No Terror in the Bang

What makes something suspenseful? What are the necessary ingredients that, when mixed together in just the right amounts, at just the right moments, cause us to feel the tension at a visceral level, and make us want to read through the pages at warp speed, desperate to see how it all turns out?

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When asking such a question, who better to turn to than the Master of Suspense himself?

“There is no terror in the bang,”Alfred Hitchcock once said, “only in the anticipation of it.”  Indeed.  In his films, the acclaimed director is not seeking quick, cheap thrills.  He builds tension, slowly, incrementally, a nip here, a prod there . . . we as the audience are left knowing something will happen.  But when?  Where?  In what way?  The buildup has us on the edge of our seats.

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Perhaps no movie embodies this more than Hitchcock’s most controversial work, Psycho.

For many, Psycho will forever be remembered for its shower scene, where the main character of the movie up to that point, Marion Crane, produces cinema’s most famous scream before being brutally murdered in the Bates Motel.

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Released in 1960, Psycho was a landmark, breaking many of Hollywood’s long-standing and previously iron-clad rules.  Never before had moviegoers witnessed such a graphic murder; never before had a star actress been eliminated not even halfway through a film; and, indeed, never before had a toilet been flushed on-screen, as it was shortly before the stabbing.

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However, for all that, I would argue that Psycho‘s most effective, and suspenseful, scene occurs just prior to Marion Crane’s shower.

To back up for a moment . . . Marion has just stumbled upon the Bates Motel, well off the beaten path, as she flees from her hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, a large sum of stolen money in her purse.  She is running away, to see her boyfriend, who lives just across the California state line, in debt himself.

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However, driving through a rainstorm on a dark night, Marion’s conscience begins to get the better of her.  We witness her inner struggle, as she wages battle with her personal demons.  We sympathize with her.  We get to know her.

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And by the time she checks in to the Bates Motel, she wraps the money in a newspaper, fully intent on returning to Phoenix the next day and setting things right. 

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But for now, for tonight, she has agreed to have dinner with the motel’s proprietor, Norman Bates, who has invited her to come up to the Gothic mansion that sits on the hill overlooking the motel.

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The place is deserted.  The main thoroughfare no longer runs by the Bates Motel, as it once did.  Nowadays, as Norman himself admits, no one ever stops there anymore unless they’ve mistakenly turned off of the new highway.

As Marion, tucked away in her motel room, hides the stolen money, she overhears an argument between Norman and what we (and Marion) assume to be his mother, coming from inside the mansion atop the hill.  Their voices carry on the damp night air.  Mrs. Bates tells him, in no uncertain terms, that the “strange young girl”  is not welcome in her home.   Moments later, Norman sheepishly returns to the motel, a tray of sandwiches and milk in hand.

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Awkwardly, apologizing for his mother’s outburst, he invites Marion to eat in the parlor behind the motel office, since “eating in an office is just too officious.”

As they enter the parlor, Marion notices a collection of stuffed birds hanging on the walls–crows, owls, hawks, assorted birds of prey. She asks Norman about this.

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He shares with her the essentials of taxidermy, but explains he only stuffs birds, nothing else.  “Some people stuff dogs and cats,” he says.  “But I can’t do that.”  He smiles, looking and acting like the boy next door.

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“A man should have a hobby,” Marion says.

He smiles again, says a hobby should pass the time, not fill it.

“Is your time so empty?” she asks him.  “Do you go out with friends?”

He pauses, fidgets.  “Well, a boy’s best friend is his mother.”

At this point, the discussion inevitably shifts toward Norman’s relationship with his mother.  He tells Marion that when his mother yells at him, as she just did, he feels like “cursing her” and “defying her.”  But he knows he can’t.  “She’s ill,” mentally unstable.

When Marion asks him why he doesn’t go away for a while, he shakes his head.

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“I couldn’t do that.  Who’d look after her?  She’d be alone up there.  Her fire would go out, and be cold and damp like a grave.  If you love someone, you don’t do that to them even if you hate them. . . . You understand, I don’t hate her.  I hate what she’s become.  I hate the illness.”

“Wouldn’t it be better if you put her . . . someplace?” Marion asks.

Norman’s face suddenly darkens.  Gone is the smile.  He scowls, the stuffed birds behind him watching, lurking.

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“You mean an institution?” he says.  “A madhouse?  People always call a madhouse ‘someplace,’ don’t they?  ‘Put her in someplace.'”

