Why Hitchcock Makes Me Want to Quit Going to Movies
By Joel Gunz
What holiday is celebrated with more creative gusto than Halloween? Each year sees an effort to outdo the previous year's celebration by creating freakier, tweakier, and just plain creepier costumes and yard decorations. A person's GQ (ghoul quotient) ranking is calculated by measuring the square inches of skin covered in body paint and subtracting the amount that is covered by thrift store fabric swatches. The results can be truly scary.
After discovering that people want to feel afraid, Alfred Hitchcock made millions off of this impulse. In an article entitled "The Enjoyment of Fear," he wrote:
"Millions of people every day spend huge sums of money and go to great hardship merely to enjoy fear…. The boy who walks a tightrope or tiptoes along the top of a picket fence is looking for fear, as are the auto racer, the mountain climber, and the big-game hunter."
The director identified two distinct kinds of fear: suspense and terror. Suspense is the prolonged feeling of anxiety that accompanies a sense of impending doom, whereas terror is a sudden feeling of fear. To illustrate these two types of fear, he pointed to the two kinds of explosives used during World War II -- the suspense-provoking buzz bomb and the terror-inducing V-2.
"The moments between the time the [buzz bomb's] motor was first heard and the final explosion were moments of suspense. The V-2, on the other hand, was noiseless until its moment of explosion. Anyone who heard a V-2 explode, and lived, experienced terror…. On the screen, terror is induced by surprise; suspense, by forewarning."
Hitchcock wrapped up his analysis with the following:
"Suspense and terror cannot coexist. To the extent that the audience is aware of the menace or danger to the people it is watching -- that is, to the extent that suspense is created -- so is its surprise (or terror) at the eventual materialization of the indicated danger diminished."
2. Fear of Enjoyment
C. S. Lewis also pointed out two related experiences that cannot coexist. Citing S. Alexander's theories set out in "Space, Time and Deity," Lewis stated that one cannot "enjoy" something and "contemplate" it at the same time. He explains it this way:
"These are technical terms in Alexander's philosophy; 'Enjoyment' has nothing to do with pleasure, nor 'Contemplation' with the contemplative life. When you see a table, you 'enjoy' the act of seeing and 'contemplate' the table…. In bereavement, you contemplate the beloved and the beloved's death and, in Alexander's sense, 'enjoy' the loneliness and grief." 1
Thus, Alexander's theory is roughly equivalent to Hitchcock's. Terror is the experience or "enjoyment" of fear, whereas suspense is the "contemplation" of it.
When I go to a wine tasting event and "enjoy," say, a Yamhill County Pinot Noir, my attention is directed outward to the wine. On the other hand, when I "contemplate" the wine, such as when someone asks me to describe what I am tasting and I say, "Wow. The nose is redolent of Bing cherries and dried figs," in that moment I am not thinking about the wine per se, but of its effect on me -- its aroma, flavor, etc. Hence, contemplation of that wine is directed inward, back to me, away from the Pinot Noir.
That's why, as Lewis says, "enjoyment" and "contemplation" cannot occur at the same time. We can oscillate back and forth between the two, but they cannot coexist. And, sadly, wine tastings are all too often about "contemplation" and not "enjoyment." And, whether one has read Lewis or not, most people see that sort of anti-enjoyment for what it is: egocentrism.
It's easy to confuse the "contemplation" of pleasure with "enjoyment" - just as it is easy to confuse suspense with terror. Think of that wine aficionado who goes to a wine tasting, talks up a storm about a Pinot's virtues (or, worse, lack thereof), and goes away thinking he "enjoyed" some wine, when, at best, he "enjoyed" his consumption of it. In a fundamental way, that individual has passed up an opportunity to truly live. As Lewis would say, he is looking at the by-product of an experience and confusing it with the experience itself. While everyone scoffs at wine snobs, the fact is we've all made the same sort of mistake.
On the other hand, the opposite experience is likely to occur at the movies. One engages in fantasy, surrendering so completely to the images flickering on the screen that the experience resembles one of uninterrupted "enjoyment." The audience sits mute and passive before that barrage of images and sound forms, submitting to the inexorable loop of film clicking through the projector. It enters a state of seeming "enjoyment," with that whirling strip of celluloid2 never letting up even for a moment to allow for "contemplation."
That's why when a movie calls up feelings that are too intense (usually, it's some form of fear), viewers may force themselves into the "contemplative" mode, which allows them to remember that "it's only a movie." That transition, however, doesn't occur easily - it's literally like trying to wake from a bad dream.3 This is what makes Hitchcock's cameos so interesting: They "pinch" the audience for a moment, allowing us that breath of "contemplation," reminding us that "it's only a movie."
