Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 46, November 2003



Pablo Ortega-Rodriguez


How is Disbelief Suspended?:

The Paradox of Fiction and Carroll's _The Philosophy of Horror_



Noel Carroll

_The Philosophy of Horror; or Paradoxes of the Heart_

New York: Routledge, 1990

ISBN 0415902169

288 pp.


In _The Philosophy of Horror_ Noel Carroll expounds what he calls the 'Paradox of Fiction', reporting two opposing solutions to the problem, and giving an 'intermediate' solution which he calls the 'Thought Theory of Emotional Responses to Fiction'. In this paper I want to critically assess Carroll's solution in defense of a revised version of one of the other two solutions, namely, one which involves the familiar idea of *suspension of disbelief*.


The paradox Carroll discusses could be stated thus: How is it possible that something that we know to be purely fictional can induce in us feelings or emotional reactions as one would expect only to be produced by something we consider as *really* happening? It seems that, for example, we can only be frightened by entities in whose existence we actually believe, but it is the case that no movie theatre audience will in fact say that the Green Slime they see approaching from the screen is real and that it is mandatory to go ask for help from the army -- despite their being utterly thrilled by it. To solve this inconsistency, it seems that we must either say that there is a special kind of belief going on in fictional spectators, one which is somehow immune to being seriously acknowledged by anyone who has (despite all) a deep impression of verity when seeing a fictional piece, or we must say that what we experience in theatres is not an authentic emotional response at all: we do not really fear the Green Slime, but only have a kind of milder, analogue experience of fearing it.


Carroll finds that both options have their defenders. In the former view, he acknowledges the Coleridgean thesis that we have a kind of controlled faculty to suspend our common beliefs in order to give credibility to the ghosts of our fantasy. As Coleridge says in his _Biographia Literaria_:


'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 semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith'. [1]


But Carroll points out, first, that beliefs are not the sort of thing we have a willing control of. I simply cannot make myself believe in something previously not believed unless convincing and proving evidence is offered to me, something that simply does not happen when the credibility of film or theatrical fiction is lost (65). Moreover, suspension of disbelief does not apparently solve the problem, in the sense that for Carroll the suspension process entails a simultaneous, latent consciousness of the fictional character of the object whose disbelief we are suspending; for in order to have a proper response to fiction (not calling the army when we see the Green Slime), we must somehow believe that we are confronted with a fictional spectacle (67-68).


However, Carroll also finds problems in the alternative view, as sustained by Kendall Walton in his article 'Fearing Fictions'. [2] For Walton, the fictional experience is like a pretend or make-believe game, with no crucial feelings being involved. Just as a little girl pretends that his playful father is a children-eating ogre just for her amusement (without in the least believing seriously that he is one or reacting emotionally in that direction), we simply pretend to be horrified by a horror film without actually developing real fear, but only a 'quasi-fear', similar in its manifestations to -- yet not identical with -- actual fear. Carroll presents Walton's view with a series of critical remarks, but in essence he objects to its incongruity with the 'phenomenology' of fictional experience: being terrified to the bone by a movie like The Exorcist is not like being pretending to be terrified by it. In that sense, Walton's view solves many logical problems, but it misses the whole pathos of intense emotional response to fiction, which is in many relevant aspects identical with that of real emotions. (We may also say, as a complementary observation, that people who enjoy horror films are in many cases *regretfully* reluctant to watch them because of their being too scary, resulting in their denial of what is an enticing source of amusement for them. According to Walton's theory, such films could not be scary as long as they are enjoyable, for the terror involved was only pretend-terror and never felt.)


After discarding these two options, Carroll responds with his own 'Thought Theory of Emotional Responses to Fiction'. The theory amounts to this: unlike the two theories discussed, we must reject the idea that we are only genuinely moved by what we believe is real; for it is the case that the mere content of a thought, without the reference of its reality in the world, produces in us genuine emotions, such as when we see a precipice and consequently experience a real and frightening sensation of vertigo (80). As Frege pointed out, fiction does not involve reference, just meaning. Fiction is a disposition of been moved just by vivid description, not by any actual belief (85).


Carroll's view is more 'phenomenological' than Walton's in that we actually observe that some entities in whose existence we do not really believe may frighten us (like in the movie _Leprechaun_). Yet, the problem with it is that it does not explain why in many cases we do not feel fear in the sole conception of a horrific thing *which in other circumstances actually does produce fear*. Consider the common case of a horror film which we enjoy with relative equanimity in daylight, surrounded by friends, or that we may recall with no great thrill at work, but that could and would produce terror if seen or recalled in the solitude of night. This means that we need a positive reason for making a horrific thought scary in some situations where that reason is present, and for failing to scare us in others where it is absent (a 'principium terrificationis', if you will).


