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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Suspension of Disbelief

Officer Claims UFO Sighting
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I was watching a programme called Mystery Maps on television tonight in which a psychologist mentioned the role of "Suspension of disbelief" in people who see ghosts or witness UFOs and suppose them to be aliens. In other words, their readiness to believe is so heightened by being in a suitably spooky environment such as a dark wood and having recently seen a film about aliens, even the most innocent of sightings of a light will be interpreted as something other worldly. The term "Suspension of disbelief" was coined by Samuel Coleridge Taylor in 1817 as a necessary condition for any narrative be it film, novel, play or even just a nursery tale. We have to disregard the fact that we are actually only seeing flickering images on a screen or reading some very abridged description of the world, or even that we are hearing something utterly preposterous.  In the theatre world suspension of disbelief is our stock in trade; the audience are required to believe that this is not a stage but the battlements of a Danish castle, that this person is not an actor but is Hamlet Prince of Denmark, that he is experiencing genuine emotions not that he is just reciting lines of text.  Some people find suspension of disbelief a tricky idea and cannot become totally immersed in the play, but the vast majority of people will.  I would go as far as to say it is an inherent capacity in the human make up. Quite why that should be, I can't say, but after years of playing with it, I know it does work.

This is an example that happened in a play I was directing and it still astonishes me to this day.  We were performing a quite serious version of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. It was written by a very clever playwright, Jem Barnes. In the particular scene I am thinking of, Doctor Frankenstein is in his laboratory.  He has just animated the creature who is still lying on the experiment table.  Suddenly, there is a knock at the door.  Not wanting anyone to see this abomination, the Doctor covers the creature with a sheet before going to open the door. It is a colleague who wants to know what Frankenstein is up to.  Frankenstein is loath to tell him.  Eventually the visitor goes to the table and snatches up the sheet but the creature has vanished. At this point there was always a gasp from the audience and after the show people would ask how the disappearance was engineered.

Here's how it worked.  We were a small company of four actors and so everyone had to play several parts. In order that these changes of character didn't appear comical, they were done in full view of the audience. No clever lighting effects, just actors changing roles.  In this scene the same actor was playing the creature and Frankenstein's colleague.  He was lying on the table when Frankenstein covered him with a sheet. There is a knock at the door. The actor then stands up in full view of the audience, replaces the sheet and then walks round the set to enter from the other side as the colleague.  It is he who crosses to the table and is astonished when there is nothing there.  The point is that the audience became so used to the convention of role swapping that somehow they edited it out of their consciousness.  They had immersed themselves in the story and their suspension of disbelief was total.

In other words the audience had chosen to follow the artificial narrative and disregard the patent, obvious truth that the actor had just walked from one place to another.  I can believe utterly that there is a parallel effect at work with sightings of UFOs and ghosts.  We see what we choose to see. It is still a genuine experience, we really have seen a ghost but the reality is that of a narrative not of the measurable everyday world.  The programme also pointed out that numbers of sightings of UFOs always coincide with the release of alien films at the cinema. A reasonable explanation as far as I'm concerned and that's from someone who has seen a ghost in a theatre.  But that's another story altogether.


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