The Willing Suspension of Disbelief

As those of you who have been returning to Celluloid Zombie over the last few months might have noticed, my site has become something of a barren wasteland, starved of shiny new content and increasingly reliant on dusty old posts and hapless passers-by. Truth is I’ve been gut-wrenchingly busy lately and just haven’t been able to find enough of your Earth minutes to sit down and write new stuff. I need minions but unfortunately they’re too expensive. So, failing that, my good friend, fellow writer and proprietor of the entertaining Conjuring My Muse, Margaret Reyes Dempsey, has kindly offered to donate a blog post to the cause.



For many of us who read novels or watch movies in genres that are outside the realm of “this could happen in real life,” there is a willing suspension of disbelief before we enter the theater or open the cover of a book (or press whichever Kindle button). We’re excited. We’re ready to be entertained. And we participate in the experience by opening ourselves to what realists would call the impossible.

In an instant, vampires and zombies walk our streets. Strategic great whites have a place in our oceans. A writer and his guests encounter aliens at his cabin in the woods and we not only accept it, we’re chilled to the bone.

It seems so easy and natural to let go of reality and believe the incredible. Then, all of a sudden, some trivial detail rears its ugly head and we are blasted out of the zone. At least, that’s been my experience, but this is where the kind host of Celluloid Zombie and I disagree and begin yet another heated debate.

Case in point: I watched the first two episodes of The Walking Dead – Season 2 on Sunday night and was enjoying it. Their RV is stranded on the highway, death and devastation visible for miles in either direction. Still, the guy on the roof of the RV is using binoculars and that’s okay with me. You can’t be too cautious with hungry zombies roaming the earth. But then, he raises the binoculars to his eyes again and gasps. The camera angle shifts and there are 300 zombies in view…a mere 10 feet in front of him. Did 300 slowly shuffling and loudly grunting zombies materialize out of thin air? Did no one see them coming? Smell them? Hear them? Come on! I laughed out loud and threw a piece of popcorn across the room at the TV, which my cat gobbled and then coughed up with a hair ball. (Okay, that last part is just a bit of gory fiction.)

The fact is, the inattention to detail grabbed me right out of the moment, and the suspense that I had been enjoying up until that point lost some momentum. Some 3500 miles away as the crow flies, Rich is screaming over a static-filled Skype connection. “You have no problem believing in 300 zombies but the manner in which they show up is a deal breaker???”

I wouldn’t say it’s a deal breaker because I did enjoy both episodes. However, I’m unable to gloss over stupid stuff like that. Especially when it happens twice in the same episode.

Another example of things that can make me willingly unsuspend disbelief can be found in the movie Hereafter, a two hour and ten minute film that follows the lives of three people dealing with mortality. Despite wonderful performances by Matt Damon, Bryce Dallas Howard (wasted in a go-nowhere role), and the McLaren twins, this movie could not be redeemed. Afflicted by bloated, plotless scenes and poor pacing, it is slow and sleepy. And pausable. Yes, I admit two-thirds of the way through, with nothing much going on yet, I paused to get a snack. But the moment that turned what was supposed to be a serious movie into a comedy was the opening scene. Oh no!

On vacation with her lover, journalist Marie Lelay steps out to buy souvenirs and gets swept away by the Indian Ocean tsunami. Just before it hits, she purchases a bracelet for a dollar from a woman and her young daughter. (We won’t question why the merchant requests dollars instead of, say, rupiah or why a French woman on vacation there would happen to have dollars in her possession.) Suddenly, there’s a deafening roar and palm trees snap in the distance. (For a moment, I thought I was watching an episode of Lost.) The impressive special effects result in genuine horror as the huge wave comes into view. The journalist grabs the little girl’s hand and they run, but the wave takes them down. She claws at the water and air with both hands, trying to recover the child but it’s no use. Seconds later, she gets caught on something underwater and rips herself free only to be knocked unconscious by debris.

All is working for me until Director Clint Eastwood decides to go for the nice shot and has her slowly open her hand as she sinks in the water, allowing the bracelet to float free. The bracelet? She was still hanging on to that bracelet? That meant when she was stuck underwater, minutes from drowning, she kept one hand tightly closed around the bracelet and tried to free herself with just the fingers of her other hand? Right. For this, Clint, you are unforgiven. As the bracelet floats to the surface, it’s as perfect looking as the moment she bought it. That’s one well-made bracelet and what a bargain at only a dollar.

