Keeping your audience in suspense: cognitive dissonance, narrative blurring and the horror film

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H.P. Lovecraft

The Innocents-23

Is that really a ghost on the shore in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, an adaptation of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, or is it merely all in Miss Giddens’ head?

There’s something about settling down in the dark of night to watch a well done creeper-feature, the kind that builds its atmosphere in layers like thick fog that keeps one guessing as to what’s really going on.  As discussed here, much of a film’s success is dependent on the main character’s perspective on events unfolding with regards to how an audience is to interpret them.  As such – and particularly in horror – the main character’s perspective is increasingly important when fostering suspense, an element that drives uncertainty, anxiety and indecision in a prolonged sense of “what happens next?”.  But for that perspective to be effective and create the kind of suspense in the audience that will keep them on the edge of their seats, two approaches are most useful: creating cognitive dissonance and narrative blurring.

Merriam Webster defines cognitive dissonance as “psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously.”  Furthermore:

[it’s] mental conflict that occurs when beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information. The concept was introduced by the psychologist Leon Festinger (1919–89) in the late 1950s. He and later researchers showed that, when confronted with challenging new information, most people seek to preserve their current understanding of the world by rejecting, explaining away, or avoiding the new information or by convincing themselves that no conflict really exists. Cognitive dissonance is nonetheless considered an explanation for attitude change.


Dark Night of the Scarecrow is arguably one of the best made-for-television movies of its kind, originally airing on CBS network affiliates in 1981.

This really speaks to the heart of “perspective,” something I’ve repeatedly hammered the importance of on this blog as well as being the heart of Dramatica‘s theory of story (Dramatica seeing a complete, grand argument story as an exploration of a problem modeled after the human mind’s own ability to resolve it via four separate throughlines/perspectives: I, youwe, they.)  Perspective here is ultimately a character’s worldview, their beliefs, thoughts, attitudes, what motivates them, propagates desire, etc.  Simply put, it’s the psychology of a character, their schema (defined as “a mental codification of experience that includes a particular organized way of perceiving cognitively and responding to a complex situation or set of stimuli.”)

Narrative blurring is, as described by David Taylor, “a suggestiveness in description,” or as H.P. Lovecraft once said, “Never state a horror when it can be suggested.”  Fans of Stephen King’s Danse Macabre might be familiar with the notion from his explanation of the power of each individual’s mind to call forth their worst fears.  In one anecdote, King discussed “the monster behind the door” being better left unseen as the reader’s imagination is inherently more powerful – and personal – than anything that can be put in words on the page.  When the door opened to expose a ten foot (or however big) spider/bug, the previously quaking-at-the-knees character sighed in relief, “Whew, I thought it was going to be FIFTY FEET big!”


Another underrated gem, 1972’s The Other directed by Robert Mulligan of To Kill a Mockingbird fame, stayed with many a viewer for years (just check out the reviews on Quietly creepy, the film, based on Thomas Tryon’s best-seller of the same name, uses a lot of narrative blurring effectively before pulling the carpet out from underneath viewers in one delicious plot-twist three-quarters way through the film, only to present new information resulting in a sense of cognitive dissonance that leaves audiences feeling quite disturbed.

What’s important with the notion of narrative blurring is it engages the audience with the use of their own imaginations – and as noted, that’s as powerful as it gets – but it also, by its very nature, creates a sense of doubt and uncertainty because it’s merely a suggestion.  Doubt, in turn, harkens back to cognitive dissonance: when new information is presented that contradicts previously held beliefs, we’re likely to dismiss it, rationalize it or justify it in a way that preserves what we thought to be true.  While a character may do this on the page or the screen from their own subjective perspective, the process – the story’s unfolding – itself is viewed objectively by the audience who now perceives two contradictory pieces of information which creates a certain level of uncertainty because of competing possibilities – thus “What happens next?” or…suspense!

With regards to The Innocents, The Other, and Dark Night of the Scarecrow, several similarities appear that help to create an atmosphere of dissonance through suggestion: like many supernatural stories, the emphasis on “the natural” in the setting is paramount.  Each of these movies takes place in what could be considered the real world, or at least grounded in reality where the supernatural is often hinted at, or suggested, but dismissed by key characters – if not outright the main character – where an alternate perspective rationalizes events and strange occurrences.

