Suspension of disbelief
Suspension of disbelief or willing suspension of disbelief is a term coined in 1817 by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a "human interest and a semblance of truth" into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative. Suspension of disbelief often applies to fictional works of the action, comedy, fantasy, and horror genres. Cognitive estrangement in fiction involves using a person's ignorance or lack of knowledge to promote suspension of disbelief.
The phrase "suspension of disbelief" came to be used more loosely in the later 20th century, often used to imply that the burden was on the reader, rather than the writer, to achieve it. This might be used to refer to the willingness of the audience to overlook the limitations of a medium, so that these do not interfere with the acceptance of those premises. These fictional premises may also lend to the engagement of the mind and perhaps proposition of thoughts, ideas, art and theories.
Suspension of disbelief is often an essential element for a magic act or a circus sideshow act. For example, an audience is not expected to actually believe that a woman is cut in half or transforms into a gorilla in order to enjoy the performance.
Coleridge's original formulation
Coleridge coined the phrase in his Biographia Literaria, published in 1817, in the context of the creation and reading of poetry. Chapter XIV describes the preparations with Wordsworth for their revolutionary collaboration Lyrical Ballads (first edition 1798), for which Coleridge had contributed the more romantic, gothic pieces including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Poetry and fiction involving the supernatural had gone out of fashion to a large extent in the 18th century, in part due to the declining belief in witches and other supernatural agents among the educated classes, who embraced the rational approach to the world offered by the new science. Alexander Pope, notably, felt the need to explain and justify his use of elemental spirits in The Rape of the Lock, one of the few English poems of the century that invoked the supernatural. Coleridge wished to revive the use of fantastic elements in poetry. The concept of "willing suspension of disbelief" explained how a modern, enlightened audience might continue to enjoy such types of story.
- ”... It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. Mr. Wordsworth on the other hand was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us ...”
The notion of such an action by an audience was however recognized in antiquity, as seen particularly in the Roman theoretical concerns of Horace, who also lived in an age of increasing skepticism about the supernatural, in his Ars Poetica.
Examples in literature
- "[…] make imaginary puissant […] 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings […] turning accomplishment of many years into an hourglass."
In popular culture
According to the theory, suspension of disbelief is an essential ingredient for any kind of storytelling. With any film, the viewer has to ignore the reality that they are viewing a two-dimensional moving image on a screen and temporarily accept it as reality in order to be entertained. Black-and-white films provide an obvious early example that audiences are willing to suspend disbelief, no matter how unreal the images appear, for the sake of entertainment. With the exception of totally color blind people (See: Achromatopsia), no person viewing these films sees the real world without color, but they are still willing to suspend disbelief and accept the images in order to be entertained.
One of the most common examples of suspension of disbelief is in language. For practical purposes, dramas usually are played in the language of the intended audience, irrespective of its context. For example, virtually every film and television series made in Anglophone countries have the characters speaking in English, regardless of the linguistic environment of the narrative. To the extent that foreign or alien language appears, this tends to be for dramatic effect. This device has become so common that suspension of disbelief is an almost automatic audience response in all but the rarest cases.
Suspension of disbelief is also supposed to be essential for the enjoyment of many movies and TV shows involving complex stunts, special effects, and seemingly unrealistic plots, characterizations, etc. The theory professes to explain why a subset of action movie fans are willing to accept the idea that, for example: The good guy can get away with shooting guns in public places (without getting in trouble with the local law-enforcement himself), never running out of ammunition (Rambo movies), the characters of the film Mad Max are not concerned with burning out tires or fuel, or that cars will explode with a well-placed shot to the gas tank (numerous action movies use this trope/plot element).
Suspension of disbelief is also needed when a character is not supposed to age over the course of a series (because of being a vampire or be eternal/immortal because of some quirk/trait/power of the character) but the actor eventually does – as seen in Angel and Highlander. Likewise, the various Terminators played by Arnold Schwarzenegger are supposed to be standardized units from the same assembly line, but the original cyborg in 1984's The Terminator looks noticeably younger than the cyborgs with the "same" organic covering that appear in the 1991 and 2003 sequel movies.
