Are you hooked on the new trendy thriller and don’t know why? Do you also fear for the future of its protagonist? Perhaps you find yourself under the influence of intrigue or suspense, and we want to talk about them precisely in this article.
Whether facing the last scene of an exciting movie or the end of your favorite video game, the role that suspense and intrigue play can be decisive. To understand how they work, let’s first establish the differences between intrigue and suspense.
An event and its expectation can arouse interest or rejection on our part. One of the variables that decides one or the other option is attribution: the thoughts that we attribute to a certain event that is taking place or is about to take place.
There are two types of allocation: approach and withdrawal. When we perceive said event in a pleasant, good or desirable way, we tend to get closer. On the contrary, if we perceive the event as something bad, disgusting or unpleasant, it would be normal to move away from it. In short, attributions generate within us certain emotions that prepare us for action. This state is what psychologists call arousal.
Suspense is the hope or fear due to the anticipation of the outcome of a specific situation.
What is arousal?
Using a more plain terminology, arousal would be that emotion, alertness or preparation that we feel in these situations marked by expectation. In a more rigorous sense, arousal is a biological and psychological change that precedes or follows an event . It is characterized by increased heart rate, hypersensitivity to such events, increased attention, and subjective feelings of arousal.
This is precisely what happens to us when we reach the end of a film that kept us on the edge of the sofa for two hours. In the same way, we feel that excitement when we arrive at the dungeon of the terrible baddie of any of our favorite video games. Basically, the body prepares itself because we understand, in some way, that something transcendent is about to happen .
“Anticipatory arousal is associated with the hope or fear felt by a subject as a result of the attribution given to the possibility of the occurrence of an important and imminent action.”
-Julie Anna Guidry-
We experience this phenomenon of arousal in both approach and withdrawal attributions. That is to say: regardless of whether we perceive it as something positive or negative, the aurosal state causes us to feel the outcomes with greater intensity . In other words: thanks to suspense, the resolution of our favorite movies , books, and video games are just as pleasurable.
Julie Anna Guidry, a researcher at the University of Louisiana, discusses this arousal phenomenon in The Experience of… Suspense . She comes to say that suspense is a form of " anticipatory arousal , associated with the hope or fear felt by a subject as a result of the attribution granted to the possibility of the occurrence of an important and imminent action". It is true that it sounds far-fetched, but soon you will understand.
Why do we like suspense?
Therefore, suspense is nothing more than that emotion of hope or fear that we feel in anticipation of the outcome of a specific situation. A suspense that the specialists deftly handle, exploiting it to that point immediately before the one that would begin to tire us.
Yes, because the suspense is produced by an event that we know is going to happen and that will have the potential to raise our arousal. Therefore, suspense places us, in a way, in an exciting position, but also in a waiting one.
And more can be said: suspense doesn’t always work, since its success will be related to how exciting the event is that we expect and what we presume is far away in time.
On the other hand, it could be said that the optimal level of suspense is the one in which we perceive that an event can have negative consequences, giving those who may suffer the chances of coping with or avoiding them successfully .
That is, we can anticipate what will happen, but not what the character will do and what it will lead to. We see a thief preparing a robbery and therefore anticipate what is going to happen. But when? What will happen next?
Also note that suspense is a vicarious feeling. That is to say: we can feel it through another person. That is why in this type of stories we feel a high degree of identification with the characters .
The intrigue feeds the interest in what is going to happen.
Differences between intrigue and suspense
Now that we know what suspense is and what it generates within us, we only need to know the mechanisms of intrigue. If the suspense is based on the anticipation of imminent danger, the intrigue is much less invasive. Basically, it focuses on feeding the viewer’s interest in what is going to happen.
One of the main differences between suspense and intrigue is that, in the first case, the viewer usually has more information than the characters. An intriguing situation would make us follow a security guard who hears a strange noise, without having any idea whether deep down they have to worry about the agent who has produced it or not.
Intrigue could be considered as a dose of uncertainty around a specific situation. It is a phenomenon that generates our interest in a natural way. This is why we like intrigue stories so much, because the so-called arousal state also occurs . Whether knowing more or knowing less than the characters, the anticipation or possibility of a certain event, either positive or negative, arouses our interest and allows us to experience a much more pleasant resolution .
After all, as the psychotherapist Ana Livier Govea (Govea, 2022) assures, thrillers provoke strong emotions of intrigue, mystery and danger . Not to mention the degree of suspense that the resolution of the conflict can generate. Intrigue and suspense go hand in hand, but they occur within us for different reasons.