A UT English Course Reveals Memories of Alfred Hitchcock’s Works Across Generations

“What do you remember about Alfred Hitchcock?” That’s the question my students asked their older relatives over Thanksgiving as part of English 310S: “The Films of Alfred Hitchcock.” I feel lucky to teach this course, which meets in a state-of-the-art amphitheater in the Jesse H. Jones Communication Center at UT, because I join with smart undergraduates to examine great Hitchcock films from the silent-era thriller The Lodger (1927) through Psycho (1960).  

This last movie prompted the Thanksgiving assignment: One semester, a student volunteered that her grandmother had gone on a first date to see Psycho only to leave deep fingernail marks in her date’s thigh! It was such a compelling story that I gave students extra credit for interviewing relatives and reporting back. 

These oral histories (a sample of which appear here, with permission) were as enlightening to me as to the students. While I anticipated stories about dates to Psycho and The Birds, and fond memories of attractive Hollywood stars—including Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Ingrid Bergman, and Grace Kelly—I was also surprised by a few things.  

I was taken, for example, by the thoroughly international nature of my students’ extended families and Hitchcock’s geographic reach—I counted a dozen countries, from Australia to Vietnam, mentioned in their oral histories. The influence of Hitchcock’s television shows, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, was also remarkable, as were the lasting memories of these programs’ shared theme song and the silhouette of Hitchcock himself stepping into his cartoon outline.  

For their part, students tended to be surprised by how special moviegoing used to be, how central movie stars were to audiences of the time, and how deeply Hitchcock’s films and television shows were imprinted on the public imagination—leading, in some families, to baths replacing showers and to bans on motel stays. Perhaps the most rewarding lesson of the interviews, however, came in recognizing what we can learn about the past from speaking with those who lived it. 

Here are some Hitchcock memories: 

Handsome Cary Grant 

My grandmother on my mom’s side and I bonded over our love of Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. I sort of thought that my grandfather looked like Cary Grant, so I asked her if that was why she married him and she laughed and said, “no comment.” —Kennedy Freyer 

A Familiar Tune 

My grandparents lived in Venezuela during the ’50s and ’60s and remember watching the show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. They correctly hummed the theme song to the show, which surprised me considering how long it had been since it last aired. —Andres Barrios Caminos 

Mesmerizing Colors 

I interviewed my girlfriend’s grandfather, a Vietnam War veteran and recipient of the Purple Heart. Vertigo was the first movie he saw when he was around 10 years old. He talked about how seeing the colors on the screen was jaw-dropping and kept him glued to his seat. —Eric Escobedo  

A Date to Remember 

My grandpa told me he vividly remembered seeing Psycho. I proceeded to ask his connection to it, and he paused, scanning the room and undoubtedly going back to 1960. “Her name was Geraldine …” I smiled discreetly because I knew where this story ended. “She was a friend of my younger brother. She was beautiful, and I had the biggest crush on her. I was 12 years old; she was 11, and we went to school together. My friends and I had been talking about seeing the new movie at the town cinema. It was Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock. I rode my bike nine blocks to her house to ask her to see the movie with me the following Friday. She said yes, and we agreed to meet at her house at 5 p.m., because the film began at 5:45 p.m., giving us time to buy tickets and popcorn. The tickets cost me about 71 cents per person, the money I had saved from working for my dad, a florist. The movie started, and when I went to hold her hand, she pulled away. I guess she thought I still had cooties or something. We lasted like this until the scene with the skeleton of the young man’s deceased mother.” “Norman Bates,” I chimed in. “Yes, yes,” he retorted. “She jumped so high and did the little shriek that she does at movies, you know?” I was all too familiar with this sound as it was an essential characteristic of my grandmother. We both glanced across the room to see her smiling back at us. “Yes, and after I screamed, your grandpa put his hand on my knee, and since that September afternoon in the theater, I knew he could take care of me regardless of whatever scary scene lay ahead.” Psycho was my grandparents’ first date as fifth and sixth graders. A story I had heard over and over; however, the movie title never stuck with me. This movie is a part of why my family is here today. —Lauren Jeanes 

Language Lessons 

What drew my grandma to watch more Hitchcock movies was when her favorite actors, Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, played the leads. She loves how elegant and handsome they are because it reminds her of a time when she was a young woman. Hitchcock movies and movies in general play a huge role in her life because consuming English media helped her practice and learn English when she moved from Vietnam to the United States during the Vietnam War. —Rachel Nguyen 

Scared at the Drive-In 

My grandmother told me about the time that her aunt took her and her two cousins to see Psycho at the drive-in. She was especially excited to see it because her mom told her she couldn’t, but her aunt told her she would cover for her. They were all sitting in the back of their pickup truck with the tailgate down. She doesn’t remember much about the actual film, other than the multiple times that her aunt would yell at the top of her lungs out of the blue just to scare the crap out of them. She said that by the end of the movie they were all so freaked out that when some teenager started walking toward them in an attempt to scare them, they all started screaming and telling her aunt to “DRIVE.” However, when she hit the gas, my grandmother’s youngest cousin (the aunt’s youngest daughter) went tumbling out of the back of the truck. They didn’t notice until they were five minutes down the road. By the time they made it back, she was standing in their parking spot with her hands on her hips and, according to my grandma, quite an attitude. —Olivia Perrin 

Watching With Dad 

My grandma remembers her first exposure to Hitchcock being watching his television show with her dad. She shared that, “At that time we had four children, but I was the only one that would watch the scary shows with Dad. None of us talked about movies in the ’50s. Children were to be seen and not heard. So, I just got to do that with my dad, that little 30 minutes each week.” —Ethan Rubenstein 

Bruster is the Larry and Louann Temple Centennial Professor of English Literature. 

CREDITS: Eiko Ojala; Paramount Pictures


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