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A key flashback scene in The Other.

The world the characters inhabit in these movies also tends to be gothic in nature: a large mansion on an estate, a farmhouse in 1930’s Connecticut and a small, rural farming community – each presenting many of their subtle horrors in sun-drenched daylight, but always within the framing of dark shadows that give way to the unknown.  This dichotomy is a result of narrative blurring, creating a sense of unease – that all is not right – within an otherwise picturesque context, whether it’s a bug crawling out of a statue’s mouth in The Innocents, the foreboding sense of a locked basement room in a barn or a severed finger kept tucked away in a tin box in The Other or a wide open, unplanted cornfield with a scarecrow tied to a stake in Dark Night of the Scarecrow.  The horror is therefore is never overt, but strongly hinted at despite their seemingly innocuous settings.

All three films also have children who may – or may not – be deviant in nature, something evident in The Innocents very title.  The idea that children may not be as innocent as they seem is certainly fraught with a certain amount of dissonance in real life – but one of which has become fodder for a good many “bad seed” films.  Nevertheless, there’s the suggestion within each that the children themselves are not, despite their wholesome initial appearances, entirely “natural” themselves.


Are Miles and Flora evil, or are they possessed by Miss Jessel and Peter Quint…or or are all these events just the products of Miss Giddens’s own imagination?

All the narrative blurring is set up to give the stories and settings a sense of ambiguity, another important element, but what’s also important is the perspective of the characters which leads to the cognitive dissonance, either within themselves or the audience.  In The Innocents, Miss Giddens is presented with conflicting information and perspectives right from the moment she meets Flora, her reflection in the pond as someone from afar calls her name – only Flora denies hearing anyone.  Later on, when Miss Giddens experiences the first sighting of Peter Quint’s ghost, she rushes to the top of the mansion’s tower to find Miles playing amongst the pigeons, also denying anyone else’s having been up there.  Miss Giddens initially dismisses her sighting as a result of having not slept well and imagined it, but she can’t let the thought go and further inquires Mrs. Grose about the history and the children.

Factoring into the dissonance is Miss Giddens belief that the children are angelic, but events are presented with such ambiguity – such as when Flora recites her prayers and inquires if she shall go to heaven someday as well to which Miss Giddens replies, yes, because she’s “good.”  Flora, however, responds that she may very well be bad and further asks if she weren’t to go to heaven, would the lord leave her there to walk around?  On one hand this could very well be a natural question for a child to ask at that age – but given the greater context of the story, the dialogue is unsettling – particularly for Miss Giddens – as she is continually presented with new evidence that suggests the children aren’t as angelic as she believed them to be.  Dissonance continually happens as she tries to find rational explanations, her options dwindling until she comes to believe the children are not acting on their own accord and are, in fact, possessed by the spirits of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel.

From an objective viewpoint, the audience sees the events unfold and is never presented with evidence anyone other than Miss Giddens sees or hears the ghosts – but again, the ambiguity of the dialogue from the children seems to suggest their knowing more than they let on, leaving the audience in suspense as to whether the ghosts are real.  In fact, part of the movie’s charm is that, upon its ending, we’re still unsure whether the ghosts were real or not.

From Miss Giddens perspective – and perhaps some of the eeriest moments in any ghost story committed to film – every time the apparitions appear there are stylistic touches where light consumes the lens and all diegetic sound (noises from within the story’s setting) fall ominously silent.  But we’re completely in her shoes as the main character and experiencing the story from her point of view.  That she’s something of an authority figure only adds to the audience’s dissonance as she’s educated (the only other relevant cast members are the children and an admittedly uneducated Mrs. Grose).  The children themselves, and even Mrs. Grose to a certain extent, question Miss Giddens sanity, but she continues to rationalize and justify her beliefs to tragic consequences.  As a side note, Robert M. Pirsig discusses The Turn of the Screw in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and how his own perspective of the story’s protagonist was challenged by a professor who noted the story’s ambiguity was so deep, Miss Giddens herself very well may be seen as the antagonist, imposing her perspective onto the children to fatal results.

