Scare Tactics/ Poe, Hitchcock, and the Modern Suspense Story

Essay, 2001

22 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)

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Scare Tactics / Poe, Hitchcock, and The Modern Suspense Story


So here it is: the cherry on top of my Christ College experience. When I was a sophomore spending most of my time at Mueller Hall, I envisioned a grand opus of an honor’s thesis, something incorporating my love of swing music and dance with my love of travel, as well as some great historical or philosophical texts, from Socrates to Bonhoeffer. And then you study abroad for a year, and when you come back, the honors thesis is just one of many things you have to squeeze in before graduation. Before you know it, the semester is almost over and you still don’t have a topic, and you begin to wonder how you got yourself into this job of writing a 20-page masterpiece on Edgar Allan Poe, and how Dean Schwehn expects an innocent physics student to be a literary critic anyways.

So, in a moment of something like despair, I watched Vertigo on a whim, because my roommate had the movie sitting around, and because I vaguely remembered that my dad had mentioned that someone else had said that Hitchcock is a lot like Poe. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I had stumbled upon a Pandora’s Box of Poe-influence. Not only do Poe and Hitch have a lot in common, but they are both incredible storytellers. And suddenly, I have this phat notebook full of insights into their works, and the more criticism of either Poe or Hitchcock that I read, the more I find that other people noticed the same things I did.

I’m proud of this paper. Doing this research taught me how to be a listener and an audience to a storyteller, to pay attention without immediately picking apart, and to understand better how good writers work with us. So this is the end product of a lot of long nights spent listening to two of the best storytellers I’ve ever encountered, and I guess that means it deserves a spot in the box of documents that I will save from Valpo.

In the interest of space, I’ve relegated all summaries of the Hitchcock films and Poe stories that I mention in this paper to the appendix. Most of these are “borrowed” from the sources listed, and I hope that they’ll make my paper a bit more coherent.

It needs to be mentioned that most of this paper happened in my last two weeks of college, right as the weather turned from Valparainsnow to summer-vacation-warm. That alone merits a night of debauchery at a local Valpo establishment. But such is senior week.

Edgar Allan Poe’s influence on modern horror- and suspense stories is largely undisputed, and it takes only a little bit of reading to begin to understand the effect that that his macabre, weird, and often funny stories have had on writers after him. We certainly see Poe’s most common themes, especially his most famous tales like “The Raven” and “The Pit and the Pendulum,” all over the place. Thus, when I decided to investigate Poe’s influence on modern scary-storytelling, I couldn’t help but stumble across the so-called Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, whose films are equally said to form the foundation of the modern suspense story. However, we sell both storytellers short if we simply throw them into one box marked, “spooky women and mysterious murders.” It becomes evident with every Hitchcock movie watched and every Poe story read, that these two storytellers both separate themselves from the rest of the pack because neither jumps right into the supernatural and freakish. Instead, they take what we know is real - our own familiar fears, insecurities, and vices - and craft them into stories that are fantastic yet oddly plausible.

1. Blurring the Lines between the Natural and Supernatural

Reason and superstition all mixed up

It’s fairly well agreed-upon that one of Poe’s identifying marks is his tendency to let both the enlightenment and romanticism into his work, often allowing neither one of the two to own the story, but forcing them to do battle without resolution. Of “Morella” and “Berenice,” “The Sphinx,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Tell-tale Heart”, none are directly supernatural, but are about terror that the narrators' own mental disintegration produced.

Like Goya's painting "The Sleep (Dream) of Reason," (Fig, 1) monsters come from what we don't understand or can't control about ourselves, the sleep (or dream) of reason. Poe's technique, as May writes, is, "to suggest the supernatural by pushing the natural to extremes."

If Poe combines reason and superstition, Hitchcock mixes them in all new crazy ways. Part of magic of Vertigo, for example, is in the unconventional way that Hitchcock gives away the mystery. Madeleine's possession seems at first to be the actual mystery in this mystery-story, but Judy/Madeleine’s secret comes out less than half-way through, and the focus is suddenly on Scottie's obsession with bringing Madeleine back from the dead. In fact, as the ghostly “possession” of the first half is debunked, Scottie himself seems to be possessed by “the Mad Carlotta” (Modleski 94), accosting strangers on the street in search of the person he lost. Thus, Hitchcock scholars like Tania Modleski write that at the heart of Vertigo lie, rather than ghosts or murder, “the lure and the thread of madness" (Modleski 94) The dark forces at work in this story, like the above Poe stories, are not ghosts or monsters, but disintegrations of the human mind, the sueno of reason.

