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.

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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

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