Alfred Hitchcock preferred suspense over shock

I do not like violent films with a lot of blood and gore but am a big fan of the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock was rightly called the ‘master of suspense’ and in this brief interview he explains the difference with what he tried to do and what one sees in some other films.

He said that he wanted the audience to use their imaginations about what is going on rather than telling them and so he did not actually show the violence. For example, in the famous shower scene in Psycho, one does not actually see the victim being stabbed and blood spurting all over the place. One sees her screaming, one sees the assailant in silhouette making stabbing motions, one hears the screeching music rise to a crescendo, and one sees dark fluid representing blood swirling down the drain. All that is more than enough for the viewer to imagine what happened.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    in the famous shower scene in Psycho, one does not actually see the victim being stabbed and blood spurting all over the place.

    The shower scene is still a shockingly violent one, even if the actual stabbing is not seen. It’s a departure for Hitchcock in that regard, I think. His other films (AFAIK) have nothing even approaching it. There are a few films with people falling to their death, for example, but they don’t come close to the horror of that scene. It is remarkable camera work though.

  2. A Lurker from Mexico says

    Yeah, currently my favorite horror director is Mike Flanagan. And the memorable parts of his shows and movies are usually the suspenseful chases, the sadness that goes into his ghost stories, the subtle shapes on the edge of the frame, and the very detailed family dramas that ground the film.

    Something similar with Ari Aster’s films, even though those do contain violent imagery and I’d caution Mano against watching those, what hooks you is the emotional state of the characters and the sinister atmosphere.

    Thinking back, even in the original Saw (which spawned a bit of a torture porn franchise), most of the deaths were obscured by frantic editing. The most memorable trap in that movie was the reverse bear trap and the character in it manages to escape it before it goes off, it was all in the tension of the scene and the threat of it. As far as I know, everyone agrees that the first one was either the best or the only good one. And no wonder, it’s the one that (despite it’s reputation) relies on the writing and directing to get scares, rather than mere gore.

  3. Holms says

    I take it you mean that as a counter example to the good film making, John? Yikes.

  4. mnb0 says

    This famous quote summarizes Hitchcock’s principle:

    “Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it…In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the secret.”

    Quite a few horror movies (and even books, especially many by Stephen King) are thrilling until the threat is revealed; then they become boring or simply disgusting. That’s why I never cared much about Hitchcock’s Bird Attack scene (iIrc he even used it twice in the movie).
    It’s interesting to see how master directors solved this dilemma when they shot a horror flick, like The Shining and An American Werewolf in London. Another intriguing example is

    Halfway suspense is traded for comedy.

  5. garnetstar says

    I also doze right off when the violence gets graphic. All I can think about, if I remain awake, is how long the actors must have worked to choreograph that scene, and what’s all the fake blood made of and how hard is it to wash it off? And when is this time-wasting scene going to end.

    I like psychological horror, as now seems to be the name for suspense, much, much, better. One of the best authors of that is Shirley Jackson. Stephen King was so impressed by her ability to horrify the reader to bits (don’t ever read “The Haunting of Hill House” while you’re home alone at night) without a drop of blood spilled, that he dedicated one of his books to her: “To Shirley Jackson, who never had to raise her voice.”

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    garnetstar @7: I never read the Jackson novel, but have seen The Haunting (1963), which is based on it. I got a very similar vibe from The Innocents (1961), based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Both excellent films.

  7. garnetstar says

    Rob G. @8, yes, isn’t The Turn of The Screw movie (Innocents) fantastic?

    I never watched the Hill House movie, I’m glad to hear it’s good, because the book is so incredible that I didn’t think they could turn it into a film that really captured the horror. I thought that a film would inevitably have to “raise its voice”, which Jackson never does.

    But, glad I can now go watch the movie, and I do really recommend the book to you! (It’s short.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *