Hitchcock’s Bomb Theory


There is a distinct difference between ‘suspense’ and ‘surprise,’ and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean. We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchists place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’ In the first case, we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.

(Via François Truffaut’s Hitchcock, 1967.)

Long Haul

In Penn & Teller’s 1994 game Desert Bus, you must pilot a bus along an arrow-straight road through 360 miles of featureless desert from Tucson, Arizona to Las Vegas. There are no passengers, no other vehicles, and no scenery but dead trees and bushes. The bus tends to drift, so you have to work continuously to keep it on the road, but apart from that there is nothing to do. At a top speed of 45 mph, it will take at least 8 hours of continuous attention to reach your destination.

Absolute Entertainment ceased operations before it could release the game, but a press copy came to light in 2000, and since then versions have been released on Android, iOS, and virtual reality. A recurring livestream had raised $6 million for charity by 2019.

(When you reach Vegas, you’re given one point and the option to drive back to Tucson.)


Filmmaker Melton Barker started a novel business in the 1930s: He traveled across the United States, shooting a film in each town using local talent. The residents would gladly pay a fee to see themselves immortalized in a two-reel short, and their support financed the production and Barker’s livelihood until he could reach the next town.

He shot the same film, The Kidnappers Foil, 300 times over 40 years, using the same script and largely the same shots. A young girl named Betty Davis is kidnapped on her birthday, and the town’s children organize a search for her. The finished film, 15 to 20 minutes long, would be screened at local theaters. (The example above was shot in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in February 1937.)

Most of these films have been lost, but the project as a whole was added to the National Film Registry in 2012. The Texas Archive of the Moving Image has a collection of surviving films.

(Thanks, Kevin.)



Composer and bandleader Sun Ra insisted that he wasn’t Herman Blount of Birmingham, Alabama, but an alien from Saturn. In a visionary experience in 1936, he said, he’d learned that “I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That’s what they told me.”

The story became part of his mystique. Late in life, filling out a hospital admission form, he listed Saturn as his place of birth. When worried nurses summoned help, the psychiatrist said, “This is Sun Ra — of course he’s from Saturn!”

(Ian Simmons, “Mothership Connections,” Fortean Times 244 [January 2009], 30–35, cited in Andrew May, The Science of Sci-Fi Music, 2020.)



J.H. Brown’s 1864 book Spectropia: Or, Surprising Spectral Illusions promises to show “ghosts everywhere, and of any colour.” It accomplishes this by relying on two simple principles: persistence of vision and complementary colors. Readers are directed to stare at any of the figures for 15 seconds and then turn their eyes to a white surface (or the sky); “the spectre will soon begin to make its appearance, increasing in intensity, and then gradually vanishing,” in the color complementary to that of the stimulus.

Try it yourself.

All Together Now


Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “The function of the artist is to make people like life better than before.”

Asked whether he’d ever seen this done, he said, “Yes, the Beatles did it.”

(From Dan Wakefield’s introduction to Vonnegut’s If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?, 2013.)

“Prisons for Animals”


This short composition was discovered in the Stanford University Library, tipped into the inside cover of a bound first volume of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1909 magazine The Forerunner:

Spring is in the air. All creatures feel it. The fish are shooting up the rivers, the birds hard working and happy; every animal feels the lift and stir and new life. Even those which are in prison. …

What excuse has the Prison for Animals? What have they done to merit this life sentence?

Spring is in the air. The trees are misty with soft color, blurred with swelling buds, all aslant with curly tassels of young blossoms. The grass is pushing up in joyous vigor, green as it is never green again; soft, sweet, the delicious new first growth; beginning of a long summer’s feasting.

Here are the deer prisons. They have a high iron fence around them, another railing outside that. They have a wooden house for shelter. They have underfoot, cinders — gravel and cinders. …

To keep in a prison yard an animal built for speed, accustomed to wide ranging, to long swift flight, is cruelty. …

And for what? For whose benefit? Does it give pleasure? Those who find pleasure in gazing at helpless pain had better go unpleased. …

These beasts in prison, these who bear no burdens, provide neither food nor drink, wool nor hide — what excuse have we for tormenting them?

Here is a bald eagle. A bird of freedom. … The eagle sits huddled, dull as a brooding vulture. …

Here is a hawk, fierce-eyed. He beats his wings to tatters … against the bars.

Here is an elephant, huge, patient, with small, smouldering eyes that see more than we think. Manacled, this beast, chained at both ends, fore foot and hind foot, to stout posts. The elephant is a water lover. His dry hide itches for water. He wants to wade into it, to draw it up and pour it all over himself. …

All wild creatures have a keen, delicate sense of smell … We imprison them in fetid odors. They needs must breathe, night and day, the repulsive smell of their enemies, odors of danger and distrust. …

(Via Robert Alexander, ed., Spring Phantoms, 2018.)



1985 saw an oddity in the chess world: Russian grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi undertook a game with Hungarian Géza Maróczy, who had been dead for 34 years. The game was arranged by amateur Swiss player Wolfgang Eisenbeiss, who enlisted medium Robert Rollans to contact the deceased grandmaster and communicate his moves. (Rollans did not play chess and was not paid.)

Closely watched in Germany, the game took nearly eight years to unfold, hampered by Korchnoi’s schedule, Rollans’ illness, and Maróczy’s unhurried pace. Korchnoi, who won after 47 moves, remarked that his opponent had shown weakness in the opening but made up for it with a strong endgame.

After an analysis in 2007, neuropsychiatrist and amateur player Vernon Neppe declared that Maróczy had played at master level and that his moves could not have been found by a computer. Further, when asked to confirm his identity, the deceased grandmaster had dictated 38 pages of text to Rollans, complaining, “I am astonished when somebody does not believe me to be here personally.” Historian and chess expert Laszlo Sebestyen determined that 87.9 percent of Maróczy’s assertions there (about his playing, tournament wins, and personal life) had been accurate.

But in a 2021 critique, Edwin C. May and Sonali Bhatt Marwaha point out that Maróczy had typically taken 10 days to make each move, during which time Rollans might easily have consulted outside assistance. And the medium had had ample time to prepare Maróczy’s 1986 communication confirming his identity. Ultimately the answers lie with Rollans, who, ironically, passed quickly out of reach — he died just 19 days after Maróczy’s resignation.

For What It’s Worth

A 2009 study in the journal Sex Roles found that James Bond had had “strong” sexual contact with 46 women in the first 20 films in the Eon Productions Bond series (up to Die Another Day).

He had “mild” encounters, such as kissing, with another 52.

For comparison, Bond author Henry Chancellor had counted 58 sexual encounters in the first 20 films (according to Ben MacIntyre in For Your Eyes Only). Interestingly, Chancellor calculated that Bond sleeps with just 14 women in the 12 books that appeared between 1953 and 1964.

Still, that’s a lot of partners. “The likelihood of James Bond having chlamydia is extremely high,” general practitioner Sarah Jarvis told the BBC. “If he came to my clinic I would definitely advise him to have an STI test.”

(Kimberly A. Neuendorf, et al., “Shaken and Stirred: A Content Analysis of Women’s Portrayals in James Bond Films,” Sex Roles 62:11-12 [2010], 747-761.)