Breaking the Fourth Wall vs. Suspension of Disbelief

When you and I watch a movie, we are voyeurs, looking into the on-screen world of people who don’t know we’re watching. We can sympathize, laugh, and judge them while we’re safe from similar scrutiny.

In order to enjoy our on-screen fantasies, we also unknowingly engage in what’s called suspension of disbelief. This is the simple act of accepting what you see and forgetting what is real for the story to unfold. If we didn’t engage in this, there would be no fiction, because you wouldn’t be able to get engrossed in a story. Characters and plots must follow basic in-universe rules, but just about anything goes.

It is when the character  looks directly at the camera and speaks to the audience that something shifts. It’s wrong., unnatural. There’s something a little frightening about being called out by fictional characters. They know we’re here!

That’s breaking the fourth wall.

What is the fourth wall (and how do we break it)?

The fourth wall has its roots in theater. Scenes take place on stage with three real walls, created by the dimensions of the performing space or the set.  The fourth wall is the imaginary one that separates actors from the audience. The terminology carried over into the realm of film. The screen is the fourth wall, and characters usually shouldn’t break that invisible barrier.

“Breaking the fourth wall” is an example of a meta-reference, in which characters acknowledge they are part of a fictional story. The character might speak to the audience watching the film, or reference something they should have no earthly knowledge of, defying all logic of their fictional world.

As I see it, there are two distinct versions of breaking the fourth wall, both of which are fair game for this discussion. They are:

  • A character is aware that they are in a movie, or the plot suggests it.
  • A character speaks directly to the audience.

For reference, you can find video examples of Blazing Saddles, Supernatural, and Ferris Bueller here.

Television Examples

Television shows, especially comedies, get away with the occasional fourth wall break.

Supernatural is all about that kind of flexibility. The show has veers from horror in one episode to humor the next. It is not so surprising that we’ve seen two major plot points revolving around breaking the fourth wall.

In “The French Mistake,” Sam and Dean very literally break the fourth wall of a set and cross over into a parody of our own world, in which they are actors in a TV show called Supernatural. Real world trivia about the show is highlighted for comedic effect, such as the number of ‘67 Impalas used in production, rubber stunt weapons, and the fact that Jensen Ackles used to be on a soap opera.

A similar meta-storyline happens in “The Monster at the End of This Book.” Sam and Dean stumble upon a rare book series about their exploits; each novel representing an episode in the first couple seasons. It’s the work of Chuck the Prophet, but also pokes fun at the Supernatural fanbase.

Dean: (reading about Supernatural fanbase) There’s Sam Girls and Dean Girls and–what’s a slash fan?

Sam: As in Sam-slash-Dean. Together.

Dean: They do know we’re brothers, right?

Sam: Doesn’t seem to matter.

Futurama does this with their cancellation episode. In the made for DVD movie, “Bender’s Big Score,” the Professor talks about how their delivery company, the BOX NETWORK, cancelled them. When the off-screen Network execs are fired, the Professor exclaims they are: “Back on the air! Yes, flying on the air in our mighty spaceship!”

In a more kid friendly example, we have Ultimate Spider-Man, where Peter Parker seems aware that kids are watching his show, and he will frequently stop the action on screen so he can explain what’s going on and make some funny quips. 

Feature Film Examples

A fourth wall break can satisfy dramatic and comedic moments by drawing the viewer further in, as if in a private joke.

In Deadpool, the entire film is from Wade Wilsons’s perspective, and he controls the flow of the action on screen and tells the backstory directly to us. He even makes remarks about actors that the characters in-world shouldn’t know about. When Professor X is mentioned, he asks: “McAvoy or Stewart? These timelines are so confusing,” referencing the actors who’ve played the Professor in the X-Men movies. In the comics, he frequently makes mentions of being in a comic, much to the confusion of his co-stars.

deadpool

In Spaceballs, the Mel Brooks Star Wars spoof, Dark Helmet actually watches the movie they’re in, via instant VHS technology. There are other great examples from this film, such as when the Imperious Forces think they’ve captured the main characters, and the exasperated Captain says: “You idiots! These are not them. You’ve captured their stunt doubles!”

Mel Brooks is also famous for the final scenes of Blazing Saddles.  The goofy Western’s finale takes place at the movie studios where the film is being shot. The main characters watch the end of their own movie in Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

Another famous example is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Ferris tells his story directly to camera, letting us in on his adventure. We see things from his lighthearted point of view. According to Flavorwire.com, Ferris not only talks to the audience, but makes the audience his accomplice. Had the film been told from another character’s perspective, we would have seen a movie about an irresponsible liar, not some fun-loving guy having a “day off.”

The trope breaks the usual rules of storytelling. In these examples, we’re allowed to alter our typical suspension of disbelief because playing with our assumptions and revealing the fictional world is the punchline. They are subverting normal conventions for a trope that revels in the ridiculous.

Dramatic Effect

In a show like House of Cards (the American one), Kevin Spacey’s character will occasionally address the audience directly, letting us in on the secrets and upping the dramatic tension. We’re in on something big, this says. Stay tuned to see where it all leads.

house of cards

Even the promotional material feels like it’s staring deeply into your soul.

House of Cards, one of the first exclusive Netflix properties to blow viewers out of the water by encouraging binge watching, may be able to get away with fourth wall breakage due to its unusual format. We subconsciously expect something different, edgy and more introspective from a show that lives on the internet. If House of Cards had aired on regular television, comprised 42 minutes over several commercial breaks and had a 22 episode season run…we would have seen a very different show.

By contrast, the horror genre takes vicious delight in using our suspension of disbelief against us.  

At the end of Jeepers Creepers, the audience learns the fate of the main character when the monster looks directly into the camera with the main character’s eyes.  It’s a visceral fear, because up until this point there was no other connection to the audience. Used here, the viewer is meant to feel that their own life may be in jeopardy.

The ending of Paranormal Activity did something similar, when the demonic Katie kills her husband, then looks directly into the camera and attacks. The fear the viewer initially had for the characters on screen can become a fear for themselves.

When Used Poorly

Sometimes “breaking the fourth wall” is a term of derision, given to films that made a mistake in storytelling or tried too hard to be funny. It takes the viewer out of the moment, breaking their concentration on the story and reminding them they are watching a movie. Suspension of disbelief can be crucial to holding a viewer’s attention. Ruining that hold on the viewer can be detrimental to the film, and of course, its box office receipts.

Of course, a fourth wall break can come across as cheap and cheesy as the 3D effects added to B-level horror films. It can feel gimmicky. Some of those moments in which a villain looks directly at camera might appear to be a symptom of lazy screenwriting if it does not earn its place in the film.

So What?

What’s the take-away from this? Breaking the fourth wall is a convention best used sparingly in filmmaking, unless you’ve got a comedy that adapts well to the medium (Deadpool, Emperor’s New Groove). Fourth wall breaks, like Voice Over Narration, are best evaluated whether it will distract too much from the story. In some cases, it can be used to great comedic effect, or help dramatize a situation by drawing the viewer into the story. 

There’s an upcoming film called Hardcore Henry shot completely like a First Person Shooter. This might be an incredibly creative way to tell a story or the trope might get tiresome before half of the movie is finished. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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