Psycho is a psychological suspense/horror film produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1960. It is based on the Robert Bloch novel of the same name, published the year before; the novel, in turn, was based on the Ed Gein murders.
Ed Gein was a serial killer in Wisconsin in the 1950s. A ‘mama’s boy,’ Gein was devastated by the death of his mother in 1945, and felt all alone in the world; when she was alive, she was a domineering, prudish woman, teaching him that all women were sexually promiscuous instruments of the devil.
Soon after her death, Ed began making a “woman suit” so he could “be” his mother by crawling into a woman’s skin. For this purpose, he tanned the skins of women. He also admitted to robbing nine graves. Body parts were found all over his house as ghoulish works of art. These macabre crimes were the inspiration not only for Psycho, but also The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Buffalo Bill character in Silence of the Lambs, and numerous other horror movies.
Psycho is considered the first slasher film; and while it had received only mixed reviews on its release, it is now considered one of Hitchcock’s best films, and one of the greatest films of all time. The Ed Gein of the movie, Norman Bates (played by Anthony Perkins), was ranked the second greatest movie villain of all time by the American Film Institute (AFI), after Hannibal Lecter and before Darth Vader. The first of the following two quotes was ranked by the AFI as #56 of the greatest movie quotes of all time; the second was nominated for the list.
1. “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” –Norman Bates
2. “We all go a little mad sometimes.” –Norman Bates
A few motifs in Psycho are birds, showers (those in the bathtub, and of rain), and mirrors (including reflections in glass). These all have specific symbolic meanings.
The bird motif is generally of motionless birds, those in pictures–trapped, as it were, inside frames–or stuffed birds. Normally, we think of free birds, those free to fly anywhere they wish; but the birds in Psycho are very much trapped and immobile.
Marion Crane (Mary in the novel) is a ‘bird’ in a kind of “private trap.” She wants to marry her boyfriend, Sam Loomis, but he has debts and alimony to pay, thus making marriage with him not very feasible. By stealing $40,000, she tries to escape from her trap, the trap of Phoenix, Arizona. She tries rising like a phoenix from the ashes, so to speak, of her dead-end life there, but a suspecting policeman (along with the suspicions of a used car salesman) begins a pursuit of her that ensures that Crane cannot escape the trap she’s put herself in. The phoenix can’t rise out of Phoenix.
Norman’s stuffing of birds, as well as the stuffing of another ‘bird’ (British slang for a sexually desirable woman), his mother (for whom he has an unresolved Oedipal fixation, something discussed in Chapter One of Bloch’s novel), represents the trap he is in. “We scratch and claw” (my emphasis), Norman says, but we can’t get out of our “private traps.”
He kills Marion Crane in the shower–he knocks off that bird–but he’s still in his trap, and he knows it. Hence his shock at the sight of her body lying over the side of the bathtub, causing him to jerk his body around, hit the wall outside the entrance to the bathroom, and cause the picture of a bird to fall to the floor. He’s knocked off another bird. Just like all those birds, Norman Bates is forever trapped.
Showers symbolize purification and redemption, or at least an attempt at it. The rain that showers on Marion’s car at night, just before she reaches the Bates Motel, happens at a point when she has been thinking about all the trouble she’s gotten herself into. She realizes that she has aroused not only the suspicion of a cop who saw her in a nervous hurry, and of a used car salesman whom she’s given $700 in cash for a rushed trade of cars, but also of her boss, who saw her nervously drive out of Phoenix when she was supposed to be sleeping off a headache. With the cleansing rain comes her realization that she must return to Phoenix and take responsibility for what she’s done.
She’s only a little wet from the rain when honking her car horn to get Norman’s attention from up in his house. During her conversation with him in the parlour room, she admits that she must get out of the private trap she’s put herself in. Then she takes a shower, whose purifying water washes away the rest of her guilt, refreshing her and putting a smile on her face. The birds of this movie, however, are always trapped, and we all know what happens next…
We catch people’s reflections many times in this film, either from windows or from mirrors. These reflected images represent psychological projection. Psycho is very much a psychoanalytic movie, for Hitchcock was heavily influenced by Freud (another notably Freudian film of his was 1945’s Spellbound, with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck).
An early example of projection is when Marion imagines the angry reaction of the rich man after she has stolen his $40,000: she imagines him saying that she was “flirting with [him]” when he laid the money before her, when we all know he was flirting with her. Of course, her imagining him saying that is her projecting back at him.
Another example of projection, directly symbolized by mirror reflections, is when Lila Crane is looking around in Mrs. Bates’s bedroom. She sees her reflection in a large mirror, but forgets that another mirror is behind her; for a second, she thinks–as do we, the audience–that a woman (Mrs. Bates?) is behind her, but it’s actually just another mirror reflection of Lila. She has projected her intrusion into the Bates family’s private space onto Mrs. Bates, briefly imagining Norman’s mother is intruding into Lila’s personal space. (The theme of intrusion will be dealt with later here.)
The crowning example of projection, however, is that of Norman Bates onto his mother…and of the mother personality projecting back onto Norman. When talking to Marion in the parlour, he speaks of how Mother “goes a little mad sometimes.” (See also Quote #2 above.) He is clearly projecting his own insanity onto her, and onto the rest of the world, as is seen in the second quote above. As the psychiatrist explains at the end of the movie, Norman’s mother was “a clinging, demanding woman,” but she wasn’t mad. Norman, on the other hand, had been “dangerously disturbed…ever since his father died.”