Madeleine/Judy’s “possession” of comes from beyond the grave, a device actually used by both Hitchcock and Poe. The title character in Rebecca, as well as Mrs. Bates in Psycho, are both main characters in stories that begins after their deaths. Just like Poe’s “Morella” or the old man with the evil eye in "The Tell-Tale Heart," these characters live in minds of the live ones. Reason says that they should not have any power now that they’re dead, that the second wife in Rebecca should just relax and tell herself, “I am Mrs. DeWinter now,”or that the narrator of “Morella” should move on and remarry, but we can’t deny the influence of the dead person. In fact, in the close-ups on Carlotta’s painting, or the silhouette of Norman Bates dressed as his mother, just like the terror that the narrator in “Morella” feels when he names his daughter after the mother, we understand the dead character is anything but dead. The effect in all of these stories is that our assurance in the death of a villain, and our confidence in the meaning of death, are undermined.

Reason quickly demystifies the ghosts in these stories. But reason alone always falls flat, and it turns out that the threat to the characters is much more difficult to escape than monsters under the bed.

Playing with narrator participation

Hitchcock and Poe both tend to vary the extent to which the narrators or protagonists of their stories participate in the weird stuff that happens; some protagonists are more or less random witnesses to an unbelievable story, whereas others start out as observers then become actors in the mystery, and still other are themselves the cause of the mystery. In all cases, both storytellers show us that nobody is safe from the monsters that come about when the real blends into the surreal.

Some protagonists find themselves thrown into these stories for reasons that are totally out of their control. In "The Fall of the House of Usher," the real focus of the story is, according to Martha Womack, "the narrator's reaction and understanding of these strange events," where, "even to look into the dark imagination where fantasy becomes reality is to evoke madness." This is an example of Poe writing about events that are so much bigger than the protagonists, that these are just observers caught in a turmoil they can’t affect.

“The Descent into the Maelstrom,” and “The Pit and the Pendulum” also fall into this category. The narrator in each story doesn't know where he is and how he got there, and the story then unfolds around his attempt to escape using rational observation and deduction. This total lack of understanding in a nightmarish setting are what make the events of the story frightening, because deduction and observation are put to the test, and it’s doubtful whether either narrator really would have escaped without luck and coincidence on his side. The narrator of “The Fall of the House of Usher” equally tries to hold things together by giving Roderick Usher the right therapy, but, from the beginning of the story to the end, he is powerless against the “shadowy fancies” that creep over him and eventually make the old house of Usher collapse.

We meet similar unwitting spectator-narrators in Hitchcock. Marion's own crime in Psycho kicks off the story, but while she does have a lot to run from, this is really Norman's story. Marion's guilt turns out to be trivial in comparison to Norman's, and she and the others (who actually think they are primary players in solving Marion's mystery) become little more than unfortunate witnesses to Norman's much sicker crime. We see the same sort of thing in "The Birds", where Melanie's trouble with the law seems to be the focus of the story at first, but then turns out to be completely inconsequential in light of the real terror that hits the town. The protagonist in Rebecca spends most of the movie wide-eyed and, even though she eventually does assert her authority to Mrs. Danvers, it doesn't save her from the masquerade disaster. She plays very little part in Maxim's pseudo-trial, and her escape from Rebecca’s control ends up happening through events that go way over her head.

None of these characters come away without scars, however, in fact, only a few of them come back alive. It is our instinct that the protagonist will walk away unharmed in the end, the way Roger Thornhill and Eve Kendall in North by Northwest go from dangling off Mount Rushmore to their honeymoon in the switch of a frame. But in most of Hitchcock’s films, being an outside witness to strange events does not ensure escape.

