As the first staccato chords ominously resound and the viewer sees through broken horizontal bars the word “Psycho,” it is clear that what lies beyond these frames is no ordinary story, and a strange feeling of anxiety begins to rise in the throat along with the pitch of the violins. Screenwriter Joseph Stefano adapted Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho1 into what would become one of Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal works and one of the classic films of all time. On its surface, Psycho is a film about clandestine affairs, larceny, murder, secrets, and mental illness; however, between the shadows, there lies an exploration of the temptations of capitalism, sexual identity, gender roles, sexual expression, and a pedagogical message that demonstrates what horrible things can happen in the absence of “proper” development. Psycho reiterates to its viewers that people are not what or who they seem to be despite their appearances, and that evil acts may occur if a person has not resolved his or her sexual development and identity to a “normal” level. Interestingly, the story explored in Psycho has its roots in the queer events that unfolded in 1957 in the small town of Plainfield, Wisconsin.
Bloch was interested in “abnormal psychology” and was familiar with the popular Freudian theories of the day, particularly regarding the development of sexual identity. He set his story in a rural location, and his murderer was Norman Bates. There were rumors about the Gein case that suggested Gein had an incestuous relationship with his mother and, in fact, many of the gravesites of his victims and their remains were found close to his own mother’s grave. Gein had apparently kept his mother’s room in pristine fashion, as did Norman in Bloch’s novel. While Bloch did not overtly write about such taboo topics as incest and sexual identity confusion, he certainly suggested them in his novel. Norman seems to the reader to be a rather normal man, albeit eccentric, who has many secrets, representing a queer commentary on humanity. At its heart, the Bloch novel is about mental sickness that results from an unresolved developmental stage; sickness that can lead to unthinkable acts of destruction. Viewed queerly, perhaps what was and is held up as “normal” development (according to Freud) is not normal at all. From a queer perspective, sexual fantasy with multiple objects is one of the endless colors on the spectrum of sexual expression.
As Stefano and Hitchcock collaborated to bring Bloch’s novel to the screen, they held fast to Freudian theories and, as I will explore, present obvious and cloaked references to “normal” development according to Freud. Based on accounts of both Stefano’s writing and Hitchcock’s direction of the film, it does not seem that they intended to make such a social and sexual commentary; however, as one reflects on the film today, there are many opportunities to view it through a queer lens, which, according to Hall,6 Sullivan,7 Britzman,8 and others, should involve the use of multiple viewpoints as the film is read as representative of, and existing within, a social/sexual paradigm.
Regardless of the intent, the film created a stark cinematic portrait of just how “damaged” one can become when seduced by greed, sexual desire, and the pressure to keep it all quietly disguised under the façade of normalcy. Additionally, on a personal and professional level, Hitchcock was very aware that he needed to take a new direction, breaking from his previous movie work, which had become mainstream, Technicolor, “A” movies cast with stars.9 in many ways, Psycho was a vehicle that queered what the public had come to expect from Hitchcock films, and, much like its real-life inspiration, it queered the notion that America was a place where “normal” was defined as quiet, safe, smalltown life, free from the darkness that lurks in modest roadside motels.
Before examining the plot, performances, and technical aspects of Psycho, it is important to frame the film in the cultural context of the day. The 1950s is generally regarded as representing the height of achieving the American ideal with an emphasis on conformity.10 After the Great Depression and World War II, the 1950s became an era of prosperity, and middle-class America emerged and thrived as the market became flooded with goods. There were enough jobs to support the growing consumer appetite, and television brought the idealized image of the American family into many homes as Ozzie and Harriet and other shows demonstrated the pleasures of family life. In keeping with enduring Victorian values, sexuality was not discussed. Society, including public schooling, emphasized traditional masculine and feminine roles with men being the family breadwinners and women, even if they worked, being expected to keep their place in the home. Media at the time did not explore alternative sexualities, and even heterosexual married couples were not portrayed as acting sexually. For example, despite being married, Lucy and Desi Arnaz had separate beds on the I Love Lucy show, and we never see Ozzie and Harriet or June and Ward Cleaver in the bedroom at all. Sex was off limits except for underground and back-alley publications of “girly” magazines and pulp fiction novels. A clean, proper image became paramount, with men in suits and women dressed smartly in skirts and blouses, hair coiffed and pearls at the neck. Diversity was not embraced, as homogeneity was viewed as making society stronger.11 There were certainly rebels who challenged the zeitgeist of repression and conformity, from Beat novelists like Jack Kerouac to provocative rock and rollers like Elvis Presley. However, these and other such figures were seen as deviant and their work viewed as contributions to the “corruption” that led to 1960s counterculture.
