Hitchcock on “Terror” and “Suspense”

In February 1949, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) had a piece published in the Good Housekeeping magazine called “The Enjoyment of Fear” where he distinguished between the feelings and moods of “terror” and “suspense” with the help of vivid illustrations. The essay is included in a book called Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews. The legendary director writes:

Fear in the cinema is my special field, and I have, perhaps dogmatically, but I think with good cause, split cinematic fear into two broad categories – terror and suspense.

Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews edited by Sidney Gottlieb (1997, University of California Press)

He gives examples to make the distinction definite:

Walking down a dimly lighted street in the late hours of the night, with no other people about, a person may find his mind playing strange tricks. The silence, the loneliness, and the gloom may set the scene for fear.


Suddenly a dark form thrusts itself before the lonely walker. Terror. It does not matter that the form was a waving branch, a newspaper picked up by a gust of wind, or simply an oddly shaped shadow unexpectedly coming into view. Whatever it was, it produced its moment of terror.


“Suddenly a dark form thrusts itself before the lonely walker.” (Photo: Dark Street by User “Justin S. Campbell”, CC BY-ND 2.0, Flickr)


The same walker, on the same dark street, might have no inclination toward fear. The sound of footsteps coming from somewhere behind might cause the late stroller to become curious, then uneasy, then fearful. The walker stops, the footsteps are not heard; the pace is increased, so also the tempo of the thin sounds coming out of the night. Suspense. The echo of his own steps? Probably. But suspense.


“The echo of his own steps? Probably.” (Photo: Dark Street by User “Justin S. Campbell”, CC BY-ND 2.0, Flickr)


On the screen, Hitchcock says, terror is induced by “surprise”, suspense by “forewarning”. Terror and suspense cannot co-exist. This poses a problem for the writer and director of the motion picture. How is the dilemma solved? The filmmaker continues:

The terror-suspense dilemma is normally resolved by compromise. There are several situations in a motion picture; the ordinary, and I think best practice is to play most of the situations for suspense and a few for terror. Suspense is more enjoyable than terror, actually, because it is a continuing experience and attains a peak crescendo-fashion; while terror, to be truly effective, must come all at once, like a bolt of lightning, and is more difficult, therefore, to savor.

If you are interested in more literature on Hitchcock, check out two good books: Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (2003) by Patrick Mcgilligan and Alfred Hitchcock: A Brief Life (2015) by Peter Ackroyd.


Image Credit:

Featured: Hitchcock statue by User “Thibaut Démare”, CC BY-SA 2.0, Flickr