The second kind of protagonist starts out as an outsider, but becomes an actor in the story as it unfolds. In one of a few comparative essays that I have found between Hitchcock and Poe, Dennis Perry notes that, in both Vertigo and “Ligeia,” the transformation of the second woman into the one that was lost is necessarily "accompanied by the increased emotional instability of the protagonists." In other words, these male observers, who start out as the normal person next to a strange, troubled woman, find that they themselves unwind mentally as things get more and more complicated.

Though Scottie starts out as the detached observer/detective who believes that there's a rational explanation for everything in Vertigo, he is the madman by the end and, instead being her protector, causes Madeleine’s death. In a slightly similar way, Sean Connery's character, Mark Rutland, in Marnie exudes suave confidence when he first confronts Marnie about her theft, even mentioning how he has trained a dangerous animal to trust him. But as the story unfolds we see that he didn't quite know what he was getting himself into, and he soon becomes Marnie's foil, "battling" with her until her demons are brought out. "Ligeia" and "Morella" both posthumously bring out the insanity or perversity of the male narrators. We don't really have it so easy as to relegate Ligeia's resurrection or Morella's reincarnation into the bin of the supernatural, because we can't separate these events from the madness of the male observers.

There is also the flaneur character (Freedman 123), the super-curious observer who watches, and seems to perfectly understand, the crowd. Crowds of people become a normal character in both Poe and Hitchcock. In the same way that a statistical physicist makes the infinite complexity of the billions of molecules that constitute a gas simple by inventing a distribution function, both Poe’s watcher in “The Man of the Crowd” and L.B. Jeffries in Hitchcock’s Rear Window make themselves safe from the world by turning the urban crowd into, in Dana Brand’s words, "a harmonious collection of rational and predictable processes that could be understood and encompassed at a glance a collection of "harmless oddballs" whom one could regard with a kind of paternalistic affection.” The random tenants in Rear Window have labels ("Miss Torso", "Miss Lonelyhearts") just like the classifications of people that the narrator comes up with in “The Man of the Crowd.” The flaneur is in control, and therefore Jeffries says to his nurse when she reproaches him for his surveillance, that “It was only a little bit of innocent fun. I love my neighbors like father." (Freedman, 126)

But for both Poe and Hitchcock, the flaneur eventually loses his safe distance from and power over the crowd. Poe’s expert watcher is defeated trying to figure out his subject, and Jeffries, the “benevolent” watcher, is drawn into a crime. In North by Northwest, Roger Thornhill at first works the crowd like an expert, stealing cabs and escaping his kidnappers in the New York City hustle and bustle. But he is then sucked into a mess of mistaken identities that later leaves him lost in the completely empty and flat space of the American Midwest, where escape is suddenly much more difficult and his initial New York-confidence is useless. Thus, these watchers, as well as the men who at first think they can hold their own against their female companion, eventually find their power, authority and perception undermined.

Lastly, there are stories where the weird stuff actually originates in the narrator or protagonist. “William Wilson,” “Berenice,” “Premature Burial,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Cask of Amontillado” all have a confessionary feel to them; the characters know full well that the perversity is theirs, but can't explain it:

How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily - how calmly I can tell you the whole story. (Poe, "The Tell-Tale Heart" 303)

“ My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and wihtout comment, a series of mere household events. In their consequences these events have terrified - have tortured - have destroyed me. Yet I will not attempt to expound them. … I would fain have them believe that I have been, in some measure, the slave of circumstances beyond human control. … Have I not indeed been living a dream? (Poe, "The Black Cat" 223)

Norman Bates' internal monolgoue at the end of Psycho has similarity with these stories because even then he doesn't look terrifying, and its hard not to feel a little bit sorry for him because there is no explaining what happened in his brain, whether he is evil or just a victim of his mother (Fig. 2).

Random, lucid passersby can stumble into macabre wrinkles of reality, and some find out that is brings their out their own perversity and turns it into lunacy. Not even subjects that are aware of their own insanity from the beginning are in control or understanding. Hitchcock and Poe have thereby taken away any assurance that we might have had about distance from the frightening and weird.

Mixing up waking and dreaming

Charles May has pointed out that Poe usurps our trust in reality and perception by making his characters unable to tell their dreams from reality. Again, we’ll find that Hitchcock does the same thing.

