Stuart Fischoff Ph.D.

The Media Zone

Our Love-Hate Relationship With Scary Movies

The Making of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" is now a movie.

Posted Nov 22, 2012

A major motion picture about the life and frustrated loves of the late, brilliant British director Alfred Hitchcock has opened across the nation.  Hitchcock was the uniquely styled director of now-classic thrillers like The Birds, North by Northwest, Vertigo and Rear Window.  But the film for which he is most indelibly remembered and that changed forever the thriller-suspense-horror genre amalgam is Psycho, arguably one of the most famous movies of all time.

Anthony Hopkins plays the eponymous director in the film "Hitchcock," the story of how the iconic director, with a lot of help from his wife Alma, made his most provocative and controversial film. In an interview, Hopkins said of the 1960 release, "I saw it in a movie theater in September 1960 on a dark Sunday afternoon in Manchester. The scene in the shower was the most frightening thing I've ever seen. And the whole audience was under the seat, myself included, because we didn't know what to expect."

What’s the scariest movie you’ve ever seen?  How old were you?  And how did you deal with your overwhelming fear?  How did you make it through the movie?  The night?  How long did the visceral memories stay with you?

In an interview I did with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, right around Halloween I commented about what makes a movie really scary   I noted that "Clearly, those films which build up a lot of tension and draw upon the imagination of the viewer instead of making everything explicit are the scariest. The gradual buildup of tension and fear makes the fear experienced greater than if it had not been building up to that point.” 

It’s really a matter of the transfer of excitation, a tension that follows you and accumulates as you move from one scene to the next. 

"The movie takes your body and begins to push buttons, for a gradual arousal. A Hitchcock-style movie does this -- it builds on anxiety and fear incrementally, and you bring your own residue of fear already in your system. 'The Blair Witch Project' actually made people sick” because of this filmmaking formula.

 In Psycho, the tension-building elements are so craftily engineered that the felt tension is literally unbearable -- but exquisitely so, which is why we go back for more—either to see it again or see the next suspense or horror movie that comes down the  Hollywood pipeline of terror.

(I say “Hollywood pipeline,” but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the scariest film I have ever seen, bar none—the original, 1955 B&W French production of Diabolique, Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot and starring Simone Signoret.  No monsters, no special effects, no blood; just brilliantly manipulated levels of suspense and unseen menace. I was nauseous for hours.  The recent American remake does not hold a candle to it.)

If a movie gets too real, if our fear response gets to a threshold we neither anticipated nor find enjoyable anymore, what do we do, how do we cope, as children, even as adults?

In films like Psycho, The Exorcist, Jaws, or Saw, your first line of defense is, of course, not to go see it. End of story.

But suppose you kinda like movies that terrify you… just a little bit, especially if they’re really popular or well-reviewed?  You can always skip the movie, read several reviews linked to Rotten Tomatoes and then opine knowledgably when the subject comes up after sex.

If fakin’ it is not your MO, there’s always the option of renting it so you can emotionally dismember and castrate the film like an inflight film censor who blitzes the film’s artistic gestalt reducing it to a G-rated, inanimate narrative.  This can be coldly executed by ruthlessly working the volume, pause, fast forward, and freeze frame options on your remote.  You can even eviscerate the fright contribution of color saturation, denude it down to the 50 shades of gray and black.

When you're in control of the remote, you're in control of your emotional life. You don’t have to leave the room to leave your terror dome.  Moreover, you've honestly, sort of, seen the movie. You know what happens, and can safely climb into bed to sleep, to dream.  Nightmares?  Not tonight, Josephine.

Buuuut, if you’re a bit more adventurous than that and are in the theater, in your seat, wide-eyed and glued to the screen when the terror and tension thermometer begins to rise from mild to defensive sniggering, to quiet muttering of obscenities to squirming, arm rest clawing, gulping, and eventually being shushed by your date -- your hand is forced.  Nothing remains but to begin the process of self-ejection from the on-screen, immersive chamber of horrors.  Here's how the sequence has unfolded for millions of fright nighters since movies grabbed their imaginations by the throat 125 years ago: 

First you try self-talk, uttering reassurances like “this is only a movie, just a movie, it can’t hurt me.”

When that fails to stem the tide of body-surging adrenalin, stage two is activated.  You close your eyes, close your ears, repeatedly mutter an escape mantra like “naa, naa, naa …” and then slump down in the seat till your knees bend and your fanny is scraping the  floor behind the seat in  front of you. You are oblivious to the fact that you’re not ten anymore, you’re over thirty and teach Modern European Novel at Bryn Mawr. 

Pulling yourself together under the embarrassed stares of your date, you try to distract yourself further by playing with your cell phone like worry beads, blindly text messaging somebody—anybody, to give you flight.  If that brings no relief, the rescue strategy moves to DEFCON 1—you excuse yourself, get up and go to

  1. Bathroom
  2. Lobby
  3. Snack bar and buy your cover story--popcorn!
  4. Peruse lobby posters for coming attractions
  5. Make a cell phone call to activate your therapy app.

Eventually your excitation subsides, the throb in your neck slows.  You decide to check if it’s safe to re-enter the fright fray.  But first you crack the door, listen to the dialogue AND MUSIC score to make sure that the really scary stuff has passed.  It’s safe to go back to your seat. Cautiously you walk down the aisle, sit down and whisper to your empathy-challenged date (‘that insensitive shit who may indeed be borderline Asperger’s-- now that you think about it’) that you left because “nature and popcorn called.”

So what was that unfolding self-ejection ritual really all about?  What you’ve done is cut off sensory input, interrupt the physiological arousal process and broke the accumulating chain of tension in the nervous system.  Without active stimulation of the fear response by inputting or replaying the frightening movie scenes, sights and sounds, the sensory chain is terminated, physiological arousal subsides and a relaxation response assumes a dominant place in the nervous system.  But keep in mind, because of the residue of the excitation transfer process, your mind and body are ready for re-arousal much more quickly than before.

 Be warned:  you can run but you can’t hide.  You can leave the theater after the film is over.  But will the film leave you once you’ve left the theater?  Watch Psycho, and then take a shower.  Don’t forget to lock the bathroom door. 

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