why you should watch ‘psycho’ – what hitchcock has to teach us about emotion

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COME AND SEE ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS FILMS OF ALL TIME ‘PSYCHO’ BY ALFRED HITCHCOCK AT THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF MEDICINE ON JUNE 25TH 6.30pm for 7.00 pm – wine and canapes followed by film screening then discussion with psychologists, psychiatrists, doctors, medical students and members of the public. For tickets and more information visit http://www.meetup.com/The-UK-CBT-Group/events/124146392/

 

REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM

 

New Review of Film and Television Studies

 

Theatre of thrills: the culture of suspense

 

Frank Krutnik

 

School of Media, Film and Music, University of Sussex, Brighton,

UK

 

Published online: 22 Nov 2012

 

‘In a lecture delivered at Columbia University in March 1939, Hitchcock

argued that suspense has a vital role to play in gluing together the disparate

elements of a film and attracting, directing, and building audience involvement in

fiction. ‘I think that nearly all stories can do with suspense’, he says.

 

Even a love story can have it. We used to feel that suspense was saving from the

scaffold, or something like that, but there is also the suspense of whether the man

will get the girl. I really feel that suspense has to do largely with the audience’s own

desires or wishes. (Hitchcock 1939)

 

For Hitchcock, suspense is a strategy of engagement that facilitates the transaction

between cinematic narration and the audience, helping to bring the latter ‘into the

film’ by mobilizing and channelling emotions, desires, wishes, and fears. As he

observed in a 1936 Picturegoer article, ‘Watching a well-made film, we don’t sit

as spectators; we participate.’ This dynamic is more overt with the thriller, as

audience desires to obtain from such films what Hitchcock terms

emotional disturbances’ or ‘thrills’.

 

The kind of suspense thriller in which Hitchcock specialized relies on the paradox of pleasurable anxiety where, as he puts it, customers are willing to pay to enjoy ‘the thrill that comes from danger’

(Hitchcock 1949). However, cinema differs from other participatory activities

riding roller coasters, climbing mountains, tightrope walking, dangerous sports,

and so on – because the audience experiences extreme sensation vicariously,

without risking actual physical involvement or physical threat.

 

For this transactional process to work, the film must persuade the audience to

commit imaginatively and emotionally to the characters and to the predicaments

which they are placed. Although Hitchcock stresses the importance

having believable characters and situations to identify with, this kind of

suspense arguably builds an even more crucial relationship between the audience

and the narrational process itself.

 

The narration lures the audience into its confidence by offering privileged insights into the characters and granting intimate proximity to them. However, the all-knowing narration also

subjects the audience to a teasing game of cat and mouse – telling only what it

chooses to tell, when it chooses to tell it. Hitchcockian suspense manipulates

audience focus and audience knowledge, flattering spectators with secrets that are

withheld from the characters, while exploiting the fact that they are powerless to

intervene and change the course of events.

 

As Hitchcock told his class at Columbia University: ‘I am a great believer in making the audience suffer [ .. .

in] making the audience play their part.’ Such exquisite torment is one of the key

emotional pay-offs that the audience desires from participating in the game of

suspense.’

 

Hitchcock was a highly self-conscious and performative practitioner of the art

of narrative suspense, and the very manipulativeness of his films can prove a

source of pleasure. As Richard Allen aptly puts it, the self-aware

orchestration of Hitchcockian suspense sequences contributes ‘to the sense of

artifice that governs the fiction’.

 

Moreover, Hitchcock’s thrillers often present audacious frame-breaking narrational twists that push at the boundaries of acceptable practice – as with the protracted bomb sequence that ends with the

shock killing of the young boy in Sabotage (1936), or the duplicitous flashback in

Stage Fright (1950), or the dispatching of Janet Leigh’s character so early in

Psycho (1960).

 

However, despite relishing his reputation as a showman-prankster

– the performative ‘master of suspense’ – Hitchcock was earnest in his

desire to champion filmic suspense as an aesthetically sophisticated practice.

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