In the three CSI series, it is frequently implied that forensic test results are received immediately after said tests are performed; in reality, it can take several months to get results back, it is inconvenient to the plots to show the necessary waiting period. To advance the plot, a suspension of disbelief is necessary, and viewers must accept that the waiting period has passed or that there is no waiting period to begin with. As well, in real life, crime scene investigators are not responsible for the wide array of police duties that the show's characters typically carry out (investigation, arrest, interrogation, etc.); they limit themselves to forensic and lab work; these series would have audiences believe that crime scene units are solely responsible for entire investigations, including the arrest.
All sorts of story-telling involving puppets or cartoon characters demand suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, since it is obvious that the "people" seen are not real living persons. On the Muppet Show, the rods controlling Kermit's arms are clearly visible, but the audience is expected to ignore them.
Animations and comics
One contemporary example of suspension of disbelief is the audience's acceptance that Superman hides his identity from the world by simply donning a pair of glasses, conservative clothing, and acting in a "mild-mannered" fashion. Not only is the disguise so thin as to be ridiculous (though certain adaptations attempt to lend some believability to it with Clark Kent acting sufficiently different from Superman, such as the 1978 film), but also in the TV series, Adventures of Superman, this absurdity was carried to an extreme. Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen constantly suspected Clark Kent of being Superman, yet when obvious evidence was right in their faces – such as times when Clark was missing his glasses – they never saw the resemblance. (Noel Neill and Jack Larson, in DVD commentary, said their standard answer when questioned about this was, "We wanted to keep our jobs!")
Some find it strange that while some audience members took issue with the flimsiness of Superman's disguise, they didn't take issue with the idea of the existence of a superbeing whose only weakness was kryptonite. One arguing from the theory of suspension of disbelief would contend that while Superman's abilities and vulnerabilities are the foundational premises the audience accepted as their part of the initial deal; they did not accept a persistent inability for otherwise normal characters to recognize a close colleague solely because of minor changes in clothing.
Gary Larson discussed the question with regard to his comic strip, The Far Side; he noted that readers wrote him to complain that a male mosquito referred to his job sucking blood when it is in fact the females that drain blood, but that the same readers accepted that the mosquitoes live in houses, wear clothes, and speak English.
Video games usually require suspension of disbelief to explain abstract game mechanics, even in games with realistic visuals or narratives. This may also be due to technical limitations. Examples include the omission of real-life human needs in a playable character such as eating, drinking, bathroom use, or sleep, except as a means to recover health. A character may be able to drive a vehicle continuously without ever needing to refuel, or be able to sustain inexplicably high levels of injury and recover without medical attention, as a way to avoid interrupting the action. When a player character can do actions that would not make sense in the context of the story, it is referred to as ludonarrative dissonance.
Due to the nature of game levels, they are usually bounded by invisible walls, restricting the player from exploring further even should they technically be able to. Games such as multiplayer first-person shooters enforce boundary lines on levels by causing the player to perish when attempting to go out of bounds (some more recent games however force the player to automatic turn around and return to the level to prevent them from going out of bounds), while others feature instant death upon falling into water instead of giving the player a chance to swim out before drowning (such as a few episodes of Grand Theft Auto and many others). In contrast, some games show falling into water as completely safe when in reality the impact would be lethal (most notably in Banjo-Kazooie).
In many video games (particularly RPGs), a character will say the same phrase over and over indefinitely when repeatedly talked to. Some video games begin with a tutorial in which the player is taught how to play. These are often woven into the story, in a manner that breaks the fourth wall. Players are sometimes even given the status of a character or other supernatural being who has entered the game world.
Examples in politics
It was used by Hillary Clinton during the United States' 2008 presidential election preliminaries. Clinton apparently considered General Petraeus' reports on Iraq to be unbelievable or not factual, and used the phrase "suspension of disbelief" loosely, in this case, implying such to be a requirement to accept his statements.
Psychological critic Norman Holland points to a neuroscientific explanation. When we hear or watch any narrative, our brains go wholly into perceiving mode. They turn off our systems for acting or planning to act. With them go our systems for assessing reality. We believe. We have, in Coleridge's second, more accurate phrase, “poetic faith.” That’s why humans have such trouble recognizing lies. We first believe, then have to make a conscious effort to disbelieve.
