Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for October 25th, 2011

Two shots from Psycho, or the power of dread

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Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is full of unforgettable images, but two of the greatest are often overlooked. The first is that oddly melancholy moment when, from over Janet Leigh’s shoulder, we see the bathroom door open through the translucent shower curtain, the camera silently holding for a few seconds on the silhouette of the figure beyond, before the curtain is drawn aside and all hell breaks loose. The second, from the great staircase scene, is the shot of the door opening at the top of the steps, also in silence, shortly before Martin Balsam’s detective meets his startling end. Neither shot draws attention to itself, but both are utterly essential: for a few agonizing seconds, we know exactly what’s going to happen next, and that sense of dread heightens our terror and horror at what immediately follows.

Dread, terror, and horror: these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but they’re very different things, and all writers of horror or suspense should understand the distinction. The definitive explanation is Orson Scott Card’s, in the introduction to his collection Maps in a Mirror, and if you’ve never read it, please check it out here. Dread, he explains, is the fear you feel when you know that something is wrong, but aren’t quite sure what it is—the strange sound in the house, the creaking floorboard, the light under the closed door. Terror is when the killer or monster is coming at you at last. And horror is the aftermath: the body, the blood, Janet Leigh’s staring eye. Of the three, horror is the weakest, while dread is the strongest, because it preys on our fears and imagination. As Card writes:

True, bad things happen to my characters. Sometimes terrible things. But I don’t show it to you in living color. I don’t have to. I don’t want to. Because, caught up in dread, you’ll imagine far worse things happening than I could ever think up to show you myself.

At their most effective, the tools of dread seem so simple that it’s easy to underestimate the craft required. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King observes that the scariest image in the world is that of a closed door. Very true—but only if the pieces of the story have been properly assembled in advance, so that we’re afraid to find out what might be on the other side. I’ve rarely had as hair-raising an experience at the movies as the first time I saw No Country For Old Men, but its greatest image, like those in Psycho, is one of the simplest: a closed hotel room door, seen from inside, with light visible underneath, which is suddenly blocked off by the shadow of a man in the hallway. Nothing could be simpler—except that film has already established the characters of the men both inside and outside the room, and without that essential groundwork, the tension wouldn’t be nearly as unbearable.

And the tools of dread, like all fictional devices, can be misused when taken out of context. Ti West’s ’80s horror pastiche The House of the Devil has a lot of fans, but for all its cleverness, I think it displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the workings of true horror. It repeatedly shows its heroine moving past dark doorways, and each time she does, our heart rate accelerates—but time and again, nothing happens. And after an hour of establishing the layout of this terrifying house, when the horror finally does come, the film commits the ultimate crime: it cuts away to a room we’ve never seen. The mounting sense of dread turns out to be just another tease, even if more skillfully executed than most. Because the ultimate lesson of dread is that, to justify itself, it must turn to terror. The shower curtain draws back. The figure appears on the stairs. And sooner or later, something comes out of that door.

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Written by nevalalee

October 25, 2011 at 7:25 am

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