In addition to not knowing where he is and how he got there, the terror for the narrator in “The Pit and the Pendulum” is not knowing whether, or when, he is awake or dreaming. Moving in and out of consciousness trips him up in trying to figure out the size of his prison, and makes him unable to trust even his own memory of what has happened so far.

Did that really happen or did I just dream it? That's a phenomenon we can all identify with, which is why May describes this tale as. "not a realistic story of an individual human character caught in an unjust social system, but rather a nightmarish, symbolic story about every person's worst nightmare and an allegory of the most basic human situation and dilemma” (96).

In “Ligeia,” too, the narrator drifts in and out of sleep during the stormy, disturbing night of Rowena's death (and anyone who has ever had a sleepless night knows how surreal those can become after a few hours). So, by the time Ligeia really wakes up, dream and reality are so blurred that neither we nor the narrator can entirely separate the natural from the supernatural in what is happening.

As a modern version of dreams intersecting reality, Hitchcock gives us Scottie's dream sequence in Vertigo, where he seems to follow Madeleine's ghostly possession ritual and dies her death. Even though this scene is incredibly surreal, the waking images that surround it (for example, Carlotta's cold stare or Madeleine's figure moving as if in a dream) themselves have such surreal qualities that they could be part of his dream (Fig. 3). Norman Holland points out coloring flaws that makes some scenes feel strangely "off." If we trust Hitch's filmmaking ability enough, we have to interpret these flaws as intentional, in which case they make the reality even more dreamlike and, to quote Holland, "the off-ness fits. It adds to the strangeness and unreality of mysterious Madeleine. Hitchcock keeps me in two different states of mind. (Holland 2)"

Waking and sleeping also intersect for the title character in Marnie, whose memories mess up her real life implicitly while voicing themselves in her dreams. And in a funnier take on the same phenomenon, there is the scene in North by North by Northwest where Roger Thornhill tries to convince the authorities and his loopy mother that he was kidnapped and forced to drive drunk the night before. They, in turn, give him so many simple “duh” reasons why he obviously must have dreamt the whole thing, that he loses all assurance of his memory being trustworthy and the viewers are completely confused as to what they just saw. None of these characters can be confident in what they saw. Was it really all just a dream?

The bottom line is that we, like the characters, can never know for sure whether we are awake or sleeping. By tapping into that fact, Hitch and Poe poke holes in our conviction that what we perceive around us is really what is true.

Characters and Setting Outside the Normal

A lot of these stories happen just a little outside the familiar world and involve characters that, either by intellect or social standing, are above the mainstream. Most of Poe's characters are superior intellectuals (William Wilson, Montresor, the flaneur, and Ligeia) or physically removed from the common world, in some winding mansion (Ligeia again, as well as Roderick Usher, the narrator of “The Sphinx”, and the prince in “The Mask of the Red Death”). Take, for example, Montresor in “The Cask of Amontillado;” his "don't mess with me" family motto already makes him different from you and me, and he is not only rich and powerful, but very clever as well. So we can't quite identify with these characters, but our distance makes their weird experiences more plausible because the characters are strange and unusual to us from the get-go.

Lots of Hitchcock's characters are in someway outsiders, homeless, or missing parents. Marnie, for example, has neither a father nor place in her own home, her mom having replaced her with the innocent little girl from next door. Melanie in The Birds has no mother and a rich, apparently distant father, her world consisting of idleness and bored pranks. It’s also emphasized over and over that "the second Mrs. DeWinter" in Rebecca has no home or parents, and the characters that she meets are wealthy, exceptionally talented, and in the case of the domineering housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, without any explainable origin. Again, we're too foreign to their situations to be able to reason much, and therefore have to take the strange things that happen as the story gives them to us.

But Poe's exceptional characters probably have the most similiarity to Hitchcock's icy blonde women, who have kind of a divine edge, an angelic-yet-sinful/sexual allure. They don't quite look like they can be trusted, and at the same time they seem so elegant and put together that they must be somehow superhuman. We are distanced, and we can't trust, because we can't identify.

