Birth of a Hypno-Fetish
HORROR FANS of the baby-boom generation were excited in 1998 when VCI HomeVideo released fully restored, letterbox VHS and laserdisc editions ofHorrors of the Black Museum (1960), a psychological horror film originallydistributed to theaters and television by American International Pictures(fig. 1).
Of particular interest to fans was the restoration of a twelve-minuteprologue, missing for years from television prints, featuring a lectureon and demonstration of hypnosis by "renowned psychiatrist" Dr. Emile Franchel.1Franchel talks about hypnotic suggestion, and then he speaks with a youngwoman under hypnosis, who giggles and states that she "felt fine," whilethe camera focuses on three hypodermic needles inserted into the fleshypart of her arm. Finally, the doctor turns to the camera, in order to placethe film audience under a hypnotic trance. All of this was to demonstrate"HypnoVista," which places the audience into a trance of terror througha careful orchestration of color, light, music, and sound.
In reality, HypnoVista was yet another threadbare marketing gimmick usedby distributors of low-budget horror films both to differentiate theirproduct from its host of competitors and to exploit the public's fascinationwith the unprecedented-and since unequalled-technological innovations characteristicof Hollywood in the 1950s. Other examples of this kind of hype include"Psycho-Rama," in My World Dies Screaming (1958), an effort by Howco Internationalto cash in on the mid-1950s controversy over subliminal advertising; "Hypno-Magic,"an extended audience-hypnosis sequence in Allied Artists' The HypnoticEye (1959); and "Percepto," the most famous of producer William Castle'sgimmicks, in which viewers of Columbia's The Tingler (1959) were subjectedto mild electric shocks from wired theater seats. In addition to thesehypnosis-themed publicity stunts, these films, and dozens of others, fromShock (1947) to Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955), from I Was a TeenageWerewolf (1957) to House on Haunted Hill (1958) and Peeping Tom (1959),replaced the traditional evil manipulator of the thriller and the mad scientistof the horror film, with the scheming or misguided psychiatrist.
Why did popularized discourses of psychiatry coalesce around the narrativesand publicity efforts of the low-budget shocker in this period? One explanationis offered by Mark Jencovich in Rational Fears: American Horror in the1950s.2 Jencovich argues that a crucial component of 1950s horror in bothfiction and film is the fear of the increasing top-down management of botheconomic and psychic life in rationalized, postwar America. Rational Fearsoffers a persuasive range of evidence to support this thesis and drawssupporting examples from all sub-genres of horror and science fiction.Jencovich concludes with an analysis of Psycho (1960), resituating Hitchcock'sfilm as a culmination of, rather than a break from, 1950s discourses onpsychic life and criminal pathology.
I think this is only part of a larger explanation, however. As would manyother examples from the low-budget, genre cinema of the period, this cycleof films offers significant insight into the complex interweaving of theaesthetic, technological, social, and economic histories of American filmduring the industry's precipitous and sustained decline in box-office attendanceafter the war. This was a time when the major studios cut back drasticallyon production, and theaters often found themselves with little productto play. In addition, both the star system and the genre film were undergoingsignificant changes: many aging stars of the studio era were not beingreplaced by younger ones able to bring audiences into the theaters, andfilms without stars sought other elements to emphasize in their publicity.Similarly, the telecasting of several studio's pre-1948 film libraries,including Universal's horror hits of the 1930s and 1940s, had made youngermoviegoers familiar, even over-familiar, with genre conventions that hadsustained the horror film for decades. The increasingly outlandish plotsand publicity stunts characteristic of the hypnosis films were a responseto both of these developments. Finally, the hypnosis films' use of thefigure of the evil psychiatrist and the incorporation of hypnosis and magicinto publicity discourses represent a particular inflection of narrativeand stylistic elements of the horror film present from its very beginnings.
The success of the low-budget genre cinema in the 1950s was due, in largepart, to the curtailment of production by the major studios. Accordingto Gary Edgerton, the period between 1953 and 1968 saw a consistent andsustained decline in movie attendance in the United States.3 As a result,the majors produced fewer features every year, and more of these filmswere expensive blockbusters showcasing technology such as widescreen, stereosound, and color. Production fell steadily: 479 features in 1940, 379 in1950, 271 in 1955, and an all-time low of 224 in 1959.4 The efforts ofexhibitors to withstand this period of fewer releases and declining attendanceincluded strategies as diverse as cultivating the youth audience, financingtheir own productions, and sensationalizing their advertising.
