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.
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.