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The Silence of the Lambs: Suspense & Surprise

by Gerald Pesta

This clip from The Silence of the Lambs (1991) illustrates the narrative devices of suspense and surprise. Alfred Hitchcock wrote an article titled “The Enjoyment of Fear” which was published in the February 1949 issue of Good Housekeeping. The following quotes from Hitchcock’s article are helpful here in delineating the differences between suspense and surprise.

“On the screen, terror is induced by surprise; suspense, by forewarning.”

“It is obvious from the above that suspense and terror cannot coexist. To the extent that the audience is aware of the menace or danger to the people it is watching—that is, to the extent that suspense is created—so is its surprise (or terror) at the eventual materialization of the indicated danger diminished. This poses a pretty problem for the director and for the writer of a motion picture. Shall the terror be diminished to enhance the suspense; or shall all suspense be eliminated by making the surprise complete and the terror as shocking to the audience as to the fictional participants?”

“The terror-suspense dilemma is normally resolved by compromise. There are several situations in a motion picture; the ordinary, and I think best, practice is to play most of the situations for suspense and a few for terror. Suspense is more enjoyable than terror, actually, because it is a continuing experience and attains a peak crescendo-fashion; while terror, to be truly effective, must come all at once, like a bolt of lightning, and is more difficult, therefore, to savor.”

“Remember our rule: terror by surprise, suspense by forewarning.”

The film’s plot alternates between two lines of action: Clarice Starling and the FBI as they search for Buffalo Bill (line of action A) and Buffalo Bill’s abduction and abuse of Catherine Martin (line of action B). These two lines of action converge in this sequence. As the FBI agents surround a home in Illinois, which they believe to be Buffalo Bill’s lair, we see shots of Buffalo Bill inside his home, and assume that the FBI is preparing to breach his home. This section of the sequence utilizes suspense. But when Buffalo Bill opens his front door and we see Clarice, not the FBI team, we are struck with a feeling of terror — a sharp moment of surprise occurs, because we expect one thing, but get something else. After this moment of surprise passes, the sequence shifts back into a mode of suspense, because we now fear for Clarice’s safety as she slowly discovers that she is face to face with Buffalo Bill. The suspense builds as Clarice enters the labyrinth of rooms in the basement and reaches a peak crescendo when Clarice fires her weapon, thus bringing down Buffalo Bill and instilling the audience with a feeling of catharsis.

The Silence of the Lambs: Suspense & Surprise

In this clip from The Silence of the Lambs (1991) Clarice Starling meets Buffalo Bill. The sequence utilizes suspense and surprise to build tension.

from The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Creator: Jonathan Demme
Posted by Gerald Pesta