Have you ever been in a car accident? It doesn’t have to be anything dramatic; it can just have been a little bump while you were sitting at a red light or someone trying to merge into your lane without looking first. Though the example still works, probably better, when you’ve been in the kind of metal crunching, glass breaking accident where what you hear, multiple times, is: “how did you walk away from that?” What all car accidents have in common, and the point I’m trying to get at, is that no matter how large, there is a moment of confusion.

At the point right when something goes wrong, you are quite unaware of what’s going on, or that something has, in fact, gone wrong at all. It’s right when bumper hits bumper, or the car slides on the ice, or when the tail-over-tea-kettle rolling happens. These can last for just a second or until the hospital doctor goes through the extensive list of broken bones and internal bleeding you have.   

This is what I like to call simple confusion.

Simple confusion most often happens in the wild, as it were, springing out at you like a freight train lying in wait behind some bushes. A characteristic of simple confusion is that it is in no way entertaining. Yes, you may laugh after walking away from that bike jump you knew shouldn’t have taken, and physics proves you right, but that isn’t an entertained laugh. That’s the happiness you feel of not having to use a wheelchair for the remainder of your life.

Where you don’t want to find simple confusion is in a movie. It’s a bane to storytelling because simple confusion, by definition, is a complete lack of knowledge of the situation at hand.

This isn’t to say that movies shouldn’t have confused moments in them. It can be a powerful storytelling tool. The trick is information control, what I like to call complex confusion.

Perhaps a better name would be crafted confusion, but it wouldn’t work as well with the contrasting, adversarial title of this article. Complex confusion is a situation where one has a partial grasp of the situation, but specific information is withheld in order to build tension or suspense.

Plenty of movies get this right, and plenty of movies get this wrong. Let’s take a look at a good example of each from two related movies.

Not too long ago, at time of writing, a movie called Underwater was released into the world, although a better word for us getting this movie would probably be “burdened.” “Inflicted” would work too. This is a dead giveaway of my opinion of Underwater, but to clarify, it was a mess of a movie trying to incorporate elements of a better movie without the proper set-up, and shoehorning in C’thulhu in a cheap attempt to cage the cosmic horror audience.

Underwater, in a short plot overview, is about the remaining crew of a deep underwater drilling platform trying to reach the surface after a disaster, encountering horrific creatures along the way. It is, in many ways, a rip-off of Alien, set underwater. But let’s leave the bashing of its derivative nature behind and move on to bashing the movie’s attempt at using confusion.

Being deep underwater, much of the movie occurs in the dark. Darkness is a good way to create confusion in a horror movie, if used properly. It’s much like cilantro in that respect: a little can shake up a bland recipe, but too much and it’s overwhelming. 

It’s easy to think that it’s just filming things in the dark which creates this tension and suspense, but it’s more about how you control the information the audience visually receives. Not much, but just enough to have an idea of what’s happening to give a taste of the horror that could potentially happen. With this technique, complex confusion forces the viewer to use their imagination, which will supply far more frightening things than any movie could because it is tailor made to each person’s definition of fear.

That isn’t to say Underwater fails in all instances. There are elements of “monster in the dark” that they film sufficiently, but far more that are ruined by a desire to make the audience confused as much as possible. Not only is it dark, and the character involved has an insufficient flashlight, there is also debris, water bubbles, and a crumbling environment. Too many times the screen is filled with just debris of the collapsing drilling structure, with the mass of bubbles it creates, and the camera following a tumbling character–in other words, simple confusion. The viewer doesn’t know what’s happening or where they’re at. In the situation itself, it would be quite frightening, but when watching from a theater seat or the safety of one’s living room, it’s just a mess. Since the viewer is still able to think clearly, it takes one out of the experience, creating frustrating questions like “where are we at?” and “what is even happening?”

Now, let’s take a look at the movie this is trying to emulate like an uncoordinated kitten trying to emulate the battle-hardened tiger it sees on the Discovery Channel: Alien.

Alien is a masterclass of using correctly-applied information restriction to create complex confusion. For instance, take what is probably the most famous scene in the movie (and one of the most famous in the history of film): the Chest Burster scene.

All of the characters are sitting around the dinner table in the canteen on their ship, right after one of their coworkers, Kane, has recovered after having some kind of alien (a facehugger) attached to his face.

They’re all talking and joking and eating, mirroring an earlier, similar scene, but there are subtle differences. Everyone seems a bit too cheery, trying to get themselves, and Kane, over the tension of the past day when the facehugger was attached to him. Across the table, the science officer, Ash, and the one that would have the most knowledge about this situation, is watching Kane just a little too closely.

Then, in the middle of everything, Kane starts coughing. This turns into what everyone thinks is a seizure. The crew put Kane on the table, holding him, trying to keep him from flailing and harming himself (not what you’re supposed to do, but give them a break, this was filmed in the ’70’s). This continues for a few seconds, then Kane screams, there’s a wet, bony crack, blood stains the chest of his shirt, then BAM!, a suspiciously phallic alien thing bursts out of his chest.

Everyone (save the dead Kane) freezes, still processing what just happened, blood covering many of them, then zoom!, the penis creature is off and gone.

Looking at that scene in an analytical way, it’s easy to see how complex confusion was used to create the tension, surprise, and horror of the scene.

Firstly, the audience suspects that Kane is a marked man. The facehugger, after being attached the previous day, resists removal, and having an appendage shoved down his throat, just suddenly drops off dead. It isn’t over, and the audience knows it, just like the characters are subconsciously worried about. But the audience doesn’t know exactly what is going to happen, just that something, based on what they’ve seen, is. It isn’t that something random is going to happen at a random time for the sake of surprise or conveniently troubling the characters, this has been properly built up: the happy little tense dinner is going to be interrupted, it’s going to be of alien origin due to the facehugger being on Kane’s face, and Kane himself has a vague yet specific Sword of Damoclese hanging above him.

There are other examples from Alien alone that could be brought up, such as when the ship’s captain, Dallas, is traversing the air ducts of the ship with an ad hoc flamethrower, searching for the alien while the crew directs him using a crude radar device. The point is that Alien controls what information you have, creating complex confusion, that makes one tense and suspenseful. The filming is murky and in unfamiliar locations, but it isn’t just things dumped on you all at once in an orgy of activity.  

Simple and complex confusion are easy to, well, confuse. The line that separates them might be summed up as one word: experience. It’s a disconnect between what is being seen and what is being experienced, related to the way that people get motion sickness. A filmmaker might think that if they were in their character’s shoes, what is happening would be frightening or suspenseful. The problem is, the viewers aren’t the characters. We are seeing this through a medium; safe, comfortable, and with cheese puff dust clinging to our fingers.

With motion sickness, the result from this disconnect is vomiting over the side of a ship at sea. With simple confusion in movies, it’s frustration. Both are anathema to having a good experience, but only with motion sickness does one get the catharsis of throwing up partially digested buffet shrimp. Which, in my opinion, makes the frustration far worse.

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