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

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/ part of the season of films and discussion by Freudian Clip – The Film Club


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,

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

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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