The Evolution Of Suspense


I consider myself a bit of an expert in scaring people. I spent my whole childhood in a state of irrational fear, and started writing horror stories as a way of exploring my own worst-case scenarios, and by doing so curing them. There are a couple of hundred short stories of mine knocking around, although I never wrote one with which I was entirely happy.

I’ve put those days behind me now (although I don’t rule out the possibility that somebody will lure me out of retirement for a one-off) but I still look for the perfect scary story. So many have brilliant beginnings and bad endings. Horror literature has been absorbed into the mainstream, so now I turn to movies, which have the same problem. I felt that the otherwise excellent ‘Get Out’ suffered from having a silly ending. So I’m thrilled about ‘A Quiet Place’ because it’s just about perfect.

Much has already been written about the husband-and-wide team of Emily Blunt and John Krasinski (she stars, he directed and co-wrote) but their real-life dynamic gives you characters you care deeply about. By now you know the scenario; blind aliens who have exceptional hearing abilities listen for prey, and one family of survivors with a deaf child must stay alive. They walk barefoot on paths of sand (although why don’t they wear trainers?)  and speak using the sign language they learned for their daughter.

And there’s another problem; Evelyn, the mother, is pregnant; when the baby comes, how will they keep it quiet? The film is a chain of nail-biting set pieces and emotional hits that build on the characters, and the sound design takes you inside the different audio worlds of the family. This is crucial, because Evelyn’s deaf daughter doesn’t hear when she’s made a noise, and has to be watched all the time.

Film seems able to create suspense in this more senses-involving manner than novels can now. I think certain types of book are here to stay, but one wonders for the fate of the suspense tale. Recently, the TV series ‘Big Little Lies’ – effectively a murderous soap opera – proved itself to be richer and more enjoyable that its base novel. TV has mastered the art of the music montage, a new technique unavailable to novels.

Perhaps the only way to involve the next generation will be by invading multiple senses simultaneously. Think of the last book that moved and involved you – can it be filmed? Would it be better as a film?


5 comments on “The Evolution Of Suspense”

  1. Colin says:

    I thought The Medusa Touch was a brilliant film, much better than the book. One of the few exceptions though.

  2. Adam says:

    Possible spoiler alert!! I read Revival by Stephen King last summer, expecting the usual King tropes (which I really enjoy). It has the most bleak and downbeat ending of a book that I can remember, and stayed with me for a long time. I can’t see that playing well in Hollywood. I had to read a couple of David Niven autobiographies to cheer myself up…..

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Good thing I don’t read Stephen King, I guess. I know what you mean about endings, Chris, although I can’t cite examples. People get a great idea for a horror movie but they don’t work it through to the end. Is that because we expect some sort of “happy ending”. Is that what a satisfying ending means today? All those Toronto families don’t have happy endings to their sunny day out yesterday, but we expect those sources of fear and darkness in our books, films, and nightmares to be conquered and eliminated.

    I just finished Hall of Mirrors and haven’t laughed so much in a long time. I really loved it, in spite of some rather blood and flesh stained scenes.

  4. Ian Luck says:

    If these aliens have super sensitive hearing, why not make a machine that emits frequencies that they find intolerable, maybe ramping it up until the sympathetic vibration destroys their hearing completely, perhaps even killing them? It would be like a larger sonic repellant that is used to humanely dissuade moles from digging up golf courses. I think enough years have passed that it’s safe to tell you that a bloke I knew well hated golf, and deliberately let loose moles that he had caught on his dad’s farm on to the nearest golf course. I believe that in America DARPA, the military contractors, created a ‘non lethal’ sonic weapon for crowd control. Use one of them against the alien bastards.

  5. John DLC says:

    Absolutely with you on ‘Get Out’ Chris. I genuinely thought it was a stupid ending that would not withstand any level of scrutiny. Also thought ‘A Quiet Place’ was superbly done and can’t recall a cinema being so quiet (even the popcorn munchers seemed to be sucking).

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