies the audience has more information than the characters. When they enter into conflict the suspense ratchets up.


Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa in "Inglorious Basterds"

Most of Mr. Tarantino’s movies have this happen later in to the movie and I am not one to spoil the plot. Thankfully one of the best examples comes from the beginning of the 2009 movie “Inglorious Basterds”. The first 15-minutes of the film introduce us to SS officer Hans Landa, played by Christoph Waltz, as he interviews a French farmer on the whereabouts of a Jewish family who also lived nearby. The first eight-minutes or so seems like typical questioning as Herr Landa sets up his eventual end game. At the ten-minute mark the camera tracks downward through the floorboards and we see the family being discussed above hiding in abject terror. As the camera tracks back upward the scene has transformed into a long suspenseful beat as we in the audience want the family to run away before they are discovered. “Inglorious Basterds” is really a masterclass in setting up suspenseful situations which we as the audience are deeply drawn in to. There are five other set pieces leading up to the final act each of them different riffs on suspense.


Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in "Game of Thrones"

Suspense has always been a part of the big screen experience, it is much harder to maintain on television because of those pesky commercials. Except last week’s season six finale of Game of Thrones spent the first 20-minutes in a suspenseful set piece which might just be the best twenty minutes of this show, ever. Episode director Miguel Sapochnik shows our main players getting ready for a pivotal trial to come. We watch them dress and prepare with pleasure or dread of what is to come. One aspect of building suspense can be the music. In this particular case Ramin Djawadi uses a suite of piano, strings, organ and choir to slowly give the audience an audible clue something is amiss. As Mr. Sapochnik shoots the scene we begin to see what is happening behind the scenes of the trial. We as audience know something is wrong and then we are shown what that is. The final five minutes is that moment, again, where we as audience are yelling at the screen for them to move. Of course, they don’t.

These two scenes are fantastic examples of using suspense to introduce the villain in the case of “Inglorious Basterds” or to payoff years of watching these characters place themselves in the spots they are in when the suspense is released as in “Game of Thrones”.

As soon as I finished watching the episode I was immediately reminded of Mr. Hitchcock’s words to M. Truffaut. They will always allow me to watch movies differently, bless them for doing that.

Mark Behnke