By Alfred Hitchcock, as told to Adele Whitely Fletcher
American Weekly magazine, Oct. 30, 1960
A baby, coming into this world brings with him two fears— the fear of falling, the fear of a loud and sudden noise.
Then what happens?
Then the two who love him most proceed to encourage these fears. His adoring mother bends toward him, suddenly, with a loud “Boo!” If he reacts with laughter, she is enchanted. But sometimes he hiccoughs instead. His exuberant father throws him into the air and catches him in his arms. If he laughs, his father is proud. But sometimes the baby cries, instead.
Nor does a child’s education in fear stop there. It continues with a scary curriculum of ghost stories, Halloween capers, neighborhood gossip of haunted houses, amusement-park treats in which skulls with green eyes gleam in the darkness and blood-curdling shrieks rend the air, and stories as terrifying as Little Red Riding Hood. As a postgraduate course in fear for the kindergarten set there are, of course, threats of bogeyman, big dogs and policemen who come after bad children.
Some phases of fear we enjoy. Or I would not be in business.
The next time you pass a school playground, stop for a minute and watch the little girl in the swing. There’s sure to be a little girl in a swing. Whether she propels herself or is pushed by a little boy, she insists upon going higher and higher until the physical excitement of fear overtakes her, Then she is satisfied, eager even, to slow down.
Later, I’m happy to say, in what appears to be the same quest for spine-tingling, older girls will say to their boyfriends, “Let’s go to the movies; a Hitchcock thriller’s playing.”
Clearly my audiences go to the theater hoping to be scared out of their wits. I try not to disappoint them. And there are certain principles, I have learned, which I can depend on when I want my audiences to shiver.
For one thing, danger must be imminent. When the danger is remote and far away, it does nothing to an audience.
For another, imagination is more powerful than reality. How often do we fear something that is about to happen—only to find, when it does, that it isn’t really so bad after all. In my films I usually try not to show violence, rather to let the audience’s imagination supply it.
Again, people are afraid not only for themselves, but for others. Wherever Psycho was shown, audiences cried out warnings to any unsuspecting character who started towards the “house of danger.” And when these characters entered the house and began to climb the stairs. a breathlessness filled the theater. It was delicious.
Incidentally, the better known a star, the more acutely an audience will worry about him. When a relatively unknown actor, with whom they have little identification, is in danger, they feel merely concern. The scene in North by Northwest in which Cary Grant was chased by an airplane brought me more letters than any other scene I ever have directed.
Many of the fears we carry with us are products of our civilization. For instance:
The fear of atom and hydrogen bombs; fear we will lose control of ourselves; fears about money; fear of old age and helplessness; fear—when things are going wonderfully—that our good fortune won’t last.