Comparisons of 9.11 with digital disasters in blockbuster films abound. The collapse of the Twin Towers was quickly linked to film scenes such as the destruction of the White House by aliens in Independence Day. In staging such sensational acts of destruction for the media, Al Qaeda terrorists also participate, of course, in the Western capitalist spectacle they profess to abhor. Terrorism’s role within the spectacle has been imaginatively conceptualized in Retort’s Afflicted Powers. But as Guy Debord argued, this ‘inconceivable foe’ is also constructed by the West itself: ‘the story of terrorism is written by the state’.footnote1 What remains underdeveloped is the analysis of the ‘perpetual present’ of the contemporary spectacle through which that tale is told, and the temporal politics which constitute it. This present is ruled by media events, structured in turn by a dialectic of suspense and surprise; it is through their manipulation of time that the larger historical picture is obscured. Under threat of terrorism, bloody surprises are accompanied by a sustained—or sometimes nagging, low-key—suspense, that can be perpetuated for weeks, months or even years on end. Historically, twentieth-century filmmakers took cues from terrorism when perfecting their production of suspense and surprise. Today those engaged in the production and mediation of ‘terror’ and ‘war on terror’ appear as savvy manipulators of people’s experience of time, masters of the bad infinity of that present in which nothing ever happens.

In various texts and interviews, published over the course of several decades, Alfred Hitchcock developed what might be called a poetics of suspense and surprise. In his conversations with François Truffaut, Hitchcock illustrated this opposition in graphic terms:

We are having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has to be an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there.

Hitchcock always insisted that the latter situation was preferable. ‘In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second case we have given them fifteen minutes of suspense’.footnote2 Suspense, then, is more value for money, more time for money: it stretches time. Contrary to many suspense situations that involve real danger, the suspense experienced in the context of a film is usually a pleasurable one, the time-stretching desirable. The audience is asked to identify with the people who are in peril; editing and the use of ‘point-of-view’ shots are crucial for establishing this identification. Only when the public cares about the protagonist can suspense arise—but then, suspense also has the habit of creating sympathy for the characters involved no matter who they are; if Hitler were the potential victim, the audience could still be prodded to identify with him.

Hitchcock’s musings on suspense and surprise were repeated many times, with some interesting variations. While the term suspense stands alone, the term surprise is sometimes replaced by shock; in a late text, the explosion of the bomb under the proverbial table without forewarning is said to generate ‘five or ten seconds of shock’.footnote3 The trailer for Psycho announced the film as a ‘shocker’ while that for The Birds promised ‘suspense and shock beyond anything you have ever seen or imagined’—indicating that Hitchcock’s preference for suspense was not as principled as he would have had us believe.footnote4 He knew that it was not a question of choosing between two mutually exclusive options; rather than one or the other in isolation, it is the dialectic of suspense and surprise that is fundamental to his filmmaking. Hitchcock’s status as ‘master of suspense’ derives largely from his expert manipulation of this dialectic. In Psycho, for instance, the murder of Marion in the shower comes as a complete surprise (for ‘innocent’ viewers), leading to a new build-up of suspense once her lover and sister start investigating her disappearance, and yet another drastic shock at the film’s climax.