'Terror & tension' psychophysiological suspense: defining a framework to measure cinematic suspense in 21st century horror films

Bound, Keith (2016) 'Terror & tension' psychophysiological suspense: defining a framework to measure cinematic suspense in 21st century horror films. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

[img] PDF (Thesis - as examined) - Repository staff only - Requires a PDF viewer such as GSview, Xpdf or Adobe Acrobat Reader
Download (6MB)


The construction of suspenseful sequences has been a crucial component for filmmakers to engage the viewer, especially within the thriller and horror genres. This thesis takes a new approach to understanding cinematic suspense by creating a psychophysiological model to measure cinematic suspense and subsequently viewer experience. To date, film scholars and media psychologists have defined the process of suspense in terms of specific story case studies, rather than first independently identifying the components of suspense. Such theories become selective and open to subjective interpretation and have provided misinterpretations of the phenomenon of suspense (Friedrichsen, 1996: 329). Suspense then by existing definitions is not measurable and makes it hard to quantify any discussion of cinematic suspense in relation to viewer experience. Although film scholars and media psychologists recognise that the experience of suspense involves cognition, emotion and physiology, only media psychologists have carried out empirical studies with viewers. Even taking this into consideration there have only been a few psychophysiological studies about the experience of suspense (Kreibig, 2010: 408). Furthermore there is a methodological dilemma, with film scholars preferring a qualitative approach, often via film textual analysis, and media psychologists primarily taking a quantitative approach, analysing data sets using statistical models, which film scholars see as offering little contribution to the complexities of film analysis (Smith, M. 2013). The differences between these methodological approaches raise the question of whether we can gain a greater insight into viewers’ experiences of suspense by drawing elements from both research methods and identifying the most appropriate methods, procedures and techniques to defining cinematic suspense. One strategy for achieving this is to turn to the field of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) which often uses mixed methods approaches to resolve such interdisciplinary differences, especially in gaining a deeper insight into user/viewer experience of narrative trajectories (Benford et al. 2009).

This thesis takes an inter-disciplinary approach that combines film studies, media psychology, HCI and psychophysiology. By drawing from film studies and media psychology it will identify the components of cinematic suspense and create a framework to measure suspense. Taking an HCI experiment approach in designing and analysing the findings of the ‘Terror & Tension’ film experiment, 20 viewers watched 32 short film clips from 8 horror films, dispersed through 4 sub-genres and 4 suspense narrative structures, defined by film scholar Susan Smith: vicarious, direct, shared and composite (Smith, S. 2000). Triangulation was used as a mixed methods approach to capture and analyse three data sets which include: firstly, viewer physiological responses, which were measured in terms of anxiety durability and intensity level by recording viewers’ skin conductance responses (SCRs), a component of electrodermal activity (EDA). The findings were then tested to verify the physiological framework to measure viewer experience of suspense. This led to the development of an EDA model of suspense. Viewer feedback was captured through verbal self-reports, which were recorded after watching each film clip. These physiological responses and feedback were then analysed alongside textual analysis of the film clips in a series of case studies to provide a deeper insight into how cinematic suspense is constructed through narrative elements, cinematography, sound and mise-en-scène. The research findings demonstrate that the EDA model of suspense makes a valuable contribution to film analysis and understanding viewer experience of suspense and offers psychophysiology a new framework to measure suspense in terms of anxiety durability and intensity.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Evans, Elizabeth
Tennent, Paul
Keywords: Films, horror, suspense, 21st century cinema, psychophysiological drama
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
P Language and literature > PN Literature (General) > PN1993 Motion pictures
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Arts > School of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies
Item ID: 38100
Depositing User: Bound, Keith
Date Deposited: 26 Jan 2017 15:01
Last Modified: 20 Mar 2018 16:14
URI: https://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/id/eprint/38100

Actions (Archive Staff Only)

Edit View Edit View