Greater minds: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Enjoyment of Fear

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Stephen Coles (CC / Flickr)

The next entry in the Greater Minds series is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1949 article, The Enjoyment of FearThe-Enjoyment-of-Fear-by-Alfred-Hitchcock-Good-Housekeeping-Feb-1949-v-128-n-2. If clicking that link doesn’t bring up a PDF copy of it, this one should.

Alfred Hitchcock was a man with a particular relationship with fear. His life’s work was to entertain people by terrifying them, and he was very good at it. Films like Psycho, The Birds, Rope, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window and Vertigo had to pass censorship that would consign most modern horror films to the dustbin in the first five minutes. His special effects involved physically cutting and gluing bits of film together. Yet those films carry the power to make the most jaded modern filmgoer scream.

Adopting Hitchcock to the page

Hitchcock worked on the screen rather than the page, but that doesn’t mean that we writers can’t learn from him. Even if we’re not writing horror, most genres involve some degree of vicarious fear. We may fear that a character isn’t going to get what they want or achieve their goal, or that they will make a mistake that will blight the rest of their lives. Even a hint of fear can add an edge that will keep them turning the page.

Fortunately for us, Hitchcock described his techniques in, of all places, a 1949 edition of Good Housekeeping magazine, attached above as a PDF file. His descriptions of heroines menaced by bandsaws and children being used as unwitting bombers nestle between an advertisement for Interflora and a recipe for kidney beans, bringing horror into the midst of domesticity like a flock of homicidal crows battering at the front door.

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Marek Papała (CC / Flickr)

Hitchcock draws a distinction between suspense, in which fear derives from what his audience anticipated, and terror, where the fear derives from an unexpected event. His insistence on keeping them distinct applies as much to the written word as the screen. If a story revolves around a character running away from a monster, the reader spends most of the story imagining him being eaten by the monster. Ending the story with a description of it actually happening won’t live up to the reader’s expectations, so it will be an anticlimax that will leave the reader feeling unfulfilled.

Digressing from Hitchcock for a moment, it’s worth a look at the inversion of the principal in Arthur C Clarke’s A Walk in the Dark  . I won’t spoil it if you haven’t read it yet but it’s worth reading with Hitchcock’s principals in mind and the way Clarke used them in unexpected ways. It would have been interesting to ask Clarke if he was applying Hitchcock’s principals. He must have been aware of them.

Something Hitchcock doesn’t mention is disgust. That may be because splattering blood simply wasn’t going to get past a censor in 1940s Hollywood. The protracted rape in Frenzy, made in the less censorious environment of 1970s Britain, shows he must have thought at some point. For my money, Frenzy was far from his best film. It made me look away while The Birds and Rear Window make it impossible to look away, which is another point that translates to written storytelling. In keeping with Hitchcock’s theory of terror, if the worst happens it may be best to have it happen quickly and not dilute the power of the moment with a description of the aftermath. If the moment is set up well enough, the reader’s imagination will be primed to scare them. Too much description will dilute it.

The Invincibility Cloak

Hitchcock says the audience enjoys its fear because they are confident that the film maker or storyteller has wrapped a protective cloak around their favourite characters and will permit no harm to come to them. He refers to the one time he transgressed that principal as a mistake. A decade later, Hitchcock himself would drive a wooden stake through the principal and define a genre with Psycho. So what are we to make of it? I think Hitchcock partially answers the question himself, where he says the problem had as much to do with his violation of his own rule of making suspense distinct from terror.

Psycho (1960) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock Shown: Janet Leigh (as Marion Crane)

Retrogasm (CC / Flickr)

Conventions change and now it’s not at all uncommon to have the main character die at the end of a film or a story. A modern reader or storyteller is going to be attuned to modern conventions. It’s pretty unlikely that we are going to spend building up a protagonist only to kill them off two thousand words into a five thousand word story, because then we’ll need to get the reader to invest in another protagonist and land ourselves with a story structure that is unlikely to work. A reader who is aware of that is going to assume that the protagonist will overcome deadly peril until the end, so there’s only so much suspense that can be generated by putting them in a life threatening situation too early on. If someone is going to wave a gun in the protagonist’s face, it may escalate tension by demonstrating how far his enemies are planning to go but the reader isn’t going believe he’s about to get his head blown off. If we know the reader’s expectations, we can play with them in other ways. The reader won’t expect a crippling injury at that point either, so delivering one would fit Hitchcock’s definition of terror.

Part of Hitchcock’s brilliance was that he knew his audience and their expectations. He was at his best when he was playing with and playing to them. That’s something any storyteller can learn from, whatever medium we use.

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification

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