Plot: Analysis and Critique
Central to the plot of Psycho is the idea that an ordinary person can harbor many secrets, making his or her appearance seem theatrical. Hall13 refers to Butler’s concept of identity as performance and, while Hitchcock predates Butler, this notion is very evident in how he directed the development of the central Bloch/Stefano characters in Psycho. Even as the film ends and the murderer is exposed, private conversations within his/her mind conceal what appears to be a disturbed but calm “victim” of faulty psychological development. The opening montage sets the scene for the dark things that take place inside ordinary towns and inside the minds of ordinary people.
As the opening credits roll, stark lines enter and exit the screen, bringing in the next title. The film is black-and-white – a departure from the popular color films of the day. The audience is taken to Phoenix, Arizona, and a time appears in the frame, giving a documentary quality to the opening scene, establishing the importance of time as central to the story. Interestingly, time seems to evaporate as the film progresses, and by the end, time seems to have reversed for the main character, Norman Bates, as he spirals into madness. The message seems to be clear – you are about to witness what really goes on while you live your life as if all is well in the world. Wood (1965), as quoted in Kolker,14 says of the opening sequence, “we are to be taken forwards and downwards into the darkness of ourselves.” Indeed, the film encourages us throughout to turn our gaze at the self.
Feigning a headache, Marion and the money begin a journey to meet Sam, presumably to run off together so they can freely engage in a socially acceptable relationship with financial comfort. During her drive, we are introduced to the mirror motif, which recurs throughout the film, representing how important it is to reflect on one’s self and one’s actions, measuring them against what is “normal.” Read queerly, this self-reflection should serve the purpose of examining one’s own construction of identity (or identities) rather than measuring it (them) against a culturally constructed norm. During this section, Bernard Herrmann’s score provides tension and suspense and foreshadows the price Marion will pay for deviating from the norm. The film’s use of rain visually hints at the trouble to come, in particular what will happen in the shower. Losing her way literally and figuratively, Marion comes upon a small motel and, in the pouring rain, meets a young man who will kill her.
At one point in the scene, Marion asks Norman if he has friends, and Norman replies, “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” Also, Norman tells Marion that, “A son is a poor substitute for a lover.” If, as the film would seem to have us do, we followed Freud, we would understand that Norman’s development was arrested in the phallic stage, more particularly, during the Oedipal complex because his powerful and dominating mother was so strong that unconscious castration anxiety, normally created by the presence of the father, did not occur. Thus Norman identified with his mother and, according to Freud, would probably become homosexual in his orientation (following the sexual desires of his mother). Interestingly, Hitchcock skews Freud by giving Norman what appears to be a sexual appetite for females rather than males. Perhaps even Hitchcock was not brave enough to portray Norman not only as a cross-dressing killer but as a homosexual cross-dressing killer. Presumably many viewers at the time of the film’s release assumed that Norman was a closeted homosexual once they learned he was dressing in women’s clothes, since cross-dressing behavior was stereotypically associated with homosexuals; however, Hitchcock goes to great lengths to make it clear that Norman is attracted to women despite his taste in couture.
