Hitchcock used his powerful influence in the film industry to ensure that audiences could only enter screenings of Psycho at the very beginning of the film. Prior to this, audiences were free to pay their way into cinemas in the middle of a film, watch it from half way through and then catch the film over again from the start.
Aside from changing the way cinemas functioned, this act also shows how carefully Hitchcock had constructed his shocker masterpiece. Everything in the film was meticulously organised to his trademark standards and the impact of its most powerful scenes were deeply dependent upon the audience being emotionally conditioned by earlier events in the film. To watch Psycho from half way through would spoil its detailed psychological process.
The central theme, as displayed by Norman Bates’ schizoid personality switching, is the concept of multiple identity or role play. In Norman’s case the psychological need to inhabit multiple roles in life is explained at the end of the film by a psychiatrist at the police station. Hitchcock handed this information to us on a plate like giving out candy to children so that we would walk away thinking we knew what the story was about. What isn’t told to us directly, but is demonstrated through images and subtext, is that the other characters of the story are also living out schizoid realities. Each of the main characters inhabits their own psychological narrative, while occasionally shifting identity to play out the role of someone else. In many instances the characters actually double for each other.
Take Marion Crane for example. Her reality is fractured and broken from the outset. She plays the role of a humble secretary, yet switches into a secretive and less than respectable girl during lunch break rendezvous with her lover Sam. It is also established that, just like Norman Bates, her relationship with her Mother is double-natured. She talks of wanting to introduce Sam to her Mother by having a respectable dinner. Sam replies “And after the steak? Do we send sister to the movies and turn mommas picture to the walls?” Bates has the same problem introducing sexual partners to his mother. Later, Marion literally adopts a new identity by trading in her car and signing the Bates motel register with the name Marie Samuels.
In Marion’s conflicting reality the role of her lover Sam is partially played out by Norman Bates. After stealing $40,000 in cash she flees her home town with the intention of rendezvousing with Sam and persuading him to go on the run with her. Instead, she rendezvous with Norman Bates, who physically looks like the weak alter-ego of Sam. She meets him in the Bates motel, just as she would normally meet Sam in cheap motels. Her dialogue with Bates in his parlour is craftily written as a dual reality. On the surface Norman is just a reclusive motel manager moaning about his domineering Mother while Marion offers him friendly advice. On a subtext level though, Marion is also talking to her lover Sam and trying to persuade him to run away with her. Norman, like Sam, complains of money problems and tries to disguise his “cheap” style as something homely and respectable. Norman talks of his step-father’s death, just as Sam had talked of his father’s death. Sam: “I sweat to pay off my father’s debts, and he’s in his grave? I sweat to pay off my wife’s alimony while she’s … living on the other side of the world.” Marion was given two unconscious fears by this burst of dialogue from Sam. First, Sam has mentioned nothing of his own Mother, so her influence is a mystery. Second, Sam’s slight hesitation and turning his face away from Marion while spouting about his ex-wife indicates that he is lying. Read again: “I sweat to pay off my wife’s alimony while she’s … living on the other side of the world.” Is his wife also in her grave? Is he still married to her, just as Norman Bates is virtually married to his own mother? What is Sam hiding?
Marion’s anxieties about these issues are realized as Bates refuses to leave his mother. The dual character of Bates / Sam becomes angry and so Marion decides she will go back to Phoenix and return the stolen money.
These are important elements that contribute to the film’s iconic shower murder scene. The silhouetted figure that attacks Marion represents a combination of angry characters who she has betrayed and who she fears are seeking revenge – her own Mother, Sam’s Mother, Bates’ Mother, and perhaps Sam’s mysterious ex-wife or even the man whose money Marion has stolen. As she stands naked trying to wash herself clean of the sins she has committed against these characters, they suddenly all appear as one raging schizoid multiple personality to deliver their retribution. Upon first viewing of the film we, like Marion, are not certain who is actually attacking her. It’s a superbly crafted concoction of fear.
Even after Marion’s murder her personality lives on through the film’s use of dual characters, her sister Lila being the continued vehicle of her persona. While waiting in the darkness of the DIY store Lila hears Sam entering. She runs toward the camera, backlit with her face silhouetted, suggesting a vagueness of identity.
Sam and Lila even consciously engage in the act of character switching. While driving out to the Bates motel on a mission to question Norman’s Mother they speak the following dialogue:
Sam: “We better decide what we’re gonna do when we walk in there.”
Lila: “We’re going to register as man and wife.”
Marion and Sam had previously talked about the possibility of marriage. Sam: “I’ve heard of married couples who occasionally spend the night in a cheap hotel.” The writers of the marvelous first sequel of Psycho were also onto this because in their film it is revealed that Lila married Sam after Marion's murder.
During her search of Mrs Bates bedroom Lila steps toward the dressing table and sees herself reflected back and forth between two mirrors – creating reflections of reflections with the furthest showing the back of her head only. Yet again, implying mixed identity. So, in the same way that Norman Bates symbolically dies and the alter-ego Mother takes over, the selfish Marion Crane symbolically dies in the shower and is replaced for the rest of the film by her morally superior alter-ego sister.
