When Janet Leigh turns to face her killer in Psycho, the screechy beat of Bernard Herrmann’s string orchestra makes you jump as much as her imminent doom. According to lore, Alfred Hitchcock initially thought of presenting the murder with nothing but natural sound so that the horror of the scene could play out with maximum force, as if it were real. But, of course, cinema is not real life, and to achieve his intended degree of shock and terror, he went with the strings.
Context determines if manipulation becomes malicious. With Herrmann’s Psycho strings the audience may be manipulated to feel amplified horror, but since audiences willingly bought tickets to see the movie, it’s fair to say that the manipulation feels ethically reasonable. People tend to feel manipulated in a sweet way if a date shows up at the door with flowers. That said, if a real estate agent implies coded racial aspects about a neighborhood, a prospective buyer (and everyone else) may rightfully perceive improper manipulation.
To develop creative work is to manipulate. The creative process has less to do with quantification than it does with intuition. To be creative is to feel something rather than calculate something, and feelings are always subject to change.
In 1947 when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) held hearings about potentially subversive elements in Hollywood, they focused their klieg lights on what they alleged were pro-Communist stories, messages, and motivations. In a decidedly heavy-handed style, they sought to prove that a group of creatives were not only disagreeable but treasonous. In their investigations they hurled accusations that the filmmakers, musicians, actors, and others in question were manipulative.
Well…yes. They were.
HUAC ultimately collapsed under its own short-sighted, cynical weight. What HUAC so fundamentally misunderstood was that the voices they sought to silence were exercising profoundly different muscles than that of pure reason, linear calculation, or logic. Creative people present creative works in ways designed to cause emotional responses. Creative people create new works of all sorts expressly because they bubble with ideas, and they’re looking to promote their ideas with others. The irony here, of course, is that HUAC members presented their own caustic jeremiads with equally manipulative vigor. Dressed up as objective, civic minded propriety, HUAC sought to sow fear in their constituents in order to find support for their agenda. The soundtrack of fear they played were actual scripts and songs and other artworks of those they hauled in for hearings.
When the shower curtain opened and Janet Leigh met her fateful demise, moviegoers jumped. Hitchcock wisely realized that real life was not what he was presenting on screen. That’s why he added the strings, and that’s what gave the scene its punch. Creative work is never real life, even as it refracts real life in prismatic forms, from comedy to terror, poetry to flower arranging. Creative work is always a reaction to real life. It manipulates in order to make its case. At its most effective, creative work gets reactions from audiences, who then take those new ideas and fold them into real life.
Manipulation is not bad in and of itself. The debate should, instead, focus on whether manipulations of various sorts are honest, whether they're honorable. Think about that.
Hitchcock meant to scare us, and made no false pretense about it. We can disagree with a message, even choose to steer clear or avoid or even protest that message, but we cannot be naive about the methods deployed to make those messages stick.