Both exhibitors and distributors actively courted the youth audience, bymid-decade the most loyal box-office patrons. By the summer of 1957. movieattendance by young adults and middle-aged patrons had drastically declined.A poll conducted by Alfred Politz Research, Inc., and presented in MotionPicture Herald revealed that "52.6 percent of those who attend movies oncea week or more are 10 to 19 years of age." The same survey concluded thatthe statistically "typical frequent moviegoer" was "a teenager in highschool, who comes from a family that is financially well-off, and perhapswhich intends to send him (or her) to college."5 James Nicholson and SamArkoff, of AIP, pointed out to Motion Picture Herald in 1957 that the filmsoffered to the youth audience "must not ever, under any circumstances,seem to have been especially chosen for them, conditioned to their years,or equipped with special messages." Thus, the formula for the AIP programmerwas to provide the familiar B-picture genres-horror, science fiction, action-adventure-butto present them in ways that distinguished them from their television,radio, or comic book versions.6
Stars remained vital to the film industry in this period of rapid change.However, the aging stars from the studio era were only slowly being replacedby younger stars with box-office appeal to younger audiences. In 1956,the exhibitor trade group Allied States Organization bemoaned the lackof "new faces" as an industry ill at least as devastating as the cutbacksin production.7 This "star shortage" was seen as a critical component ofthe "product shortage" of the 1950s,8 because without a star, even a moderatelybudgeted film was treated in the marketplace like a programmer. Further,the abandonment of "B" film production by the majors eliminated the primarymeans by which those studios nurtured new talent.9 As Trueman Rembusch,former president of National Allied, told the Senate Small Business Committeein 1956, "The lifeblood of the motion picture theater has always been theintroduction of new personalities that attract hordes of fans. Limitingthe production of pictures prevented the development of new talent andhas brought on, since 1947, the spectacle of the grandma and grandpa entrenchedstars acting like youngsters, to the distaste of the important teen-agepatron group. As my 18-year-old daughter says, 'Clark Gable and Joan Crawfordacting like young lovers. Ugh!'"10
Sensational content and wild promotional gimmicks like "Psycho-Rama" and"Hypno-Vista" were, in effect, end-runs around the absence of stars inthe films.11 Thomas Doherty, in Teenagers and Teenpics, quotes an advertisingdirector for a distributor of horror films who saw the advantages of amovie poster that was independent of stars or even narrative content: "Thisis something we can really get our teeth into," said the unnamed ad man:"Here, finally, we have a batch of films without any big stars. We canbuild our ads around the "horror" angle, the picture itself, if you will.We don't have to worry about having the players' names in the same typesize as the title of the picture itself, or about the position of the star'shead in the ads. It's all pure punch, with no dilution."12
Statements like this were part of a growing perception within the industrythat its advertising and promotional techniques were behind the times.In 1955, an editorial in the Screen Producers' Guild SPG Journal suggested,"Motion picture advertising is far behind the motion picture parade. Tosurvive and thrive, films have to adjust to an ever-changing pattern: buttheir advertising is still cut from the same musty mold."13 Consequently,the 1950s saw the growth of ad campaigns, exploitable titles, and posterart that preceded the casting or even scripting of the films.
An increased attention to trailers was part of this industry-wide concern.The importance of trailers in the promotion of features was underscoredby national polls taken in 1957 and 1958 by public relations firm Al Sidlingerand Co. The polls found that in a 19-week period, 35 percent of filmgoerssurveyed in 1957, and 43 percent in 1958, cited the trailer as a primaryreason they had attended a particular feature.14 In 1955, Frank Whitbeck,head of the trailer department at MGM, told Motion Picture Herald thathe and his department followed a film through all of its phases-writing,shooting, and editing-and, when the film reached the rough cut stage, "[sat]down with the staff and kick[ed] the picture around. How are we going tosell it to the public?"15
By contrast, AIP's Herman Cohen, fresh from the huge success of I Was aTeenage Werewolf, told Time magazine in 1958 that that film's catalog ofattractions had formed the basis for its publicity campaign and, later,its story. "I always think of the title first," he said. "The story comeslast. After the title come the advertising ideas-the gimmick, the illustrations[and presumably, the trailer], for these are what get the kids into thetheater. Then comes the story-and every drop of blood and graveyard shuddermust be as advertised." Cohen, like his bosses Nicholson and Arkoff, worethe mantle of the mountebank showman proudly. Arkoff defended their advertisingpolicy with the assertion that "the film industry is a carnival businessand it must deal therefore in carnival terms."16
In a 1955 letter to Motion Picture Herald, an exhibitor writes, "Traileradvertising is No. 1 in my book for publicizing a picture. It reaches theeye of those you've hooked as movie patrons."17 This wishful referenceto mind control and addiction is not coincidental. By the end of the decade,exhibitors and trade journals were insisting that the insights MadisonAvenue had gleaned from clinical psychology be brought to bear on the moviegoingpublic. Of particular interest to several exhibitors and trade publicationswas motivation analysis, a growing field of research that attempted bothto uncover the preconscious and unconscious motivations behind a person'sconsumption habits and to design advertising campaigns that would appealto those motivations. In 1956, the Theater Owners of America, an exhibitortrade organization, hired promotional consultant Claude Mundo as an administrativeassistant.
At the TOA's annual meeting in Los Angeles, Mundo asserted, "Mental manipulationis what the industry's showmen need."18 Julius Gordon, owner of the JeffersonCircuit of central Texas, suggested that this would be a fertile field,and trade journal publisher Martin Quigley called for "a study by one ofthe organizations specializing in motivational analysis [that] would attemptto find out precisely how these psychological factors affect a person'sdecision to attend a theater"; the "clues" uncovered would help exhibitorsachieve "maximum attendance for each attraction during its release."19In 1957, the advertising manager for MGM addressed the Alumni Associationof Post Graduate Hospital in New York and suggested that moviegoing shouldbe part of the pharmacopoeia. According to theater manager Walter Brooks,the MGM man "stressed the therapeutic value of going out to the movies,and urged the doctors to recommend the tranquilizing screen and to prescribepictures instead of pills."20
"You Must Become Caligari!" Cinema of Attractions and the Monstrateur
The two figures lurking in the paragraphs above, the carnival barker andthe clinical psychiatrist, have a long and storied history in the horrorgenre. The carnival barker, with his direct address and broad theatricalgestures, predates the cinema; he is the bridge between the normal worldof the spectators and the exaggerated and often frightening world of thecarnival attraction. At a crucial moment early in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,the evil mountebank exhorts the fairgoers to enter his tent to see thesomnambulist Cesare: "Step up! Step up! The amazing CESARE, who has sleptfor twenty-five years, is about to awake: Don't miss this!" He pulls backthe tent flap with his cane to gesture the audience inside (fig. 2). Insidethe tent is yet another doorway, beyond which stands an upright, coffin-likebox: using an identical gesture, the mountebank opens the coffin to revealCesare and points to him with his cane. Caligari, the fairground barker,is also the master of the asylum; the final imprisonment of the protagonist,Francis, follows a parallel succession of diminishing spaces: from theyard of the asylum, to the halls inside, to Francis' cell, and finallyto his straightjacket.
