Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
To date, Chillers and Thrillers has had precious little to say concerning the latter term in its title, having focused, instead, almost exclusively on chillers (that is, horror stories) and such related fare as fantasies and science fiction. In this post, thanks to Charles Derry’s excellent book on thrillers, this oversight is finally corrected.
In the second chapter of The Suspense Thriller: Films in the Shadow of Alfred Hitchcock, “Thrills; or, How Objects and Empty Spaces Compete to Threaten Us,” Charles Derry identifies the objects that are used, in several films, as symbols, or “visual correlatives”: “The cymbals in The Man Who Knew Too Much,” which represent “the assassination and the whole movement of the narrative”; “the windmill in Foreign Correspondent,” which symbolizes “the arrival of an airplane to take away the villains”; and “the glass of milk in Suspicion,” which signifies “the imminent poisoning of Joan Fontaine [sic]”; and “the blood-stained doll in Stage Fright,” which suggests “an accusation of murder” (21).
According to Derry, other symbolic objects include:
The painting of the Madonna in Obsession, which works as a symbol of the protagonists’ dilemma and the narrative; the escaping balloons in La Rupture, which works as a complex symbol of escape and freedom; Faye Dunaway’s [sic] photographs in Three Days of the Condor, which work as a symbol of trust in a morally bankrupt world; the mirrors in Lady from Shanghai, which work in part as a symbol of the destructive nature of the American woman (21).In addition to such symbolic objects, thrillers also employ both “ocnophilic” and “philobatic” objects, Derry argues, employing terms coined by Michael Balint in Thrills and Regressions. Essentially, the former type of object is apt to be one among many that are associated with the safety and security of one’s everyday environment, whereas the other (usually one or a few “special” objects) is linked to potential dangers or risks. Examples of the ocnophilic object to which the philobat “clings,“ Derry says, include the lion-tamer’s whip, the tight-rope walker’s pole, the skier’s ski-poles, the conductor’s baton, the soldier’s rifle, the artist’s paintbrush, and the pilot’s joy-stick (25). The ocnophilic object, Derry adds, “is perhaps the antithesis of the safe ‘ocnophilic object’ embraced by the philobat and represents the most overwhelming symbol of the philobat’s inability to get away from objects that are unconquerable and oppressive,” although “the objects that the philobat encounters need not be instantly harmful” (25). Moreover, the philobat may transform a threatening or dangerous oncophilic object into “a co-operative partner” by “showing consideration, regard, or concern about” it, as “Cary Grant [sic]” does in North By Northwest when he :turns the objects at the auction into his cooperative partners and is thus able to escape the villains” or as Paul Newman‘s character does in Torn Curtain when he “allows the paper flames in the ballet set to provide him with inspiration to escape from the theatre” (26). Since the ocnophil equates ocnophilic objects with safety and security, he or she is disturbed when one or more of these objects must be abandoned or he or she is abandoned by it or them. “For the octophil,” Derry says, “the world consist of objects which are separated by terrifying empty spaces,” and, Balint contends, as Derry notes in quoting him, “The octophil lives from object to object, cutting his sojourns in the empty spaces as short as possible. Fear is provoked by leaving the objects, and allayed by rejoining them” (26). For this reason, too, “an object which remains no threatening is a source of much security, and the philobat certainly doesn’t want this object taken away” (27).
Before I had encountered Derry’s book or heard of Balint’s taxonomy of the thriller, I unknowingly described a different type of ocnophilic object in my article, “Taking Away the Teddy Bear,” except that the object was more a state of mind than an object per se. The person (or, perhaps, place or thing) that anchors us to our existence, giving us a reason to go on, despite the vicissitudes of fate and the traumas and crises of life, might be regarded as an ocnophilic object of sorts, for its possession makes us feel that life is worth living. The ultimate “teddy bear,” I suggest is one’s faith in God, which, taken away, results in despair and horror in face of the monster of meaninglessness.
Although neither Derry nor Balint identifies such an object, one might argue, for the existence of anti-ocnophilic, as opposed to both ocnophilic and philobatic, objects as well, which is to say, things--or even states of mind--that remind men and women of persons, places, or things that they find repulsive rather than comforting; an African-American might view a rebel flag in such a manner; a racist, an interracial couple; a homophobe, two men or women holding hands with one another. Rather than finding reassurance in such objects and seeking to retain or to be reunited with them, a character would seek to avoid or discard them. In some cases, an object that is initially regarded as ocnophilic might later be considered anti-ocnophilic, as, for example, one might argue, the monkey’s paw in W. W. Jacobs’ short story first is and later becomes to the elderly couple who come into possession of this talisman.
