Hitchcock and Voyeurism

When audiences first watched a crazed Norman Bates rip open the shower curtains and incessantly stab a nude Janet Leigh to a myriad of chilling stringed screeches, many deserted their seats and stormed out of the cinema. The film was of course Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 landmark horror flick Psycho, and it remains one of his most acclaimed works of cinema. But what was it that horrified audiences so wretchedly? There is no visible nudity – rigorous censorship made sure of that – and we never see the knife touch, let alone penetrate, a single shred of skin. In fact, when one watches the film now it seems incredibly tame. So why did audiences feel so uncomfortable? It’s a simple but revealing explanation. Hitchcock forced them into a position in which they simply did not want to be – the position of voyeur.

As far back as ancient Greek tragedies, it was customary for horrific or violent deeds to take place “offstage”. Indeed, Roman poet Horace quipped in his Ars Poetica that although “the mind is less actively stimulated by what it takes through the ear than by what is presented to it through the trustworthy agency of the eyes”, gruesome acts such as Medea butchering her children or Atreus cooking his dish of human flesh should never take place “within public view”. It was a rejection of scopophilia, but a simultaneous acknowledgement of its power. There was something undignified and gratuitous about attempting to display violence right in front of the audience’s eyes. Not only were they unlikely to show it particularly effectively, but it was also not what the audience had come to see. As a voyeur, audiences somehow feel complicit in the events onscreen. With Pyscho’s infamous shower scene, Hitchcock thrust his audience into directly witnessing something that may just as well have taken place off-screen, or through a silhouette or some other suggestive technique. The audience are instead rendered as helpless and tragically vulnerable as poor Marion Crane herself: stripped down, holding up their hands in protest, screaming in vain.

Hitchcock pioneered a camera that represented the eye of the audience. Rather than watching all the action from a distance, like a play, the audience are granted their own position within the action itself. They are a character, in many ways. In particular, Hitchcock’s cameras often work as an individual’s point of view. In Vertigo (1958), for example, we experience Scottie’s acrophobia firsthand when the camera meanders and distorts via the dolly-zoom when at a great height. In Rear Window (1954), our vision is eclipsed by florescent bright flashes signifying the temporary blindness caused by the flashbulbs to Thorwald. It also allows us to pick up on things that other characters do not notice, such as when it zooms slowly in on Marion’s wad of stolen money in the motel room whilst Norman attempts to clean up the crime scene in Psycho. It is only natural that this special point of view acquired by the audience comes with its own advantages and disadvantages, liberties and limits. The boundaries are blurred between diegetic and non-diegetic audience involvement. The audience, as a voyeur, must take care with what they “choose” to see.

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There is a prevailing obsession with voyeurism running throughout Hitchcock’s oeuvre. He knew that human beings have a fascination with watching. We are naturally nosy, curious, intrusive in our daily existence. This is demonstrated no better than through James Stewart’s protagonist in Rear Window. Finding himself crippled and bored, a man resorts to spying on his neighbours with a pair of trusted binoculars and the zoom of his camera, spinning a web of speculations and accusations from what he takes in through his subjective eyes. It’s also worth noting that the man is a photographer – he literally makes his living from observing with his eager lens. The opening passage of Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin comes to mind, when the meta-narrator declares, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” Hitchcock confines his audiences to a similar disposition. We are able to look, but not touch. From the safety of our seats, we watch the narrative unfold, except there is one key difference between Hitchcock’s audience and Isherwood’s narrator – Hitchcock wants us to think. As L.B. Jefferies watches his neighbours, he cannot help but make judgements and conclusions about their lives. Hitchcock knows that his audience will inevitably be forced to do the same.

But Hitchcock also knew of the darker side of voyeurism. Jefferies does, after all, become dangerously swept up in the illicit affairs of his neighbour through his scopophilia. This voyeuristic prospect is so compelling that it was adapted 50 years later into a loose remake called Disturbia (2007) with Shia LaBeouf. Norman Bates too exercises his own fetishisation of voyeurism to disastrous results. Before Marion Crane enters the shower, Norman removes a painting from the wall to reveal a peephole, through which he watches her undress. This is creepy to say the least, and Gus Van Sant in his 1998 remake capitalised on this creepiness to the full, having Norman masturbate as he peers at Marion’s body. Hitchcock plays too with his characters’ awareness of their own entrapment in a voyeuristic society. What is paranoia, after all, if not the fear of being watched, of being scrutinized, manipulated, and laughed at? Paranoia in film is a blacked out window – the fourth wall between character and audience. The characters are the victims, the audience are the watchers. North by Northwest (1959) is a prime example of this. Just as Roger Thornhill cannot see the sadistic pilot of the crop duster in the infamous scene in the cornfield, Hitchcock’s characters are often overwrought with a sense of being personally victimised and spied upon by unseen forces. More often than not, these forces turn out to be us, the audience.

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What Hitchcock’s voyeurism established was a camera that never leaves its subjects alone – a camera that never hides behind bushes or pans to euphemistic shots of the ocean during lovemaking – a camera not afraid to show the audience exactly what is happening. As well as granting the audience a new role in the watching of cinema, he also opened the floodgates for what could be shown on screen, being somewhat bold and liberal with his prevailing themes of sex and violence. Of course, Hitchcock worked in a world far more heavily dominated by censorship than the cinema of today, but his influence has been invaluable. When Sharon Stone slowly opened her legs in Basic Instinct (1992), revealing her – erm – lack of underwear, she created one of the most infamously erotic scenes of modern cinema. The camera does not shy away from Miss Stone’s vulva; instead, we see exactly what the detectives in the room see, and thus we are just as shocked and uncomfortable as they are.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman undoubtedly owes its innovative “eternal” camera techniques to Mr. Hitchcock as well. The camera (and thus the audience) become a inquisitive and curious backstage presence, following the action wherever it leads. Birdman is an example of pure cinematic voyeurism – the camera literally cannot stop watching people for a single moment. It is even scared to blink. We see his influence in the point of view shots of Michael Myers in Halloween (1978), and even the eponymous shark’s beady perspective in Jaws (1975).

Moreover, we must ask if a film as “racy” and explicit as Fifty Shades of Grey could have ever been made without Hitchcock’s audacious smashing down of the barrier between the eyes of the audience and the eye of the camera. There is practically nothing in modern cinema that would now be deemed “unshowable”. The audience – as voyeurs – are trusted with the all-seeing camera lens. To attempt to allude or to hide things from the audience is to patronise them and to be untruthful to the events of the film. It isn’t about showing nudity or violence gratuitously, it’s about trusting the audience with the nature of the material and – moreover – indulging the inherently human fascination with watching other people’s lives, and for that we must unreservedly thank Mr Hitchcock.