These interlocking and diminishing spaces are mirrored in the film's narrationalspace. Within the space opened by the intertitle that introduces the film,"A tale of the modern reappearance of an nth century myth," exists Francis'snarrated tale of the hypnotist Caligari and the murder of Alan by Cesare.On this diegetic level, Caligari is both mountebank showman and insanepsychiatrist. Inside of this narrative is Caligari's diary, which tellsof his own hallucination that he "must become Caligari" and provoke Cesareto commit murder. At the end of the film, Francis is revealed as a patientin the asylum, and Caligari is revealed to be the benevolent psychiatrist.The doctor then announces that he "now know[s] how to cure" Francis, andthe film ends with an iris-in on the psychiatrist's face. Werner Krauss'look almost directly into the camera suggests yet another space, the spaceof the theater and the audience, and the look that links these spaces isconsiderably more menacing than Kracauer's description of "all mildness."21In fact, this look into the camera replays for the viewer one of the mostfrightening moments in Francis' story: the revelation that Caligari isthe head of the asylum, a fact communicated by a direct look into the camerathat had been cued to Francis' subjectivity. In the horror film, the lookinto the camera is the inverse of the genre's other central icon, the unseenthreat behind the door. The look extends the paranoid world of the filmforward into the space of the audience; the closed door extends the threatbehind the screen.22
Captioned as: Figure 2. The sinister mountebank Caligari,flanked by a poster depicting the somnambulist Cesare, pulls back the flapof his tent to usher fairgoers inside. Werner Krauss in Cabinet of Dr.Caligari (1919). G. William Jones Film and Video Collection, Southern MethodistUniversity.
In his work on the preclassical cinema, Andre Gaudreault has written ofthe two "divergent regimes" that have remained co-present throughout thehistory of film. The first, "exhibitionist confrontation," is characterizedby a seemingly unmediated rapport between the viewer and the onscreen spectacle.This regime is the basis of the cinema of attractions, which, accordingto Eisenstein and others, was capable of eliciting an immediate physiologicalresponse from the spectator in the manner of a fairground spectacle. Exhibitionistconfrontation was the dominant mode of the preclassical cinema of the turnof the century. The second regime, "diegetic absorption," is characterizedby spatio-temporal consistency and by the use of active narrative agentsfamiliar from narrative forms such as the novel and the short story.23
For Tom Gunning, one of the strongest markers of the cinema of attractionsis the direct look of a character into the camera, not a look of a subjectcaught unaware but a look of intention, a gesture "undertaken with brio."24As a matter of fact, as early as Melies' magical films, the look into thecamera was often associated with an onscreen master of illusions (or monstrateur,in Gaudreault's phrase). This suggests that the property of showing, ormonstration, was often inscribed into the diegetic world of the film itselfin the form of a figure or character, like Caligari, who controls and changesthe space around him (such figures were virtually always male). Of course,the direct look at the audience suggested the ontological impossibilitythat monstrateur and audience could share the same spatial and temporalcontinuum. Thus, the co-presence of the cinema of attractions with thecinema of diegetic absorption often involved a complex reciprocal relationshipbetween monstrateur figures in the diegetic world and the overarching narrationaland stylistic processes of the film as a whole.
In the horror film, many features of a presentational mode that predatesthe cinema (the emphasis on the narrative's status as a tale, the almostritualized foregrounding of the processes of narration, even the embodimentof these textual features in a magician or trickster) continue to existalongside (and often in conflict with) the more self-effacing mode of theclassical system. Gunning has argued that in the cinema of attractions,"theatrical display dominates over narrative absorption, emphasizing thedirect stimulation of shock or surprise at the expense of unfolding a storyor creating a diegetic universe."25
The direct address's mirroring of the space of the story and the spaceof the spectator, with a hypnotist-monstrateur standing in between, recurredin horror films over the next several decades, in Warning Shadows (1922),Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), Dead of Night (1945), and Curse of theDemon (1957). It also provided the organizing principle for Arch Oboler'shighly successful Lights Out! radio horror program in the 1930s and 1940s,and for the "masters of ceremonies" of E.G. horror comics in the 1950s.These Caligari-like figures, variously psychiatrists, carnival barkers,warlocks, and hypnotists, can be seen as emblems of the forces that mediatebetween, on the one hand, the horror genre's eruptions of shock and spectacleand, on the other, the efforts of the narrative both to impel and to containthose eruptions. This sideshow magician, who determines what we see andhear (as in "WE control the horizontal-WE control the vertical") is alsothe voice of the horror film's publicity and promotion. Like Caligari standingoutside his tent at the Holstenwall fair, William Castle, Samuel Arkoff,and other itinerant sorcerers mesmerize us with their stare and their invitinggestures.
