Joseph Stefano

For a writer who didn’t particularly enjoy horror and fantasy, screenwriter Joseph Stefano contributed quite a bit to both genres. The Philadelphia native, who died recently at the age of 84, left his mark twice on pop culture, first with horror — he wrote the script for Alfred Hitchcock’s best known film, Psycho — and then in fantasy when he masterminded The Outer Limits, a short-lived TV series that frequently scared the beejesus out of viewers.

I recently read Evan Hunter’s Me and Hitch, a short book (more like a long article, but still very engrossing) about his experiences as a screenwriter working on The Birds and Marnie, the first one of Hitchcock’s most overrated films while the second marks the point when the old thrillmonger truly went off the rails. It’s a tale of how an immensely talented screenwriter and a master film technician came together to make two misfires.

Stefano’s collaboration with Hitchcock, on the other hand, is a story of unexpected triumph. Stefano was unimpressed with Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho (it is pretty lame), so he conceived the idea of building the first third of the film around Marion Crane and then using her sudden death to pull the rug out from under the audience. Hitchcock, to his lasting credit, liked the idea and went with it. (In fact, the concept Hitchcock and Evan Hunter came up with for The Birds — a screwball comedy abruptly turns into a tale of terror — can be seen as a repeat of Stefano’s inspiration.) It’s no longer possible to share the experience of that twist, but it helps to remember that in the early 1960s, when people still thought nothing of wandering into the theater after a movie started and then lingering to watch the parts they missed, Psycho was one of the first films in which patrons were not allowed to enter once the show started. The other key element in the film’s success was composer Bernard Herrmann, who decided to echo the film’s black-and-white look with a “black and white score” that exclusively used strings — particularly effectively in the shrieking shock cues that accompany each murder. And when Hitchcock, displeased with the finished film, was about to cut it down to an hour and use it on his Alfred Hitchcock Presents series, Herrmann convinced him to release it as a feature.

Of course, if Stefano gets the credit for pointing Psycho in a successful new direction, he also gets the blame for the closing explanation of what turned Norman Bates into a killer. This weary cavalcade of barbershop Freudianism may be the worst five minutes of film Hitchcock ever shot, but it reflects Stefano’s lifelong interest in Freud, which in turn fueled his ventures into horror.

He really gave old Freud a workout in The Outer Limits, a short-lived (1963-65) series that provided plenty of nightmare material for plenty of young viewers, including Yours Truly. In one episode, appropriately titled “Nightmare,” a young astronaut is singled out for torture because “there’s too much ‘mom’ in those eyes of his,” and in more than one episode a headlong flight from a pursuing monster is interrupted for a lecture about how the protagonist has been “running all his life” and “won’t take a stand.”

Fortunately, Stefano also had a taste for good old fashioned raw scares: even the opening title, coming at you with an explosive shock cue,was enough to send the faint-hearted scampering for a cup of hot cocoa and a nightlight. He insisted that each episode have a “bear,” his term for a monster, and while a few of them were pretty silly (this was a low-budget series in the early 1960s, remember), the show also came up with some doozies. The bizarre, all-devouring vortex in “It Crawled Out of the Woodwork” and the creature living in the box marked “Don’t Open Until Doomsday” always had a special spot in my subconscious.

Stefano wrote the scripts for all of the show’s best episodes, and he was very particular about the look of the series — slightly low camera angles that placed the ceiling within the shot, giving everything a closed-in feeling, were one of the show’s signatures.

So tonight I’ll pay tribute to Joseph Stefano by looking under my bed before going to sleep. It won’t be the first time he had me wondering what else was in the room.

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