Why is suspense so crucial to great horror flicks?

Suspense is the ability to surprise people.

That make it scary

A lot of people are thinking that for suspense to work, there has to be a huge dichotomy between what happened before and what is playing out in front of people’s eyes. They’re always looking for the black and white divide. They’re always looking for the huge distinction between something that’s obvious then and something that’s obvious now.

What they fail to realize is that suspense is psychological. If you learn how to pace the stimuli that you send to somebody, you start them on a certain pattern. They start looking and defining the world a certain way. Great story tellers know this. This is why when they’d lay out a scenario, they try to convince you to believe every single detail of that’s scenario and they’d repeat this message over and over again until they get you to expect that the scenario will play out from an earlier point. This is the point where you got convinced.

Of course, they’re not going to proceed with this in a boring way. They’re not just going to give you the same stuff that you have gotten before. They’re not just going to present the same material over and over again. Instead, they’re going to throw in some jokes. They’re going to throw in a few curve balls here and there. In other words, it mirrors what you expect from reality, but you are definitely dealing with an alternative reality. It’s a story after all. But after you have settled into some level of comfort and you’d think that you can accurately predict what’s around the corner, then that’s when they get you.

The real art of suspense is to play with the viewers’ ability to suspend this belief. In other words, you are messing around with the machinery that people use to navigate reality. I’m of course talking about their mind and their ability to detect patterns. Most importantly, I am talking about the emotional state they’re in.

It’s all about luring, baiting and then hammering the reader with reality or at least your version of reality. This is very important. The reality that must be presented must be of equal value or believability as the reality that you have set prior to that point of disruption. This is how you can tell good horror from lousy ones. Lousy horror movies and the classic examples of these were made of Ed Wood in the 1950’s.

Simply assume that you’d want to be scared. Assume that when you see a certain image, you will pack all these scary meaning into it and then you would be looking for something dramatic. This is a lazy story telling because what you’re doing is you’re taking symbols and you’re hoping somehow someway that the symbols will do all the heavy lifting as far as narration and story setting is concerned. You’re being lazy when you do that.

Effective storytellers like Stanley Kubrick who created the 1970’s horror classic “The Shining” which is of course based on the Stephen King novel, played with pacing a lot. The suspense and the pacing were just so precise and so well constructed that you really don’t need that many “scary” scenes. Blood, gore, ghosts; you don’t need that as much. Instead, it’s the suspense that you think that things are normal and all of a sudden there’s this twist and then gets’ bigger and bigger. Boom! It drops on you. That’s the essence of suspense.

It really is quite a treat to see young directors pull this off. That’s how you can tell whether somebody’s gifted or not. Lousy directors simply go through the motions. They just have some sort of checklists and they think that as long as they cross their tease and dock their eyes that somehow someway the movie will convey what it means to get across. But a lot is lost in translation. That’s why most horror movies simply do not hit the mark. I’m not saying that they’re not entertaining. I’m not making that claim at all. But they definitely do not rise to the level of truly amazing suspense horror films.