Skip to main content

Hitchcock and the Ticking Time Bomb: Are We Doing It Wrong?

Alfred Hitchcock is the master of suspense. But is he being misunderstood by critics and writers? Take a closer look at what he really said about the famous ticking bomb.

Michael Lee is a writer, script consultant, script reader and judge. He's worked as a creative executive for a few production companies and as reader and judge for some of the most prestigious screenwriting contests in the country including PAGE and Final Draft Big Break. He's recently optioned his latest project: a science-fiction comedy entitled How to Conquer the Earth. Follow Michael on Facebook and Twitter: @GoldenAgeofGeek.

Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers!

Alfred Hitchcock is without a doubt one of the giants of film and television. His career spanned virtually the entire history of film from the early silent era all the way to the end of the studios and the beginning of the modern rating system in the 1970s. But a lot of people use Hitchcock as a way to denigrate certain movies or genres, especially the modern horror genre. Most of the time they refer to his famous talk about the ticking time bomb in the room. That turns into a statement about how Hitchcock never stopped to show blood or gore or sudden shocks and that modern horror directors should be ashamed.

Hitchcock and the Ticking Time Bomb: Are we Doing It Wrong? by Michael J. Lee | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Except, well, he did. Hitchcock wasn’t adverse to showing blood and gore and he often used sudden shocks to jolt his audience.

Starting with Psycho there is noticeably a lot more gore and blood in his work. You can’t compare the shower scene in Psycho to Dawn of the Dead. But Psycho was shot in 1960, back when you rarely saw blood in a Western gunfight. And this was the man who in just his previous movie had used a train entering a tunnel to imply sex. Now blood was swirling down a drain to show life slipping away. And things got bloodier after that. In The Birds there are bodies with pecked out eyes. In Torn Curtain there was a very messy murder scene. And Frenzy had levels of sex and violence that would have been unthinkable in the era of Notorious or Suspicion.

But while Hitchcock’s use of blood and gore happened in relatively late period in his career, the Master had never been one to shy away from giving the audience a good jolt. Way before 1960 Hitchcock always peppered his films with some well-timed shocks. His early masterpiece The 39 Steps has moment that comes out of nowhere that grabs the audience. The hero has really been spilling his guts to the villain this whole time. There’s no ticking clock here. The revelation comes out of nowhere. The iconic shower scene in Psycho doesn’t have any ticking clock or at least one that is obvious.

And it’s shock not gore really that goes to the heart of Would Hitchcock Do Today’s Horror Movies arguments. That jolting the audience is somehow wrong and inferior to Hitchcock’s more famous use of suspense. But even here the critics are on thin ice.

Go back and listen to the Alfred Hitchcock On Mastering Cinematic Tension again. There are two important points to be made. First is when Hitchcock talks about the bomb going off and the audience getting ten seconds of shock. A lot of people have taken this to mean that ten seconds of shock is a less than optimal result. But Hitchcock never says shocking the audience is a bad thing. And this ties into the second point. What many people neglect about Hitchcock’s famous “ticking time bomb” discussion is that he immediately followed up with “The bomb must never go off.”

The bomb must never go off.

That changes quite a bit. It means that Hitchcock’s ticking time bomb model is about building anticipation for a blow that never lands. That’s why shock scenes cropped up so often in his work. Without them his pictures would all be a series of near misses. And that’s something that modern writers should keep in mind. Put aside one personal feelings concerning gore, jump scares, slasher movies and the modern horror genre. What Hitchcock really teaches us is that shock and suspense go hand in hand. Suspense is necessary because shock doesn’t last. It’s not inferior. In fact it is necessary because as also points out you can’t tease the emotions of the audience with a long suspense sequence without giving them some relief. But without some shocks there would be nothing for the audience to fear.

When planning out the script the suspense sequences are easier to place. They’re longer and often they can serve as key scenes in the plot. Think about placing them in the more powerful sections of the script like the midpoint. Beginning a suspense sequence isn’t that hard. Hitchcock’s rule still applies even after all these years. The audience is given a glimpse of impending doom that the characters are unaware of. We then wait anxious minutes. It’s how you end the sequence that it gets tricky. Audiences have changed over the years and at times it seems like more than a few do want to see the bomb go off. But it’s always anticlimactic to draw out a sequence and then end it without any kind of surprise or twist.

Shock is a little harder to plan for. It often depends on the rhythm of the plot and story. There are moments that need a sudden jolt. It’s this element of Hitchcock’s work that should be re-examined. There are several examples like The 39 Steps, The Birds, and of course Psycho. Writers shouldn’t just study how he delivers these jolts but when they occur in the story. If a shock occurs when the audience expects something then it isn’t that shocking.

Even when it comes to the writing suspense and shock poses some challenges. A screenwriter has to convey his story clearly. Sometimes clarity is underrated by writing teachers. Screenplays aren’t novels or short stories. They are part sales pitch and part instruction manual. The writer has to make sure the reader is with him every step of the way since the reader is often a producer or director or an actor; a perspective film making collaborator.

Suspense scenes will span several minutes or several pages of screenplay. Those sequences will stand out even to people who don’t have time to give it a thorough read. Shock Moments on the other hand are often short and thus easy to miss. It’s these moments that need a good, effective use of ALL CAPS. Be concise but make sure you still draw the reader’s attention to that missing digit on the character’s right hand.

And going back to where this all started, don’t turn your nose up at post Hitchcock horror and suspense. 1980's Slasher films are gaining a new appreciation. Modern horror films still manage to pack theaters. There may be things these films could be doing better but one has to deal with the films and audiences as they exist now.

Get great advice on writing horror today in our on-demand, 4-week course
Writing the Horror Feature