Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller Psycho, one of the greatest suspense horror films of all time, focuses particularly on its main character Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a haunted young man with particularly psychological troubles. A seemingly ordinary, meek man, Norman shows throughout the film his propensity for violence, often through the lens of his mother, whose personality inhabits him in moments of great frustration and mania. Hitchcock uses many different narrative and filmic techniques to showcase these psychological lashings-out, putting the audience in Norman’s state of mind while also exposing the voyeuristic terror of his victims. The literary, dramatic and cinematic aspects of Psycho help to explore Norman’s psyche, and make us question whether or not he is a killer or a victim of his own childhood abuse.
As a work of literary narrative, Psycho revels in the plot twist. All throughout the film, we are led to believe that Norman Bates’ insane mother is the one killing all of the victims – Marion, the private investigator, and so on – due to Norman’s own fear of her, his arguments with her that we hear, and the glimpses of dresses that we see. However, it is only in the latter act of the movie that we are shown that Norman is the killer, impersonating his mother in a fit of schizophrenia. From a literary perspective, this expertly throws off the audience and surprises them, as we unearth the mystery that Norman is the person we should have been afraid of all this time, for reasons we cannot fathom.
This example also falls into the narrative aspects of Psycho, as Hitchcock plays around with our expectations of Norman by revealing he is the real danger. The narrative structure of the film is unconventional, at the very least for introducing a protagonist (Marion Crane) who is killed off by the half-hour mark. This shocks the audience and throws them off, as they have already chosen to invest in them only to see them cut down so quickly; for the rest of the film, they must then worry about who will be killed next. When it comes to Norman, the way they use him narratively, both as victim and villain, is fascinating; it is clear he is hen-pecked and humiliated by his mother, constantly seeking out female validation and satisfaction from Marion and other women who frequent the motel (as in the scene where he peeps in on Marion through the peephole).
Much of the subtle story of Norman is told cinematically – Hitchcock uses film as a visual medium to great success, giving the viewer an inside look at the mind of a madman. Norman is usually filmed at low angles, giving him a sinister yet innocent look. During the infamous shower scene, the camera stays voyeuristically drawn to Marion, just as Norman would be in that situation. Norman himself is obscured by the curtain, lending a further air of mystery. Even when the attack happens, all we see is a stabbing hand and quick cuts of Marion’s body and the shower, adding a visceral feel to the murder. The fast-editing style of this scene also gives insight into the fractured nature of Norman’s mind during these attacks.
Another cinematic scene that sells Norman’s unsettled nature is the murder of the private detective, Arbogast. When Arbogast goes up to the Bates house to investigate it, the house is empty – the audience feels almost as if he is entering Norman’s mind. Upon going up the staircase, the door upstairs cracks open, Hitchcock only showing a sliver of light coming through. This is followed immediately by a wide, God’s eye view of the top floor as Norman (in a wig and dress) runs at Arbogast and cuts him with the knife. Hitchcock does not show us the knife meeting flesh, but the camera immediately cuts to Arbogast with a red gash over his face, his own terrified expression, and still staring at the camera (aka Norman) in disbelief and fear as he falls down the stairs to his death.
In the final scene, where Norman has finally been caught, Hitchcock keeps the tension at a tightly-coiled level as we finally really get inside his head. As the psychologist goes on about Norman’s history and trauma, the audience hears the voiceover of Norman’s mother inside his head as we pan over to Anthony Perkins’ vacant, yet sly expression. The camera slowly pushes and pushes in on his face, bringing the audience closer to its subject until it can no longer get closer. Ending the film on this note finally sees Norman reflecting on himself and inviting the audience to join his psychosis.
In conclusion, the literary, narrative and cinematic elements of Psycho allow the audience to get inside Norman’s head. The subverted narrative, the plot twists and the filmmaking techniques all serve to create a story in which Norman is shown to be an unpredictable, psychotic yet deeply troubled man, who seems to no longer be in control of his body. This terrifying presentation of someone with multiple personalities makes this one of the best thrillers of all time.
Hitchcock, A. (dir.) Psycho. Perf. Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin. Paramount Pictures, 1960.