In 1964, the great movie director Alfred Hitchcock, The Master of Suspense, was interviewed by Huw Weldon of the BBC. Hitch was asked if he had “ever been tempted to make what is nowadays called a horror film.”
“Are you talking about visual horror like “Frankenstein” and that kind of thing?” Hitch asked, seeking clarification.
Weldon confirmed that was what he meant.
“No, they’re… they’re props. I believe in putting the horror in the mind of the audience and not necessarily on the screen.”
Hitch took the example of his own movie”Psycho.” “Now, this film had a horrible scene at the beginning with a girl being murdered in a shower. Well, I deliberately made that pretty rough, but as the film developed, I put less and less physical horror into it because I was leaving that in the mind of the audience and, as the film went on, there was less and less violence but the tension, in the mind of the viewer, was increased considerably. I was transferring it from the film into their minds. So, towards the end, I had no violence at all. But the audience by this time was screaming in agony.”
“One’s challenged by the audience. They’re saying to me “show us” and “I know what’s coming next”… and I say, “do you?” And therefore, that’s the avoidance of the cliché — automatically. They’re expecting a cliché and I have to say “we cannot have a cliché here”
So there was a clear differntial in Hitchcock’s mind between “visual horror” like “Frankenstein” and psychological horror like “Psycho” (yes, the dessicated corpse of Mrs Bates is clearly a prop too but only revealed in the last scene and not the basis for most of the horror that preceeded it.) Hitchcock meant that real horror is what you DON’T see, the theatre of the mind, if you will.
Horror works particularly well on radio, the original “theatre of the mind.” The listeners are given prompts by the narrator but have to construct the visuals in their mind. Audiobooks and podcasts would be the modern equivalent. My vampire short story “Nightfall” will be available in audiobook form in August and I’m very much looking forward to hearing the results.
Let’s take a look at a classic horror movie and its remake – “The Haunting” from 1963 and the Spielberg-backed remake in 1999. The original, directed by Robert Wise, got tremendous scares from the use of sound and suggestion. The remake was an orgy of CGI effects. Most people look on the original as a classic horror movie, few hold the remake in high regard. Why? The remake shows us too much too often. The original keeps its cards close to its chest and the result is the same story told in a much scarier way.
“The Exorcist” is regarded by many as the most frightening movie of all-time. It is a film where the Demon Pazuzu, the ultimate evil, possesses the body of a young girl, the ultimate symbol of innocence, and speaks and acts through her. You never see the demon itself, there is no easy resolution for the audience of bringing the creature out into the light before it is destroyed as in 1950s monster movies. There isn’t that closure. (My mother was so freaked out seeing “The Exorcist” in the cinema that she claimed she saw a red devil with the horns and the tail and everything. It appears to have been some stress-induced temporary psychosis or something.) There is only the theme of the transference of evil, a constant in the work of its director William Friedkin.
Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” benefitted greatly from the malfunctioning prop shark they had. It meant the director couldn’t show the shark early as he had planned to and had to be creative to hint at its presence (the excellent score by John Williams helped.) The result? A freaked-out audience made hyper-aware of the subconscious level of the ocean’s surface and the potential unseen horror lurking beneath it.
Fear of the unknown is the key to great horror. We don’t need to know that Dracula is seeking his long-lost love across the centuries. He’s an ancient predator at your window seeking your blood. That’s all that’s necessary to impart to an audience. We don’t need to know that Michael Myers in Halloween had a terrible home life that made him the unstoppable killer we know and fear. He’s an immortal bogeyman and he’s coming after you. Don’t give away your character’s mystique cheaply.
Horror is best when drip-fed in a subtle way and not in a deluge of computer effects dumped on the viewing public.
No matter how convincing CGI is, an audience inherently knows it’s not real and that they’re watching a gimmick. Maybe Hollywood will learn this lesson and we can have a new golden age of psychological horror.
© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.
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