In his first book on film, Willing Suspension of Disbelief: Poetic Faith in Film, Anthony J. Ferri, associate professor in the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies, seeks to explain the origin and application of the notion of willing suspension of disbelief to film viewing.
Ferri explores a variety of critical and empirical perspectives devoted to shedding light on the phrase, which was coined by English poet, critic, and essayist Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817.
“People have used the phrase ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ without knowing its author or origins,” Ferri notes. “I had heard the phrase used widely, mostly by film theorists and filmmakers, but I had no idea where it came from – like most people, I suspect. So I researched it and found that little scholarly study had been conducted on the subject relative to film.”
Coleridge, perhaps best known for the poem “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” first used the phrase in his Biographia Literaria.
“I began to think about why a 19th century poet’s phrase would be used to explain what happens in a film theater,” says Ferri, who notes the concept is robust enough to apply to all artistic works, including poetry, film, and even nonfiction. “It is testament to the durability of the phrase that it applies to film–a medium that hadn’t even been invented when the phrase was introduced.”
Ferri became interested in how the idea could be applied in contemporary media, particularly film.
“As I read more by and about Coleridge, it was clear that he was interested in audience cognition and perception – even though there was no ‘science’ on these subjects at the time,” he says.
Ferri, who has researched audience perception in other media-viewing contexts, chronicles Coleridge’s life and describes the thinking that led the poet to introduce the concept. He goes on to trace contemporary usage and notes that the “staying power of the phrase shows how intrigued we are by what happens when we view a film.”
Ferri identifies a common theme in the theories on the film-viewing experience, suggesting that viewers who become absorbed in a film are transported in a way that engages their “emotions and very sense of reality for the moment.”
He applies the notion of transport to a number of films and discusses what elements lull the viewer into this state. He goes on to assert that the suspension of disbelief is, in fact, a measurable reaction to a film – a contention born out in his 1999 study of local movie theater patrons.
In it, he surveyed audience members to gauge the degree to which “they lost themselves” in the movie they had viewed. He notes that the study confirmed what could be called conventional wisdom about the film-viewing experience: Those who were most willing to suspend disbelief were more likely to feel the characters in the film were real and that the storyline was believable.
Ferri, who studied film-making in college, views this work as a baseline study and hopes to continue researching the subject. He is interested in pursuing several related projects, among them, one in which he would partner with neuroimaging researchers to determine what physiological changes occur in the brain when willing suspension of disbelief occurs.
“There is much more to understand about this concept,” Ferri says. “This amazing 19th century poet gave us a brilliant idea to explore. I hope to contribute to a wider understanding of its contemporary uses.”