Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Fear and anxiety in Hitchcock’s universe

By David A. King, Ph.D. | Published August 6, 2021

As the country tries to resume to “normal” even as the Delta and other variants of the coronavirus threaten any full return to life as we once knew it, people are experiencing all manner of mental distress. In the workplace, in schools, even in the Olympics, people are depressed, anxious and stressed out.

T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” provides for me the perfect description of what it is like to attempt a full return to pre-pandemic life: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;/I know the voices dying with a dying fall/Beneath the music from a farther room/And in short, I was afraid.”

The thought of resuming all the activities I once pursued makes me feel like a 6-year-old boy again, unable to swim, who tentatively dangles his feet in the shallow end of the pool, afraid to join the others.

How many of us, honestly, feel just like that; just like Prufrock—shy, nervous, afraid? I imagine a lot of us do. Yet we try, hoping that our little “coffee spoons” of activity will soon come to fruition.

For people of faith, there are a myriad of ways to deal with anxiety, stress, and fear. For months now, I’ve had the old hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” in my head, with its assurance that all my worries and troubles can be taken to the Lord in prayer. I’ve thought of Christ himself, who though fully divine was also fully human and therefore knew what it meant to be afraid. Recall Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he prayed so fervently, he sweated blood and he prayed “Father, if you will, remove this cup from me, but yet not my will but thine be done.”

Famed film director Alfred Hitchcock is pictured in an undated NBC publicity photo. CNS File Photo

I’ve thought of St. Cyril’s instruction to his catechumens, with his warning that indeed “The dragon waits at the side of the road, ready to devour those who pass. We go to the Father of Souls, but first we must pass by the dragon.”

Of course, as much as I’ve turned to my faith for strength, I’ve also taken solace in art, particularly in the great Catholic aesthetic tradition that extends even into the modern era. Looking back over the well over 100 columns I’ve written for The Georgia Bulletin, I see that so many are about Catholic artists who grappled with anxiety, distress and fear. From Dante to Sergio Leone, from Hopkins to Hitchcock, the Catholic artist seems drawn to the darkness so that ultimately the light that can never be extinguished by darkness may be further revealed and understood.

The filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, a Catholic, was particularly good at this. Over the years, I’ve written several times about Hitchcock, in particular his films “Vertigo,” “Rear Window” and “The Wrong Man.” Lately I’ve been thinking about some of his other movies and how they correspond to his own life experience with fear.

Hitchcock often expressed a mixture of delight and dismay that when he met people at social occasions, they were usually terrified of him. They expected, he said, that because his films dealt with crime and suspense, he must also be an “unpleasant” person. The truth of the matter, he said, was that “I’m more scared than they are, of things in real life.”

Hitchcock frequently shared two anecdotes from his childhood that demonstrate his empathy for his audience as well as the influence for his unique approach to the cinema. The first episode occurred when he was about 5 years old. Hitchcock’s father wrote a note to the local police precinct in their London neighborhood. He sent young Hitchcock to the station to deliver the note. When the officer in charge read the note, he duly followed its instructions, and led the boy to a jail cell where he was locked inside for five minutes. When Hitchcock was released, the policeman said to him simply, “That’s what we do to naughty boys.”

“I think,” Hitchcock recalled, “it was the clang of the door, the solidity” that made such an impression. The roots of one of Hitchcock’s great themes—the innocent man wrongly accused—are clearly evident in this unorthodox parenting lesson.

The second anecdote concerns a typical punishment that was levied at Hitchcock’s Jesuit school. If, for example, a student came to class unprepared, he would frequently be given a punishment known as “Going for Three.” Hitchcock explained that “Going for Three” was “spoken like a sentence, as though handed down by a judge.” The boy would be sent to a principal who would enter the student’s name in a ledger and then prescribe a time for the punishment to be administered. Hitchcock recalled that the student could take the punishment right away, at morning break, at lunch time, at the afternoon break, or at the end of the day. “Always,” Hitchcock remembered, “it was deferred until the end of the day.”

True to human nature, which Hitchcock understood so well as a key to suspense, the inevitable was postponed. Though the punishment was severe—a strap laid into a bare hand three times so that the hand was actually made numb by pain—the agony of waiting, which was inflicted by the offender himself, was probably worse.

As important as each of these personal anecdotes were to Hitchcock’s development as an artist, I also find that they provide insight into dealing with anxiety. Anxiety is itself a literal prison, yet it’s a prison from which deliverance is possible, especially in Hitchcock’s Catholic universe ordered ultimately by justice. Further, we often make the actual far worse through our imagination; it’s like the words of Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata, which is well known to many Catholics, “Do not distress yourself with dark imaginings; many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.”

An artist of anxiety

The critic Richard Schickel said of Hitchcock, “In the age of anxiety, he is the cinema’s great artist of anxiety.” Three films in particular strike me as especially relevant to Hitchcock’s concern with a uniquely modern, Cold-War anxiety, and all of them are usually wrongly dismissed as among his lighter work. They are the 1956 version of “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “North by Northwest” from 1959, and “The Birds” from 1963.

“The Man Who Knew Too Much” is an ironic title, for the beleaguered doctor in the film actually knows far too little; in fact, his smug sense of superiority is nearly the downfall for his family. Uniquely, the film is actually structured like the Tridentine Mass, and the film’s iconic song “Que Sera, Sera,” whatever will be, will be, is good advice.

“North by Northwest” spoofs the spy film genre, yet takes the problem of fear and anxiety deeply seriously. The famous crop-duster sequence is Hitchcock’s “pure cinema” in microcosm, an almost wordless portrait of an unknown threat.

“The Birds” is the most sophisticated of the three, and deals primarily with anxieties and neuroses borne of insecurity, loneliness, and legitimate fear of yet another incomprehensible threat. The film is thrilling, and frightening, yet it transcends the horror genre to become one of the most effective portrayals of the complexity of human relationships and the fragile balance between human beings and the natural order.

All three films provide a cathartic experience; like the Dark Night of the Soul, tension is released and enlightenment provided by confronting, then overcoming, the thing that frightens us. All three are applicable to the pandemic, whether you view it as ending or expanding.

Finally, if approached from a Catholic perspective and an appreciation of their creator’s own faith, they also are beautiful examples of the wisdom espoused from classical antiquity, through Erasmus, and up to psychoanalyst Carl Jung that even in troubled times, perhaps especially in troubled times, “Bidden or not bidden, God is present.” Hitchcock understood this phenomenon of presence in absence, and in showing us the problems of others, he also invites us to consider, and perhaps conquer, our own fears and anxieties.

David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.