One of the most common strategies used by exhibitors to promote the horrorfilm of the 1950s was the attempt to break open the enclosed space of thescreen, to extend the film's diegesis into the theater, lobby, or street.Prospective viewers of horror films were often confronted by "displaysconsisting of skeletons, coffins and gravestones, models or actors dressedas Dracula, Frankenstein, or other fictional fiends, nurses stationed inthe lobbies with first-aid equipment, and the serving of 'courage cocktails.'"26
In an instance of the direct address characteristic of the horror genre,the eyes of the monster were often a prominent feature of horror displays.The Booker Theater in Richmond, Virginia, stimulated a healthy run forAIP's Voodoo Woman (1957) by using a life-sized display a week before thefilm's premiere. The zombie woman in the display had hollow eyes.27 TheRitz Theater in Tiffin, Ohio, promoted The Fly (1958) by enclosing thebox office except for the speaking hole in the front. Inside the box officewas a green light, creating the impression of a fly's green eyes. In addition,the theater manager displayed two oversize models of houseflies borrowedfrom a local exterminator, one of which pleaded through a tape recording,"Let me out! Let me out!"28
A similar principle governed the more centralized promotion used by distributors.Strongly influenced by the tradition of the fairground showman, the theatricaltrailers and one-sheet artwork for the releases of American International,Allied Artists, Astor Pictures, Filmgroup, Crown International, and smallerdistributors were often characterized by hyperbole and a catalog of thefilm's highlights, a method Samuel Arkoff called the "four sees approach"(fig. 3). Gunning has noted that currents of the cinema of attractionsremain in the classical cinema: he gives an example from the 1920s of aBoston theater that actually posted a timetable of the main attractionsin Ben-Hur (1924).29
By the mid-1950s, distributors of the horror film had so refined this tropethat the suggestiveness, youth parlance, and implicit sadism of their promotionsfor a time far outstripped anything attempted by the major studios. TeenageWerewolf producer Herman Cohen doubtlessly conceived the gruesome and misogynisticmurder set pieces of Horrors of the Black Museum, as well as its HypnoVistagimmick, before the screenplay was written. "It actually puts YOU in thePicture. Can you stand it?" screams the video box in ad copy inspired bythe film's one-sheet poster. Below this, is written "HypnOvista," witha sinister, hypnotizing eye in the center of the "o."Then, below this,a breathless elaboration of the film's attractions. "SEE-the Vat of Death!See -The Fantastic Binocular Murder! Feel-The Icy Hands! Feel-The TighteningNoose!"
Captioned as: Figure 3. The "Four SEES" approach topublicity. Ad art for Day the World Ended (1954) and Phantom From 10,000Leagues (1954). Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.
This ascendancy of the cinema of attractions at the expense of the cinemaof narrative integration was to become one of the strongest markers ofthe genre's low-cultural status. The hypnotist huckster was not a welcomefigure on the American cultural scene. Concurrent with the film industry'sattempt to reach out for audiences (pun intended) through baroque stuntsand outrageous gimmicks was the controversy over subliminal advertising,part of a larger concern over the increasingly sophisticated means of allegedmind control and brainwashing used by both ad agencies at home and totalitarianregimes abroad. Many films of the period attempted to exploit the fearof hypnosis and the dissolution of personality through the recurring characterof the evil psychiatrist; at the same time, Vance Packard, in The HiddenPersuaders, was outlining the extent to which the desires of consumerswere being manipulated by the "depth psychologists" employed by ad agencies.
Packard topped the 1957 bestseller lists with his expose of the advertisingindustry's cynical manipulation of consumers through techniques learnedfrom psychology and psychiatry. It was "depth psychology," the study ofpreconscious and unconscious fears and desires, that provided the scientificbasis for motivation analysis.30 According to Packard, by the early 1950s,advertising agencies and marketing firms had begun to retain large numbersof clinical and academic psychologists as consultants in their effortsto develop ad campaigns that bypassed the rational and critical facultiesof consumers and zeroed in on their hidden, even unknown, fears and desires.Packard's portrayal of depth psychologists and advertising executives lordingit over a modern Bedlam is more than metaphoric: early in the book, hedescribes a "research director of a major ad agency, a tense tweedy man[who had] once worked as an aide in an insane asylum!"31
In Packard's demonology of Caligari-like hypnotists, the main villain isDr. Ernest Dichter of the Institute for Motivational Research, Inc., oneof the so-called fathers of depth analysis. Packard portrays Dichter'slair as a gothic castle, complete with a panopticon worthy of Fritz Lang'sDr. Mabuse: "His headquarters, which can be reached only by going up arough winding road, are atop a mountain overlooking the Hudson River, nearCroton-on-the-Hudson. It is a thirty-room field-stone mansion where youare apt to see children watching TV sets. The TV room has concealed screensbehind which unseen observers sometimes crouch, and tape recorders areplanted about to pick up the children's happy or scornful comments."32
The carny barkers of the movie business were described by the popular pressin terms similar to Packard's condemnation of Dichter. A 1960 article inTime refers to Nicholson and Arkoff of AIP as "the leading magicians inthe field" and claims that Nicholson, Arkoff, and Cohen are "the threeMerlins."33 A 1958 Variety headline asked, "Is the Carny Come-On Necessary?"This linking of hucksterism and magic has a long tradition in Americanculture. Jackson Lears, in Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertisingin America, refers to the emergence of advertising in nineteenth-centuryAmerica as "the modernization of magic," and traces the rise of the itinerantpatent-medicine salesman and his carnival barker's address to prospectivebuyers: "The desire for a magical transformation of the self was key elementin the continuing vitality of the carnivalesque advertising tradition,and an essential part of consumer goods' appeal in nineteenth-century America."
By the 1950s, pop culture had transformed the elixir-wielding fairgroundbarker into a psychiatric sorcerer. Many horror plots of the mid1950s containeda central motif either of reincarnation or of the regression of the protagonistinto monstrosity. The immediate source of this plot was the best-sellingThe Search for Bridey Murphy, which recounted the supposed regression ofa young woman to a past life.34 The Search for Bridey Murphy (1956) wasbrought to the screen by Paramount, and many topical exploitation filmsadopted the reincarnation motif. Even prestige pictures such as Vertigo(1958) contained elements of the Bridey Murphy motif (derived, in thiscase, from its literary source, D'Entre les Morts, by Boileau/Narcejac).In 1957, AIP used Bridey Murphy elements in The Undead, She Creature, andI Was a Teenage Werewolf. The psychiatrist in each of these narrativeswas loosely based on Caligari.