By playing around with superstition and rationality, dreams and reality, by sticking ordinary characters into extraordinary situations, and by creating other characters that take our common conceptions to another level, Poe and Hitchcock take what is familiar to us and stretch it into what is unknown and frightening. Terror for Hitch and Poe therefore comes not through hideous murders, but because the storytellers take away from us our confidence in ourselves and our own minds. Because the “monsters” here all come out of what we know is human, we see parts of ourselves in these stories in these stories, and they become plausible.

It’s easy, now, to understand just what Hitchock meant when he mentioned Poe as one of his influences:

I don't want to seem immodest, but I can't help comparing what I've tried to put in my films with what Edgar Allan Poe put in his novels [sic]: a completely unbelievable story told to the readers with such a spellbinding logic that you get the impression that the same thing could happen to you tomorrow. (Perry 393)

2. Doubles

Another way in which Edgar Allan Poe likes to undermine our confidence in what we understand is by playing with the identities of his characters via a Doppelgaenger, a character that somehow inhabits the same persona of another character and in effect leaves an ambiguity about the character’s identity. This is another device that both Hitchcock as well as Poe use to step outside the bounds of our perception. They take away our trust that one character is really who he or she claims to be, or we think he or she is.

There are definitely are no rigid ways to define the Doppelgaenger, but there are enough general differences in the ways that each storyteller uses this device that I can go through and compare them in at least a somewhat organized way. Interestingly, the idea of the double and lost identity in Vertigo appears in all forms of the character-double that I found.

Some pairs of characters are special foils to each other, equal and opposite embodiments of one aspect of being human. It’s been argued by several critics that Madeleine and Roderick Usher, for example, are not just twins but throughout “The Fall of the House of Usher” seem to represent the mental (Roderick) and physical components (Madeleine) of one person. At the story’s beginning, the long-standing House of Usher (the family line) is about to end forever. Even the physical house has a big fat crack through it and, as it falls apart, the last remaining members of the family deteriorate too, Madeleine physically and Roderick mentally. David Grantz calls Madeleine, "the waning, but stubbornly enduring physical reality that Roderick wishes to transcend,” so that his artistic meltdown is permanently connected to her death.

Montresor and Fortunato in “The Cask of Amontillado” form a similar pair, each representing one side of human vice. Take cleverness, defense of family honor, and a sense of fairness (all pretty good qualities) too far, and you get dangerous patriotism and conniving revenge, i.e. Montresor. Similarly, enjoyment of life and leisure, in the extreme become narcissistic revelry or boneheaded debauchery and squander - Fortunato. The effect is that, even though Montresor is the protagonist, neither character is especially easy to root for because both are unlikable extremes of human traits, and watching them set against each other is uncomfortable for us.

Reason and superstition, already at battle in Vertigo, have a fabulous interplay because of a similar character duality, the romantic leads switching back and forth representation of each one. At first, Scottie, a detective, is all deduction and realism (“Well, I'd say take her to the nearest psychiatrist!”) while Madeleine represents mystery and the fantasy, the total opposite of Scotties former girlfriend, plain-jane Midge. During the first half of the film, he is her savior from the dark force that has apparently possessed her, and at the same her whole character fascinates him so much that he falls in love. When Madeleine turns out to be the common criminal Judy, the two switch sides. She takes the role of the rational, creeped-out bystander, and this time her simple task has been interrupted because she’s fallen helplessly in love. Meanwhile, Scottie falls deeper into his obsession with bringing back the dead Madeleine and, like the ghost of Carlotta in the first half of the story, starts to take possession of Judy. Like the Usher twins and Montersor and Fortunato, Scottie and Judy represent two sides of one coin; it’s Hitch’s trick that they trade places.

