Although I won’t be present at my SCMS panel for reasons discussed yesterday, my paper will be. So I wanted to take a moment to discuss and expand (at length!) upon an element of the paper that Jonathan Gray & I co-authored – perhaps anyone who sees the presentation might offer some comments here.
The presentation is based on a long essay Jonathan & I wrote called “Speculation on Spoilers: Lost Fandom, Narrative Consumption, and Rethinking Textuality,” which is now out in Particip@tions: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies [updated]. We were motivated by a basic question: why would fans of Lost, a show whose pleasures seem wrapped up in mystery, suspense, and surprise, actively seek out spoilers that reveal upcoming story points and seemingly eliminate the chief narrative pleasures of the show? We did an online survey of over 200 Lost fans, and worked through a range of hypotheses as to what’s going on with this particular practice of narrative consumption, combining empirical reception research with various narratological and cultural theories. I won’t “spoil” all of our findings and analysis here, but I wanted to talk about one specific issue – the role of suspense – in response to David Bordwell’s recent mini-essay on film suspense.
First off, one of the clear findings of our survey of Lost spoiler fans was that they enjoy suspense and still seem to experience it while watching the show, even if they know the narrative outcome of an episode–90% of respondents mentioned suspense as one of the pleasures they took from the show, and one-quarter of them marked it as their primary reason for watching the show. Bordwell (one of my grad school mentors who taught me most of what I know about narrative) poses a question speaking directly to this issue: why do we feel suspense from a film we’ve already seen, or from a film whose narrative resolution is already known (like United 93)? His answer tours through some theories of emotion & cognition, but boils down to this: suspense as an emotional response is somewhat impervious to memory, functioning involuntarily at a more base level of mental processing and thus can be experienced even when we know the outcome of events. I generally agree with his account, but I want to separate the experiences Bordwell discusses of re-watching a film (his example is Notorious) from seeing a known story being told for the first time (as in historical films like United 93) – and reconsider how suspense works in watching an unknown narrative as well – and hope that these distinctions help us understand the spoiler phenomenon more fully.
So here are three scenarios for consuming a suspenseful narrative moment, which I’ll illustrate with the climax of the first season finale of Veronica Mars, “Leave it to Beaver.” Veronica has solved the season-long mystery of who killed her best friend Lily (and I won’t identify the person here in case you haven’t seen this brilliant show & choose to watch it unspoiled!), but has been trapped in an outdoor chest freezer by the murderer who is threatening to kill her (by a spreading fire) if she doesn’t hand over evidence. Will her father Keith come to her rescue before she is burned alive? Will the killer be captured or escape?
Viewer A comes to the episode unspoiled, with no insider knowledge of what happens next – the “ideal viewer” for a suspenseful tale. Theories of suspense are predicated on uncertainty, as ideal viewers experience a story which proceeds down an unknown path. But how uncertain are story events in most films or television shows? Genres have established storytelling norms that are rarely broken–in a slasher film we know early on which characters are likely to be killed and who will be the “last girl” standing; in a mystery we come to expect seemingly “unexpected” revelations and twists. Television series have industrial norms that impact narratives, making it highly unlikely that the lead character will be killed or seriously hurt, especially when the show is named after her! Individual series establish their own intrinsic norms for plotting that guide viewer expectations–just last night, I watched the most recent Veronica Mars episode and commented that the person arrested at the beginning of the episode couldn’t be guilty because “that’s not how it works on this show.”
Thus within the storyworld, the odds are stacked against Veronica’s survival, which leads to suspense according to Noel Carroll and other theorists. But viewers know that they are watching televised fiction, not experiencing the storyworld directly. Experienced viewers realize that the storytelling odds are actually reversed: Veronica’s escape from peril is all but assured, making the dreaded outcome (Veronica’s death) highly unlikely. The typical “ideal reader,” especially for an ongoing serial demanding dedicated viewing, does not approach a new episode naively nor treat the fictional world as if it were real, but watches with a set of expectations that guide the likely outcome of events as they typically play out on television. Bordwell’s cognitive theories of narrative comprehension point to how viewers use learned shorthand schemata to process story material and anticipate probable outcomes. Even if Viewer A has not been spoiled as to what happens in this episode, I’d argue that their level of narrative uncertainty about Veronica’s safety and ability to catch the criminal is minimal – we feel quite confident that our heroine will ultimately survive and justice will be served. We just don’t know exactly how it will play out. Yet Viewer A still feels suspense, even knowing that the most likely outcome is a “positive” resolution. Why? Let’s ask the spoiler fans…
Viewer B comes to the episode spoiled, knowing that Veronica survives and that the killer is captured – this is comparable to the United 93 viewer who knows that the flight will be hijacked, the passengers will revolt, and the plane will crash. Perhaps Viewer B sought this information out online before the episode aired, perhaps they’re watching Season 1 on DVD after seeing Season 2, or perhaps they accidentally stumbled upon spoilers (these are important distinctions for how spoiler culture works, but don’t seem to matter for understanding suspense). Viewer B approaches the episode with far less uncertainty than Viewer A, as any surprises from unexpected twists (like the specific identity of the killer) are gone. But in Veronica’s moment of peril, Viewer B’s expectations are not drastically different from Viewer A’s – Veronica will survive, but exactly how the events of her escape will unfold are uncertain.