Once again, Rich responded to my emailed rants with e-laughter and an e-shake of the head.

So, I ask, do any of you out there ever have challenges suspending disbelief and staying in the zone?

28 people thought reading “The Willing Suspension of Disbelief” was a good idea. They even said stuff about it.

  1. Deborah on

    I have to say, it drives me crazy. but then, I usually have trouble watching zombie movies and shows altogether, because I have a lot of trouble wrapping my head around “Why?” And honestly, “viral outbreak” doesn’t do it for me. On the other hand, as I have recently learned, one is supposed to embrace zombieism without asking too many questions.

    But even on shows I love dearly, like Game of Thrones, I keep finding myself asking questions like: okay, but what’s on the REST of the world? And how come some people sound like they have Eastern European accents? On the other hand, the frozen zombies on Game of Thrones don’t bother me at all, go figure.

    • Margaret Reyes Dempsey on

      I haven’t watched Game of Thrones, but your question about the Eastern European accents made me chuckle.

      After reading your post about your zombie adventures in Asbury Park, I’m wondering if the undead will make an appearance in your creativity book. Hope the writing is going well. I can’t wait to read it.

  2. Lenore on

    Yes, yes and yes. We don’t have cable, so I am watching The Walking Dead via Netflix, which means I am only in Season 1. I am trying to like it, because I have heard so many rave reviews. Unfortunately, I can’t get past some of the scenes. Can zombies climb fire escape ladders or not? If they are dumb (ie dead), how do they know a rock breaks a window? Why is it they can run fast sometimes but not other times?
    What frustrates me more than the stupidity in the show, though, is when others watching the show with me point out the stupidity. I won’t deny the stupidity – but saying it out loud makes it worse. It is much harder to ignore when the words are spoken out loud.
    And Hereafter? I wanted to like it, but I was bored easily – I didn’t finish the movie. I remember the bracelet scene. In hindsight, that bracelet should have broken. 🙂

  3. Huffygirl on

    Hello Margaret, Now I finally know who “Richard” is. I agree with you that unprobable moments can ruin the whole movie or episode. I’ve been watching the new Fox show “Tera Nova.” The people have gone back in time to live when there were dinosaurs. I can live with that part. They have our current technology and wisdom, yet the built this pathetic little fence to keep the dinosaurs out. Really. There’s no force field or anything. Just a low fence with big gaps between the slats. The dinosarus they are worried about could take it out in seconds. Sigh. Could have been good except for that.

    • Margaret Reyes Dempsey on

      Oops, I guess I should have made that clearer on my blog. Yes, Richard is Celluloid Zombie.

      I watched about 10 minutes of Terra Nova and just didn’t get involved. I think I’m out of TV-viewing mode. I’m feeling very restless lately, so they have about 7 minutes to capture my attention before I go get another snack and switch channels.

  4. Jess Witkins on

    I do the same thing you do, Margaret. I remember watching both Walking Dead and Hereafter going “What?!” in those exact scenes. I still liked them! But you’re right, it does take away from the moment you as director are trying so hard to create for your audience. The same can go for books. When my book club recently read The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown, there were several parts where we got caught up in a debate over whether it was a plausible time for him to survive/solve a code, etc. It’s one thing if you can keep watching/reading, but it’s not good if it makes you stop altogether in frustration. I bet Clint wasn’t thinking, “And here’s where I want my viewers to get a snack during my epic film about the afterlife.” I’m paraphrasing, but you know.

    • Margaret Reyes Dempsey on

      Exactly, Jess. I don’t know which moment you mean in The Lost Symbol but your question about whether it was a plausible time made me remember another moment in The Walking Dead that didn’t ring true emotionally. I don’t want to ruin it just in case some haven’t watched the second episode yet, but it was the part that was highly charged emotionally where one of the characters kept wanting to leave to inform someone of something instead of staying where they were very much needed. Got it? 😉 Stampeding bulls couldn’t have dragged me from that room.

