Who said this? Was it Hitchcock?
October 4, 2006 5:26 AM   Subscribe

Who said "There is nothing more frightening than a closed door."? I seem to remember an attribution to Hitchcock, but that may be apocryphal. Also, my recollection of the quote may be a paraphrase.
posted by sciurus to Media & Arts (19 answers total)
Best answer: Stephen King talks about this in his non-fiction book about horror, Danse Macabre:

"I am of the last quarter of the last generation that remembers radio drama as an active force - a dramatic art form with its own set of reality. I was in attendance, during my younger years, at the deathbed of radio as a strong fictional medium.

"Nothing is so frightening as what's behind the closed door. The audience holds its breath along with the protagonist as she/he (more often she) approaches that door. The protagonist throws it open, and there is a ten-foot-tall bug. The audience screams, but this particular scream has an oddly relieved sound to it. 'A bug ten feet tall is pretty horrible', the audience thinks, 'but I can deal with a ten-foot-tall bug. I was afraid it might be a hundred feet tall'.

"The artistic work of horror is almost always a disappointment. It is the classic no-win situation. You can scare people with the unknown for a long, long time but sooner or later, as in poker, you have to turn your cards up. You have to open the door and show the audience what's behind it.

"The thing is, with such things as Dachau, Hiroshima, the Children's Crusade, mass starvation in Cambodia - the human consciousness can deal with almost anything... which leaves the writer or director of the horror tale with a problem with is the psychological equivalent of inventing a faster-than-light space drive in the face of E=MC2.
There is and always has been a school of horror writers (I am not among them - it is playing to tie rather than to win) who believe that the way to beat this rap is never to open the door at all.

"The exciting thing about radio at its best was that it bypassed the whole question of whether to open the door or leave ir closed. Radio, by the very nature of the medium, was exempt. For the listeners during the years 1930 to 1950 or so, there were no visual expectations to fulfill in their set of reality.

"The thing I have called the 'set of reality' has something to do with what film technicians call 'state of the art'. The set of reality changes, and the boundaries of that mental country where the imagination may be fruitfully employed (Rod Serling's apt phrase for it, now a part of the American idiom, was the Twilight Zone) are in near-constant flux. In 1942 Val Lewton could not shoot in Central Park by night, but in 'Barry Lyndon' Stanley Kubrick shot several scenes by candlelight. This is a quantum technical leap which has this paradoxical effect: it robs the bank of imagination.

"Radio avoided the open/closed-door question, I think, because radio deposited to that bank of imagination rather than making withdrawals in the name of 'state of the art', Radio made it real. When you made the monster in your mind, there was no zipper running down its back; it was a perfect monster."

That has always been my favourite passage of King's book.
posted by hot soup girl at 5:41 AM on October 4, 2006 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: You rule!

I needed citation for that because I'm writing a review of The Silence of the Lambs and doors play an important role in the film. In the climactic scene I think Agent Starling has well over 20 doors to manage.
posted by sciurus at 5:47 AM on October 4, 2006

Oh my god, Sciurus... are you me? I have an ongoing fascination with a) Silence of the Lambs; and b) the motif of The Door in film. I would love to read your review once it's done. Any chance of that?
posted by hot soup girl at 6:00 AM on October 4, 2006

Derail here, but with the question answered (so well & so quickly) I have to say that Danse Macabe is really quite a great book. King really does have insight. I also believe that even with some of his best books you can feel him grasping so desparately at that monster in your head. (The end of It?)

And I've always been fascinated by the ways that people have dealt with the issue of turning your cards up. Most recently, I was rewatching the Others which (as a huge horror fan) should not have scared me. That one terrified me - in the theater, I was clutching my eyes. I remember thinking at the time "what am I afraid of seeing?" and there was no answer.

It's obvious that other movies affect other people the same way. Jaws, Alien, Psycho, all legendary for how scary they are for how little they show. But they do show quite a lot when you think about it, just shown the right way.

I bet if you graph it, there'd be a "zippered valley", it'd be interesting to see a formal analysis on movies that tried to pinpoint where it showed too much (Alien outside the escape pod, shark eating Quint) and other movies where they didn't show enough.

