Director Alfred Hitchcock once dreamed of being able to play his audience “like a giant organ,” manipulating people’s emotions at will as they watched his movies. He even imagined bypassing the movies all together and simply attaching electrodes to people’s heads and stimulating their emotions via push buttons. Today, as Patricia Pisters argues in a new essay at Aeon, that dream is closer than ever to reality, thanks to a greater understanding of the human brain. Pisters’ article describes the advent of a new kind of horror film, “the neurothriller,” that preys upon a whole range of human emotions: Fear, yes, but also guilt, lust, hope, and despair, among others. In Hitchcock’s day, the best-known method of getting audiences to feel a certain way was through plot. The director often liked to supply his viewers with information that the characters on screen did not have, like the fact that a bomb is about to go off nearby. If viewers know an explosion is imminent but the characters don’t, that creates suspense.
Pisters says, however, that “the game has changed” since Alfred Hitchcock, thanks to “new findings in neuroscience.” She cites Pixar’s Inside Out as an example of Hollywood’s new-found understanding of the mind and of the basic emotions that guide people’s thoughts and actions. One current director who truly knows how to tap into fundamental human drives is Lars Von Trier, who has dealt directly with the subject of depression in such films as Antichrist and Melancholia. Von Trier’s approach favors emotion over exposition, as Pisters explains: “Before any story event explains anything, we feel the emotions and the fight between sadness and fear as if we are inside von Trier’s head.” The author also points to films like Red Road and We Need To Talk About Kevin as examples of potent contemporary neurothrillers. What separates these new-style films from the classic thrillers of Hitchcock’s time, other than an emphasis on character rather than plot? Pisters argues that the neurothriller often deliberately denies the viewer any sense of context or explanation. Keeping people confused might be the cruelest trick a director can play on an audience.