Norman himself, in a powerful moment of dramatic irony, admits that his mother is “as harmless as one those stuffed birds.” The mother personality, just after musing over Norman’s guilt at the film’s end, and projecting her guilt back onto him, says that she can’t allow everyone to believe she’d “killed those girls, and that man,” when all she could do was “sit and stare, like one of his stuffed birds.” The fact that Norman had actually practiced his hobby of taxidermy on her corpse illustrates perfectly, and eerily, the irony of ‘Mother’s’ words.
Norman’s mother, like Ed Gein’s, has a puritanical attitude towards sex, and considers all women to be whores. When she met a man, however, and had a sexual relationship with him ten years before the story’s beginning, Norman–with his Oedipal fixation–went insane with jealousy and murdered her and her lover with strychnine. As the psychiatrist points out, “because he was so pathologically jealous of her, he assumed that she was as jealous of him,” and “the mother side of him would go wild” if she ever discovered him to be attracted to another woman; hence Marion’s murder, and those of two other (presumably attractive) girls. Norman has projected his insane jealousy onto the mother personality.
A particularly important theme that runs throughout this movie is that of intrusion, penetration, or the invasion of privacy. Hitchcock’s camera has us invade Marion’s and Sam’s privacy in their hotel room at the very beginning of the film, with him bare chested and her in her bra on the bed.
Later, when Marion is in the office at work, the rich man, Tom Cassidy, comes in with her boss; Cassidy begins ogling the beautiful young woman, even sitting on her desk as his eyes are going up and down her body. He’s had a few drinks, so someone who’s probably normally a gentleman seems to have an excuse not to be now. Again, we have intruding on someone’s personal space.
After driving out of Phoenix with the $40,000 she’s embezzled, Marion gets tired at night and pulls over to the side of the road to rest. She’s slept there all night, though, and wakes up to the knocking sound of a policeman tapping on her car window the next day. Looking through the window and wearing sunglasses that threateningly hide the expression in his eyes, the cop is invading her personal space.
He continues nosing in on her personal business by following her to a used car lot and parking across the road. Leaning against his car, he’s watching her; and after she’s traded in her car for a new one, he’s in the parking lot, noting the new licence plate.
When she comes to the Bates Motel, she’s now in Norman’s private world, a motel doing bad business because a new highway has made the road to his motel rarely used; hence, he is all alone in his “private trap” with “Mother.”
As he chats with Marion in the parlour room, he shows his sensitivity to private matters by saying, “I didn’t mean to pry,” after asking where she is going. The prudish young man can’t even say “bathroom” in front of beautiful Marion (for the things done there are so extremely private); and later, when Detective Arbogast asks if Norman spent the night with Marion, he, offended, says, “No!”
Norman is similarly offended when Marion suggests putting “Mother” in an institution, with all those “cruel eyes studying [her],” invading ‘her’ privacy. Of course, the man his mother had a relationship with also invaded Norman’s private world, and he was so offended with that intrusion that he killed them both.
After the conversation between Norman and Marion in the parlour, he invades her privacy by watching her undress through a peephole in the wall shared by the parlour room and her cabin.
Of course, the shower scene is the ultimate invasion of privacy. I can imagine this scene being particularly frightening to women, for that phallic knife invading a naked woman’s body is more that a murder: symbolically, it’s a rape. In Bloch’s novel, she’s decapitated; but a penetrating knife is more symbolically appropriate for the film.
When Lila is talking to Sam in his hardware store about Marion’s disappearance, Detective Arbogast sticks his nose into their personal business by eavesdropping, at the ajar front door, on the conversation, then by interrupting it. Later, the detective comes into Norman’s private world by asking about Marion, then about his mother, something that especially agitates Norman.
Finally, Arbogast walks right into Norman’s house without any permission to enter, and snoops around, going upstairs. ‘Mother’s’ knife then invades his personal space, slashing his face and stabbing into him: he who lives by intrusion shall die by intrusion. After that, the sheriff and police snoop around Norman’s house, forcing him to hide ‘Mother’ in the fruit cellar.
Leading up to the movie’s climax, Sam and Lila intrude on Norman’s private world by pretending to be a married couple looking for a room in the motel.
Sam keeps Norman occupied at the registration desk by chatting with him while Lila goes up to the house. Sam’s questions get more and more intrusive, aggressive, and accusing, agitating Norman to the point of him telling them just to leave. Meanwhile, Lila has been snooping in ‘Mother’s’ and Norman’s bedrooms. In his room, she sees his stuffed toy rabbit, an odd sleeping companion for a grown man, and a book whose inner contents make her shudder. (In Bloch’s novel, it’s pornography.)
At the film’s climax, Lila hides by the stairs to the basement while Norman is running into the house. Instead of running outside to safety once he’s gone upstairs, she decides to snoop some more and go down into the basement, which Slavoj Zizek, in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, says represents Norman’s repressed id. This is his most private place of all, and Lila’s invasion of that privacy allows us to learn the truth about ‘Mother.’
One last thing should be examined: the symbolism of hot and cold in the movie. At the beginning, in Phoenix, it’s a hot day, first in the hotel with Sam and Marion after a sexual encounter, then in her office, which has no air conditioning, and where that rich lecher is leering at her. The heat represents Freud’s concept of libido, or the sexual instincts.
Later, when the murders have been committed in the Fairvale area of California, we notice how people are colder. Lila needs to get her coat before she and Sam go the sheriff’s house; in the police station at the end, the sheriff asks if she’s warm enough; and Norman “feels a slight chill,” and wants a blanket. The cold represents the psychoanalytic concept of Thanatos, or the death drive.