Violence in a familiar, pleasant setting: The formula behind Alfred Hitchcock Presents

"You've got to put something in those square frames to keep them looking," said Hitchcock.

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"Good evening."

Television viewers, for at least the last half-century, may owe an even greater debt to Alfred Hitchcock than they might assume. Sure, plenty of films and shows have either paid knowing homage, or ripped off Hitchcock directly. There's the former Bates Motel, reimagining some of Hitchcock's characters from Psycho. Brian De Palma made a career out of Hitchcock pastiche. And Gus Van Sant's Psycho remake sure was... something. Even in less direct, and more pervasive ways, the movies and shows we watch are indebted to a kind of equation birthed by the "Master of Suspense." 

You can't separate the success of Alfred Hitchcock's movies from that of his wildly inventive television program, Alfred HItchcock Presents. The show debuted to an unsuspecting audience in 1955. By then, Hitchcock had been directing movies for 30 years. However, even if viewers were familiar with the auteur's work, there was no precedent for just how subversive the presentation was.

The show's presence on television schedules stuck out like sore thumb in 1955. The Mickey Mouse Club this was not. Right there, though, is the key to what made the show work: This was macabre shoved into the mundane. The white picket fences and "aw, shucks" attitudes of a lot of American programming was the perfect landscape for Alfred Hitchcock Presents to be something different.

"Conventional chills up the spine bore me," said Hitchcock to The Meridian Record and Journal in 1961. In short, a story set in a haunted house can hardly surprise viewers, as they're already suspecting something scary. But a bomb underneath a kitchen table? That fits the formula to subvert and disrupt in ways that Hitchcock laid out for this series. 

"You've got to put something in those square frames to keep them looking," said Hitchcock. It worked too: Between Presents and its eventual extension and repackaging as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, the show had 360 episodes. Clearly, the formula paid off.

The peaks in terror were exaggerated because Hitchcock was able to get audiences to relax a little. If your heart rate is already elevated, then a shock isn't going to have that big, desired effect. Rather than set the story in an already spooky setting, Hitchcock lulled viewers into a false sense of security, allowing them to ease into the story by cracking jokes, sometimes even at his commercial sponsor's expense. All of this let audiences drop their guard, so that those spikes in scariness hit even harder.

Chills, yes, but chuckles too.

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17 Comments

drcrumpler 10 months ago
I always thought "Bang, You're Dead" with Billy Mumy was a superior Hitchcock-helmed episode was full of suspense only Hitch could deliver, plus a nice Lost in Space Easter egg with a scene of Marta Kristen offering little Will Robinson a free sample at the grocery store.
Stoney 10 months ago
Hitchcock was brilliant, both on the big and small screen.
JHP 10 months ago
another jewel in the listing - "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour"
daDoctah 10 months ago
Was never a huge fan of Hitch on TV. Despite his legendary jabs at network censors and his sponsors, he really was constrained by the requirements of the medium.

I did, however, make a point of checking out all the episodes he cast his daughter Pat in. The impression I got was that her acting ability fluctuated considerably from one performance to the next.
Pacificsun 10 months ago
There are a lot of sayings for which Hitchcock has been quoted. But one I remember is that he said an audience could never be built up (in terms of suspense) without an authentic payoff. It was his method of rewarding the viewer for their attention. And making the story worthwhile. He was a quirky individual, who would run a lot of his ideas past his wife. Apparently he respected her judgement very much. He also didn't drive; incidental of course. When you have services at your fingertips. But I guess that's why he was being chauffeured all time, around the studio. He seemed to have much admiration for Jerry Mathers (as a talented performer, but my hunch is, because he was so professional).
ncadams27 Pacificsun 10 months ago
Considering they filmed Leave it to Beaver and Alfred Hitchcock Presents at the same studio, imagine if someone talked Hitchcock into doing a cameo on the LITB show. You could see Beaver and his pals walking out of the movie theater and see Hitchcock in line waiting to buy a ticket.
Pacificsun ncadams27 10 months ago
Clever idea and perfect, meaning in true Hitchcock style.


By the way, he cameo'd in all his pictures. The Birds was filmed in Calif. Bay Area. The Pet Shop was was known (high end) downtown). They'd never be allowed now. But his cameo was walking out the front door. With 2 white terriers, I believe. Can't remember the breed right now.
McGillahooala 10 months ago
Great classic show. No better way to spend a late night than watching Alfred Hitchcock and the twilight zone.
Runeshaper 10 months ago
Hitchcock was a very strategic, talented, and successful man 👍👍
LoveMETV22 10 months ago
Many have tried, but no one can take the "Master's" place.

However " Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery."
daDoctah LoveMETV22 10 months ago
Ah, well....

MrsPhilHarris 10 months ago
Haven’t seen it for years but do love the show.
ncadams27 10 months ago
For the show, he had his representative buy short stories that were already published. If the writers knew it was for Alfred Hitchcock, they would try to sell him an unfinished movie script or hold out for more money. Once such story was Psycho by Robert Bloch. Too long for a 30 minute show, he made it into a movie using his TV crew to fulfill his contract with Paramount.
Andybandit 10 months ago
I am probably the only one who never saw an episode of AHP.
LoveMETV22 10 months ago
Great article. Hitchcock was a "Master" at his craft.
Moody 10 months ago
Nicely written article! Obviously the writer has watched a little Hitchcock. 😀
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