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Culture Warrior: What is Hitchcockian Suspense?

By  · Published on November 16th, 2009

Culture Warrior

What is Hitchcockian Suspense?

In a conversation with Dr. Cole Abaius while he was formulating his thoughts on spoiling and The Fourth Kind, he assessed the effectiveness of the scare tactics within the recent trend of found footage filmmaking in the horror genre. This past September when I reviewed Paranormal Activity at Fantastic Fest, I praised the film for ascribing to the “Hitchcock 101 School of Filmmaking” in that it achieves its frightening effect through revealing as little as possible. Having recently reassessed Psycho in my “Horror 1960” post and while being surrounded by this continuously popular new brand of horror filmmaking, Cole brought up the idea that found footage horror filmmaking might not actually be employing Hitchcockian suspense at all – or, if it does, it’s a filtered, cheaper, and simpler definition of the term that’s come to be accepted when discussing horror and suspense.

Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense (not the Master of Horror, as they guy technically only made two horror films – Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963)) certainly advocated a faith in audience imagination, allowing a moment to potentially make any film far scarier through imagined, anticipated fears rather than the potential disappointment of something less terrifying being manifested on screen. He implied more than he exhibited, and this was central to the chilling effectiveness of many of his films. Hitchcock gave us a detail here and there, and our minds filled in the rest.

Not only was this style a product of shrewd directorial restraint, but it was part and parcel of the times as well. Hitchcock’s films existed before the ratings system, and thus were subject to the censorial force of the Production Code Administration (also known as the Hays Code). Movies could be released without a Code seal, but through the stigma this caused such films would often have trouble finding theaters which would be willing to show them. It was also understood that the big studio films with big stars that often characterized Hitchcock’s work had far too much riding on them not to be released with Production Code approval. So Hitchcock articulated stories of obsession, murder, and sexual frustration with innuendo and implication rather than blatant exhibition of content. Not that Hitchcock wouldn’t have employed such restraint and trust in audience imagination regardless, but such factors help make his films so rich and enduring. And several of his films seem even more subversive as a result – movies like Vertigo (1958), which chronicled the obsession of a misogynistic stalker, and in the process subverting the nice-guy everyman persona of Jimmy Stewart, or Rope (1948), whose central protagonists are read today as being a homosexual couple.

The point here is that restraint wasn’t a tactic Hitchcock used only to create suspense, but permeated many aspects of his filmmaking and was determined by factors both creative (interior) and social (exterior). But is restraint the central aspect to the effectiveness of his type of suspense? Is the act of letting audience imagination take the reigns all it takes to be characterized as Hitchcockian? If this was the case, found footage horror films like Paranormal Activity can very accurately be called successors of Hitchcockian suspense, as they no doubt rely on the audience’s ability to infer what they don’t show rather than in an exhibition of horrifying images that they do show. The demon is terrifying because he’s never revealed. Same with the witch in The Blair Witch Project, or only seeing bits and pieces of the alien beast in the first half of Cloverfield.

This is the definition we as a filmgoing culture have, for the most part, arrived at a consensus on when it comes to Hitchcockian suspense. There’s good reason for this, as the man himself discussed at length this restrained aspect of his process, and such stylistic choices are easily identifiable within much of his canon. But this definition does in fact reduce and simplify how Hitchcock achieved suspense in most of his filmmaking.

Restraint implies minimalism, and Hitchcock was hardly a minimalist, and not every horror film or thriller that uses restraint comes across as Hitchcockian. What we think of as Hitchcockian suspense today, in which fear is induced through minimal revelation and an ambiguity allowing for audience interpretation, was something only occasionally practiced by Hitchcock himself. I can’t think of a Hitchcock film besides The Birds that ends on a note of ambiguity or contains a mystery that isn’t revealed. Rather, what Hitchcock was talking about can be illustrated best in a scene from his early British film Sabotage (1936, you can watch it here starting at 5:50 and continuing here) in which a boy is assigned to deliver a reel of film from one location to another, and he doesn’t know – while the audience does know – that a bomb exists in the film can. So we watch him go through his lengthy, banal commute while we are being totally suspended waiting for the bomb to go off. (An excerpt on this scene is featured in the nitrate film explanation montage in Inglourious Basterds, and QT also homages this scene through the iris reveal of the bomb under Eli Roth’s chair in the movie theater at the end).

Hitchcockian suspense can’t be defined as mere restraint of audience knowledge, but a careful, intricate management of the differentiation between what the audience knows and the characters know (for more information about this practice, consult his lengthy interview on Sabotage in Hitchcock/Truffaut). If we know there’s a bomb and the character doesn’t, it’s suspense; but if neither the audience nor the characters know, it’s surprise (or, to put more relevantly, a jump scare). Ambiguity and audience imagination takes a surprisingly small role in this process. It’s more about audience control. It all sounds so simple, it takes a masterful filmmaker to really pull it off. Yet these found footage horror films are released and critics like me take the bait by calling them Hitchcockian, which simply isn’t true.

I get excited when any new horror film employs restraint and trusts audience imagination, and the success of Paranormal Activity should display the powerful effectiveness of movies that do this well. It’s a welcome relief and a return to classical form after torture porn’s many manifestations of the mistaken idea that the more you show, the more terrifying it is. But Hitchcokian suspense is called Hitchcockian suspense for a reason: because it’s a means to an end that the man himself achieved and perfected time and again, one that very few other filmmakers have accomplished.

Of course, the man himself explains it better than I ever could:

What do you think?

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