In defense of Carroll's theory, it could be argued that the sheer vividness of the thought is responsible for rendering strong emotional reactions. Yet, this does not seem to be a satisfactory account, for I can perceive with complete detail and vivacity a monster mask and remain completely non-shocked; yet, the blurriest and faintest recalling of that mask may make a child shiver. Rather, I think many familiar and common experiences suggest that it is our more intense belief in the reality of the horrific thing represented by the content of our thought that really accounts for the emotional reaction commonly entailed by fiction. In my view, such commonplace experiences could be variously described. 1, The reason many people give for explaining why a horror movie was not scary for them is: 'I didn't buy it', 'I didn't fall for it', etc. What is more, if the characters fail to render a convincing reaction of fear when facing the fictitious monster, then that very same monster that would normally frighten us in good fiction does in fact lose a lot of its chilling capacity (a good monster, then, is not only its design but more radically its dramatic context). 2, Horror simply grows if we manage to place a horrible thing in a concrete relation to our real situation, like thinking that a ghost is just about to come through our bedroom door. 3. Even cliched monsters that do not frighten us could prove to be scary if we convince ourselves that they have become real. 4. Possibly the best way to dispel a scary impression left by a horror movie is to think about the actors and of how the scene may have been artistically produced, depriving it of its ability to be thought of as real. 5. Sudden frights regarding elements that normally would not be scary (as in a close, strident yell) very likely shock us because in the brevity of the moment our mind appears to have no time to figure out if the presented object is a real threat or not. 6. Young children, who admittedly are the least capable of clearly discerning between fiction and realty, are thus more sensibly affected by almost any type of scary fiction. 7. Darkness and solitude seem to affect us because those are states in which the precise and ordinary configurations of things disappear, and the common-sense view of the world is not vividly manifested, therefore allowing more easily our imagination to acknowledge that non-ordinary events may be possible.


None of these phenomena are accounted for in Carroll's 'content theory', which simply fails to realize that in the realm of fiction (and very specially of performing fiction) the art of being truthful and convincing is almost the defining element of the craft, being that without which no strong emotional responses in the spectator are obtained. What is more, even a revised version of Carroll's theory, such as Aaron Smuts' insight into Robert Wise's _The Haunting_, explicitly acknowledges the limitations of the Thought Theory in relation to analysis of haunted places, and ends up talking about the kinds of belief (mitigated belief) and techniques of enhancing belief in fiction. [3] And finally, the fact that the sheer thought of something is actually disgusting or distressing (like the idea of screaking a chalk-board with our nails), cannot be offered by itself as a proof for Carroll's position, for it is not at all clear that in those cases the effectiveness of the idea is not simply produced by somehow convincing us that we are really facing the disgusting fact (e.g. that we are really in the brink of breaking our nails) just in the same fashion a dramatic piece would convince us of the verity of the story.


In my opinion, all this eloquently supports the idea that an intense emotional response to fiction needs something more than thought content, that is, a kind of belief in what is being showed (which certainly does not mean that we cannot enjoy the beauty of, say, the composition of the verse or the declamatory virtues of an actor without being intrinsically immersed in the action of a play). Of course, the problem persists of how fictional belief is attained without producing in the actual actions that are natural consequences of really believing stuff, like fleeing from danger or arresting the villain. Let us face Carroll's objections against the suspension of disbelief theory.


Surely Carroll is right in saying that we have no willing control about the things we want to believe in or not. Yet, although this makes problematical the plain Coleridgean notion of a *willing* suspension of disbelief, we can save the idea of a suspension of disbelief if we accept that it requires the 'external' help of *truthful appearance*. Consider that there are illusionary events that will always appear real to us even though we may successfully oppose to this impression a reflective act which holds us from asserting its verity: it always appears to us that a drinking straw in a glass of water is bent, although we do not believe that it is really bent, thanks to our acquired knowledge of the refraction of light in water, and so on. This means that, despite our capacity of holding our belief in such an illusive impression, we do not have the power to stop its likely appearance, and we must actively cancel its force by a sustained and additional mental effort. So it could be said that there can be a suspension of disbelief, but not in any case we wish: only if there is present a persuasive illusion before which we simply do not oppose a mental effort to cancel its force (the 'willing' aspect would be thereby reduced to a mere elected passiveness in not bringing to mind those considerations that would counteract the impression in terms of its being believed).