In fact, the frequent placement of mirrors throughout Psycho are visual reinforcements that its main characters are living out such multiple identities. Even the private investigator Arbogast stands reflected in a mirror as he questions Norman about Marion Crane’s visit to the hotel. He reduces Norman to a stuttering boy-like state with his cross-questioning – perhaps he is an angry father figure icon in Norman’s psyche.
An excellent use of multi-narrative dialogue is the internal voices that torment Marion Crane. As she drives the country roads with the envelope of stolen money, all her feared enemies simultaneously inhabit her own mind, but here’s the clever part. She looks out her motel window as she hears Norman and his Mother arguing up in the house.
Mother: “No! I tell you no! I won’t have you bringing strange young girls in for supper. By candlelight I suppose in the cheap erotic fashion of young men with cheap erotic minds! … And then what, after supper? Music? Whispers? … As if men don’t desire strangers! As if – Oh! I refuse to speak of disgusting things because they disgust me!”
Her own fears about trying to have a respectable dinner with Sam and a disapproving Mother figure are manifested in the content of Norman’s argument with his Mother. The voices of Marion’s internal dialogue in the car even have the same echoed qualities as the voices she hears up in the house. This is an indication that Marion Crane and Norman Bates are both tormented by voices that cannot be positively identified as internal or external.
In many ways the storyline of Psycho is as fractured and confused as Norman Bates himself. It pulls us nicely into a psychotic state of fear, guilt and unreality.
The sexual guilt element is especially strong. The stolen money that Marion carries about with her represents her dirty little secrets. Hitchcock goes so far as to symbolically link this pile of money to a pile of faeces. Cassidy, the man who she steals the money from, can be heard in Marion’s internal voices saying: “Hot creepers! She sat there while I dumped it out! Hardly even looked at it! Plannin’ and flirtin’ with me!” After scribbling a few calculations of how much money she has spent Marion tears up the scrap of paper and flushes it in the toilet before taking a shower. After her death, Bates sinks her car into the swamp. Marion and the dirty money are symbolically flushed away into the cesspool. In an almost joke-like fashion, Hitchcock spells the money-faeces symbology out through Marrion’s licence plate. It reads: “ANL 709”, which phonetically reads as ANAL.
When Marion originally signs the register at the Bates motel, Norman says “Dirty night”. Then while showing her the cabin he points uncomfortably to the bathroom.
Norman “The eh …”
Marion: “The bathroom.”
Norman: “… is right over there.”
The connections between money, filth and sex are weaved into much of the dialogue. When talking to the private detective about his linen changing routine Norman tells him, “I hate the smell of dampness Don’t you. It’s such a … I don’t know. Creepy smell," though this could equally refer to the smell of rotting corpses in his basement. Lila stumbles across a child’s bedroom in the house and looks at the record player. The record is a Beethoven piece titled “EROICA”. Just like the licence plate “ANL” was one letter short of “ANAL”. This musical piece is also one letter short of “EROTICA”. Immediately after seeing this record title Lila picks up a mysterious book, opens it and gives an expression of surprise as she views the content. We do not get to see the content, but can take a reliable guess.
A bizarre theme in Psycho is its non-stop references to the activity of eating. In the opening scene Sam points to paper-wrapped sandwiches on the bedside table and reminds Marion that she hasn’t eaten them. In her cabin at the Bates motel she splits the money into two separate piles, wraps them in paper and places them on the bedside table, like the sandwiches. Perhaps this is simply a way of symbolically connecting her activities at the Bates motel to her erotic lunchtime encounters in other hotel rooms. The other references to eating are too numerous to pass off as co-incidence and so must carry some symbolic meaning in the story. Here are just a few select examples. Cassidy, before handing over $40,000 in cash to Marion enters and says, “It’s as hot as fresh milk.” The voice of Norman’s Mother rants about a candlelit supper. As a parallel Marion’s boss, as he sees her at the wheel of her car, stands with two shop signs behind him, one says “restaurant”, the other reads “upton’s candles”. (possible correction, there is an Upton's Candy store in Phoenix Arizona, so I've probably misread the sign in the film) Norman provides Marion with sandwiches and milk and says that eating in an office is “too officious”. He also tells her she eats like a bird. Sam, in the DIY shop tells his colleague to “go out and eat some lunch.”
Considering that the writer of the original book based his story loosely upon the activities of serial killer and cannibal Ed Gein, some of these constant references to eating could simply be a sly reference to cannibalism. After all, this theme would have been too controversial to make obvious in the early 1960’s. Ed Gein used the skin and bones of corpses to create masks, lamp shades and other household items. Cassidy, speaking in Marion’s imaginary voices says, “Well I aint about to kiss off $40,000. I’ll get it back and if any of it’s missing I’ll replace it with her fine soft flesh!”
