To find out how horror movies create spine-tingling suspense, researchers measured the electrical activity coming from viewers’ sweat glands.
The goal is to give the media industry an evidence-based framework for the construction of suspense for scenes in feature length films, video games, movie trailers, and experimental digital story experiences.
Volunteers watched 32 short film clips from eight feature-length horror films and their experience of suspense was assessed by monitoring electrodermal activity (EDA)—a response created by the release of sweat from the eccrine glands. These glands react when we experience anxiety, fear, or stress—it’s the reaction that makes our palms sweat.
“With suspense being a core method of viewer engagement and enjoyment it’s essential that we understand how we can meet the desired viewing experience through different types of story experiences,” says Keith Bound, a PhD student in the department of culture, film and media at the University of Nottingham.
“One way to do this is to measure the time structures of suspense and our reaction to what we see and hear. We were also able to identify viewers’ coping strategies such as closing eyes or looking away from the screen.”
Types of Suspense
The study shows that distinctive psychophysiological patterns of sudden-fright and anxiety with different levels of intensity are experienced when watching four types of suspense:
- Direct: We see the film in the first person—as if we are the character in the film.
- Shared: When we empathize with fictional character’s situation.
- Vicarious: The viewer knows a fictional character’s life is threatened but the character isn’t aware of the danger.
- Composite: Direct, shared, and vicarious suspense synchronized together.
The participants in this study were more likely to experience an intense form of anxiety and suspense when the fictional character wasn’t aware of what was about to happen. Vicarious suspense also elicited an intense level of anxiety even when participants had seen the film before.
Even Scarier Movies?
“These findings provide evidence to support Alfred Hitchcock’s assumption that vicarious suspense is the most consistent method to generate an intense form of anxiety and suspense,” says Bound. “But cinematic techniques such as cinematography, editing, sound, and set design also play a part in the viewer experience.”
Liz Evans, Bound’s supervisor on the study and an expert in the relationship between technology and the experience of narrative, says Bound’s “…work not only helps scholars re-think how to define ‘suspense’ in film, it also provides a framework for filmmakers to help them create even scarier, more suspenseful content.”
Bound has presented his research at conferences in Europe and the US. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Birmingham City University have supported the work, as well as the University of Nottingham and the Mixed Reality Lab in Computer Science.