The Hitchcock Principle

I hope that everyone has seen at least one movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense. Although to be perfectly honest, he is not the master of suspense, he is a master of storytelling, which is something similar.

Suspense is nothing more than good storytelling. It is the action of holding your audience’s attention so that they don’t wander.

I watch as much Alfred Hitchcock as by endocrine glands can stand. I love to see his actors, his camera movements, and his hatred of eggs. (I don’t blame him.)

But my favorite motif of Hitchcock films is something that I call the Hitchcock principle, and it makes every one of his movies worth watching. Without the Hitchcock principle, his movies would be little more than Cary Grant standing in half shadow.

Hitchcock films are near perfect storytelling for two reasons:

      1. Everyone likes to be a little scared.
      2. Everyone likes to laugh.

End quote.

Think of a tense movie you watched once, that pushed things a little too far.

Say, a movie where the snakes had gained sentience and were dropping from the ceiling upon the love torn couple who had just announced that they were pregnant, and suddenly the moon blows up and people’s faces started melting off.

You get the picture.

When you watched that movie, you probably reached a point where you awoke to yourself and found that you were sitting somewhere watching a movie, and you wondered what the actors were thinking when they shot the scene with the crying little girl who turned out to really be a shapeshifting turtle.

Or to restate the same idea by burying it under writer-speak:

The story pushed your emotions to a limit and you began to look at the story as an objective onlooker rather than a subjective audience. You were suddenly standing outside looking at a cute little make believe story inside a bright box.

Good storytelling should never, ever, do that.

J.R.R. Tolkien puts it much better than I can:

What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from the outside.” -J.R.R. Tolkien

This very thing happened to me when I was young and was watching the Dark Knight Rises. I was pulled this way and that and beaten to a lather up to the scene where Bane declares total anarchy (which would look totally different than what the movie shows, but that’s a topic for another day) when I slipped out of my subjective mode and thought how funny the movie was. Bane’s voice, for one, was hilarious.

Alfred Hitchcock theorized that the human mind can only process so much of a certain emotion (suspense, for example) until it reaches a breaking point. When that happens, the mind will employ a defense mechanism to upset the hold that the emotion has on them. This defense mechanism is usually humor.

So Hitchcock would scatter bits of humor in the tense moments of his movies to break the tension, thus allowing the suspense to extend further and longer. His use of humor allowed his movies to become more terrifying.

And that’s what makes Hitchcock so easy to watch. He understood to balance the emotional content to keep the audience in a state of suspended disbelief.

That’s the Hitchcock Principle.

Thanks for letting me ramble on, folks. I love you all dearly. Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to like, share, and stuff. Whatever. -BW

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