Suspension of disbelief

The term Suspension of disbelief or Willing suspension of disbelief has been defined as a "willingness to suspend one's critical faculties and believe something surreal; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment"[1] “A literary term of art referring to one of Aristotle’s principles of theater in which the audience accepts fiction as reality so as to experience a catharsis, or a releasing of tensions to purify the soul”[2]

In the world of fiction you are often required to accept a premise that you would never believe in the real world. Regardless of the genre, sometimes things happen in a story that go beyond the boundaries of what you think could really happen. Thus, in order to enjoy such stories, the audience engages in a phenomenon known as "suspension of disbelief."[3] This is a semi-conscious decision to put aside rational thinking and assume the premise as fact for the duration of the story for the sake of enjoyment.


Poetry and fiction involving the supernatural had gone out of fashion to a large extent in the 18th century, in part due to the declining belief in witches and other supernatural agents among the educated classes, who embraced the rational approach to the world offered by the new science. Alexander Pope, notably, felt the need to explain and justify his use of elemental spirits in The Rape of the Lock, one of the few English poems of the century that invoked the supernatural. The poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge sought to revive the use of fantastic elements in poetry and developed a concept to support how a modern, enlightened audience might continue to enjoy such types of literature.

Coleridge introduced the term suspension of disbelief in 1817 and suggested that if a writer could infuse a "human interest and a semblance of truth" into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative. The term resulted from a philosophical experiment, which Coleridge conducted with William Wordsworth within the context of the creation and reading of poetry. It involved an attempt to explain the supernatural persons or characters so that these creatures of imagination constitute some semblance of truth.[4] in his Biographia Literaria, published in 1817, [5] Chapter XIV describes this collaboration called Lyrical Ballads (first edition 1798), for which Coleridge had contributed the more romantic, Gothic pieces including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In Coleridge also referred to his concept as "poetic faith", citing the concept as a feeling analogous to the supernatural, which awakens the mind.[6]

Coleridge recalled:

... It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. Mr. Wordsworth on the other hand was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us ...[7]

The notion of such an action by an audience was however recognized in antiquity, as seen particularly in the Roman theoretical concerns of Horace, who also lived in an age of increasing skepticism about the supernatural, in his Ars Poetica (with the quotation Ut pictura poesis). According to David Chandler, Coleridge drew his notion from Marcus Tullius Cicero's Historia Critica Philosophiae, which cited the phrase "assensus susepensione" or "suspension of assent".[4]


The traditional concept of the suspension of disbelief as proposed by Coleridge is not about suspending disbelief in the reality of fictional characters or events but the suspension of disbelief in the supernatural.[8] This can be demonstrated in the way the reader suspends his disbelief in ghosts rather the non-fictionality of the ghosts in a story. According to the theory, suspension of disbelief is an essential ingredient for any kind of storytelling.

The phrase "suspension of disbelief" came to be used more loosely in the later 20th century, often used to imply that the burden was on the reader, rather than the writer, to achieve it. This might be used to refer to the willingness of the audience to overlook the limitations of a medium, so that these do not interfere with the acceptance of those premises. These premises may also lend to the engagement of the mind and perhaps proposition of thoughts, ideas, art and theories.[9] With a film, for instance, the viewer has to ignore the reality that they are viewing a staged performance and temporarily accept it as their reality in order to be entertained.

Suspension of disbelief often applies to fictional works of the action, comedy, fantasy, and horror genres. Cognitive estrangement in fiction involves using a person's ignorance to promote suspension of disbelief.[10]

Suspension of disbelief is often an essential element for a magic act or a circus sideshow act. For example, an audience is not expected to actually believe that a woman is cut in half or transforms into a gorilla[11] in order to enjoy the performance.

Black-and-white films provide an obvious early example that audiences are willing to suspend disbelief, no matter how implausible the images appear, for the sake of entertainment. With the exception of totally color blind people (achromats), no person viewing these films sees the real world without color, but some are still willing to suspend disbelief and accept the images in order to be entertained. Suspension of disbelief is also supposed to be essential for the enjoyment of many films and television shows involving complex stunts, special effects, and seemingly unrealistic plots and characterizations.

Examples in literature

Suspension of disbelief is sometimes said to be an essential component of live theater, where it was recognized by Shakespeare, who refers to it in the Prologue to Henry V:

[…] make imaginary puissance […] 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings […] turning the accomplishment of many years into an hourglass.


