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Anticipation is a Suspenseful Thing

Anticipation is a Suspenseful Thing

Probably the most difficult task a director faces is making his audience feel certain emotions at certain places in his film. At times, the director will want the audience to feel sad. Later he might want them to feel angry. Alfred Hitchcock was a master at making his audience feel suspenseful and horrified. Some of the best examples of Hitchcock's ability to do this are found in Psycho, especially the two scenes where characters enter the Bates' house. In these scenes, Hitchcock, through masterful use of camera angle, music, editing, and lighting, creates a strong feeling of anticipation which builds an atmosphere of suspense.

The first character to enter the house is Milton Arbogast. As he looks around the foyer, several subjective shots reveal various doors, all obscured in dark shadows. These are possible places the killer could be hiding. The entire foyer looks dark and formal, much like a museum and this imparts a feeling of antiquity and sterility. Soft, high pitched music can be heard in the background. The music consists of one sustained chord full of tension. The viewer expects the chord to change, but it does not and he or she starts to feel increasingly uneasy. In addition, the dissonance in the chord causes greater and greater tension in the viewer and this is a great source of suspense.

Arbogast's ascent up the stairs is recorded with a high angle, medium close-up, tracking shot. This shot has the effect of revealing to the viewer everything that Arbogast cannot see. As he climbs the stairs, a high angle shot reports the opening of a door and the shadow of the killer can be seen behind it. The viewer probably concludes that this is one of the doors that was seen earlier and expects the killer to follow Arbogast and kill him from behind. Thus, a viewer thinks he or she knows what is going to happen and is waiting for these events to unfold. Suspense is created from this anticipation.

When Arbogast reaches the top of the stairs, the camera angle switches to a top shot that reveals the landing. From the right side of the frame, the viewer can see "mother" approaching Arbogast with a raised knife. Immediately, the music switches to a fast beat, high pitched, tensioned style that resembles a human voice screaming at the viewer, causing horror and fear. The viewer is given information that is denied Arbogast: he or she sees the killer, but Arbogast never notices him. "Mother" walks toward Arbogast instead of rushing at him. This causes the viewer to either anticipate Arbogast's murder or a possible struggle for about five seconds. He or she is unsure what will happen since the viewer has come to identify with Arbogast and expects him to live. This apprehension and doubt creates a considerable amount of suspense.

Arbogast's fall is also filmed with a high angle, medium close-up, tracking shot. There is a gash across his face and his expression is one of horror, a feeling that is definitely passed onto the audience. However, this scene is very clumsy. It is very unrealistic that Arbogast would be able to stumble down the stairs in the way that he does. This has the effect of making this shot look slightly ridiculous. When he hits the floor, the music changes to a low, droning sound that sounds like a funeral dirge. "Mother" rushes to him and stabs his body repeatedly. Arbogast's death is emphasized by a light that illuminates his body while leaving the surroundings dark. Norman is dominant in this shot, firmly placing him as the victor. The knife is accentuated by a shaft of light gleaming off of its blade. The viewer is left with a sense of doom.

The next character to enter the house is Lila Crane. The music accompanying her climb towards the house does not convey any particular emotion. She is filmed in much the same way that Arbogast was when he climbed the stairs, except now shots of Lila are intermingled with low angle, subjective, tracking long shots of the house. This fills the viewer with a sense of foreboding, not only because Lila is shown as small and weak (as a result of a high angle perspective) and the house as dominating (because of low angle shots), but also because this is how Arbogast was shown just before he died. A connection is made between the two sequences and the viewer suspects something will happen to Lila. The lighting enhances these emotions. Lila is very illuminated while the house is poorly lighted. The darkness of the house reinforces the fact that there is something sinister about it.

As Lila enters the house, the music stops and the suspense is alleviated. The sequence then switches to Sam and Norman in the motel office. The scenes of Sam and Norman have three affects on the viewer. First, they increase the time of the sequence, which causes more suspense since the viewer is kept anticipating the results of Lila's excursion longer. Second, during this time the viewer has no idea what is happening to Lila and this produces feelings of anxiety. Lastly, as the conversation between Sam and Norman evolves, Norman becomes increasingly nervous and his distress is transferred to the viewer.

When Lila enters mother's room, the music resumes and this causes an expectation that something is going to happen. The room is very clean and appears like no living being has been there for a very long time. She is startled by her reflection in the mirror, but this has little affect on the viewer since he or she can clearly see that it is Lila in the mirror. Next, in the scene just before Lila enters Norman's room, a low angle shot shows her opening the door. The railings of the stairs form several diagonal lines across the frame which cause feelings of confusion and unease. She searches the room and several subjective shots reveal children's toys which have sad expressions and this unhappiness is felt by the viewer. She picks up a book and starts to thumb through it and the viewer gets the impression that Lila has just violated something personal of Norman's and is now in serious danger. This is the only part of the house that appears lived-in.

The next important sequence records Lila's excursion into the cellar. The music becomes chaotic and the viewer expects something to happen since it is known that "mother" is in the cellar. In the first room, she is well lit while the rest of the room is dark. The viewer expects "mother" to appear out of the shadows and kill Lila, but she makes it safely to the next room. A subjective shot shows mother in the corner and Lila turning the chair. It is again thought that mother will attack Lila, creating apprehension, but instead mother's face produces horror and disgust. This is augmented by the music, which has become the high shriek it was when Arbogast was killed. The lighting becomes chaotic because Lila has hit a light bulb. Norman bursts into the room and it is suspected that Lila will be killed, causing dread. Sam appears and wrestles with Norman. There is some concern as to what the outcome of the struggle will be, but Norman is defeated and the low, mournful lament heard when Arbogast died can be heard again, which signals the end of Norman, just as it did with Arbogast. Lastly, mother's face is seen again and the music becomes chaotic once more. This reinforces the strangeness of the events that have occurred.

It seems that the major way Hitchcock creates suspense is by making the viewer anticipate events, some which occur and others that do not. There are many places where the viewer expects a character to be killed when he or she is not and at least one time he or she thinks a character was going to live, only to see his murder moments later. This anticipation is created by revealing things that the characters in the film do not know. Other elements, especially music and lighting, are added to increase feelings of apprehension. It is hard to judge how effective Hitchcock is in creating this suspense since his methods have been so emulated over the years that a modern viewer expects all of his techniques. However, I am sure that when Psycho was first released, it was very successful in shocking and filling the audience with anticipation. Whatever its effect on modern audiences, Psycho is probably responsible either directly or indirectly for the first scream many of us have cried out in a theater.

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Last updated: Mon, 14 Mar 2005 - 13:00:06

 

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