  5. Lisa Creech Bledsoe on

    I’m a weenie when it comes to movies — don’t give me anything with stress. HOWEVER, a really bad horror film might work for me. I would have fun going “Oh, pleeeeze!” and throwing popcorn at the screen. But I think I like reading about horror films better than actually watching horror films. So, thanks for the post! These are precisely the things that would make me nuts in any film!! And what fun they are to note!

  6. Helen on

    I’m willing to give any premise the benefit of the doubt, no matter how outlandish it is; however once the ground rules have been established I want to see them followed. To use your example, I willingly suspend disbelief about the existence of zombies in a zombie movie, but I do not accept a horde of zombies rampaging in one scene and moving with ninja-like stealth in the next.

  7. Melinda on

    You’re so right. Just one slight error and you leave that magical land. In my opinion, Harry Potter is the best example of being able to create that feeling that is could all be real without ever having one of those moments.

  8. Val on

    Oh yes, frequently. For instance, i’ve been rewatching the British series Robin Hood on DVD for the past couple of weeks and in the episode I watched last night the outlaws were escaping from an otherwise locked room – down a toilet. Um… in the middle ages, they had a toilet? It was a raised platform with a hinged lid going down to a shute and sewage below. But I mean this is meant to be the middle ages. But then… then I looked at Wiki (the fount of all knowledge… oh please…) and found the history of the toilet. (Sorry Richard, I’m kinda making your blog a bit mucky here…) So the laugh’s on me, now.

    Maybe the Zombies were cloaked in fog, which muffles sound, distorts smell and… and… no, you’re right Margaret, I agree with you. And Clint needs shooting. Get me a magnum!

  9. Shawn on

    I will admit to moments like this ruining movies for me as well.
    I describe it as “I am willing to accept the impossible, not the improbable.”
    An example being that I am willing to accept that a Superman can fly, but not that he can lift a boat without it snapping in half due to established physics.

    • Margaret Reyes Dempsey on

      Due to a notifications glitch, I’ve just been notified that there are additional comments here. Sorry for the delay in responding.

      Shawn, I like the way you put that and I agree. I have no problem buying into stuff that doesn’t really exist, but I require that the laws of the physical universe aren’t mucked with, unless of course that is the intention of the movie in the first place.

  10. Charles Gulotta on

    I agree with you, Margaret. Even within an implausible story, the plot has to hold together plausibly. At the same time, I also realize how it ruins the movie for everyone else in the room when I’m pleading for logic and gesturing to the screen with outstretched hands. It’s just that after investing so much mental energy into that suspension of disbelief, I don’t want to end up feeling cheated.

    • Margaret Reyes Dempsey on

      Ah, Charles, a fellow movie-ruiner. I’ve never understood people who scream and talk to their TVs during sports matches. So, when I start screaming at the director or the actors and flinging popcorn across the room, you know it’s bad.

  11. Allan Douglas on

    Yes, Agreed, AMEN!

    I’m not into zombies or vampires but I love a good sci-fi tale (that’s *Science* fiction, not horror wearing an aline costume) and I have little trouble suspending the knowledge that we can not (currently) do “that” for the duration of a good book or movie. But, stumbling blocks like those you mentioned – discontinuities – ruin the flow of the story.

    Why is it that every alien species encountered by Star Trek spoke English? Yes, of course the Universal Translator. By why do we never see anyone using the Universal Translator? And how can it possibly, instantaneously translate the language of a race never before encountered? Because the producers have 47 minutes of air time to tell their story and can not waste time on the cast learning a new language.

    It’s one of those trade-off things that you have to accept in addition to the suspension of the knowledge that humans have not yet ventured past our own moon, much less gone trekking among the stars. Sometimes it’s a side stepping hop and it goes on, sometimes it causes the story to trip and fall on it’s face.

    • Margaret Reyes Dempsey on

      You made me chuckle with “…not horror wearing an alien costume.” I never really watched Star Trek, so I can’t comment. I think I may have been able to accept that the Universal Translator was dealt with off-stage.

      Many of my issues are human-related. Like the abundance of scenes in TV shows or movies with men chatting at urinals for extended periods of time with no “sounds of nature.” Why????? Why must a urinal be a setting in the first place?

      Then there is the HORROR of the lack of handwashing…and then the inevitable handshake with some unwitting soul once they leave the bathroom…and by then, I’m a mess and can’t even remember what I’ve been watching. 😉


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