While Madeleine/Judy is a foil to Scottie, the more obvious pair of doubles is actually that of the delicate, enigmatic blonde Madeleine and the cute, con-woman brunette Judy. The obvious differences - that Judy has brown hair and wears vibrant colors and heavy makeup and, in contrast of Madeleine’s stiff suits, doesn’t even wear a bra - give way to two very opposing and age-old female images . Judy seems pretty hip and smart and makes it clear to Scottie that she has been picked up by the likes of him before; she is the warm, attainable, but kind of cheap sexual female (Fig 4). Madeleine, on the other hand, is cool and aloof, distant, pure, and a delicate object to be protected - the virginal ideal (Fig. 4). Holland describes her this way:

Madeleine is a woman located in past generations, but she is also now. There is a hint of eternity about her. She is both all-powerful and helpless, needing to be rescued from the spirit that is possessing her. She is the woman-to-be-looked-at, the goddess on a pedestal. (Holland 5)

Hitchcock uses the same contrast of brunettes and blondes in his other films. We first meet Marnie when she washes out her black hair disguise and shows herself to be a cunning blonde. Rutland's wannabe/mistress Lil dresses only in red and has hair so brilliantly brown that she stands out just as much when we first meet her as Marnie did when she took off her disguise. Lil is warm and very sexual, confident and funny, but, like the bright red dress she wears at the dinner part, childish and sluttish. Rutland instead falls for Marnie, the troubled Hitchock-blonde, who in contrast is dressed in a sleek white gown at the party. In The Birds, we have the enigmatic, blond prankster Melanie and her buddy Annie, a homey and more common brunette.

The crazy thing in Vertigo is the collapse of these two female archetypes into the same person, and it’s hard to say what we’re supposed to make of it. If the sluttish woman is playing the goddess, does the goddess, who earlier in the movie is incredibly real to us, really not exist? Was Judy that good of an actress? This is not the only case for either Hitch or Poe where the doppelgaenger is taken so far that one character slips into the identity of another.

The wide-eyed Second Mrs. DeWinter in Rebecca unwittingly steps into the space, or the identity, left behind by the First Mrs. DeWinter, and the weird situation to which she is a helpless observer is really a crisis of identity. We find out about the second wife only what she can't do, what she doesn't have, and what scares her. Most importantly, she doesn't even have a name. This leaves a big ambiguity in her identity, intensified by the countless moments in the movie where people remind her of what Mrs. DeWinter (her own name, as far as she has one) was like. The biggest menace is creepy Mrs. Danvers, who begins to try to mold her into the dead woman by forcing her to go through Rebecca's things and threatening her with the apparent ghost of Rebecca hovering over her. Mrs. Danvers’ power is in the fact that, if the second wife has nothing that separates her identity from Rebecca’s, there is nothing to say that she is not really Rebecca.

Poe’s William Wilson faces a similar problem: if my rival has the same name, the same dress, and the same abilities as I do, how do I still know that I am someone else? Like the Second Mrs. DeWinter, his own identity is usurped. Whether or not “William Wilson” is a straightforward morality tale about conscience, or a deep existential paradigm, the scary thing about this story is that William’s own perversity doesn't stay inside him, where he can control it. The boundaries of his identity are obscured. North by Northwest parodies this disaster that both William Wilson and the second Mrs. DeWinter face when Thornhill, who has been mistaken for a secret agent named George Kaplan tries to convince everyone that he has nothing to do with Kaplan.

Another "second-rate" second wife similar to Rebecca ’s protagonist unwittingly slips into the identity of the high-quality first wife in "Ligeia", although Poe walks right through the differences separating the two women, and the second wife doesn’t stand much of a chance. Thus, in the most extreme form of the doppelgaenger, the boundaries between characters' identitites disappear completely. In Vertigo, Scottie almost succeeds in turning the con-woman back into Madeleine Elster, so that our initial shock at finding out that Judy was playing Madeleine all along is taken one step further to where she becomes Madeleine, possessed by another person and forced to her death. What she said when she was just acting the role of Madeleine in the sequoia forest, “Here I was born, and there I died. It was only a moment for you, and you took no notice,” ends up being true on several levels. Boundaries disappear as well in “Morella,” where the daughter and the mother seem to be the same person, and the narrator knows that he has doomed himself when he names the baby after the mother, thereby removing any reason why Morella and Morella should not be the same person.

Identity, then, is no longer trustworthy. Once again, what we thought we knew has been undermined - this is the nature of Poe and Hitchcock’s suspense stories.