Hitchcock’s casting of Anthony Perkins in this coded queer role further shades the character. Perkins, according to Winecoff,17 professed his identity as a bisexual and was known to have had relationships with several popular male stars of the day including Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter. Perkins died from complications of AIDS in 1992 after having been married and fathering two children. His performance in Psycho subtly displays traits associated with traditional “feminine” behavior, hinting that, in fact, Norman is repressing his true desire for a same-sex partner. Perkins does not play Norman as a “manly man;” rather, we see him succumb to Mother’s demands, even her demands to kill. Queerly, we are all subject to the pressures of the world we live in and our own internal pressures; this is how we construct our identities. Perhaps one dimension of the “private trap” Norman professes to be in involves his sexual identity, and having homosexual desire has been, in modern Western culture, one of the greatest transgressions. If Norman had been able to embrace a queer point of view, he may have opened the door of his trap, stretching his wings and flying to freedom. Instead, he remains locked in his disturbed world and, as the film progresses, becomes murderously mad.
Following the interaction in the parlor, Marion retires to her room, and as she undresses, we see Norman remove a painting – a nude woman apparently being attacked by a dark male figure – from the parlor wall in order to spy on her. For a moment, we are looking through Norman’s eyes at Marion, now in a black bra and slip, getting ready for a shower. Obviously, Norman is sexually aroused and presumably, to avoid moral transgression, he makes his way up to the house. The entire scene is filled with shadows and is accompanied with pensive music, giving us a pressing sense of foreboding. Hitchcock used a 50 mm camera to achieve the closest visual image to the human eye for this scene.18 He clearly wanted the viewer to see things as Norman saw them. Norman enters the house and we see for the first time the obvious Victorian décor, which, read queerly, indicates what Foucault19 calls, in reference to “We ‘Other Victorians,'” the “image of the imperial prude.”20 The Bates house, and its Victorian styling, from a queer perspective, emblemize the strictures of Victorian sexual norms, namely, that sex is confined to the bedroom of married, heterosexual couples and is never discussed. Norman appears to be trying suppress his sexual desires by entering the structured environment of the house. Mother is in the house and Norman knows that she will help him stop the “dirty” thoughts he is having about Marion. Both Norman and Marion at this point convey a sense of impurity. Indeed, the next scene is Marion in the shower figuratively and literally cleansing her body and self.
Arbogast discovers the Bates Motel in his search for Marion and becomes suspicious at Norman’s mounting anxiety during questioning. Norman, trying hard to “play it straight,” contradicts himself, and it is clear that he is not forthcoming. Seen through a queer lens, Norman is failing at performing the role of a “normal” guy, increasing the viewer’s sense that he’s a closet case. As Arbogast gets closer to the truth – queerly, as Norman is about to be “outed” – Norman/Mother kills the detective and thus continues to conceal his/her secrets. What Norman does not know is that Arbogast has told Lila and Sam about his suspicions, and they venture to the motel to continue to search for answers. Beyond the narrative quest to find Marion, Lila and Sam’s confrontation of Norman reads as a heterosexual reaction to the suspicion of someone’s homosexuality. Indeed, Norman panics as the pair come closer to ascertaining what has happened at the Bates Motel and, in a desperate attempt to keep his deepest secret, he moves Mother to the basement. Now we see just how handy Norman has been with his taxidermy hobby. He has preserved Mother, who has obviously been dead for quite some time. In the final climactic moments of the film, Norman, in a dress and wig, comes up behind Lila, who has just discovered Mother in the basement. As Norman raises his arm to stab Lila, Sam appears at the last possible second and, acting as a heterosexual deus ex machina, tackles Norman. Norman crumples in Sam’s arms (above), mouth agape, wig askew, his secrets violently revealed. From a queer perspective, Norman’s collapse into Sam’s arms signifies briefly allowing himself to touch that part of himself that desires a same-sex encounter. The expression on his face, a queer mix of pain and pleasure, certainly suggests more than simply being stopped from committing another murder.
