Suspense is an English term that indicates “a state or feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen.” It is often mentioned related to movies, linked to thriller films and the way they keep the spectator in turmoil. And it is often used in a misleading way, confusing it with mystery or surprise, other typical elements on thrillers but with different characteristics, also in terms of what is needed from the director’s point of view.
There is a straight-forward definition that establishes the specific distinction between suspense and mystery in cinema, and it comes directly from the one who is considered unanimously the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. The English director loved to simplify the topic in this way:
“Mystery is when the spectator knows less than the characters in the movie.
Suspense is when the spectator knows more than the characters in the movie.”
The fact that two terms often considered synonyms have actually two opposite definitions may surprise, but once you go deeper the difference is even enlightening. When it comes to mystery, who watches the film lacks something and doesn’t have the full picture of what he’s seeing. It’s a typical mechanism on crime movies, where something is hidden in the plot, whether it’s the identity of the murderer or something that explains what happened. The spectator is involved in the plot, he knows that in the end (when the director wants) he will understand what happened, but one thing is certain: the characters who made those things, they know very well what happened and why. Simply, the movie doesn’t reveal it to the spectator. From this point of view, the spectator is normally the one who knows less, compared to the characters in the movie. Typical examples are Agatha Christie’s stories, where there is a crime and there is definitely a culprit, who knows everything but tries until the end to keep it hidden, from everybody: spectators and investigator (if there is).
The mechanism of suspense, instead, shows the exact opposite concept: something in the film is about to happen, the characters involved are still unaware, but (this is the beautiful thing) the spectator has already the knowledge of what will happen. In this way you generate that mechanism of apprehension and anxiety that makes the spectator so involved. Those who watch the film see the characters still unaware of an imminent danger, and that danger is very clear to him. It worries him. The suspense will keep him glued to the screen until it will happen, and only then the spectator can discover the consequences.
One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous and successful suspense scenes is the sequence at the Royal Albert Hall in The Man Who Knew Too Much, and explains perfectly the mechanism: Hitchcock informs the spectator already in the first image of the film, after the head titles, that something important will happen after the crash of cymbals in an orchestra, even when the film is not yet started. During the vision, he discovers that a killer has been hired to kill a prime minister present in the audience, and the shot will take place on the cymbals crash, in order to avoid the panic. At a certain point the concert begins, with that wonderful crescendo conceived by Bernard Herrmann, and the spectator already knows everything about what is going to happen. He even knows perfectly the extract of the composition where the cymbals will come, he listened to it many times together with the killer, earlier in the movie. He knows also that the protagonists are present in the hall and will try to avoid that shot. And he’s the only one with so much knowledge: neither the prime minister nor the police present in the theater, nor Doris Day knows what will happen exactly. Only the spectator has been made aware of everything, and this will make him drowning in suspense until the cymbals come.
In order to understand the concept even better, Hitchcock used to explain the difference between suspense and surprise with an example that even a kid would understand:
“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.”
Which matches with another famous Hitchcock quote:
“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”
This typical mix of sharp irony and directing skills is what makes Hitchcock one of the undisputed references for all the filmmakers that will come after him.