This is completely consistent with the comments of our Lost spoiler fans – they know what will happen, but still enjoy watching how the story is told, experiencing suspense along the way. To quote from our essay:
By reading spoilers, it may seem that both suspense and surprise are eliminated, but suspense is complex. While surprise is seemingly impossible when the revelation is already known, suspense can still occur—Seymour Chatman quotes Alfred Hitchcock to argue that suspense derives less from mysterious secrets than the tension in how events will play out. Hitchcock suggests that suspense generates from the audience’s inability to reveal crucial information to empathetic characters, and offers what might be a mantra for spoiler fans: “For that reason I believe in giving the audience all the facts as early as possible” (quoted in Chatman, Story & Discourse, 1978: 60).
According to Hitchcock, suspense comes from being unable to intervene in the storyworld, a position that all viewers share regardless of their spoiled status. But there is another level as well here, as Hitchcock’s expertise was in how he revealed his story points, not the “facts” themselves – it seems that the elements that trigger suspense are found less in a narrative’s story, the series of events within the fictional world, but more in its telling (or what narratologists often call discourse), the expressive cues that elicit emotional reactions (such as music, camera angles, facial expressions, etc.). This is why a potentially suspenseful series of events can be narrated in a way that undermines suspense (as in most chase cartoons), and a seemingly non-suspenseful set of events can be told to create suspense (the red herring moments of many horror films) – such emotional reactions stem more from how a story is told, rather than what actually happens in the story. Both Viewer A and B experience the narrative discourse for the first time, even if Viewer B has confidence in what events will occur. Thus both spoiled and unspoiled viewers share the same uncertainty in how the events will be narrated and what cues will be presented, experiencing suspense from these cues in mostly similar ways.
And then there’s Viewer C, who not only knows what will happen in a story, they’ve experienced the exact same telling before – they’re rewatching the film or show. Bordwell treats Viewer C the same as the spoiled Viewer B, as both share story knowledge over Viewer A. But I’d argue that Viewers A & B are more similar in their common experiences of experiencing the narrative discourse for the first time, while Viewer C already knows both story and discourse. Does Viewer C experience suspense? Yes – here’s where Bordwell’s argument about the “low-level processing” of narrative cues matters most, as even though C has already seen the shots and heard the music, they still get the emotional rush each time. And although I’m moving onto thin ice concerning my understanding of theories of cognition, it seems plausible that cues like music and visual framing might be even less effectively “remembered” than story events, and thus even sequences that a viewer has seen multiple times can trigger emotional responses as if they are new – we remember what happened in a scene, but can’t quite reconstruct how it was conveyed until we rewatch and re-experience it.
But I would add one more thing to this model – if the pleasures of suspense are in the telling more than the story, then viewers B and C use their story knowledge to focus attention on the discourse, absorbing and enjoying how the story is told and the subsequent emotions that the telling stimulates. Again, our survey bears this out – many spoiler fans claimed that by knowing what was going to happen, they could actually appreciate episodes of Lost more fully! Fans wrote that they used their foreknowledge of story events to focus on textual details, subtleties of performance, foreshadowing and clues, and stylistic flourishes. Thus by knowing the story ahead of time, spoiler fans approach a “new” episode more like academic critics, simultaneously experiencing and analyzing a text. I’ve discussed this practice in the context of the broader trend of narratively complex television, arguing that such programs stimulate an “operational aesthetic” that combines the act of reading and rereading simultaneously. As Jonathan and I write in our essay, “If typical fan consumption practices for programs like Lost straddle the experiences of first and subsequent viewings, then spoiler fans are taking this process one step further, increasing their expertise to more fully embrace the logic of rereading, and, as one respondent noted, ‘allow[ing] for a deeper analysis while you are viewing it.’”
Ultimately, it seems that the emotional responses to suspense are not only impervious to memories in the act of rewatching (or watching a spoiled story), but also stand up to the process of self-analysis – you can watch the storytelling gears at work, be fully aware of how the cues are designed to stimulate your emotions, and still find yourself tensing up in fear and anticipation as Veronica desperately cries for help. Some pleasures simply cannot be spoiled.
Filed under: Narrative, Viewers | 5 Comments