The famous film director Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock KBE (1899-1980) proudly bore the title the “Master of Suspense.” Suspense surpasses mystery in making my stomach lurch and my heart pound. Interestingly, suspense can be both terrifying and exhilarating.
Suspense is defined as “a state of feeling excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen.” It is different from mystery, defined as “something that is difficult or impossible to understand or solve.” The two terms are not synonymous. In fact, they are the opposite. Let’s let Sir Alfred illustrate this for us.
Ever since I was a kid and saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (without Mom knowing) for the first of many times, I have been a devotee of the Master of Suspense. Hitch earned that title for good reason.
He believed that suspense was more terrifying than everything else, more than mystery, gore, and in-your-face gratuitous violence. He never made a movie that was merely “slice and dice.” Of course, Psycho’s infamous shower scene has a Niagara of blood. But it’s the build-up to the bloodshed—the suspense—that first creates the terror in spectators’ hearts and minds. How did Hitch do this?
In Carlo Affatigato’s 2018 article “What is Suspense? The Definition by Alfred Hitchcock,” here is how Psycho’s director simplified the topic: “Mystery is when the spectator knows less than the characters. Suspense is when the spectator knows more than the characters.”
In Psycho for instance, we spectators see Norman Bates brandishing a large sharp knife while creeping toward a showering, unsuspecting Janet Leigh. Full-bore suspense! The stabbing was truly terrifying, but what really made our stomachs lurch into our throats and our hearts race? Seconds before when we saw the gleam of the weapon and Bates’ killer’s eyes. We sucked in our breath and knew the woman’s horrific death was imminent.
The article goes on to say that with mystery, such as an Agatha Christie story, the reader or spectator doesn’t know what’s coming and has to find out for themselves. Where there is crime, there is a culprit who knows everything but tries to keep it hidden as long as possible from everyone; hence, the whodunit.
On the other hand, with the mechanism of suspense, some danger in the story or film is about to happen that everyone knows except the victim(s). This generates apprehension and anxiety that capture and cement the readers’ or spectators’ involvement. Suspense is, therefore, an emotional process.
Hitchcock used a famous “bomb beneath the table” example to illustrate the difference further. If we are watching people sitting around a table, and a bomb goes off beneath it, we are shocked or surprised since we didn’t know it was coming. But if we know in advance there is a bomb under the table, but those around the table don’t, we anxiously await the explosion as the seconds tick, tick, tick away. Now, we are participating in the scene in full suspense mode, maybe with nail-biting and jumping to our feet, ridiculously screaming at the people to evacuate. Check out the Prince Albert Hall concert scene in Hitch’s The Man Who Knew Too Much for brilliant, heart-pounding suspense.
As Hitch put it so eloquently, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”
Mysteries can thrill us, pique our curiosity, activate our imaginations, provide insight, and allow us to problem solve safely in our heads. Suspense can kick us in the stomach, involve us in the action, scare the heck out of us, quicken our hearts and the narrative, and indelibly sear a situation into our minds.
So, readers and writers, it’s time: Pick your poison! Mystery or suspense? Or perhaps you prefer a “mixed” cocktail. Mwah, ha, ha!
If you’d like to read the Affatigato article with examples from Alfred Hitchcock films, click HERE.
I highly recommend studying “Seven Hitchcockian Secrets to Writing Amazing Suspense.” Click HERE.
If you’d like to read more from “Why Mystery Matters,” click HERE.