Keep Me in Suspense

I love a good chill down the spine. Not over-the-top terrors or the in-your-face frights that movies have pushed in the last couple decades. There’s no subtlety in those scares. It takes real artistry to build suspense.

Recently my boys and I were watching The Birds (my youngest son is nearly 13) and there’s one scene in particular that builds delicious tension. A character is sitting on a bench; in the background is a set of monkey bars. As she gazes off-screen, we see birds start to gather. Cut away, come back – there are a few more. Cut away again and when the camera returns, the playground is dark with hundreds of ominous crows, only she doesn’t yet know it. That is real suspense.

Children love a good scary story, but not too scary. It can be tricky, I know. Where’s the line? It really depends upon the child. My youngest son thought The Birds was rather silly. His brothers felt the same way a few years ago watching the original Dracula – did you know there’s an armadillo in his Transylvanian basement? That made it hard to keep a straight face. On the other hand, my kindergarten-age daughter finds Madeleine cartoons almost too tense to bear.

But, factoring in age-appropriateness, a shivery tale can be fun to share as a family. There’s something tremendously comforting to a child to be watching or listening to something suspenseful in the protective presence of mom or dad. Then when the big sigh of relief comes, it’s so connecting to catch your child’s eye and share a mutual grin that says that was fun!

To do that, we’ve got to know our children’s limits. And be ready to turn off or stop reading something that’s creating real anxiety. That means you’ll have to be experiencing the story with your child. Suspenseful moments in stories, shared together, help to reinforce to children that times of uncertainty in life are momentary. Storms are usually followed by sunshine.

So forget those big, bloody scares. Go for the greater fun of subtle suspense.

Bruce Van Patter

all material ©2005 Bruce Van Patter