One subliminal theme of Psycho would later be fleshed out into another Hitchcock classic movie The Birds. Norman chats to Marion about his hobby of taxidermy, also an Ed Gein reference, and that he only likes to stuff birds. As he talks of being unable to leave his sick Mother we see a stuffed predatory bird in the upper left of the shot. Norman says, “She’d be all alone up there … she’s as harmless as one of those stuffed birds.” Beneath this intimidating bird hangs a picture of two naked figures, informing us that jealousy of courtship is the source of Mother Bates’ wrath, “a son is a poor substitute for a lover”. As well as telling Marion that she eats like a bird, and incidentally her last name, Crane, is also a bird species, Norman affectionately sits with his hand resting on a stuffed bird as if placing his arm around a lover. An accompanying shot of Marion shows a black bird to her upper right with its beak pointed at her head. This adds yet another subliminal fear element to the shower murder scene. Bates talks of people’s private traps in a manner that links the concept of birds to the shower scene, “Cold and damp, like a grave … They can never get out. They scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other … they cluck their thick tongues and shake their heads oh so delicately.” So as well as representing the angry people Marion has betrayed, her black silhouetted murderer also represents a predatory black bird, with its stabbing knife pecking her like a giant beak. When Norman discovers the murder scene he knocks one of the framed pictures of a bird off the wall outside the bathroom. He later hangs it back up as he tiedies up. The bird picture is a parallel of Marion. When showing Marion the cabin, this was the same picture which Normans hand guides our attention to as he points and says, “there’s hangers in the closet.”
The guilt associations of the shower scene are craftily embedded as Marion drives along the highway before finding the Bates motel. Her internal voices drive her into a state of anxiety and a sudden downpour of rain showers upon her windscreen. She switches on the wipers, which slash back and forth in the rain like the stabbing knife slashes back and forth in the shower. The Mother anxieties are visually introduced when Marion packs to go on the run. A picture near her bathroom shows a young dark haired man and a Bates’ Mother like figure in front of him. A similar embedding of fear occurs as Arbogast hassles Norman to speak to his Mother. He tells Norman “Sick old women are usually pretty sharp”. A short time later he is stabbed to death by the “sharp” knife of this sick old woman.
The implications of serial killer Ed Gein’s activity of stuffing dead bodies are also played upon repeatedly. Norman Bates talks at length about stuffing things being “more than a hobby” and of using the right chemicals for the job. And of course he stuffed his dead Mothers corpse. The police chief talks of two girls having gone missing in the nearby town of Fairville and Lila discovers in Normans bedroom a doll on a shelf and a stuffed rabbit sat on the bed, which could be a hint of the two missing girls’ fate. Perhaps this is a reference to the necrophic activities of Ed Gein. Just like Norman, Gein had a mother-obsessive personality and took female victims from a nearby town. In the office where Marion works she speaks of having a headache and asks her colleague if there have been any messages. The colleague gives a strange reply “I’ve got something, not aspirin. My Mothers doctor gave them to me the day of my wedding. Teddy was furious when he found out I’d taken tranquilizers … Teddy called me. My Mother called to see if Teddy called.” Lots of Teddy references there, with the tranquilisers possibly a reference to Norman's poisoning or drugging of his Mother before her death.
So the two core themes of Psycho are firstly, its obvious play upon our fears of strangers having depraved and psychotic natures hidden below their respectable personas. Its second theme is of our fear of our own repressed anxieties and the subsequent divisions of our thoughts … in this case played out as a woman in a socially unacceptable relationship who unconsciously fears the reactions of her own Mother and her partner's Mother. As Norman tells us “We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven't you. ”
Psycho offers it’s viewers a truly unnerving experience through its clever manipulation of inter-changing character identification … and it coats that experience with subliminal layers that play on a variety of anxieties. Hitchcock crafted every minute detail to this effect. It is also one of the greatest examples of subtext being fused into narrative dialogue. It truly deserves its iconic ranking and is essential studying for writers wishing to delve into the medium of psychological horror.
My girlfriend has NEVER yes I really just am about to say this, ever seen the original Psycho. I thought EVERYBODY had seen the original Psycho. A deep element of saddness came over my soul as the moon turned red
But I guess now I'll have to wind up finding a copy and forcing her to watch such epicness : )
Neither has my girl but she IS only 21. So I guess that makes seance. Although I think my first time was no more than 5 years ago and I'm 30! lol Anyway she saw it and is hooked! Her fav is 1,2,4 and 3. It's sad that Im the only person who thinks part 3 is the best one.
Anyway check this out! You can buy a Bates Mansion kit!
Just ordered mine at Amazon! $28.00 free shipping!
Hey guys if you love PSYCHO I am doing a special broadcast tonight at Rabbit In Red where I put the spotlight on the 4 Psycho movies! That is all I will be talking about. You call into the show if you want with any input. Its starts in 6hrs.
Hopefully you all know the link to Rabbit In Red radio by now after all the PM's io sent you
I own the original Psycho and Psycho II, and the Psycho remake on VHS but I "think" I have seen 4 on TV (isn'tit made for TV??). For the fans of this franchise should I get 3 and 4 if I see them around?