In 1959 the psychoanalyst Michael Balint published a book on the subject of Thrills and Regressions which is of great interest, not simply to Freudians, but to film theorists and historians as well. Although Balint never mentions the cinema as such, his opening chapter on ‘Funfairs and Thrills’ covers a number of different varieties of thrill-laden activities, including those in which the thrill is directly experienced by participants and those in which it is experienced vicariously; as, for instance, at the circus, where professionals entertain spectators with their feats on the tightrope or in the lions’ den. Cinema is often discussed in relation to the theatre or the novel but its kinship to the circus is much less frequently admitted, even though we are all aware how important the vicarious enjoyment of thrills has been throughout its history. From very early on, cinema exploited its capacity to create excitement. Even the very first films of the Lumière Brothers had a thrilling effect on their audiences—we are all familiar with the many accounts of spectators cowering or fleeing the cinema as the train approached the station, threatening to run directly off the screen into the auditorium. Soon afterwards Georges Méliès was taking spectators on a rocket trip to the moon.
The very first category of thrill Balint mentions is the class of those ‘connected with high speed, as in all kinds of racing, horse-riding and jumping, motor-racing, skating, skiing, tobogganing, sailing, flying, etc.’ Essentially, Balint sees thrills as structured in what he sometimes describes as three acts:
(a) some amount of conscious fear, or at least an awareness of real external danger; (b) a voluntary and intentional exposing of oneself to this external danger and to the fear aroused by it; (c) while having the more or less confident hope that the fear can be tolerated and mastered, the danger will pass, and that one will be able to return unharmed to safety. This mixture of fear, pleasure and confident hope in face of an external danger is what constitutes the fundamental element of all thrills.
In the case of speed, of course, the danger consists of somehow losing control and crashing or, in the particular case of a chase, of being overtaken and captured or attacked. Often high speed is combined with the two other principal kinds of thrill Balint mentions—those connected with ‘exposed situations’, such as rock-climbing, deep-sea diving or lion-taming, and with ‘unfamiliar or even completely new forms of satisfaction’, such as new food, new clothes and ‘new forms of “perverse” sexual activities’.
Speed is not simply thrilling in itself, once sufficiently accelerated, but also enables us to enter exposed and unfamiliar situations, far removed from the zones of safety and normality—to travel into space, for instance, beyond the frontiers of the known. Avid thrill-seekers, or ‘philobats’ as Balint calls them, are often involved not simply in dangerous but also highly competitive activities. Speed is closely connected to various forms of struggle or contest, ranging from races and, more threateningly, chases, up to its decisive role in combat, where greater speed gives a clear advantage over an opponent. Balint notes that an ‘element of aggressiveness is undoubtedly present in all philobatic activities’; but thrills in themselves are not directed against an outside object, but valued for the subjective experience they bring to the philobat. In amusement parks and cinemas, violence is closely linked to thrill-seeking but the spectator’s thrill is, so to speak, intransitive. Speed is enjoyed for its own sake, even though it may lead in the end to a second-order enjoyment of vicarious triumph over a villainous enemy. Thrills, Balint concludes, are essentially auto-erotic—they are ways of embarking on adventures which are fundamentally designed to give oneself pleasure just by the activity involved, so that any specific accomplishment that results, like crossing the finish-line first or triumphing over an opponent, is really an added benefit, related to aggression rather than to philobatism as such.
In 1936, Alfred Hitchcock wrote a piece for Picturegoer titled ‘Why “Thrillers” Thrive’. Hitchcock argued that shocks or thrills are necessary to us as human beings, that ‘our nature is such that we must have these “shake-ups”, or we grow sluggish and jellified; but, on the other hand, our civilization has so screened and sheltered us that it isn’t practicable to experience sufficient thrills at first hand. So we have to experience them artificially, and the screen is the best medium for this.’ Hitchcock argues that in the theatre—or at the circus—the audience simply watches things happening, remote, impersonal and detached, whereas in the cinema ‘we don’t sit by as spectators; we participate’. Or at least, he might have said, the effective experience of participation is much stronger. Hitchcock goes on to cite a sequence in Howard Hughes’s 1930 air combat film Hell’s Angels,
in which the British pilot decides to crash his plane into the envelope of the Zeppelin to destroy it, even though this means inevitable death to himself. We see his face—grim, tense, even horror-stricken—as his plane swoops down. Then we are transferred to the pilot’s seat, and it is we who are hurtling to death at ninety miles an hour; and at the moment of impact—and blackout—a palpable shuddering runs through the audience. That is good cinema.