3. Aesthetic Effect

I think that as a reader becomes more and more familiar with these story tellers, the more particular things about both of them seem to stick out as weird incongruencies, or just plain flaws that we’d rather ignore. It's a little hard to believe Poe when he sings the praises of his amateur-detective Dupin’s cunning deduction and pure reason in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in light of the perplexing stories a few pages down, where everything real and rational comes apart at the seams. The almost mathematical approach that Poe claims to take to writing in “The Philosophy of Composition” is equally hard to buy, and is even a little disappointing to anyone who wanted to see more than the mechanics of creative writing in “The Raven” or “The Pit and the Pendulum” or “Ligeia”.

Hitchcock also leaves plenty of hokey schlock in his movies, like the glorious romantic embraces between characters that make my roommate roll her eyes and snort as she tries to suppress her sarcastic laugh and not ruin my project. Norman Holland writes a wonderful commentary on how, and possibly why, Hitchcock lays this kind of thing on us in Vertigo:

The most important unreality is, of course, the whole murder plot itself. It's preposterous. Who on earth would hatch this incredible scheme to murder his wife? All this fakery so that people will believe Elster's wife fell off the mission tower? What ever happened to blunt instruments or the taste-free poison? Why not hire a killer instead of a detective? How could Gavin Elster be sure that Scottie would fall for Madeleine or that his vertigo would outweigh his love for her? How could he possibly be sure that Ferguson would not look at the first Madeleine's body after it fell from the tower and realize this was not his Madeleine? Ferguson is, after all, a detective. He has fallen in love with Madeleine. And he won't look? How could Elster be sure Judy playing Madeleine wouldn't slip up somewhere? As she does in the last part of the movie.

I find myself thinking how absurd all this is. But I think that after the movie is over, not during it. It is Hitchcock's art, his genius, to sucker me into belief. He displaces my attention from Elster's plan, which we do not learn about until two-thirds of the way through. He focuses me instead on the possibility that a dead woman from the nineteenth century is taking over a live one. He gets me to believe that. I think what Hitchcock is encouraging is my projection. We have fifteen minutes of dialogueless film as Scottie drives around after Madeleine's Bentley, seeing her follow out the life of Carlotta Valdes. All that time, I watch as Scottie watches. I wonder, as he wonders, What the hell is going on? There is no critique, no "voice of reason." And I believe.

In order to do justice to Hitch and Poe, we have to take the cheese and the incongruencies along with the master-of-suspense stuff. Holland’s comment indicates the simplicity of Hitchcock’s plot lines, which Poe shares. In his comparative essay, Dennis Perry points out that it’s actually fairly easy to summarize pairs of Poe and Hitchcock stories in the same two or three sentences. For example, Perry offers the following summary for Vertigo and “The Fall of the House of Usher”: "a mysterious woman named Madeleine, who has a strange and incurable illness, dies. However, she continues to function as an irrational obsession for the protagonist until she finally returns from the dead, only to die once more." Of course, Perry had a little help from the coincidence of the name Madeleine. But when I tried my hand at this, I found that you could easily to the same to Vertigo and “Ligeia”, and with a few word replacements, to Rebecca as well,: A man falls in love with a beautiful but very mysterious woman, but she dies. He attempts to replace her with another, much more ordinary woman (who differs most noticeably in haircolor) but in doing so kills the second woman as well.

We could, I suppose, take this to mean that Hitchcock ripped off Poe, but then Daphne DuMaurier (who first penned the novel Rebecca) would have ripped Poe off as well. The general similarity in these plots really shows that both Poe and Hitchcock worked with pretty common pieces of lore (beautiful women, unexplained murders, strange criminals), the things that also make up fairy tales and urban legends, and then made these complex via the aspects of storytelling that go beyond the basic plot. For Hitch and Poe, it is much more important to poke at our ideas of identity, dreams versus reality, reason and superstition, and the like.

This is why we see Hitchcock doing very unusual things with his plot, like revealing Judy’s deception halfway through Vertigo, or discontinuing the consequences of the crimes committed by Melanie in The Birds and Marion in Psycho. While an in-depth analysis of Hitchcock's visual suspense could be another thesis all in itself, it's not hard to find examples of how either Hitchcock and Poe make terror aesthetically interesting for us.

