Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

The Hypnosis Horror Films of the 1950s: Genre Texts and Industrial Context

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

The Hypnosis Horror Films of the 1950s: Genre Texts and Industrial Context

Article excerpt

HORROR FANS of the baby-boom generation were excited in 1998 when VCI Home Video released fully restored, letterbox VHS and laserdisc editions of Horrors of the Black Museum (1960), a psychological horror film originally distributed to theaters and television by American International Pictures (fig. 1). Of particular interest to fans was the restoration of a twelve-minute prologue, missing for years from television prints, featuring a lecture on and demonstration of hypnosis by "renowned psychiatrist" Dr. Emile Franchel.1 Franchel talks about hypnotic suggestion, and then he speaks with a young woman under hypnosis, who giggles and states that she "felt fine," while the camera focuses on three hypodermic needles inserted into the fleshy part of her arm. Finally, the doctor turns to the camera, in order to place the film audience under a hypnotic trance. All of this was to demonstrate "HypnoVista," which places the audience into a trance of terror through a careful orchestration of color, light, music, and sound.

In reality, HypnoVista was yet another threadbare marketing gimmick used by distributors of low-budget horror films both to differentiate their product from its host of competitors and to exploit the public's fascination with the unprecedented-and since unequalled-technological innovations characteristic of Hollywood in the 1950s. Other examples of this kind of hype include "Psycho-Rama," in My World Dies Screaming (1958), an effort by Howco International to cash in on the mid-1950s controversy over subliminal advertising; "Hypno-Magic," an extended audience-hypnosis sequence in Allied Artists' The Hypnotic Eye (1959); and "Percepto," the most famous of producer William Castle's gimmicks, in which viewers of Columbia's The Tingler (1959) were subjected to mild electric shocks from wired theater seats. In addition to these hypnosis-themed publicity stunts, these films, and dozens of others, from Shock (1947) to Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955), from I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) to House on Haunted Hill (1958) and Peeping Tom (1959), replaced the traditional evil manipulator of the thriller and the mad scientist of the horror film, with the scheming or misguided psychiatrist.

Why did popularized discourses of psychiatry coalesce around the narratives and publicity efforts of the low-budget shocker in this period? One explanation is offered by Mark Jencovich in Rational Fears: American Horror in the 1950s.2 Jencovich argues that a crucial component of 1950s horror in both fiction and film is the fear of the increasing top-down management of both economic and psychic life in rationalized, postwar America. Rational Fears offers a persuasive range of evidence to support this thesis and draws supporting examples from all sub-genres of horror and science fiction. Jencovich concludes with an analysis of Psycho (1960), resituating Hitchcock's film as a culmination of, rather than a break from, 1950s discourses on psychic life and criminal pathology.

I think this is only part of a larger explanation, however. As would many other examples from the low-budget, genre cinema of the period, this cycle of films offers significant insight into the complex interweaving of the aesthetic, technological, social, and economic histories of American film during the industry's precipitous and sustained decline in box-office attendance after the war. This was a time when the major studios cut back drastically on production, and theaters often found themselves with little product to play. In addition, both the star system and the genre film were undergoing significant changes: many aging stars of the studio era were not being replaced by younger ones able to bring audiences into the theaters, and films 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 younger moviegoers familiar, even over-familiar, with genre conventions that had sustained the horror film for decades. …

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