The unofficial psychology blog from Paul Hutchings

The fine line between ‘mysterious’ and ‘annoying’

TV programmes often make me think, but BBC’s ‘Hidden’ didn’t make me think until I’d calmed down from being extremely angry about it! I had enjoyed the first three episodes and about half of the final episode. About 10 minutes from the end I remember thinking to myself ‘they’re going to really have to go some to explain all of the holes and mysterious bits and pieces in this one’. Then… they didn’t bother. So something I had enjoyed suddenly made me disappointed and angry that I had wasted time, and I felt like I hadn’t enjoyed it at all.

As I have thought about it afterwards it has struck me what a strange sensation this is – having enjoyed the individual parts but then for the sum of those parts to lead to a feeling of disappointment. My view of the whole thing had changed. That is what made me think about this issue of mystery and why we enjoy it so much, and how a need for closure fits with this.

Mysteries and thrillers have been a mainstay of books and film for years. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on why people love them so much, but I would imagine that the opportunity to engage with the story, to mentally challenge themselves with murder and mystery from the comfort of a seat, will have something to do with it. At the same time, we don’t want the frustration of mystery for the sake of mystery – there has to be a payoff somewhere. If Agatha Christie had written about some fiendishly clever murder and, at the end of the book, Hercule Poirot had said ‘well I haven’t got a clue’ and waltzed off into the sunset, it is highly likely that the name of Agatha Christie wouldn’t mean a thing to us now. We want the closure of an explanation – not completely, we don’t necessarily need things spelt out to us; but we need something that seems reasonably satisfying. Similarly, whilst Jack Bauer being tied to a bomb in 24 is fine when it is part of a series and will be resolved the following week, doing the same thing to James Bond and asking people to come back to watch the next film/read the next book in a couple of years time seems to be psychologically unacceptable.

In psychology there is an argument that some people have more of a need for closure than others (Kruglanski et al., 1993). Those with a high need for closure dislike ambiguity and like outcomes to be reasonably certain. It made me wonder how these people deal with programmes which use ambiguity as a tool – how would someone high in need for closure feel about a programme such as 24 which used cliffhangers at the end of each episode as a mainstay of their programme creation? How would they deal with something such as The Soprano’s infamous ‘cut to black’ at the end of the last episode?

Most films and books have these closure issues – at the end the victors ride off into the sunset and we don’t particularly care what happens next, as long as the part of the story we were introduced to is dealt with to our satisfaction. I was watching a horror film last week where the heroine killed the demon child by locking it into a car boot in a river – and as the camera cut away at the end I thought ‘ok, but how are you going to explain that body in the boot to the police when they dredge the car up?’ – I’m not sure what that says about my need for closure!

None of this can be used as a defence for Hidden – there is a difference between creating something mysterious and creating something so full of holes that you could fit a herd of elephants through (for example, the only reason the main female character was trying to find out about the bad guys was because they tried to kill her in case she found out about them! ). It is a balancing act creating something which plays on our need for mystery and our need for closure, and one which has been got right by many authors and TV/film-makers. I think I will do a bit of exploring about this issue of cognitive closure and TV preference though.

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Categorised in: General Musings, Psychology

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