Perry's comparison of Hitchcok and Poe is helpful because he argues that the guilt and obsessions, or "imps of the perverse" which motivate the characters of both storytellers are so irrational that cause-and-effect alone are absolutely not enough to tell these stories. Perry then lists several ways that both authors pull this off: Both tightly focus audience reaction on the moment during suspenseful scenes (hanging from Mount Rushmore in North By Northwest, compared to waiting for the approaching blade in "The Pit and the Pendulum"). They also, as the idea of the doppelgaenger made clear, challenge our own identification with protagonists that we can't really like (secretly rooting for Norman Bates or Marnie as both try to cover up their crimes, just as we laugh along - sort of - with Montresor as he manipulates Fortunato in "The Cask of Amontillado”). Thirdly, they let the audience know more than the characters: “We know, for example, in "Ligeia" and "House of Usher" before the principals that Ligeia and Madeleine will rise from the dead just as we know in Rear Window that Thorwald has entered his apartment before Lisa becomes aware of it.” (Perry 2)

"By dispensing with formula,” agrees critic John Locke in a commentary on Vertigo, “Hitchcock shifts the emphasis of the story from murder to character," and notes that this gives Vertigo a "deeper subject than the typical whodunnit conundrum." We've already seen the depth of Hitchcock's and Poe's characters by looking at their doubles and their consequent identity crises, and it is indeed much more difficult to describe Montresor, William Wilson, Madeleine Elster, and L.B. Jeffires than it is to summarize the plots of these stories. There are also the unconventional characters: the crowd, people who are long dead, even the Birds; these also give the stories their meaning much more so than the plot itself.

Setting, which is always noticeable in Hitchcock and which we know Poe usually goes to great lengths to describe, for both authors has an uncanny way of making unpleasant things beautiful or at least intriguing for the viewer. It's a little hard to buy Poe's statement that "the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world" (The Philosophy of Composition, 1379) until you watch the delicate silhouette of Madeleine standing small against the backdrop of the San Francisco harbor (Fig. 6). When she suddenly, like a flower that a strong gust sweeps of a ledge, drops into the bay, Hitch makes us, just like the Scottie, want to reach in an pull her out. We barely know Madeleine at this point in the story (she hasn’t even spoken yet), and if we had simply been told that she jumped in the bay, it probably wouldn’t have mattered to us very much because she is still too distant and strange for us.

The Large, rambling, Elizabethan house, in a misty-looking village of England” where William Wilson first meets his double, is just one of many spooky Poe mansions were weird things happen. In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the house itself (“At the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.”) menaces the characters from the beginning and seems to cause Roderick’s insanity. Another notable example is the prince’s castle in “The Mask of the Red Death”; it's seven rooms going from east to west in the different colors of the rainbow and ending in a big black clock are an allegory for entropic time. And in "The Cask of Amontillado", Montresor doesn't just lead Fortunato to a hole in the wall, but first through a very long and winding labyrinth of catacombs, "both sacred because of their Christian history and profane because of their nitrous decay" (Platizky 406).

The Mount Rushmore scene in North by Northwest is another stunning Hitchcock visual. "I don't like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me," Thornhill says, innocently poking fun at the obtrusiveness of this gigantic homage to the US Presidency ; a few moments later, he is dangling off the monument because he was duped into doing espionage for the US Government (Fig. 7). Like the catacombs in "Amontillado," the setting carries the irony.

Setting can therefore be a character and give the plot ironic twists that the bare chain of causes and effects can’t convey. The painstaking aesthetic devices that Poe and Hitchcock have in common make the stories believable even when the plot itself is not.

Twenty-some pages still don’t cover everything that unites Poe and Hitchcock. The similarities between them, as I’ve hoped to show, are really no coincidence. What separates Psycho from such films as say, Psycho 2, is something that we also find in Poe. It’s about my, the reader’s, personal relationship to the story and my now damaged confidence in my perception. Hitch and Poe rob us of the assumption that people are in charge of their lives and the world around them, and thereby scare us with suspense that’s not so easy to escape once the book is closed and the movie turned off.

22 of 22 pages


Scare Tactics/ Poe, Hitchcock, and the Modern Suspense Story
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Neef, Lisa (Author), 2001, Scare Tactics/ Poe, Hitchcock, and the Modern Suspense Story, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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