Psychological critic Norman Holland points to a neuroscientific explanation. When we hear or watch any narrative, our brains go wholly into perceiving mode, turning off the systems for acting or planning to act, and with them go our systems for assessing reality. We have, in Coleridge's second, more accurate phrase, "poetic faith" and so humans have such trouble recognizing lies: they first believe, then have to make a conscious effort to disbelieve.

Only when we stop perceiving to think about what we have seen or heard, only then do we assess its truth-value. If we are really "into" the fiction – "transported", in the psychologists' term – we are, as Immanuel Kant pointed out long ago, "disinterested". We respond aesthetically, without purpose. We do not judge the truth of what we perceive even though if we stop being transported and think about it, we know quite well that it is a fiction.[12][13]

Suspension of disbelief has also been used within a mental health context by Frank DeFulgentis in his book Flux[14]. It is an attempt to describe the phenomenon of forgetting irrational thoughts associated with cases of OCD. In the book, the author suggests 'suspending disbelief' as opposed to forcing ourselves to forget; similar to how one would put a virus in quarantine. We can thereby allow ourselves to be absorbed in the activities around us until these irrationalities vanish on their own accord.


Aesthetic philosophers generally reject claims that suspension of disbelief accurately characterizes the relationship between people and "fictions." Kendall Walton notes that, if viewers were to truly suspend disbelief at a horror movie and accept its images as absolute fact, they would have a true-to-life set of reactions. For instance, audience members would cry out, "Look behind you!" to an endangered on-screen character or call the police when they witnessed an on-screen murder.[15]

Not all authors believe that suspension of the disbelief adequately characterizes the audience's relationship to imaginative works of art. J. R. R. Tolkien challenges this concept in his essay "On Fairy-Stories", choosing instead the paradigm of secondary belief based on inner consistency of reality. Tolkien says that, in order for the narrative to work, the reader must believe that what he reads is true within the secondary reality of the fictional world. By focusing on creating an internally consistent fictional world, the author makes secondary belief possible. Tolkien argues that suspension of disbelief is only necessary when the work has failed to create secondary belief. From that point the spell is broken, and the reader ceases to be immersed in the story and must make a conscious effort to suspend disbelief or else give up on it entirely.[16]

See also


  1. "suspend disbelief (phrase)". Oxford Dictionaries (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. 2018. OCLC 656668849. Archived from the original on 29 July 2018. Retrieved 29 July 2018.
  2. Safire, William (7 October 2007). "William Safire - On Language". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 28 October 2019.
  3. "Suspension of Disbelief". Retrieved 28 October 2019.
  4. Ferri, Anthony J. (2007). Willing Suspension of Disbelief: Poetic Faith in Film. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books. pp. 6, 7. ISBN 9780739117781.
  5. Safire, William. On Language; Suspension of Disbelief. New York Times. 7 October 2007.
  6. Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (1834). Biographia Literaria: Or, Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions. New York: Leavitt, Lord & Company. p. 175.
  7. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 1817, Chapter XIV
  8. Kivy, Peter (2011). Once-Told Tales: An Essay in Literary Aesthetics. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons. p. 100. ISBN 9780470657676.
  9. Welkos, Robert W. (15 April 1993). "From 'King Kong' to 'Indecent Proposal,' audiences have been asked to buy a premise that can make – or break – a film". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 24 October 2010.
  10. Buchanan, Ian (2010). A Dictionary of Critical Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199532919.
  11. Botos, Tim (21 August 2008). "'Gorilla Girl' sideshow act hangs on despite changing times". GateHouse News Service; Patriot Ledger. Retrieved 15 October 2012.
  12. Holland, Norman (2008). "Spiderman? Sure! The Neuroscience of Disbelief". Interdisciplinary Science Reviews. 33 (4): 312–320. Retrieved 28 April 2014.
  13. Holland, Norman. "Literature and the Brain". PsyArt. Retrieved 28 April 2014.
  14. DeFulgentis, Frank (2009). "Flux: A Strategy Guide For OCD". OCDNation. Retrieved 1 June 2019.
  15. "Fearing Fictions", Kendall L. Walton, JSTOR (The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 75, No. 1 (01-1978), pp. 5–27). Retrieved 3 January 2007.
  16. Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy-Stories.” The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, George Allen & Unwin, 1983, pp. 109–61.
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