“I’m sorry,” Marion says, clearly growing nervous.  Norman’s demeanor has undergone a quick 180 since she first sat down.  The kind, almost chivalrous host has left.  In his place there is now a grim, angry alter ego.  “I didn’t mean it to sound uncaring.”

Norman spits out his next words through clenched teeth.  “What do you know about caring?  Have you ever seen the inside of one of those places?  The laughing and the tears, and the cruel eyes staring at you?  My mother there?  But she’s harmless!  She’s as harmless as one of those stuffed birds.”

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The camera pans back and forth between the two. Marion is wide-eyed, concerned, realizing she has unintentionally snipped and hacked at a nerve.

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She apologizes again, tells him she meant well.

“People always mean well,” he says, teeth still clenched.  “They cluck their thick tongues oh so very delicately.”  Marion’s expression has now morphed from concern to fear.  What will this man do?

But then Norman sits back, his features softening.  “Of course, I’ve suggested it myself.  But I hate to even think about it.  She needs me.  It’s not as if she were a maniac, a raving thing.  She just goes a little mad sometimes.  We all go a little mad sometimes.”  And now the smile returns . . . “Haven’t you?”

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Marion admits that she has, and gets up.  Norman wants her to stay, “just for talk,” but she tells him she’s very tired.  Deferential now, the boyish charm back, he promises to bring her breakfast first thing tomorrow morning.

It is a breakfast that will never be served.  Mere minutes later, Marion is murdered in her shower.

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*************

Psycho‘s Parlor Scene is a masterpiece in mood, foreshadowing, tension, and, most important of all, character.  In one scene, we witness the many multiple aspects of Norman Bates.  We are charmed by his initial shyness, his polite, impeccable manners, his boyish good looks.

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But over the course of the conversation, as the pall of his mother takes over, we are frightened, right along with Marion, at his transformation into an angry, bitter misanthrope.  By the time the scene ends, and he swings back to the smiling boy next door, we can only feel a chill.  The smile no longer seems so innocent.  The kindness no longer feels so pure.  Something terrible lurks just beneath the surface.

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If the Parlor Scene had never occurred, the murder in the shower still would have stunned and horrified audiences.  But the effect would not have been as profound or memorable, or suspenseful, nor would it have been as earnestly won.  Meeting Norman Bates in the parlor, witnessing the duality of  his character, and watching how it all plays out in his interaction with Marion Crane, the tension builds to a crescendo, taking us further along on this winding, uphill journey into terror.

***************

Certainly The Eye-Dancers is nowhere near as dark or violent as Psycho, but it is, I hope, suspenseful where it needs to be.  It was my goal, when I wrote the novel, to place the main characters under the fictional microscope as it were, so readers would get to know Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski very, very well.

Suspense can be built into any kind of story or situation.  From a death-defying stunt to armed hand-to-hand combat on the one end, to the results of a test score or the outcome of a sporting event on the other.

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You don’t need a groundbreaking, horrific shower scene to generate suspense.

You just need engaging, interesting characters and allow your audience the opportunity to get to know them.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Rear Window Point of View

Some stories grab you by the throat, plunge you in from the get-go, and never let up, sprinting frenetically to the finish line at a speed so blistering your head spins as you race along for the ride.  An old-school action movie, perhaps, or a thriller that scarcely pauses to catch its breath . . .

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece, Rear Window, based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich titled “It Had to Be Murder,” is definitely not such a story.

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From the opening sequence where we view, along with main character L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (played by James Stewart), the apartment complex across the street, the film is decidedly unrushed.

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It takes its time, the plot unfolding slowly, allowing the viewer to ease into the story line and characters, the cinematic equivalent of a leisurely stroll along a country lane.  This is not to suggest that Rear Window is dull.  Far from it.  It is widely regarded as one of Hitchcock’s most accomplished movies, and has long been a personal favorite of mine.

The story centers around Jefferies, confined to a wheelchair, his left leg broken and in a cast, suffered while photographing an auto race accident.

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He has been whiling away the time in his small New York City apartment, with little to do except spy on his neighbors across the way.  For a man of action like Jefferies, whose job routinely takes him to some of the world’s most remote and dangerous locales, the inactivity is like a slow, torturous death sentence.

We meet his neighbors, right along with him.  The entire film is shown from Jefferies’ perspective.  When we see his neighbors, we see only what he sees.  We are never actually in their apartments.  We, like Jefferies, are spying, voyeurs, peering in through back windows at the private rituals and arguments and parties of the Other.

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From this point of view, we meet a dancer whom Jefferies calls Miss Torso, who is continually prancing around her room in a bikini and other various states of undress.  She practices her dance steps in full view of Jefferies, who eagerly takes in the view.