Of course, this 'force of appearances' could only explain the conditions and processes by which we are lead to believe a fictional event, but it does not account for the central problem, i.e. why do we not perform in a theatre all the actions expected to be performed by someone literally believing everything he or she sees? It could be argued that what really happens is that we allow ourselves to be frightened up to a 'critical point' when we 'dis-suspend' disbelief by bringing forth external considerations about the fictional nature of what we are seeing. Yet, it does not seem to be a good description of the fictional experience to say that we are constantly feinting to escape the theatre if a monster appears, or go help the heroine if something bad occurs to her; and even less to say that we are constantly disconnecting ourselves from the fiction and realizing how credulous we were; rather, it seems to be the case that, in a typically successful contemplation of a drama or film, we simply lose any memory of ourselves or the theatre from beginning to end, being more likely disconnected from the story by reasons of sheer boredom than by any strong emotion.


That is why we should acknowledge that belief is a complex operation admitting diverse levels of function. Then, in my opinion, the paradox could be addressed in this way: when something with a truthful appearance is shown to us, our mind has the power to suspend disbelief *in relation only to some of its overall functions*. (More precisely, the functions of feeling compassion for another person, of placing ourselves in the position to experiment that other person's thoughts and emotions; for it happens that we get to believe that someone is actually experiencing that which takes place in the fictional piece.) But yet we do not and cannot suspend such disbelief in relation with our kinetic or intellectual responses, in the sense that we do not see our spatial relationship with the fictional elements as a real one, or that, when being asked seriously if we believe what is going one in there, we would clearly say: 'no'. Carroll's objection that the suspension of disbelief retains the paradox by entailing a deep consciousness that the fiction is not real, is not conclusive, for in our point of view the mind is an heterogeneous entity, capable of holding belief in respect of some of its functions and suspend it in relation to others (putting it in a plain Aristotelian fashion, we believe and do not believe in something but not *in the same mental respect*).


Anyone unable to develop a proper distribution of such suspension through the specific variety of our many mental function, would simply fail to appreciate fiction adequately; and this could happen both by not being capable of believing it for any of our functions (an absolute indifference to what is being shown in the fictional medium), or by responding by believing it in *more* than the required functions, as when a maddened Don Quixote attacks a group of chivalric puppets firmly believing they are the real enemies of Christianity.


Such a proposal as is sketched here may sound subtle, but it does not really conflict with the peculiar way our brain separately performs many specialized abilities (as is clearly shown in the focused nature of some perceptive or kinetic disorders related with brain-injury). Moreover, holding a kind of 'double belief' is a familiar experience we have in many instances of ordinary life. Think of cases where we execute actions which only make sense if we believe that it is at least reasonably possible to succeed in their objective, although we are in some level deeply convinced that they are completely pointless, as when we are watching the last minutes of a football match wherein our team is loosing by many goals: very rarely do we turn off the TV set before the final whistle, and there is a sudden and vivid upset when that ending occurs, although a few seconds before we stated with complete sincerity (seconded by our knowledge of the game) that nothing could be done. In such cases, hope makes us irrational, in that it is not settled with the things we do know and believe about the real world, forming a kind of second 'blind' belief simultaneous with our 'intelligent' belief, to the point of seeming to pertain to a second individual inside us. Likewise, we often acknowledge and talk about the fact that we will one day die, but curiously, it is only on rare occasions that this idea actually becomes so vivid and patent that it gets to be depressingly real to us; therefore, before showing that depressing consideration of death, we seemed to have a kind of intellectual belief of the reality of our death, but an inner certainty that our life had no limits.


In conclusion, I think I have shown good reasons for accepting the idea of a suspension of disbelief, although not interpreted as a purely voluntary act, nor as an intermittent inner regulation of our beliefs during the fictional experience, but rather as kind of 'ability' or 'disposition' for producing or holding beliefs in connection with only certain mind-functions; such an ability manifests itself, so to speak, as a capacity to experience what a fictional character would experience of himself if he could see himself somehow detached from his own self, as if witnessing his acts like any other sympathetic person would.


Universidad de Costa Rica

San Jose, Costa Rica





1. Samuel Coleridge, _Biographia Literaria_, vol II (London: Oxford University Press, 1939), p. 6.


2. See Smuts, 'Haunting the House from Within: Disbelief Mitigation and Spatial Experience', _Film Philosophy_, vol 6 no 7, April 2002. <>.


3. Kendall Walton, 'Fearing Fictions', _Journal of Philosophy_, vol. 75 no. 1, January 1978.



Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003



Pablo Ortega-Rodriguez, 'How is Disbelief Suspended?: The Paradox of Fiction and Carroll's _The Philosophy of Horror_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 46, November 2003 <>.



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