In 1958, small distributor Howco International released a double featureof the showbiz melodrama Lost, Lonely, and Vicious and the William Castle-derivedshocker My World Dies Screaming. The latter was an attempt to capitalizeon the controversy surrounding subliminal perception in advertising, andit claimed to feature the process of "Psycho-Rama," hidden images designedto trigger the audience's emotional responses. Howco was formed in 1951,when J. Francis White, owner of the Consolidated Theater chain of 31 housesin North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, and Joy Houck, owner ofthe 29-house Joy's Theaters chain in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi,merged their companies. Howco Productions contracted with Hollywood independentsfor features to fill its own theaters' schedules and for eventual nationaldistribution.35 The product shortage, which affected both first-run andsubsequentrun theaters, had led to calls for exhibitors to finance theirown productions, enough for a year-round supply, and several regional andnational circuits attempted to do so.
Howco's attempt to link horror and subliminal perception was right in stepwith the concerns of many social critics, who saw the growth of horrificentertainment and the mysterious mental manipulations of the culture industryas fundamentally linked. For example, the 1957 meeting of the NationalAssociation of Radio and Television Broadcasters' Code Review Board issuedwarnings to broadcasters that both the use of subliminal perception andthe "use of horror for its own sake" by latenight movie programs were tobe eliminated by subscribers to the Code. In a similar spirit, the NewYork Assembly twice considered legislation banning the commercial use ofsubliminal perception, once in 1958 and again in 1959.36
Producer William Edwards gave a trade screening of My World Dies Screamingin April 1958 in which alternate scenes showed the film first with its"subliminal" messages and then with the exaggerated and noticeable "supraliminal"symbols. (This demonstration was later made into a prologue for the film.)Of course, this was pure hype and hucksterism, and Motion Picture Heraldhad a month earlier sarcastically predicted that it would soon be possible"for a showman to tell his patrons they are seeing a second-feature pictureunconsciously, at the same time they are seeing the top-feature consciously.. . . Look how much film rental, and runningtime, a showman could savethat way."37
With its therapeutic investigation of the protagonist, Sheila, the narrativeof My World Dies Screaming mirrors the subliminal messages aimed at theviewer. The film begins with the credits over an abandoned, moss-coveredhouse, as an eerie theramin melody plays on the soundtrack. In a bargainversion of the beginning of Rebecca (1940), the camera begins a slow zoominto the front of the house. Off screen, we hear Sheila's voice:
And through the branches of the old trees, I can see the house again. Itsits there waiting for me, silent, malignant, a place of unspeakable horror.On a mailbox at the side of the house I can make out the name of the peoplewho lived there once. Tierney. But the Tierneys must have gone away a longtime ago. And the house stands like a mouldering tombstone to a world thatdied.
In one of the horror genre's most common figures, the front door swingsopen by itself. A handheld camera walks up the stairs as the voice-overcontinues: "I go up the stairway to find the answer to what has alwaysdragged me here." The ever-diminishing interlocking spaces of the housecontinue as she proceeds up the stairs, into an alcove, and up to the atticdoor. The camera stops, and Sheila says, "I know why I had to come to thisplace."
A shock cut rends the soundtrack and the visual: Sheila screams and a hypnotist'sspiral spins its vortex in closeup (fig. 4). Sheila is shown lying on apsychiatrist's couch, coming out of a hypnotic trance. The psychiatristtells her that the dream is a symptom of a terrible trauma hidden in herunconscious. "Whenever something is too unpleasant, too shameful for usto entertain, we reject it, we erase it from our memory," he tells her,"but the imprint is always there, nothing is ever really forgotten." Herethe film comes as close as possible to explaining the Precon process tothe viewer. The nameless dread from Sheila's past, buried deep in her unconscious,mirrors the film's subliminal "imprints," which will remain below the levelof the viewer's consciousness yet will nevertheless cause palpable, unexplainabledread and horror.
Captioned as: Figure 4. Sheila (Cathy O'Donnell) relivesa repressed childhood trauma under hypnosis in My World Dies Screaming(1958). G. William Jones Film and Video Collection, Southern MethodistUniversity.
Sheila suffers from memory blackouts and she plans to leave Switzerlandto go back to the United States with her new husband, Phillip. The film'scentral enigmas will be drawn from two distinct but related genres: thepsychological thriller provides the neurotic protagonist whose unconsciousmust be probed for the trauma responsible for her symptoms; and the femalegothic furnishes the mysterious character of Phillip, the husband who mayor may not be attempting to drive her insane, a la Gaslight (1944). Thetwo return to Phillip's ancestral home in Florida, and Sheila is paralyzedwith fear when she discovers that Phillip's house is the house from hernightmare.
At the end of the film, Phillip is revealed to be a benign hypnotist, havingbrought Sheila back to the house where she witnessed, as a small child,the axe murders of Phillip's siblings (the similarities to Marnie are striking). The murders, we learn, were committed by Phillip's half-brother,initially presented as the gothic heroine's helper and confidante. Thus,the film's investigation of Sheila's unconscious provides her with an unknown"past life" to which she can regress under the threatening but beneficenteyes of Phillip. The audience is, supposedly, subjected to series of emotionaljolts via the "subliminal" Precon images, which parallel the two trance-likemanipulations to which Sheila is subjected , the hypnotic pull of Phillip'sancestral mansion, and the psychiatrist's vortex wheel, which begins thefilm's present-day narrative.
The spoken prologue was repeated in The Tingler (1959), when director WilliamCastle explained that "certain audience members" would experience a tinglingsensation during the film's horrific highlights. Then, in 1960, AIP usedthe HypnoVista prologue with Emile Franchel in Horrors of the Black Museum.This film featured Michael Gough as Edward Bancroft, a pop criminologistwho drugs and hypnotizes Rick, his young assistant, into committing a seriesof gruesome mutilation murders (the film's opening features a woman's eyesbeing punctured by spring-loaded needles hidden in a pair of binoculars),which the psychologist then analyzes in books and magazine articles. Thehighlights of the film are several highly sexualized murders that evokethe prologue's image of the attractive woman with needles in her arm: onewoman is murdered with ice tongs in her throat, and Bancroft's drunkenmistress is decapitated in her bed by a jerry-built guillotine.
