Vera Tobin

Elements of Surprise / Publications / Teaching / CV

“Attention, Blending, and Suspense in Classic and Experimental Film.” In Blending and the Study of Narrative. Eds. Ralf Schneider and Marcus Hartner. 57-83. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. With Todd Oakley.

Suspense is traditionally considered a matter of narrative structure, contingent on story structures that hinge on uncertainty about how events will unfold. Much cognitively oriented work on suspense (e.g. Gerrig 1989, Brewer 1996, Yanal 1996, Carroll 2001) has focused on this issue of uncertainly, probing the question of how and why people can feel suspense when the outcome is not truly uncertain—because they’ve read the book before, because the narrative is about known true events, because they’ve been told the ending ahead of time. This paper argues that cognitive approaches to suspense should also consider the extent to which suspense is also the product specifically of social cognition, especially in film. We suggest that filmic conventions commonly generate feelings of suspense by constructing triangles of joint attention that engage our natural systems for social cognition and then frustrating our desire to complete the joint attentional triangle, and explore this phenomenon in four films: two classic works of suspense (Touch of Evil and Notorious), one experimental film not traditionally considered in the context of suspense (Wavelength), and the campy mis-fires of suspense in Plan 9 From Outer Space.