June 17, 2024
Is It Suspense?

Is It Suspense?

How you know a suspense story for what it is

A.R. Young

I never thought I’d be the type to get hooked on suspense novels, films, or TV shows, but there I was, clutching my book with white-knuckled fervor, heart pounding as if I’d just run a marathon. Suspense, it turns out, isn’t just a genre; it’s a full-body experience. It all starts with tension, that finely tuned element that stretches a story tighter than my waistband after Thanksgiving dinner.

Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” taught me this. The entire film is confined to one apartment, a voyeuristic peep show that builds a slow-burning suspense. Hitchcock’s genius was in showing just enough to keep you guessing, revealing fragments that ignite curiosity but never fully quench it.

Characters are the beating heart of suspense. Take Gillian Flynn’s “Sharp Objects,” for instance. Camille Preaker, our troubled protagonist, isn’t just investigating murders; she’s wrestling with her own psychological scars. The stakes are high on all fronts—professionally, personally, emotionally. Each chapter peels back another layer of her trauma, intertwining the crime with her inner demons. It’s the kind of book that makes you late for work because you just have to know what happens next.

Netflix’s “The Stranger,” based on Harlan Coben’s novel, follows a similar thread. Ordinary people caught in extraordinary situations. The stakes are sky-high, and the characters are so well-drawn that you can’t help but be invested in their fates. Secrets unravel, danger looms, and before you know it, you’ve binged the whole series in one sitting, your popcorn long forgotten.

Atmosphere and setting are crucial in crafting suspense. Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” as adapted by Netflix, uses its gothic architecture to create an eerie, claustrophobic tension. Every creak of the floorboards, every shadow on the wall feels like a harbinger of doom. It’s not just the house that’s haunted; it’s you, the viewer, haunted by what might be lurking around the corner.

Dennis Lehane’s “Shutter Island,” brought to life by Martin Scorsese, takes this to another level. The mental institution on a remote island, battered by storms and filled with labyrinthine corridors, creates a sense of isolation and paranoia. You’re not just watching the story; you’re trapped in it, feeling the protagonist’s mounting dread as the plot unfolds.

Plot twists are the lifeblood of suspense. “Gone Baby Gone,” directed by Ben Affleck, is a masterclass in this. Each revelation is a new layer of deception peeled back, drawing you deeper into the mystery. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, the story yanks the rug from under your feet, and you’re left reeling, desperate for answers.

“The Girl on the Train,” Paula Hawkins’ novel turned film, plays with unreliable narration and shifting perspectives to keep you perpetually off-balance. Each character’s viewpoint is a new piece of the puzzle, yet every new perspective introduces fresh uncertainties. It’s a narrative juggling act that keeps you guessing until the very end.

Psychological depth is what gives suspense its teeth. Netflix’s “Mindhunter” delves into the cat-and-mouse games between FBI agents and serial killers. The psychological tension is almost unbearable at times, the mind games and manipulative tactics creating an atmosphere thick with unease.

Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” adapted by Anthony Minghella, explores the protagonist’s moral ambiguity and manipulative behavior with chilling precision. Tom Ripley’s desperate attempts to maintain his deceit build a suffocating tension, making you complicit in his increasingly perilous game.

In the end, suspense isn’t just about what happens next; it’s about the journey. It’s the slow, deliberate pull into a world where every shadow could hide a threat, every revelation could upend everything, and every moment is charged with potential danger. It’s a genre that grips you and doesn’t let go, much like my first foray into suspense, which left me breathless and craving more.

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