In the thriller, Derry argues, based upon his reading of Balint, the protagonist fears a “real external danger,” to which he or she voluntarily exposes him- or herself, confident in his or her hope that he or she can survive it. Balint contends that “this mixture of fear, pleasure, and confident hope is what constitutes the fundamental elements of all thrills,” and, likewise, according to Derry, comprise the “three-part progression” of “most suspense thriller plots,” to which may be added thrills “associated with high speed, such as racing, horse-riding, skiing, sailing, and flying”; thrills “associated with exposed [or risky] situations, such as jumping, diving, rock climbing, taming wild animals, and traveling into foreign lands”; and thrills “associated with unfamiliar forms of satisfaction, such as new foods, new customs, and new sexual experiences” (22).
In Thrills and Regressions, Balint coins the words philobatism and ocnophilia to refer, respectively, to the thrill seeker and his or her opposite, who is quite content to avoid thrills of any kind. Using Balint’s terminology and Derry’s insights, one could define a suspense thriller as a story in which an initially ocnophilic protagonist enters the philobatic world of external danger, triumphs over the peril, and is able, thereafter, to balance the extremes of a safe but uneventful existence with the dangerous but thrilling aspects of life.
Although the thriller plot’s emphasis upon a “real external threat” and an ultimately thrill-seeking protagonist suggests that such stories are more likely to be addressed to male audiences, it is clear, given the synopsis of Wait Until Dark, which involves a female protagonist, that this storyline can also involve female protagonists and can be directed toward female audiences:
In Wait Until Dark. . . the ocnophilic and clinging Audrey Hepburn [sic] loses the secure protection of her husband and home base, faces a series of terrifying thrills which she conquers, emerges victorious, and returns unharmed to the security of her husband, although now in touch with her own philobatic abilities and no longer in need of his protection” (24-25).
Indeed, as Derry himself points out,
there are many notable female protagonists in thrillers (as for example in Shadow of a Doubt, Le Boucher, or The China Syndrome) who become adventurers. . . and there are so many female spectators who have been moved by the thriller that it would be wrong to argue that these works are--more than any other popular genre--unusually reflective of sexist male fantasy (29).In this chapter of his book, Derry also suggests how empty spaces can threaten the philobatic protagonist. For example, Derry contends that “in Wait Until Dark. . . it is precisely the empty spaces that are terrifying to the blind heroine; the empty spaces are blank, and she is unable to maneuver herself from place to place without the help of the anchored objects which make up her world” (26).
Two passages in Derry’s book explain how and why the suspense thriller differs from the horror story. In the first of these passages, Derry, alluding to the observations of both Alfred Hitchcock and William Castle, suggests that the suspense thriller “excludes horror,” just as it excludes “traditional whodunnits and detective films,” because, as Hitchcock insists, “the whodunnit generates a kid of curiosity that is void of emotion, and emotion is an essential ingredient in suspense” and horror often includes “supernatural suppositions” that identify the genre as “outright fantasy.”
For his part, Castle defines horror as the use of a monster to frighten audiences, whereas he defines a thriller as using “an identifiable person” such as someone the moviegoer could actually encounter and with whom he or she could empathize “in jeopardy” so that the audience can “root for” him or her (8-9).
The second passage adds a contemporary, all-too-human monster to the traditional ones that Castle featured in his films: “in certain horror films,” Derry points out, “the ‘monster’ is not a mystical or fantastic creature, but an insane individual who commits crimes,” and “because their murderous protagonists are presented as objects of horror and virtual monsters, films such as Psycho (1960), Repulsion (1965), and The Collector (1965) might most accurately be perceived as belonging to both the suspense thriller and horror genres simultaneously” (324-325). One could argue, indeed, that Dean Koontz’s much-vaunted “cross-genre” novels represent an even greater hybridization of genre fiction, often including, as it does, elements of science fiction, romance, the thriller, and the traditional horror story.
In the table of contents of The Suspense Thriller, and based upon his study of the thriller genre, Derry identifies six specific subtypes and promises (“To Be Continued”) more, perhaps, in a future volume: the thriller of murderous passions, the political thriller, the thriller of acquired identity, the psychotraumatic thriller, the thriller of moral confrontation, and the innocent-on-the-run thriller (vii). Perhaps Chillers and Thrillers will feature more summaries and commentaries upon these chapters of Derry’s excellent book in the future. Stay tuned (so to speak.)