by Andrew Jupin
When Psycho was released on June 16th, 1960, Alfred Hitchcock ushered in a new era for the American horror film. Based on the novel by Robert Bloch, Psycho tells the story of a young woman who steals a large sum of money from an employer to run off with her lover. What starts out as a very conventional, and none too horrific story, turns into something so ghastly, so shocking, audiences and critics were left terrified. A lot of what made this film so different from the horror films of the thirties, forties and fifties, was that this one hit very close to home on many levels. As Linda Williams writes, “the film represents the moment when horror moved from what is outside and far away to what is inside us all and very close to home.” Drastic changes in setting, themes and especially the monster of the film, are all things that flipped the horror genre right on its head. With these changes came a kind of relation. Audiences were brought closer to terror than ever before. Watching the film, it is easier for a spectator to relate to the subject matter simply because the film spends more time making them feel at home. They feel closer to surroundings, people and objects and it is this familiarity that allows people to perhaps, let their guard down just a bit. With the audience set in an incredibly vulnerable, yet comfortable mental state, the shock is infinitely greater when the time comes.
Structurally, Psycho is a very different kind of horror film. The alteration of the film’s structure was crucial to the change the film was taking horror. The slight turn away from Carroll’s Complex Discovery plot played a large part in Psycho’s influence over later horror films. The Complex Discovery plot outline is still somewhat noticeable, but with a few alterations to it. First of all, the Onset is very late in the film. It is almost an hour before anything terrifying even happens. The murder of
In place of the Discovery portion of the structure, there is instead a detective type story involving the search for
The film provides two points for Confirmation. The first is when the sheriff informs Lila and Sam that Mrs. Bates has been dead and buried for many years. This turn of events tips off the audience and the characters that something bizarre is going on up at the Bates house. The second part of the Confirmation (and the long-awaited unveiling of the true monster) does not occur until after the Confrontation. As Lila snoops around in the Bates’s fruit cellar, she stumbles across the corpse of Mrs. Bates. As she screams,
Throughout the entire film, Psycho stays away from looking like the Universal monster series’ structure. In the end, the monster is merely captured and sedated, not destroyed and put away. There is still the chance for
One of the first ways Psycho is able to deliver such a different horror experience is through its use of audience/character association. With regard to the type of people this film encounters, David Skal writes, “Psycho is a keystone of modern horror, articulating the dread of ordinary people feeling trapped and immobilized in a world otherwise full of rapid change.” As the film begins, we are immediately introduced to Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). She is young, beautiful and blonde; she is everything one has come to expect from a female protagonist in an Alfred Hitchcock film. The film begins with her in a (perfectly safe) hotel room in
The audience’s relation to
Perhaps the most important shift that Psycho brought on was the appearance of the monster. So used to foreign counts and giant bugs, it was very jarring for audiences to see a human being (an American no less) taking the role of the killer. Tony Magistrale writes, “Because of the director’s attention to visualizing the workings of diseased psyches, it is neither a surprise nor an exaggeration to suggest that Psycho altered irrevocably the landscape of the horror film.” Psycho is a film that deals deeply with the psychological problems of its villain. We never got to see what troubled Dracula at the end of the day, or whether or not Dr. Frankenstein had maternal issues. Magistrale again: “Norman Bates bears little in common with his horror cinema ancestry; in fact, he is the harbinger of the monster of the future: the serial killer.” Thanks to
Something that makes the concept of the normal man being the killer so terrifying is that finally horror was being put into probable scenarios. It is more conceivable that a man can take a knife to several people dressed as his mother than it is for a vampire to morph into a wolf or a bat and travel around drinking people’s blood. There is no fantastic element in Psycho. The fantastic or paranormal elements of the Universal terrors was what put them at that comfortable distance. Now they were right next-door. “While resembling one of us on the outside (
While Dracula stares into his victim’s soul, or the Frankenstein monster roars and charges, there is no telling what can and will set
In other words, because
The decision to kill is made as Norman stands outside the motel office, and his eyes dart back and forth. That is the only sign we get as a spectator that somebody is going to do something. And on first viewing, it isn’t even acknowledged and you don’t even recognize it while watching the scene. It is so quick that the shot itself is insignificant. This is a much different reaction than the Frankenstein monster roaring as he runs down a flight of stairs or the Wolf Man’s dramatic transformation into the furry killer.
The monster being identified as an average man is indeed a big shift in the structure of the horror film. However, the look of the killer means nothing unless his settings are changed as well. Psycho starts out in
The first shot of the film is a beautiful scenic shot of downtown
Many of the thematic elements and motivations in the film are also very much a commentary on the lives of post-war
Not only is Sam divorced and wanting to marry Marion, something frowned upon in the Catholic church, an institution of great power in classical horror (Dracula’s damning of the cross, Dr. Frankenstein sinfully playing God) but his ex-wife is also demanding he pay a large sum in alimony. These new ideas of divorce and re-marrying signify a shift in social values. With this change in social values, there must ultimately be a change in the values of horror. Horror cannot function as a device that goes against the norm if it does not keep itself up to date with what is and is not considered normal. As Marion and Sam argue about whether or not to get married, Sam insists that he cannot afford the union at the moment.
Financial gain, the biggest of American dreams, is the focal point of evil in this film. Money and financial security is looked at as the solver of all problems in this incredibly shallow, materialistic view of
Aside from the materialistic commentary found within the film, it is also important to note the film’s many nods to American domesticity; something that really helps the audience identify with the characters and in turn brings them even closer to the terror. The murder weapon is a perfect start. When ‘Mother’ enters the shower to murder
At the same time that
Ultimately, all of these things are run down because they are not essential to
Mrs. Bates’s bedroom is well kept by
The familial deterioration depicted in Psycho is one of the many reasons why the film was the starting point for the horrific revolution of the 1970’s. As explained above, the film altered the way American audiences thought about horror. As Donald Spoto writes, “Psycho postulates that the American dream can easily become a nightmare, and that all its facile components can play us false.” This film turned horror inward, targeting American audiences specifically. With the entrance of Norman Bates onto the scene, no one was safe. Hitchcock had audiences looking over their shoulders, suspecting everyone. Thanks to
Continues with Chapter 3 – Larry and George:
The New Model Family
[i] Magistrale goes on to write, “It is Norman’s interpretation and reconstruction of her fury filtered through his own unconscious desires—to possess and vanquish Marion sexually, to thwart the masculine authority figure that Arbogast represents, and Norman’s own Oedipal guilt and rage toward self-destruction, all operation simultaneously—that constructs the deadly amalgamation Bates summons from the unfathomable swamp of his unconscious.”
[ii] The bond of marriage also brings to mind another huge relationship: family. Familial relations is something that horror began to take on with Psycho but became more prevalent with films of the later 1970’s as we will see in the next section.
[iii] Magistrale is incorrect on one important detail. When Lila pulls back the bed covers, there is only one lump, the one belonging to Mrs. Bates. One indentation being there no longer suggests a silhouette of the corpse, but leads one to believe that