The science of suspense

Do scientists have a place in Hollywood?
31 October 2016

Interview with 

Dr Keith Bound, Receptive Cinema


Could brain scanning technology help us to peek inside the audience's mind and Scary treetell us exactly what to do to light up their fear centres? The term neurocinematics appeared in 2008 and suddenly this was the new frontier of cinema. This technology is already used in Hollywood to help pick the most effective trailers, so why not movies? Well, the hubbub has since died down, but Dr Keith Bound, at receptive cinema, has been doing something similar, as he explained to Georgia Mills...

Georgia - But maybe science can help give us the creeps? There was a study back in 2008, where scientists at New York University put people into MRI scanners, which can measure your brain activity. They got people to watch clips of Hitchcock production "Bang! You're dead", the western "The Good, the Bad the Ugly", and the comedy "Curb Your Enthusiasm". They found that when watching Hitchcock's work, in 65% of people their brains tended to respond in a really similar way, this was much less so for the western, and only 18% of people responded the same way to "Curb Your Enthusiasm".

It seems Hitchcock was very adept at pulling our strings, but could this same brain scanning technology help us to peek inside the audience's mind and work out exactly what to do to light up our fear centres? The study coined the term neurocinematics and suddenly this was going to be the new frontier of cinema. This technology is already used in Hollywood to help pick out the most effective trailers, so why not movies? Well, the hubbub has since died down a bit; in fact the website of one of the major proponents of this idea now sells bouncy castles. So perhaps not this massive cinematic revolution, but Dr Keith Bound, at Receptive Cinema, has been using his own technique to do something very similar...

Keith - Basically, what I'm doing with Receptive Cinema is really acting as a film consultancy. So the film consultancy is based on my research and it's really about implementing that research findings in a creative way, so bring in science of suspense, in particular in horror films, and help in that sort of data and information work more effectively so that we can create films that are more scary or more suspenseful in that sense.

Georgia - According to Susan Smith, who looked at Hitchcock's work, there are three types of suspense:

One - you, the audience, are in on it, you can see the big bad, but the character in the film has no idea. It's behind you! This is called vicarious suspense.

Two - the audience and the character are both in on it, this is called shared suspense.

And finally - there's direct suspense, which is where you're worried about something on your own, and not any character's, behalf. For example, the camera tracks through a dark forest and you are scared a face might pop out at you at any moment.

So which works better? Keith showed people short 90 second clips from  films like Quarantine, the Descent and Silent House. And then to find out how anxious people were in real time, he measured their sweat using the same technique Annemieke used on me, earlier.

Keith - Basically, if you imagine these responses like little mountain peaks in a signal. So we actually get one curve that comes up as an amplitude so we know that the higher this curve goes the more intense that person's feeling that experience. And the longer it goes on, in other words until it reaches a peak, that's the durability. So I measured anxiety by durability - how long the person was experiencing that anxiety response, and also the intensity and that's based on the height of the actual curve.

Georgia - Keith's technique can tell us things that we might not pick up on our own...

Keith - Consciously, we would not know which part of a film clip makes us most scared, certainly by the millisecond. We might know a certain section that made us feel very tense but with this psychophysiological recording we can measure it by the millisecond. Now we actually can understand -  this is exactly this stimulus you've got here when the lighting changed, the camera moved, or there may be some other factors that we can actually find, this is when you've experienced a very intense form of suspense or anxiety in this case.

So what the psychophysiology does is really pinpoint where we are experiencing this very strong or weaker anxiety response.

Georgia - Keith discovered that vicarious suspense, that's the one where you the viewer, but not the character, can see the danger, elicited the most strong reaction from viewers. This makes sense because this was Hitchcock's favourite form of tension.

But also, contrary to what you might expect, people's anxiety in a scene actually dropped once you could see the threat, especially when jump cuts were used. What people really responded to was a close up of the petrified face of the victim. So now Keith can use these and more findings to advise filmmakers exactly how to elicit the best response from people. But surely... everyone is different?

Keith - You won't have an exact formula for everyone - I have to make that quite clear. Everyone has a different preference, but what I did find is that you can get, in the clips like Quarantine I mentioned earlier, the vicarian, a very strong one. That did have a very consistent, very strong intense anxiety responses, but there weren't many of them. You don't get hundreds of these things happening in the clip. But at the same time you will get other ones that will have a weaker response to the same stimulus because, remember, people bring a lot of things from their past into the cinema.

Basically, when you go and see a horror film you're going to create a mood that you're going to get frightened or scared or you're going to put yourself in a mood of what  you want to be when you watch that film. That mood then, what happens is that your brain will start picking out any element in that film to support that mood, so your fear's likely to intensify. But, like you said, it does depend on certain elements and not everyone will have exactly the same result. They may have an anxiety response, but some will have a stronger and some may have weaker.

Georgia - Dr Keith Bound from Receptive Cinema. So maybe science will be able to make our films more scary in the future, but to be honest - they're doing a fairly good job of scaring the pants off of us already.

So next time you're watching a horror and in dire need of a sofa to hide behind, perhaps you can distract yourself by remembering - it's all in the amygdala, and now you know exactly how these directors are trying to scare you, and why it works. I'm off to the cine


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