Only when we stop perceiving to think about what we have seen or heard, only then do we assess its truth-value. Watching a movie or reading a story, if we are really “into” the fiction, “transported,” in the psychologists' term, we are, as Immanuel Kant pointed out long ago, “disinterested.” We respond aesthetically, without purpose. We just enjoy. We don’t judge the truth of what we’re perceiving, even though, if we stop being transported and think about it, we know quite well it’s a fiction.
Suspension of disbelief has also been used within a mental health context by Frank DeFulgentis in his book Flux. It is an attempt to describe the phenomenon of forgetting irrational thoughts associated with cases of OCD. In the book, the author suggests 'suspending disbelief' as opposed to forcing ourselves to forget; similar to how one would put a virus in quarantine. We can thereby allow ourselves to be absorbed in the activities around us until these irrationalities vanish on their own accord.
As in the examples of Superman's powers and Gary Larson's cartoon, it is unclear that suspension of disbelief correctly describes an audience's perception of art. If the theory were to be true, the individual events of suspension would appear to be highly selective. (It would appear that one chooses to suspend disbelief for the ability to fly, but not to suspend it for myopic co-workers.)
Aesthetic philosophers generally reject claims that suspension of disbelief accurately characterizes the relationship between people and "fictions." Kendall Walton notes that, if viewers were to truly suspend disbelief at a horror movie and accept its images as true, they would have a true-to-life set of reactions. For instance, audience members would cry out, "Look behind you!" to an endangered on-screen character or call the police when they witnessed an on-screen murder.
However, many of these criticisms simply fail to notice that Coleridge's original statement came in a restrictive clause. The formulation "...that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith," of necessity implies that there are different sorts of suspension of disbelief and specifies that poetic faith is one instance of a larger class. One need not choose to believe that a character in a horror film is a real person in order, for example, to choose to believe that the character is looking at the building seen in the following reverse-shot. More often than not, both beliefs would be equally false.
Not all authors believe that suspension of the disbelief adequately characterizes the audience's relationship to imaginative works of art. J. R. R. Tolkien challenges this concept in his essay "On Fairy-Stories", choosing instead the paradigm of secondary belief based on inner consistency of reality. Tolkien says that, in order for the narrative to work, the reader must believe that what he reads is true within the secondary reality of the fictional world. By focusing on creating an internally consistent fictional world, the author makes secondary belief possible. Tolkien argues that suspension of disbelief is only necessary when the work has failed to create secondary belief. From that point the spell is broken, and the reader ceases to be immersed in the story and must make a conscious effort to suspend disbelief or else give up on it entirely.
- 555 (telephone number)
- Aestheticization of violence
- Compartmentalization (psychology)
- Deus ex machina
- Dramatic convention
- Fourth wall
- Paradox of fiction
- Soap opera effect
- Suspension of judgment
- The Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis
- Verisimilitude (literature)
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- Botos, Tim (21 August 2008). "'Gorilla Girl' sideshow act hangs on despite changing times". GateHouse News Service; Patriot Ledger. Retrieved 15 October 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
- Safire, William. On Language; Suspension of Disbelief. New York Times. 7 October 2007.
- Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 1817, Chapter XIV
- "Your Turn: We don't need another Hero". Sydney Morning Herald. 3 February 2010. Retrieved 2010-02-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
- Lake, Eli (12 September 2007). "Clinton Spars With Petraeus on Credibility". The New York Sun. Washington, D.C. Retrieved 7 November 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
- Hillary Clinton (11 September 2007). HILLARY CLINTON: PETRAEUS’ REPORTS REQUIRE ‘WILLING SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF’ (excerpt from the Hearing on the Petraeus Report) (streaming video) (Television). CSPAN. Event occurs at 0:25. Retrieved 7 November 2010.
Despite what I view as your rather extraordinary efforts in your testimony both yesterday and today, I think that the reports that you provide to us really require the willing suspension of disbelief.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
- Holland, Norman (2008). "Spiderman? Sure! The Neuroscience of Disbelief". Interdisciplinary Science Reviews. 33 (4): 312–320. Retrieved 28 April 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
- Holland, Norman. "Literature and the Brain". Literatureandthebrain.com. PsyArt. Retrieved 28 April 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
- "Fearing Fictions", Kendall L. Walton, JSTOR (The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 75, No. 1 (01-1978), pp. 5–27). Retrieved 3 January 2007.