Many of these murderous props are taken from the secret "black museum"over which sinister monstrateur Bancroft presides as master of ceremoniesin several private scenes with the young Rick (fig. 5). The Caligari-Cesarerelationship between Bancroft and Rick is generously larded with both sadomasochisticand homosexual overtones: taking his hypodermic out of the cabinet to injectRick, Bancroft rhapsodizes, "It's like everything else in life. Flowerswither without sunlight, humans perish without food. The wish to serveunquestioningly, the gift of true obedience, these too need to be nourished,reinforced. Rick, look at me. Roll up your sleeve. Extend your arm." Hissway over the young man, who physically as well as morally regresses underhis spell, is identical to the Bridey Murphy motifs in She Creature andI Was a Teenage Werewolf.
Captioned as: Figure 5. Caligari and his murderous somnambulist,circa 1959. Bancroft and Rick (Michael Gough and Graham Curnow), from Horrorsof the Black Museum. G. William Jones Film and Video Collection, SouthernMethodist University.
Bancroft's entreaty for Rick to murder the fiancee who threatens theirrelationship is almost identical to the lines spoken by Dr. Brandon tothe young teenage werewolf: "Rick, do you remember how it was the lasttime and the time before that? The freedom, the strength, the black terrorin others but not in you? The mastery you shared with me? [. . .] All thiswill be ours once again." The film climaxes, naturally, at a local carnival,with Rick murdering his fiancee Angela in the tunnel of love. Trapped likean animal on the stilled Ferris wheel, he leaps from his perch and stabsBancroft as the police look on.
These motifs achieved their most florid and freakish expression in an unusuallylurid horror programmer, The Hypnotic Eye (1960). The film was made independentlyfor Allied Artists by screenwriter and producer William Read Woodfield,who told film historian Tom Weaver of his inspiration for the film in a2000 interview:
I'm driving along and I'm seeing the white line on the road. I look atthe white line and I say to myself, "You know, you could make a movie aboutthis!" People would come into the theater . . . the picture would start. . . and it's just a white line, just like the one on the road. A voicewould say, "All right, everybody - just relax. Keep your eye on the whiteline." . . . [A]nd we'd keep getting them under deeper and deeper hypnosis.Ultimately we'd tell them it was the greatest movie they ever saw in theirlife and to tell all their friends. Goodbye! The post-hypnotic suggestionwould be, "Talk it up!"38
The Hypnotic Eye was an attempt to capitalize on the gimmicks innovatedat AA by William Castle and on the cycle of hypnosis and mind control filmsI have just described. The film stars Jacques Bergerac as the Great Desmond,a stage hypnotist who places attractive women in a trance onstage. Thesewomen later mutilate themselves at home in gruesome "accidents," the film'scentral attractions. One woman rinses her hair in the gas burner insteadof the sink, another lowers her face into an electric fan, and a thirdwashes her face with sulfuric acid.39
A police detective and his partner, a criminal psychologist from the department,investigate the mutilations, while the detective's girlfriend begins aninvestigation of her own after her best friend is disfigured after appearingonstage with Desmond. Near the end of the film, a five-minute sequencesimilarto the "Percepto" stunt in The Tingler shows monstrateur Desmondin his stage act hypnotizing both his live audience and presumably, bystaring directly into the camera while speaking his incantations, the movieaudience as well. The name Allied Artists used to promote this gimmick,"Hypno Magic," condenses the motifs of hypnosis and sorcery into a singlephrase.40
Like the AIP's horror films of regression and reincarnation, The HypnoticEye presents a gruesome mirror image of Jackson Lears' idea of the buyermagically transformed by the conjuror's trick: the very products that Desmond'sfemale victims are conditioned to believe will make them beautiful aretransformed into tools of scarification and self-mutiliation through Desmond'shypnotic power. The punishment visited on these women is extreme even bymodern standards (fig. 6), and the mutilation scenes are staged in a manneridentical to beauty-care commercials of the late 1950s.
The precredits sequence of The Hypnotic Eye, in which a woman "washes"her hair in the flames of gas stovetop, is a grisly parody of a 1950s televisioncommercial for cosmetics. Like many of the horror films from this period,the images and icons in The Hypnotic Eye that suggest the horrors of mindcontrol and the dissolution of personality are strikingly similar to thetropes of hypnosis and thrall that characterized both advertising's tradediscourse and the warnings about that discourse in The Hidden Persuaders.A 1962 trade ad in Variety by the CBS Television network shows a youngwoman peering out from a television screen as she applies mascara to herleft eye. In front of the television set sits a young woman with an identicalhairstyle applying mascara to her right eye, in perfect symmetry with thewoman onscreen, as if she were looking into a mirror (fig. 7). The tagline reads, "A reflection of television's power over women."41 Two of thefilm's most striking images, the acid-scarred Dodie looking into the mirrorand registering the damage done, and the entranced Marcia looking intothe mirror at Desmond approaching from behind, use identical compositions(fig. 8).
Captioned as: Figure 6. Ads for The Hypnotic Eye (1960)portrayed expanded norms of female attractiveness as a comic dystopia.Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.