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We meet a single woman Jefferies nicknames Miss Lonelyheart.  One evening we spy her entertaining an imaginary guest at her table, before breaking down in tears.  We, like Jefferies, question whether or not we should be witnessing such private acts.  But we do, and we are.

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And we also meet a bickering married couple, the Thorwalds.  The husband is a salesman, the wife is unwell, spending her days in bed.  Jefferies can’t help but notice their quarrels.  Their flat is just across from his.

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While me meet the neighbors, we also enter into Jefferies’ personal life.  He has problems of his own, apart from the broken leg.  His girlfriend, Lisa Fremont (played by Grace Kelly), a wealthy socialite, wants to get married.

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Jefferies tells her it wouldn’t be a good idea.  He doesn’t want to settle into a comfortable city life taking photos at her fashion events.  And he doesn’t believe she is cut out to be the wife of a traveling photographer who spends much of his time in rustic, back-country places.  He tells her it’s not the life for her–neither of them would be happy in the other’s world.

One night, after an argument with Lisa about this very issue, Jefferies spies the Thorwalds in the apartment across the way having another of their fights.  Later, after midnight, there is a scream and a crash and a single cry of, “Don’t!” and then all is quiet.  Jefferies observes Thorwald leave the apartment three times during the night, each time carrying his salesman’s case.  Something seems amiss.  As the days pass, Jefferies, collecting various clues as he continues to keep an ever-present eye on Thorwald, believes that the salesman has murdered his wife.

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But even here, the film takes its time.  We never leave Jefferies’ apartment.  We learn what he learns, at the same pace he does.   The movie continues to build in momentum, slowly, allowing us to taste every nuance, pause at every twist and turn of the plot.  Along the way, we further delve into the lives of Miss Torso and Miss Lonelyheart, along with other neighbors.  The time of year, midsummer, with an oppressive heat wave, only serves to emphasize the unhurried pace of the plot.  Everyone is hot, the air is thick with humidity, muggy like soup.  Nothing will be rushed.

There is a method to the madness, of course.  Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, is taking his viewers by the hand, and leading them, gently, softly, up a winding mountain back road.  We have to solve the mystery right along with the protagonist, and while we do, we get to know him, his personality, his insecurities, his faults, and his idiosyncracies, right along with those of his neighbors’.  It is a rich, layered story, strangely comfortable in spite of the potential horror taking place across the way.  It makes us want to settle in, stay for a while, and lose ourselves in its world.

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It also makes the ending, a confrontation between Thorwald and Jefferies, stand out in bold relief to the rest of the film.  Everything has been leading up to this–the crash of the cymbals after the slow, melodic dance.  The bold, brutal display of violence after two hours of merely hinting at it.  It is a climax earnestly won, an eruption of suspense perfectly timed.

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It is also a very good reminder.

Sometimes, when in the process of writing a novel, or even a shorter work, it is easy to fall into the finishing-too-quickly trap.  If you’re in chapter 21, and you have big plans for chapter 22, the natural temptation is to cut that last scene in chapter 21 just a little short, the eagerness, anticipation, and excitement over the big chapter to come simply too much to resist.  I know I fell into this mind-set at times during the writing of The Eye-Dancers.

While every chapter in a novel is important, there are, naturally, certain chapters that stand out as truly crucial, the linchpins upon which everything else rests.  When I was nearing a “linchpin” chapter, I often had to remind myself to slow down, and give the present chapter the attention it deserved.  If I rushed the current chapter, then the impact of the “big” chapter that followed would be minimized due to the faults and sloppiness of the chapter that preceded it.  In such moments, when the temptation to rush was at its strongest, I would think of old L.B. Jefferies in his wheelchair, watching, waiting, slow, slow . . . and I would take a deep breath, and carry on, careful not to race through.

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And while the major chapters, the big fight scenes, the incredible time warps all serve as the “wow”scenes in any story, it is the little chapters, the quiet sequences that often move us and help us to relate to the story and the characters who populate it.  A short conversation between friends.  An inside joke between a husband and wife.  A moment of introspection as your main character relaxes on the sofa, watching an old rerun and sipping tea.  Scenes like this add nuance, substance, and texture to the story.  They are the peeks behind the curtain, the herbs and spices that bring out the rich, hearty flavor beneath the surface.  They are the hidden gems at the bottom of the pile, the rare finds at the back of the store.

And they offer us, in their shy, softspoken manner, The Rear Window point of view.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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