The postwar years were a golden time for the suspense thriller, climaxing in ‘Psycho’. There was also a slew of wonderful novels from American women, many of whom I’ve discussed in my ‘Invisible Ink’ column. A number of Hammer thrillers with titles like ‘Scream of Fear’ and ‘Nightmare’ were produced, mostly shot around the familiar towers of Bray, and most of the stories have a strange subtext. There’s an obsessive quality that runs through them, from the writings of Robert Bloch and Constance Strong to the Freddie Francis films and dramas like ‘Die, Die My Darling!’ – basically suggesting that women were neurotic and prone to madness.
‘You’re highly strung!’ warns one teacher to her charge Janet in ‘Nightmare’. ‘Hundreds of people are highly strung – it doesn’t mean you’re mad!’ Pretty soon, though, Janet’s convinced that she’ll become as mad as her mother who, says one sensitive relative ‘had to be locked away – in an INSANE ASYLUM!’ Janet sees blood-covered knives wherever she looks.
The idea that madness can be inherited or brought on by a series of shocks surfaces again and again in these films and books. In the conservative 1950s women were homemakers and expected to present the happy face of a marriage. In America, psychiatry was starting to make inroads into ordinary suburban homes. Women especially were starting to examine their mental states, which was reflected in entertainment about psychiatry in books and films like ‘The Three Faces of Eve’ and the rise in prescription drugs.
Pressure to conform made them ‘highly strung’ and liable to start reaching for the kitchen knives. Back in ‘Nightmare’ we find two doctors discussing what should be done with poor Janet. ‘We shouldn’t send her to an asylum, she should go to a sanatorium,’ says one. The other doctor scoffs. ‘You and I know the difference but I don’t suppose Janet does!’ You’d think Janet might have a clue because although she’s meant to be a schoolgirl she looks about 40.
Jennifer Dawson wrote ‘The Ha-Ha’, an exploration of mental illness, because she suffered from schizophrenia, but many other authors simply used madness as a plot device. Soon poor old Janet has gone bonkers and stabbed someone, so she’s whisked off to the funny farm as we see what we’ve suspected all along – her rellies are donning masks and wigs to drive her crackers.
Ethel Lina White was a mistress of suspense in this style, but a superior one. Her best novel is ‘Some Must Watch’, a superbly eerie thriller in which a young carer, Helen, is taken on in a remote household at a time when a serial killer is targeting women in the locality. The book is virtually little more than a description of a mental state, a brilliantly maintained exercise in escalating hysteria as the nine residents who protect Helen from the forces of chaos are stripped away one by one, not murdered but unable to help because of a everyday incidents involving brandy bottle, a broken door handle, sleeping pills or having been called elsewhere. Finally Helen must survive alone.
Anthony Berkeley Cox was one of the few male stars of female psychology who didn’t condescend. In ‘Before The Fact’, we’re told that heroine Lina will discover her husband Johnny is a murderer. Suspense escalates as Lina finds clues to Johnny’s behavior – his gambling, his stealing – and gives him the opportunity to explain his actions. Johnny is so charismatic that he always has a plausible ready excuse, and despite everything still brings light into her life. The tension lies in wanting to know how long it will be before she ceases to be blindsided by him, until the book’s devastating final chapter explains the true nature of victimhood as she allows herself to be murdered. It was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as ‘Suspicion’, with the famous glowing glass of milk but a much weaker script with a happy ending.
Uniquely, in ‘Nightmare’, barmy Janet’s hoaxer is herself driven loopy in a double-bluff of recriminations, jealousies and incipient madness. Luckily, a few decades of female empowerment put an end to the idea of the crazy lady in fiction.