All this talk about horror seems like the perfect time to mention suspension of disbelief – the ability to set aside reality long enough to enjoy the story. As readers or audience members, we have to accept the underlying “lies” of the story (supernatural monsters, magic, amazingly advanced technology, talking animals, or even people bursting out into song and dance), or we won’t like the story at all.
Although people seem to associate suspension of disbelief more with theatre, it is part of any story from movies to stage magic to telling a tale to a friend. Some genres, however, have a more delicate relationship with suspension of disbelief than others. If the goal is to make something seem ridiculous, that doesn’t take much suspension of disbelief. We don’t have to be inside a story to laugh at it. We do have to be inside the story to empathize with the characters.
We have to be deeply inside a story to be frightened by it.
When your disbelief is not suspended, you’re an observer. You’re separated from the story, and instead of focusing on the moment, you’re looking at the whole with a judgmental/analytical view. As a rule, the hardest person to scare is the neutral observer. A person who is not involved and is watching (or reading) analytically will be a hard sell because his or her emotions are not involved.
About the only way to unnerve that reader is to hit his or her sense of what if. If you can make your frightening idea seem plausible, then, you can use the person’s rationality against them (a sneaky, back-handed way to use logic to suspend disbelief). That’s the kind of fright that doesn’t hit in the moment but waits until later – when the reader is lying in bed in the dark, arguing unsuccessfully with his or her own mind.
For immediate scares, the audience has to be pulled into the story.
When we get sucked into the story, when our emotions become involved, that’s when the story starts to have the ability to scare us. And the further we get pulled into the story, the more scared we can get. There is a point where you are so involved that you’re not really aware of your body anymore, and that’s when the movie or book has the full potential to frighten you.
None of that is possible without suspension of disbelief, and the last part requires a really high level of suspension of disbelief.
Most stories want us to suspend our disbelief enough to empathize with the characters, to feel for them and become involved in the plot. Horror wants to scare us. That means that horror has to pull us in more deeply than any other genre1. But pulling us in deeply isn’t enough. As the story goes on, horror has to work even harder to keep us there.
Anything that shakes suspension of disbelief, anything that is hard to believe or accept, makes us less involved and pushes us back towards being observers. That means that successful horror books and movies have to be careful with the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Once it’s broken, it’s hard (if not impossible) to get back.
1Other genres might still suck us in that much, but they don’t necessarily have to.