Nothing inspires readers, viewers, or listeners to tune into the next installment of a thrilling adventure quite like a good, old-fashioned cliffhanger does—but have you ever wondered exactly where the term “cliffhanger” comes from in the first place? If you have, there’s good news and bad news: The bad news is that the saying’s history is a little hazy—but the good news is that there absolutely are cliffs involved.
Cliffhangers—moments in serialized fiction placed at the end of an episode which leave the characters in an unresolved dilemma—have long been one of the hallmarks of everything from soap operas to radio shows. Whether indicated with a dramatic orchestra strike or the words “To Be Continued!”, these distinctive endings—or, viewed in another light, non-endings—keep bringing us back for more. And there actually is a psychological reason why we find them so irresistible: It’s called the Zeigarnik effect. Named for psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, the Zeigarnik effect suggests that it’s easier for us to remember tasks that have been interrupted or which remain uncompleted than tasks we’ve already finished—or, as Hephzibah Anderson put it at the BBC in 2016, “it’s human instinct to crave resolution.”
And, truly, there is no greater demonstration of this effect in action than our response to seeing a beloved character literally hanging off the edge of a precipice and being left for days, weeks, months, or even years to wonder whether they’ll survive or not. But interestingly, it’s not totally clear to us exactly where the term “cliffhanger” came from in the first place. There are numerous theories, though—and yes, there are plenty of cliffs ahead.
Serialized, episodic storytelling is far from a recent invention, of course; heck, numerous ancient works, such as Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, are episodic in nature. And cliffhangers, too, have existed for much longer than you might think. The collection of Middle Eastern folktales known as One Thousand and One Nights, which dates back to the ninth century C.E., is often pointed to an as early example of episodic storytelling that utilizes cliffhangers; in the framing device used to link all the stories together, Scheherazade, who buys herself an extra day of life night after night by telling a new story to the Persian ruler Shahryar, ends each evening’s storytelling session on an unresolved note—either plot-wise or in terms of its philosophical discussion—thus compelling Shahryar to spare her for one more night so he could find out what happened next.
But although One Thousand and One Nights features many shining examples of the cliffhanger in action, the expression itself didn’t enter the lexicon until much later on.
Some sources attribute the term “cliffhanger” to The Perils of Pauline, a melodrama from the silent film era released serially in 1914. Starring Pearl White, The Perils of Pauline followed the adventures of the titular Pauline as she seeks to experience as much of life as possible before settling down to get married—marriage being a condition of Pauline receiving her inheritance from her wealthy guardian. Serials such as The Perils of Pauline were, in fact, known for their use of the cliffhanger to entice viewers back for the next installment; however, while The Perils of Pauline does include characters dangling from a cliff in one episode, the cliff-hanging scene is apparently not actually that episode’s cliffhanger. As such, The Perils of Pauline being the origins of the saying itself isn’t generally accepted in linguistic circles these days.
Occasionally it’s posited that the association between “cliffhanger” and serials like The Perils of Pauline has less to do with actual cliffhanging and more with the fact that many of these episodic films were shot around the cliffs of the Palisades in New Jersey. There doesn’t appear to be much evidence actually supporting this idea, though, making it more a theory than anything else, as well.
Currently, the more widely-accepted origin story suggests that the term “cliffhanger” has its roots in Victorian serialized literature—specifically in one particular work by Thomas Hardy: A Pair of Blue Eyes.
Originally published between September of 1872 and July of 1873 in Tinsley’s Magazine, A Pair of Blue Eyes predates The Perils of Pauline by nearly half a century.
In Chapter XXI, we witness the cliffhanger to end all cliffhangers. During this chapter, the character Henry Knight winds up in quite the predicament, hanging off the edge of a cliff with rescue seemingly nowhere in sight.
The chapter ends on this note:
“Elfride, how long will it take you to run to Endelstow and back?”
“Three-quarters of an hour.”
“That won’t do; my hands will not hold out ten minutes. And is there nobody nearer?”
“No; unless a chance passer may happen to be.”
“He would have nothing with him that could save me. Is there a pole or stick of any kind on the common?”
She gazed around. The common was bare of everything but heather and grass.
A minute—perhaps more time—was passed in mute thought by both. On a sudden the blank and helpless agony left her face. She vanished over the bank from his sight.
Knight felt himself in the presence of a personalized loneliness.
In addition to being something of a downer (what a situation!), this chapter’s conclusion is, in fact, both a literal and metaphorical cliffhanger—which, in turn, has led many to believe it to be origin of the term itself.
But as Steven Mollmann, an assistant professor of English and writing at the University of Tampa who holds a Ph.D. in English literature, notes at his blog, the delightfully-named Science’s Less Accurate Grandmother, the connection here is tenuous, too. Mollmann traced the link between A Pair of Blue Eyes’s actual cliffhanger and the term “cliffhanger” itself to literary critic David Lodge, who wrote in The Art of Fiction in 1992:
“[A Pair of Blue Eyes] contains a classic scene of suspense…. The word [‘suspense’] itself derives from the Latin word meaning ‘to hang,’ and there could hardly be a situation more productive of suspense than that of a man clinging by his finger-tips to the face of a cliff, unable to climb to safety—hence the generic term ‘cliffhanger.’”
Mollmann points out something incredibly important about this passage, though: It doesn’t expressly state that A Pair of Blue Eyes originated the term “cliffhanger.” Rather, writes Mollmann, “[Lodge] just says A Pair of Blue Eyes has a guy hanging off a cliff, and that the most suspenseful thing is hanging off a cliff, which gives us ‘cliffhanger.’” He continues, “But it would be easy to read [Lodge’s] discussion here and think A Pair of Blue Eyes gave us the word ‘cliffhanger.’” Ambiguity isn’t always our friend.
What we do know, though, is that the term “cliffhanger” was established—and with its current meaning—by the early 1930s.
The Oxford English Dictionary cites in its entry on “cliffhanger” that its earliest known mention of the term in print occurred in January of 1931 in the entertainment industry trade magazine Variety; however, the adjectival form, “cliff-hanging,” appeared several months earlier in an issue of that same magazine. The Sept. 3, 1930 issue of Variety included an article titled “If Customers Don’t Cry, Producers Must; Hoke’s Fancy Coast Revival”—“hoke” meaning contrived storytelling or storytelling devices intended to manipulate audiences into experiencing specific emotions—which contains, as its parting lines:
“Fitting also into the pattern is the revival of the serial, with Universal and Pathé leading the procession toward cliff-hanging heroines. Pathé is even reviving the original installment films, ‘Perils of Pauline’ and ‘Exploits of Elaine.’”
Its usage here functions as shorthand for a specific type of character in a specific type of story—which, in turn, implies that the meaning of the term was widely understood by this point. (Or at least, it was widely understood by film industry professionals.) The namedropping of The Perils of Pauline is particularly interesting here, suggesting that it and other early serialized films like it were already thought of analytically in terms of the popular convention.
Unfortunately, we don’t know what happened between A Pair of Blue Eyes, The Perils of Pauline, and the 1930s that actually did establish “cliffhanger” as a term used to describe titillating, unresolved endings; as Steven Mollman underlines at his site, there doesn’t appear to be any sort of paper trail for the word prior to the 1930s. The history of the term “cliffhanger” has, well, left us hanging off a cliff.
But although we might never resolve this particular dilemma, at least we’ll always know it when we see it—and it will always keep us coming back for more.