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Mystery and Suspense

Rear Window View movie still - Alfred Hitchcock

I’ve recently come across Hitchcock’s video interviews where he shared his views on what suspense and mystery are. As a screenwriter who employs mystery and suspense in her own works, I could not help but write my own view on the subject, the differing from the Mr. Hitchcock’s one:

‘Mystery is an intellectual process, like in a whodunnit.’ – from a video interview with Alfred Hitchcock

The word ‘mystery’ to which Mr. Hitchcock assigned the intellectual ‘whodunnit’ meaning, in fact, defines the unknown, the unexplained, the not obvious or invisible, or the secretive. In other words, an enigma. In addition, the word ‘mystery’ also bears a spiritual meaning – a truth that someone can only know by a revelation and that cannot be fully understood. Thus, it can be said that the resolution of an enigma equals to a revelation of some sort. You cannot arrive at it by the intellectual means, although you can use your mind to grapple with it, but essentially realisations are arrived at through a personal journey that involves feelings, emotions, spiritual revelations and discoveries, coming from within as well as from without. But this for Mr. Hitchcock seemed to be of little interest:

‘Mystery does not have a particular appeal to me […] because in this course before you arrive at this 5-second-revelation there is no emotion from the motion. […] But suspense is essentially an emotional process. - from a video interview with Alfred Hitchcock

Motion as a forward or sideways movement always involves some sort of emotion, especially when it is connected to unravelling mysteries. What for the 'suspense, although, it can describe a certain feeling in an emotional process, the true meaning of this word is to keep someone in the dark in regards to a piece of information, a situation or a life event. Eventually, the information does get released. On a positive level, it is released when a person is ready to know it and move to another level of understanding. On a negative level, it is released to manipulate a person and provoke him/her into a desired action, feeling or emotion. Thus, Mr. Hitchcock's train of thought:

‘You can only get the suspense element going by giving the audience information.’ - from a video interview with Alfred Hitchcock

It is pretty clear that in this case by talking about ‘suspense element going’ Mr. Hitchcock referrers to an emotional manipulation of the audience or a manipulated emotional engagement. By ‘sharing’ some piece of information with the audience about a situation in which an unsuspecting character is placed, Mr. Hitchcock makes the viewers to experience a range of emotions, mostly negative ones. He insisted on calling this kind of ‘sharing’ a ‘suspense’. But, in fact, it is not. For, sharing a piece of information in order to extract feelings from the audience is a clear manipulation technique. The true suspense is not about sharing in order to manipulate but it is about not sharing in order to postpone the moment of revelation.

‘Mystery and suspense – the two things that are miles apart.’ - from a video interview with Alfred Hitchcock

God knows what had made Mr. Hitchcock to draw such a conclusion but he ended up miles away from the truth. For mystery, being the unexplained that can be perceived through a revelation, is often unravelled by a series of plentiful small discoveries, making up a long suspenseful path to a full realisation. Thus, closely intertwined, mystery and suspense go hand in hand.

Mr. Hitchcock’s own interpretation, however, refers to ‘suspense’ process as a pure manipulation technique which he had applied to certain scenes in his movies in order to withdraw some emotional response from his audience. This use of suspense resembles bullying of the audience. In his movies, Mr. Hitchcock would place his characters in ordinary situations and then would introduce some sort of danger, but the danger that only the viewers were aware of, not the characters themselves. In this kind of setting, Mr. Hitchcock played the role of a master, keeping its audience for the emotional slaves. He knew what was coming and had the control of it, the viewers did not.

It appears that before Mr. Hitchcock, this particular method of audience manipulation had not been used in the movies. The methods employed were less subtle and more brutal, aiming at shocking the audience:

‘Four people sitting around the table, talking about baseball or whatever. Very dull… Suddenly, a bomb goes off. What does the audience get? 10 seconds of shock. Now take the same scene and tell the audience there is a bomb under the table and it will go off in 5 minutes. The whole emotion of the audience is totally different…’ - from a video interview with Alfred Hitchcock

Both of the above approaches quoted by Mr. Hitchcock were of the audience manipulation. The first one is an extraction of a very strong emotion which is supposed to leave the viewers unsettled, and the second one is an injection of a slow anguish that the viewers will experience watching the scene. If it was the real life, the second scenario would ask for an action – do something, let people know, save them, prevent the bomb going off. But since the scene is presented in a ‘virtual’ world with the control panel being in the hands of Mr. Hitchcock, the viewers are deprived from any action, but are ‘forced’ to passive watching, thus the anguish feeling. Similar technique, but this time with the bully present, is applied to a scene with crowds on two boats in the ‘Dark Knight Rising’ (2012) movie with the master’s place taken by a psychopath ‘Joker’.

Now, some of the Mr. Hitchcock’s filmmaking advice might have been good at the time, but what concerns emotional engagement he undoubtedly was wrong. Wrong in believing that emotions extracted through visual manipulation can substitute freely expressed emotional responses directed at the characters whom the audience strongly identifies with. But this kind of filmmaking requires maturity, integrity and mastery. At least two of these qualities were absent on Hitchcock’s list. I believe when characters are able to evoke true feelings and sympathies from the viewers, there is no need for any manipulation techniques. For the audience then becomes the character and simultaneously goes through his/her challenging and suspenseful path towards the revelation, not just simply watching in anguish, while the hero is being ‘bullied’ on the screen.

Seraphima Bogomolova

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