Writing three years before The Hypnotic Eye, Packard quoted an unnamedad executive who pointed out that women who respond to such advertisements"are buying a promise. . . . The cosmetic manufacturers are not sellinglanolin, they are selling hope."42 The Hidden Persuaders tells of a studyundertaken by social-psychologist-turned-adman James Vicary to investigatewhy women had drastically increased their rate of impulse buying in supermarkets.Using hidden cameras to observe the eye-blink rates of women as they shopped,Vicary measured the level of anxiety of these shoppers. Packard describesthe results:
Their eye-blink rate, instead of going up to indicate mounting tension,went down and down, to a very subnormal fourteen blinks a minute. The ladiesfell into what Mr. Vicary calls a hypnoidal trance, a kind of light trancethat, he explains, is the first stage of hypnosis. . . . [M]any of thesewomen were in such a trance that they passed by neighbors and old friendswithout noticing or greeting them. Some had a sort of glassy stare. Theywere so entranced as they wandered about the store plucking things offshelves at random that they would bump into boxes without seeing them.43
Captioned as: Figure 7. "Expose the ladies to a newproduct on television one day, and you can be sure they will be lookingfor it in stores the next." Trade ad for the CBS Television Network (1962).New York Public Library
Captioned as: Figure 8. Stage hypnotist Desmond workshis odious continental savoir-faire on heroine Marcia. Jacques Bergeracand Marcia Henderson in The Hypnotic Eye (1960). Wisconsin Center for Filmand Theater Research.
Near the end of The Hypnotic Eye, Dave attempts to rescue the hypnotizedMarcia from her lethal participation in Desmond's stage act. Then, severalminutes feature Desmond, onstage in the theater within the film, performingdirectly into the camera as the narrative comes to a complete stop.44 Inmedium shot, Desmond announces that members of the audience will now havethe opportunity to "cross the dark, mysterious threshold of your own subconsciousmind." Looking past the camera, he asks, "May I have the house lights,please?" At this point, the projectionist in the theater showing the filmturns the house lights up to dim. Each of the events that follow engagethe audience in highly repetitive hand motions while their eyes are fixedon the screen, in attempt to cause dizziness. Desmond instructs the audienceto take out the "hypnotic eye balloon" they were given upon entering thetheater. Like Dave, Marcia, Dodie, and Miss Scott in the film, the audiencein the theater blows up its balloons and ties them off. This phase of thetrick is similar to the child's game of spinning around in circles andthen being bearhugged from behind: now out of breath and light-headed,the theater audience sees the house lights go suddenly down and hears Desmondintone, "Now - If you dare, look into the hypnotic eye!" He produces thelight, shown in extreme close-up, strobing on and off and creating a vertiginousflickering in the auditorium as a spectral soprano voice plays on the soundtrack.
Suddenly, a woman planted in the theater screams in unison with an unseenmember of the audience in the film, and both the crowd on the screen and,presumably, the crowd in the theater look nervously around for the faintedwoman. The narrative is rapidly re-established with a close-up of Marcia,staring ahead under Desmond's spell. Dave and Phil attempt to rush thestage. Desmond and Justine, his assistant, are killed in the rescue attempt,and Marcia is pulled to safety.
Breathing a sigh of relief, the benign psychiatrist Phil walks out frombehind the curtain and addresses the audience in both the theater and thecinema:
Ladies and gentlemen, a word of warning. Hypnosis, although an importantand valuable medical tool, can be extremely dangerous when used by untrainedor unscrupulous practitioners. Therefore never allow yourself to be hypnotizedby anyone who is not your doctor or who has not been recommended to youby your doctor [HE TURNS TO LOOK DIRECTLY INTO THE CAMERA], not even ina motion-picture theater. Thank you.
The film fades to black, and "THE END" appears over the Allied Artistslogo. This moment of direct address is virtually identical to the finalshot of Caligari and echoes the "audience warning" featured at the endsof films as disparate as The Tingler, Peeping Tom, and, most spectacularly,Psycho.
In many respects, the marginal but commercially successful low-budget filmsof the late 1950s and early 1960s were prescient about the changes theAmerican film industry would adopt over the next two decades. The promotionalgimmicks of the hypnosis films and the other features of this new cinemaof attractions, including the special effects of the 1950s monster andinvasion films, found their way into the diegesis of the genre films ofthe 1970s and 1980s in the increasingly elaborate special effects thatwere, for many films, often the sole focus of publicity. The "juvenilization"(in Thomas Doherty's phrase) of movies and their theatrical audiences,begun in the 1950s, continues to this day.
Several distribution strategies innovated by smaller studios for theirdownscale genre releases became increasingly characteristic of major-studiostrategies in the New Hollywood: publicity and promotional budgets wouldcome to dwarf the production budgets of many releases. In addition, thehuge multi-screen opening, used for horror and sci-fi double bills in the1950s and 1960s, would be adopted for major studio releases, and many high-profilestudio films would play the larger theater circuits during fallow periodsin the release calendar. For these and other reasons, the low-budget genrecinema of the 1950s and 1960s is an important part of the crucial transitionfrom the decline of the studio system to the conglomeration of the NewHollywood. A detailed history of the horror film in this period must takeinto account the changing relationships between the production, distribution,and exhibition branches of the American film industry.
1. Dr. Franchel had been the host of a live television program, Hypnosis:Adventure of the Mind, in the late 1950s. Eventually, hypnosis performedon live TV was banned by the Federal Communications Commission.
2. Mark Jencovich, Rational Fears: American Horror in the 1950s (Manchester:Manchester UP, 1996). A brilliant analysis of a cycle of hypnosis-themedhorror films from the 1930s is Rhona J. Berenstein, Attack of the LeadingLadies: Gender, Sexuality, and Spectatorship in Classic Horror Cinema (NewYork: Columbia UP, 1996).
3. Gary Edgerton, American Film Exhibition and an Analysis of the MotionPicture Industry's Market Structure, 1963-1980 (New York: Garland, 1983)
18.4. "Hollywood Today: Pictures and Their Makers," Motion Picture Herald(hereafter MPH) 22 October 1955:13; and "Product Shortage-1960 Edition;230 Features, Only 6 Over 1959," Variety 14 Sept. 1960: 4.
