Robert Spadoni and Joe Tompkins present two varied arguments for the psychological creation of horror created in horror movies. Spadoni in his article “Horror Film Atmosphere and Narrative” believes that the psychological perception of horror is generated through the atmosphere/mood in movies. He believes that the mood of the film contributes to creating the world shown in it. He argues that an atmosphere is used not only to design the music within the film, the non-musical sound, and the background score but also other elements of film-making such as camera-work and editing. He also points out that a “good atmosphere” silently supports the narrative but never interferes, but the two are inseparable. It helps creating a “camouflage” that helps hide the suspense element.
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Further, it contributes to the creation of suspense and dread shown in movies. Consequently, the ambiance that is formed through the background, the light, music, actually sets the stage for the imminent dread. Spadoni emphasizes the “global nature” of the ambiance. In other words, he believes that it builds the set, the ambiance for the visual narrative. In the case of horror films, Spadoni argues that both the narrative and dread are mere tropes used to construct the ambiance. Consequently, Spadoni states that it is a necessary but not sufficient condition to make a horror film. Joe Tompkins in his article “The Discourse of Music and Horror Films” argues that music is a part of the horror film genre.
He points out that music has particular stylistic codes that create certain generic moments such as tension, danger, suspense, fright, and so on. The distinct music in horror films articulates the unique textual structures and emotional association that are easily ascertainable by the audience based on the cultural associations. Further, the overemphasis on music in horror films makes them an integral part of the narration. In horror films, unlike popular cinema, music is loud and predominant. Instrumental music is predominantly used in horror films that mimics the cry of humans in pain, therefore, creating a psychological connection between the action and events.
The startle effect in horror film music creates shock or surprise in a suspense sequence. Consequently, Tompkins argues that horror music can incite a range of emotional responses such as anxiety, dread, exhilaration, and so on, in the audience. A comparison between the articles by Spadoni and Tompkins shows that the atmosphere and music are parts of horror films as they help fashion audience expectation about the situation that may happen on-screen, or build an environment that shows the emotional and psychological narration in the scene. Based on the understanding of these two articles, I will analyze Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).
My thesis statement is that there is a close relationship between the music and the set that helps generate a sense of suspense and dread in Psycho. The Gothic, Victorian house, the typical American motel help set the spatial differences in the three distinct spaces demonstrated in the film. The music again helps in accentuating the feeling of dread and suspense. I will discuss the paper based on the articles by Spadoni and Tompkins. Psycho is a unique example of spectator engagement where the viewer no longer sees the events in the film from the outside but becomes a part of the diegesis. This movie segregates the scenes into smaller sequences, so that the audience can internalize the psychological meaning of the actions. The music and scenes of Psycho are imprinted in the audience’s mind, so that the fear factor cannot be separated from fantasy and reality.
Psycho is distinct from other classical horror films as Hitchcock employs greater explicitness in movies. Although, the mood set up in the film with the help of the production design, camera angles, and music helps generate dread and horror in the audience. The atmosphere created in Psycho of the Bates house is an example of expressive ambiance creation. The Victorian décor of the house crammed with stuffed dolls is replete with sexual repression. Here, sexual repression is both the meaning and the mood of the film. The Victorian crammed décor becomes the symbol to signify sexual repression. On the other hand, the motel represents insatiate sensuality. The sultry environment shown in the beginning of the motel scene is accentuated by the sweatiness, the bleached visuals, the half-nakedness of the characters which resonates unsatisfied desire.
Further, when Lila enters the Bates house, the audience is unaware as to from where the danger is advancing. The audience is kept wondering whether it is originating in the front (from Mother) or from behind (from Norman). The audience remains confused and is not in a position to comprehend the real direction of the imminent danger and therefore yield to the atmosphere. The audience identifies with Lila’s sense of horror as the camera shoots the scene from Lila’s point of view. Therefore, the mood created in the scene does not linger passively in the background, but becomes a medium that transcends horror faced by both the character and the viewer.
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The ambiance showed in the film with the stuffed animals, the petulant Victorian house, the tyrannical mother generates an overwhelming sense of dread. However, Norman’s friendliness is almost a reassurance in this overemphasizing environment and becomes a stark contrast between the two. The horror clichés of the background very easily shift the audience’s suspicion from Norman and his relationship with his mother. So, the ambience built is psychological. Here, it helps in hiding the real monster and keeping the surprise until the end. This suspicion is retained when Norman carries his mother as he climbs the steps with skillful camera-work.
The camera held from a higher angle prevents the viewers from understanding the status of the corps, thus, keeping the suspense alive. Consequently, it helps hide the imminent violence in Psycho. The music score in Psycho deviates from a traditional classical music score that remains dormant in the background. Instead, the music is brash and shrieking, and cutting discords immediately capture the audience’s attention.
The shower scene in Psycho has aggressive music cues that immediately make the audience identify with the terror of the woman murdered at the scene. Further, stabs in the scene are coordinated with the music cues which act as a sensory trigger. The use of certain modernist musical tropes such as erratic rhythm, dissonant harmony, and high-pitch timbres helps invoke terror among audiences. Thus, the music helps in creating an atmosphere of terror that transcends to the audience.
Spadoni believes that the mood of suspense produced in the films helps to generate dread and horror. In Psycho, the feeling of horror, dread, fear, suspicion, and terror is created using a few things – camera work, a production setting like the Victorian décor, stuffed animals, stuffiness of heat, etc., and a background score. Therefore, Hitchcock transcends the fear and terror of the characters to the audience with the help of both atmosphere and music.