I thought of Alfred Hitchcock’s film, Vertigo, three times in the past week. The first time was when I took a hot air balloon ride over Napa Valley in California. Next was while climbing the stairs of a tower in San Francisco, the city that is the setting of the film. Finally, last Tuesday, I noticed that it was Hitchcock’s birthday.

Vertigo is a 1958 psychological thriller that Hitchcock based on the 1954 novel D’entre les morts by Boileau-Narcejac.  The film stars James Stewart as former police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson, who has been forced into early retirement due to his vertigo and clinical depression. He works as a private investigator and is hired to follow Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) who is behaving peculiarly.

The film received mixed reviews upon initial release, but has garnered acclaim since and is now often cited as a classic Hitchcock film and one of the defining works of his career. it replaced Citizen Kane as the best film of all time in the 2012 Sight & Sound critics’ poll and has appeared repeatedly in best film polls by the American Film Institute.


img-edgeAcrophobia (from the Greek ákron , meaning “peak, summit, edge” and phóbos, “fear”) is an extreme or irrational fear of heights. Of course, most people have some degree of natural fear when exposed to heights. It may not show itself when in an airplane at thousands of feet, but be terrifying at a hundred feet on a ledge with no railing.

Acrophobia sufferers can experience a panic attack in a high place and become too agitated to get themselves down safely. Between 2 and 5 percent of the general population suffer from acrophobia, with twice as many women affected as men.

The term “vertigo” is often used incorrectly to describe a fear of heights. It is more accurately a spinning sensation that occurs when one is not actually spinning. It can be triggered by looking down from a high place, but also by looking straight up at a high place. True vertigo can be triggered by almost any type of movement including standing up, sitting down, walking or changes in visual perspective (e.g. squatting down, walking up or down stairs, looking out of the window of a moving car or train). So, with vertigo dizziness triggered by heights is just part of the problem.

In Hitchcock’s film, he popularized the dolly zoom. It is an in-camera special effect that distorts perspective to create disorientation, The effect is achieved by dollying (on wheels) the camera away from a subject while the lens zooms in, or vice-versa. The effect is that  the background appears to change size relative to the subject. It was Hitchcock’s method of showing Scottie’s condition. As a result of its use in this film, the effect is often called “the Vertigo effect”.

Acrophobia is the extreme, but obviously cautiousness around heights is helpful for survival. Like other phobia, this extreme fear can interfere with the activities of everyday life, such as climbing up a flight of stairs or a ladder or even standing on a chair.

I don’t have vertigo, but I do have acrophobia. It hits me when I climb on a low roof to clean out rain gutters. It stops me from going on many amusement park rides which rely on that natural fear for their thrills.

At one time, sufferers were encouraged to expose themselves to height to overcome the fear. I took rock climbing classes and force myself into situations sometimes. In researching this article, I found that this treatment is now considered questionable.

I actually enjoy flying on airplanes and love looking out the window. I wondered about taking the balloon ride last week because of the open basket. Although we rose to about 2500 feet, I felt no fear at all about the height and it was smoother than the plane ride to and from the west coast.