5. "Politz Research Study Uncovers the 'Typical Frequent Movie-Goer' asBright Teen-Ager," MPH 23 Nov. 1957:15.
6. "AIP Heads Set Sights on Teenage Patron," MPH 25 May 1957: 20.
7. "Allied to Ask Producers to Create Stars," MPH 15 Dec. 1956: 24.
8. "Indies Need for New Faces Cited," Variety 25 Nov. 1959:17.
9. "Film Shortage Stems from Star Shortage," MPH 24 Mar. 1956: 26.
10. United States Sen. Select Committee on Small Business. Motion Picture
Distribution Trade Practices, 1956 (Washington: GPO, 1957) 79.
11. "Ordinary 'B' Kaput; It's Gimmick Today," Variety 22 Mar. 1961: 19.
12. "Gotta Ballyhoo Horror Films or They Drop Dead," Variety 30 July 1958:4. Cited in Thomas Doherty, Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilizationof American Movies in the 1950s (Boston: Unwin and Hyman, 1988), 168.
13. William R. Weaver, "Producers Ask Out Loud About Showmanship." MPH23 Apr. 1955: 24.
14. "The Power of Trailers," MPH 30 Mar. 1957: 7; "Say Trailers Attract43%." MPH 11 Jan. 1958: 24.
15. Ernest Emerling, "An Appreciative Look at Movie Trailers,'" MPH 19Mar. 1955: 39.
16. "Is Carny Come-On Necessary?" MPH 4 Nov. 1955:15.
17. Mrs. Anna Bell Ward Olson, "Letters to the Herald," MPH 24 Aug. 1957:6.
18. "RX: Psychodynamics," MPH 21 Apr. 1956: 11.
19. "The Case for Motivation Analysis," MPH 25 Aug. 1956: 3.
20. "Return to Analytical Selling is Needed," MPH 23 Nov. 1957: 35.
21. Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological Historyof the German Film (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1947) 66.
22. Wheeler Dixon, in It Looks at You: The Returned Gaze of Cinema (Albany:State U of New York P, 1995), suggests a broad range of functions thatcan characterize this figure. In the book's final chapter, he likens thecontrolling returned gaze to "the Gorgon's mirror" (173).
23. Andre Gaudreault, Du Litteraire au Filmique: Systeme du Recit (Paris:Meridiens Klincksieck, 1988) 25.
24. Tom Gunning, "The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator,and the Avant-Garde." Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative. Ed. ThomasElsaesser and Adam Barker (London: BFI, 1990) 61.
25. Gunning 59.
26. "Mad, Mad Doctors 'N' Stunts," Variety 23 July 1958: 7.
27. "What the Picture Did for Me," MPH 24 Aug. 1957: 31.
28. "Psychology Breaks Into Horror Acts," MPH 6 Sept. 1958: 966.
29. Gunning 57.
30. Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders (New York: David McKay, 1957)27.
31. Packard 27.
32. Packard 31.
33. "Monstrous for Money." Time 14 July 1958: 84. For Arkoff's humorousdescription of this process, see Richard Gehman, "The Hollywood Horrors,"Cosmopolitan Nov. 1958: 40.
34. See "Zombie Pix Upbeat and Durable," Variety 9 May 1956:11; and MarkThomas McGee, Faster and Furiouser: The Revised and Fattened Fable of AmericanInternational Pictures (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1996) 54-55.
35. Howco's other productions throughout the decade included the westernKentucky Rifle and Ed Wood, Jr.'s, gangster melodrama Jail Bait (both 1954);the science-fiction drama Mesa of Lost Women (1956)-made, according toVariety, "on the premise that product-hungry theaters would be forced tobook anything"; the youth pic tandem Teen Age Thunder and Corman-helmedCarnival Rock (1956); and the John Agar alien-possession horror Brain FromPlanet Arous (1958).
36. "New York Legislature Acts on Subliminal Ads," MPH 22 Mar. 1958: 26;"N.Y. Bill Would Ban Subliminal Advertising," MPH 12 Dec. 1959: 17.
37. "Subliminal Absurdity." MPH 8 Mar. 1958: 7.
38. The interview is posted on Weaver's website, Astounding B Monster:http://www.bmonster.com/horror26.html.
39. Herschell Gordon Lewis' The Wizard of Gore (1970) bears a strikingresemblance to The Hypnotic Eye in its use of the hypnotist/monstrateurplot and in its Grand Guignol violence against the hypnotist Montag's femalevictims. It is unclear whether Lewis was influenced by the earlier filmor whether he was making use of this figure, which, as I have shown, predatesnot only the horror film proper but narrative cinema itself.
40. See Allied Artists trade ad, "You too will get the shock of your lifewhen you see 'THE HYPNOTIC EYE'," MPH 23 Jan. 1960: 18.
41. CBS trade ad, Variety 24 July 1962: 44-45.
42. Packard 8.
43. Packard 106.
44. This scene, along with the interlude in the beatnik coffee house, wasalmost always excised by local television stations when Allied Artistsput the film into syndication as part of its "Sci-Fi for the 60s" packagein 1963.
KEVIN HEFFERNAN teaches in the Division of Cinema-Television in the MeadowsSchool of the Arts at Southern Methodist University. His essays have appearedin Cinema Journal, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, and other publications.He is coscreenwriter and associate producer of the documentary featureDivine Trash, which won the Filmmakers' Trophy at the 1998 Sundance FilmFestival. Ghouls, Gimmicks, and Gold, his book on horror films of the 1950sand 1960s, is forthcoming from Duke University Press.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner.Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.