The problem here is that movies are not real experiences any more than a desert mirage is a real oasis. When two characters kiss in a movie, what we actually experience is not a real kiss but flickering light patterns that look like kissing. (The famous love scene between Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in "Notorious" , as moving as it may be, cannot escape the harsh reality that those two actors are dead.) It's just a movie, an ersatz experience of "enjoyment." But the audience responds as if it IS real, and is thus as deluded as if in a dream.
Compounding matters, film, unstoppable in the projection booth, circumvents the "contemplation" phase, which acts as a bulwark against such delusions.4
When people talk about being fully "present," or in "The Moment," they are often trying to express that state wherein contemplative pleasure is displaced by a state of connectedness to another thing (i.e.,"enjoyment"). It defies interpretation because it is opposed to "contemplation." It just IS. They are moments in which one gets to rub shoulders for a short time with Reality. Abraham Maslow called them "peak- experiences." C. S. Lewis simply called it "Joy." Eastern philosophers and others call it "at-onceness".5
But here's the rub: Maslow warned against seeking peak-experiences through artificial means, such as drug abuse or casual sex, for it can lead to pathological behavior.6 "Instead of being 'surprised by joy,' he says, "'turning on' is … hustled into being, and can get to be regarded as a commodity."7 This leads to a selfish pursuit of these experiences -- the opposite of outward-directed at-oneness.
Film, by virtue of its artificiality, could be added to that list of commodified experiences. Think of the "chick flick," the "feel good" movie, and other screen genres that are as tailored for specific kinds of psychological results as a designer drug. Audiences buy into the movie as if it were real. But they are deluded.
Hitchcock was sharply aware of the delusional nature of film. One of the final scenes in Sabotage (1936) takes place in the auditorium of a movie theater. The audience is laughing at the onscreen violence of the Walt Disney cartoon "Who Killed Cock Robin?" Even Mrs. Verloc (Sylvia Sydney) disengages from "contemplating" her bereavement over the loss of her brother Stevie (Desmond Tester) to join in the laughter, but the mass delusion is only faux "enjoyment.".
Stevie had been killed by a bomb concealed in a film can supposedly bearing a movie ironically entitled "Bartholomew the Strangler." Audiences had built up sympathy for the little boy, and when the suspense - or, contemplation of fear -- regarding whether or not he would dispose of his lethal cargo before the detonator went off ended in his death, audiences were scandalized. Critics pilloried the director. And the movie was less than successful at the box office.
What went wrong?
In his article, Hitchcock spoke of an "implied guarantee given the audience that it shall not 'pay the price' for its fear."
"The pleasant fear sensation experienced by a roller-coaster rider as the car approached a sharp curve would cease to exist if he seriously thought for one minute that the car might really fail to negotiate the curve."
Of course, movie audiences are completely safe, and they know that any violence on screen is just a fiction. So they transfer that sense of implied safety to those characters with whom they identify. Hitchcock continues:
"As the audience's sympathy for a character is built up, that audience assumes that a sort of invisible cloak to protect the wearer from harm is being fitted. Once the sympathies are fully established and the cloak is finished, it is not … fair play to violate the cloak and bring its wearer to a disastrous end…. Under this set of circumstance, [Stevie] was protected by his cloak from premature explosion of the bomb. I blew him up anyway."
So Hitchcock broke a dramaturgical rule. Still, the resulting outrage of the audience and critics appears incongruent with the fact that it was "just a movie." In other words, why all the hoopla? Because that "invisible cloak" rule hinges on the audience imputing a kind of conditional reality to the characters onscreen. To audiences, Stevie wasn't just a flickering black-and-white shadow. He was, in their mind, a real flesh-and-blood little boy. Hitchcock summoned his prodigious storytelling skills to make it so. And then he annihilated that construct.
As film critic Anthony Lane puts it, "It is impossible to tell, with Hitchcock, where fear ends and fantasy begins; indeed, the two are twisted together for strength, like the cords of a rope."8
Like a heavyweight boxer picking a fight in a barroom, Hitchcock overreached with his abilities in Sabotage, taking advantage of his audience's submissiveness to truly terrorize them. He disregarded the fact that people go to movies to escape reality. Instead, he threw reality right back in their face.
Retreating into the darkness of the theater to engage in the make-believe "enjoyment" of a film also entails retreating from opportunities to "enjoy" genuine experiences -- and the opportunities for "contemplation" that go along with them. No wonder media-saturated societies are also observed avoiding self-reflection at all costs.9
Hitchcock's dictum that the audience "shall not 'pay the price' for its fear" may not be entirely accurate. The audience does, in fact, pay a price. The price of enjoyment of fear is paid with a fear of enjoyment.
Looking at it that way, no wonder I feel an increasing desire to step away from the warmth of my DVD player and feel the chill of the real world. Thanks, Hitch.
Joel Gunz's column for The Anvil usually has something to do with Alfred Hitchcock, film philosophy, and stuff like that.