In Robert Mulligan’s The Other, there’s less emphasis on cognitive dissonance as the story of twins Niles and Holland unfolds on their quaint farm – though a sense of   the supernatural permeates scenes thanks to their grandmother Ada who plays a game with Niles in particular, letting his imagination run amok.  Holland, meanwhile, appears to be the embodiment of “the bad seed” or evil twin and it’s apparent he’s behind the number of unfortunate accidents plaguing the family’s farmstead resulting in a series of tragedies.

It’s not until the story’s twist that we delve deeper into the Jungian concept of “The Shadow,” from which the book (and film) gets its title.  Once it’s revealed Holland is in fact dead and Ada has been playing along with Niles’ inability to move past his brother’s death by accepting his constantly blaming everything on Holland, we suspect Niles to be suffering from a form of psychosis – but just when it appears she has gotten him to accept reality, Niles continues to “see” and converse with Holland leading to further tragic results.  The ending is one of which leaves the viewer haunted for days as we’re presented with yet more information that alters our perception to actually believe in the supernatural aspect of the story and twins and the very nature of evil itself.

A slow building film, The Other is one of those rare PG movies that leaves one feeling somewhat disturbed and haunted for days, if not years (seriously, check out the reviews).  Robert Mulligan, as he demonstrated with To Kill a Mockingbird, was wonderful working with children and demonstrated a sensitivity to the story’s subtleties and nuances – everything seemingly having its place by its end.  It’s one of those films one can truly say “they don’t make them like this anymore,” which is a shame because it’s these kinds that linger longer than most with the viewer.

Dark Night of the Scarecrow provides something of an inverse from The Innocents in that its main character, Charles Durning’s Otis P. Hazelrigg, is a staunch disbeliever of the supernatural and believes the mother of the mentally challenged man, Bubba (Larry Drake) – whom was wrongly accused of hurting a girl and subsequently slain for – or someone else (the lawyer?  The little girl?  One of his accomplices?) is enacting revenge.

Once again the setting is natural and the supernatural presence is “blurred” with the narrative as we see the majority of the story unfold from Hazelrigg’s perspective – an interesting change of pace considering he’s the story’s true villain, allowing a measure of satisfaction for the audience in watching him squirm as his accomplices die, one by one, in mysterious ways.  But we’re also afforded the objective view of the story outside of Hazelrigg’s perspective, feeling the fear first hand from his friends as subtleties such as a scarecrow appearing in the middle of a barren cornfield induce fear and panic.  We also privy to the perspective of the little girl who was friends with Bubba and seemingly believes he’s still alive, despite the contradictory perspective of his very own mother (much like Ada in The Other, the alternative perspective creates dissonance in that we’re unsure if  Marylee is in fact unable to move beyond her friend’s death).

All of these elements contribute to a growing sense of dread as Hazelrigg proves he’ll stop at nothing to keep the truth from being revealed involving Bubba’s death (they framed him to make it appear as self-defense), but we’re never quite sure who’s actually responsible for the killings – the supernatural element always suggested, but alternate explanations plausible (and believable through the eyes of Hazelrigg), grounding the story in reality while keeping its intentions ambiguous until the final reveal.

The Innocents, The Other and Dark Night of the Scarecrow prove to be stories where cognitive dissonance and narrative blurring perhaps work best because of the supernatural angles involved that are based, or at least heavily influenced, by their character’s various perspectives.  This harkens back to the notion of “suggestive horror” in that much of what is deemed as such comes from within the character’s own mind and what they believe and, as also discussed previously, tapping into an audience’s emotions is dependent on putting them squarely into the shoes of the main character.  As a result, and to create suspense, we have to create uncertainty – something that springs forth from ambiguity as a result of blurring the narrative cognitive dissonance and creating an atmosphere of suggestion where anything can happen as we vacillate between the safety net of a sun-drenched reality and the possibilities of something much darker lurking in the shadows…whether on the screen or more importantly, in our own minds.

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Written by James P. Barker