If, as we have been considering, queer refers to a process of disturbing the norm, then it seems that Psycho is, at its heart, a queer film. Not only does it disturb the ordinary, it also uses broad cultural definitions of “normal” in 1950s America to question what is defined as “abnormal,” while exposing the presence of darkness and “madness” in all of us – “We all go a little mad sometimes.” Hitchcock and his collaborators have set out to make a film that capitalizes on fear (at many levels) to draw the audience into an uneasy space where human potential can include heinous acts.
Hitchcock was a perfectionist when it came to the technical aspects of his films, and Psycho was no exception despite the fact that, in some respects, the style was new for him. Several accounts of the making of Psycho, including those written by the actors, indicate that the director could be grueling in his demands for just the right angle or an exact tone or shade of light in a scene. As an example, the infamous shower scene took at least seven days to film by most accounts, and the final cut was forty-five seconds from beginning to end. Hitchcock queered conventional filmmaking by insisting on continuous dolly shots that were nearly impossible to design. For instance, the shot of Marion’s dead eye was a continuous shot requiring the actor to lay motionless, not breathing or blinking, for several minutes at a time as the camera panned back and then across the floor into the bedroom. The smallest detail, such as the placement of a drop of water on Janet Leigh’s face, consumed him. In this regard, as Hall22 points out, Hitchcock was acting queerly as he explored details, contexts, and nuances while reading and evaluating his own work. Psycho took many risks, and most of them appear intentional. The film is itself about risks, their consequences, and their rewards.
Britzman, D. (1995). “Is There a Queer Pedagogy? Or, Stop Reading Straight,” Educational Theory45 (2), 151-165.
Durgnat, R. (2002). A Long Hard Look at Psycho. Trowbridge: Cromwell Press.
Foucault, M. (1978). The History of Sexuality, Vol. I: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books.
Hall, D. (2003). Queer Theories. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Kolker, R. (2004). Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press.
Rebello, S. Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. New York: HarperCollins.
Sullivan, N. (2003). A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory. New York: New York University Press.
U.S. Department of State (n.d.). The Culture of the 1950s. Retrieved on September 11, 2007 from here.
Winecoff, C. (1996). Split Image: The Life of Anthony Perkins. Boston: Dutton Publishers.
- Robert Bloch, Psycho (New York: River City Press, 1959). In an April 4, 2009 email correspondence with the editor, Stefano’s widow shines some light on the pivotal part her husband, who was also noted as the creator of the brilliant Outer Limits TV series, played in shaping the film: “[T]he whole first one-third of the film . . . was not in Bloch’s novel. [Joseph Stefano] laid out the opening for Hitch in his first meeting, & Hitch leaned forward & said: “We could get a star!” . . . [Stefano] worked with Hitch for over 12 weeks on developing & getting all the details right, so that Saul Bass could storyboard & then Hitch could direct his actors to make one of the most unforgettable films ever made.” [↩]
- Stephen Rebello, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (New York: Debnar Books, 1990). [↩]
- Ibid, p. 4. [↩]
- Nikki Sullivan, A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory (New York: New York Press, 2003). [↩]
- Ibid, p. 43. [↩]
- Donald Hall, Queer Theories (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). [↩]
- Sullivan. [↩]
- Deborah Britzman, “Is There a Queer Pedagogy? Or, Stop Reading Straight”, Educational Theories, 45(2), 151-165. [↩]
- Rebello, 1990. [↩]
- U.S. Department of State (n.d.), The Culture of the 1950s. (Accessed September 11, 2007). [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Raymond Durgnat, A Long Hard Look at Psycho (Trowbridge: Cromwell Press). [↩]
- Hall, 2003. [↩]
- Wood, 1965 quoted in Robert Kolker, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 75. [↩]
- Sullivan, 2003. [↩]
- Ibid, p. 49. [↩]
- Charles Winecoff, Split image: The Life of Anthony Perkins (Boston: Dutton Publishers, 1996). [↩]
- Rebello, 1990. [↩]
- Foucault, 1978. [↩]
- Ibid, p. 3. [↩]
- Rebello, 1990. [↩]
- Hall, 2003. [↩]