In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock released the iconic film, Psycho, to an unsuspecting audience.
The film broke with narrative and cinematographic techniques that had been the Hollywood standard for decades. Produced and directed on a shoestring budget, the film garnered few positive reviews. However, it still stands as the most powerful influence on the suspense, and even horror, genre. Because Psycho debuted in 1960 (when theaters were much more popular), the film is best analyzed through the lens of mass communication theory. In James Kendrick's "Psycho and the Priming of the Audience", it is argued that the mass communication model is most effective at informing an astute analysis of the film. As the movie, especially in 1960, was a medium that reached large groups of people, it is a form of mass communication. His article also asserts that, by priming his audience, director Alfred Hitchcock was able to create a film that was more shocking and disturbing than any previously-produced Hollywood film. According to Kendrick, priming is a process that involves the formation of new association pathways in a person's brain, based upon prior experiences with similar stimuli. Kendrick goes on to explore how priming has a number of application's to the film's success at evoking such powerful human emotions, emotions such as shock and disgust. My understanding of Psycho is greatly expanded by his critical analysis. Moreover, the mass communication model brings the film's dramatic effects on its audience into sharper focus, notably within the context of the priming effects model, the narrative, and the shower murder scene.
II. The Priming Effects Model
The priming effects model explains the theater-goers' utter shock and disgust during their movie-going experience. Although the film medium had been around for decades, no one had ever seen violence depicted on-screen in such a graphic, gratuitous manner. Through priming, an audience is conditioned to expect certain events to occur in a film based on their past experiences and current associations with other films. Referred to as external priming, it denotes the viewer's overall experiences with films in general, and to Hitchcock films, more specifically. Thus, external priming paved the way for the film's success at breaking conditioned associations, as it broke with traditional Hollywood cinematic standards. On the other hand, internal priming -- which occurs in the film itself -- set the viewer up for a completely unexpected plot twist. For example, Marion (superstar Janet Leigh's character) is murdered violently within the first 45 minutes of the film. Thus, the audience was "primed" to associate her character's story with the rest of the film. The plot twist, however, forces its audience to traverse a different emotional pathway.
III. The Narrative
The narrative of Psycho followed an illogical progression that Hitchcock used to throw its audience off the track of Hollywood's conventional suspense film storytelling. Indeed, after Marion Crane was murdered, all conventional Hollywood narrative rules were tossed aside. After all, the narrative was supposed to be about Marion Crane's theft of $40,000 -- money she needed to hit the road with her lover. Of course, the film's narrative continued in a wildly different direction after her unexpected murder in the infamous shower scene.
IV. The Shower Murder
Finally, by conducting an analysis through the lens of mass communication theory, a critical understanding of Psycho is expanded. Such a critical understanding is a vital tool that helps the viewer not only appreciate the classic film on a much deeper level, but also renders the film's structure more comprehensible as it unfolds. Doubtless, the priming effects model, the narrative, and the shower murder scene are the keys to which the door of the Psycho's content becomes more accessible. Such an influential film directed by a pioneer of the suspense genre requires keys, as well as signposts, that help us understand the film's motives more fully. Thus, mass communication theory is a breath of fresh air. When applied to Psycho, the movie becomes fresher and more alive, whether we have seen the move once or a dozen times. Mass communication theory, in the context of this great cinematic tour de force, plays a vital role in expanding not only our critical understanding of the film, but also renders the film more accessible and enjoyable.