Sorry for the derail.
posted by Brainy at 6:12 AM on October 4, 2006

The Shining as well. That story was nothing but closed doors with the (in my mind) biggest scare dealing almost exclusively in what happened behind door #237...
posted by slimepuppy at 6:48 AM on October 4, 2006

Response by poster: Don't worry about derailing Brainy, now that my question is answered I don't care what we chat about. :)

I'll send you a link hot soup girl. If only I could find the clip from that scene online...
posted by sciurus at 6:49 AM on October 4, 2006

Awesome comment from King, worth reading the thread. Nice insight for another reason why books are so superior to film.

Me and closed doors don't get along. I'm weird. Only closets are ever kept closed in my house. Unless there's company, I won't even close the bathroom door.
posted by Goofyy at 7:14 AM on October 4, 2006

Response by poster: I doubt you'll find any particular insights hot soup girl, but the review is here: [self link].
posted by sciurus at 7:23 AM on October 4, 2006

Great article, sciurus; thanks for linking to it!

A couple more things about the King quote. A little further on (I think it's after the quote I cited above, but don't have the book to hand), he acknowledges that although the suspense of the closed door inspires a greater, more noble, fear, he's not above revealing a giant bug or two:

“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I will go for the gross-out.”

I love that man's honesty.

And sciurus, I'm sorry not to have remembered this ealier - but I have a suspicion that, in discussing the idea of the bug behind the closed door, King is paraphrasing a talk he once attended by a writer of 1950s radio plays. From memory, the writer's name is mentioned in the paragraph preceding the chunk of text I quoted above; I don't have the book any more, but perhaps someone here has it on their bookshelf and can check? (All this stuff is in chapter six.)
posted by hot soup girl at 8:00 AM on October 4, 2006

Hate to burst the thread's bubble, but in no way did King come up with that saying. It predates his work by decades. To my knowledge it was said by the great producer Val Lewton, but I can't cite a reference.
posted by dobbs at 8:05 AM on October 4, 2006

dobbs, I doubt you're bursting anyone's bubble; obviously the suspense of a closed door is an old idea (I think the story of Bluebeard was my first introduction to it as a child and that story was published in 1697). scurius was looking for a quote to use in his article about the idea.
posted by hot soup girl at 8:24 AM on October 4, 2006

hot soup girl, yes, the idea of a closed door as suspenseful is ancient, but distilling the info into "There's nothing more frightening than a closed door" and expressing it as an axiom for others to work with was done by one person; my money's on Val Lewton.

scurius' thread title was "Who said ..." I assumed that meant "Who first said ...." It absolutely wasn't King.

posted by dobbs at 8:40 AM on October 4, 2006

Response by poster: That's cool. I'll see if I can scrounge up a Val Lewton quote on it.
posted by sciurus at 8:54 AM on October 4, 2006

Response by poster: Knowing who said it first would be cool, but having a correct attribution was my main goal.
posted by sciurus at 9:04 AM on October 4, 2006

In 1973 there was a short TV series called "The Men who made the movies". One episode of it concentrated on Hitchcock, and includes a lot of live interviews with him.

He didn't make horror movies, of course; he made suspense movies. And he talks about tension. This is paraphrased; I'm working from memory:

"Put a man and a woman at their breakfast table chatting to one another, and there's no tension. Ah, but put a bomb in a briefcase in that same room with them, and now there's tension! But if you do that, you better not let that bomb go off." -- because then it would be horror, was the implication.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:12 AM on October 4, 2006

Stephen King's short story "The Breathing Method" includes this wonderful passages:

"I felt momentarilty sure that the front door would blow open, revealing not Thirty-fifth Street but an insane Clark Ashton Smith landscape where the bitter shapes of twisted trees stood silhouetted on a sterile horizon below which double suns were setting in a greusome red glare.

"... I remember with perfect clarity the stab of fear that went through me when Stevens swung the oaken door wide -- the cold certainty that I would see that alien landscape, cracked and hellish in the bloody light of those double suns, which might set and bring on an unspeakable darkness of an hour's duration, or ten hours, or ten thousand years. ... I thought that for one timeless second that the door would open and Stevens would thrust me out into that world and that I would then hear that door slam shut behind me...forever."

See also King's "Dark Tower" series for the fear of, and longing for, what lies beyond the door.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:39 PM on October 4, 2006

Best answer: This page also attributes it to Lewton.
posted by dobbs at 3:39 PM on October 4, 2006

Sadly "The Dark Tower" series is an extreme example of why authors shouldn't open the door. What's there might be extremely disappointing.
posted by Brainy at 6:00 AM on October 5, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks, dobbs!
posted by sciurus at 7:01 AM on October 5, 2006

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