The violation of Marion’s body has its counterpart in the parallel violation of the implicit narrative rules of suspense, since nothing at all could have prefigured or predicted this particular event. Even if we become suspicious of Norman during his tense conversation with Marion in the motel’s parlor, we could not have imagined any of the salient details of the case, that this young man has not only taxidermied his mother’s stolen corpse but has also literally absorbed her identity, and killed young women as Mother, dressed in her clothes. These are facts that the film carefully keeps away from us, they are invisible and more importantly un-guess-able, true secrets immune to the most brilliant detection. Narratively speaking, Norman’s story comes from another universe, another planet, as if the rules of the Hitchcock universe have been supplanted by the rules of The Twilight Zone (which had just started airing a year before Psycho). We watch The Twilight Zone with full awareness that anything can happen, any one of the characters can be an alien, psychopath, ghost, android, werewolf, hallucination, and so on.
Far from being suspenseful, the interruption of Marion’s story by Norman’s story is designed to be a shock, a moment of contact with the extreme and the unknowable. Even Bambi Meets Godzilla (Marv Newland, 1969), the cult animated film paragon of weird encounters, offers more prefiguration!
Of course, in the real world things happen that have not been prefigured. Any story could, of course, go in any number of possible directions. But the suspense structure counters precisely these kinds of openness, of both real and narrative worlds, by promising that a certain connection between causes and effects will be respected, and that the audience will have access to at least some of the possible event parameters. Both generic conventions and Hitchcock’s own more characteristic modes of address usually give us such implicit assurances. The only technical presence of suspense in the “Shower Scene” comes in the few seconds between the moment we first see the killer’s outline through the shower curtain and the moment the curtain is pulled back and Marion screams. Even the little bits of information we get about the killer in the scene (the killer’s outline and Norman’s scream “Mother!” after the murder) prove to be misdirection, since the killer is not a woman, and certainly not easily Mother.
To find a scene that indeed operates according to the structures of suspense Hitchcock is famous for, we should instead look at the end of the film: the scene in which Marion’s sister, Lila (Vera Miles), walks up towards the Bates’ House showcases the way that suspense activates and propels the story, inspiring the audience’s sense of engagement with the film and the characters. In contrast to other scary scenes in the film, Lila’s walk towards the house is slow and quiet, takes place in daytime, includes no frightening soundtrack, and does not traffic in the visual vocabulary of fear that the rest of the film involves.
And yet the scene is incredibly suspenseful, and this is a new sense of suspense that the post-“Shower Scene” narrative has worked actively to produce. In contrast to the unexpectedness and suddenness of the shower scene, here we know that the house may be dangerous, that interior spaces are more lethal than exterior spaces in this film, that a murderer lurks somewhere, and that she strikes suddenly. The surprise-based treatment of the two previous murder scenes in the film, Marion’s and Arbogast’s murders, have by this point trained us to consider no place safe, and to expect danger, murder, and sudden screeching violin soundtracks at any point. As a result of this narrative treatment, the more uneventful and quiet Lila’s slow walk through the house remains, the more our sense of suspense is heightened, and tension mounts in the narrative until the final, and surprising, release of the discovery of Mother’s mummified corpse in the cellar.
It is also important to note that the suspense structure that leads to Lila’s approach to the Bates’ House is qualitatively different from the suspense structure that begins the film with Marion’s story. With Marion, suspense is at the service of psychological motivation: we know what she is doing and why, but the future is unknowable, even as Marion imagines in her mind what her boss, colleagues, sister, and Sam would say when they find out what she did. The expository style of the first part of the film provides grounding for what is essentially an impulsive action, and presents the desire to control the link between cause and effect, implying that past actions may predict or cause future outcomes. In the implicit temporal line of the film, Marion’s murder comes from the future, as all unexpected events do, and at a moment when she feels she has again taken control of her destiny as she decides to return to Phoenix and restore the money. It is when she thinks she controls the unfolding of the narrative that the narrative unfolds in a completely unexpected dimension. But no level of detail in terms of her past actions could ever have predicted her murder, since there is no direct causal link between the two sets of events.
With Lila’s visit to the Bates house, our sense of suspense is related to expected outcomes and here the past does connect to the actions that follow: we think we know what will happen next, because we have seen what can happen in this film, both in terms of the characters’ previous actions, the Mother’s sudden murder of detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam) for example, and in terms of the film’s developing narrative and visual style. In contrast to Marion’s murder, here we expect the camera suddenly to switch to impossible aerial perspectives, or the killer to jump out of any doorway. This is a more typical treatment of suspense in other words, in which Hitchcock has again created a rubric of expectations that he can tweak or upend. We could not guess the details of the situation between Norman and Mother, but we are right in expecting that the house is dangerous and that both Norman and Mother are not to be trusted.
A narrative map of the film would thus oscillate between suspense and surprise, with each act of the story basically re-training the audience in how things will and will not matter. If we start out as good detectives at the beginning of the film with Marion’s story, our competence is challenged by her murder, as all our clues and storylines are gone. We follow Norman while he cleans up the mess in the bathroom, but we don’t stay with him long enough to figure out what is going on there, instead moving back to the story we are supposedly following: detective Arbogast meets Sam and Lila, and they all try to investigate what happened. Perhaps we get going again in our detective work, and follow the accumulation of clues and insights. Arbogast is killed.
The film brings us back to the now twice broken narrative line of the beginning, taunting us to become invested again in the process of investigation and discovery. But by this point we are much more jaded: when Lila and Sam talk to the town sheriff and his wife, they find out that Norman’s mother has been dead for ten years, and their provocative questions just feel like distractions by now: “Well if the woman up there is Mrs. Bates,” the sheriff asks, “who’s that woman buried in the Green Lawn Cemetery?” Sam and Lila don’t bite and neither do we. In effect, we become worse detectives as the film progresses, we relinquish the kinds of seeing and listening that the suspense structure would depend on, we just give in. None of this matters. The details don’t matter. Just hit me with whatever comes next.
Focusing on the distinction between suspense and surprise in Psycho thus allows us to see how Hitchcock uses both productively, as narrative events that work best in tandem. Psycho purposefully revises the detective story’s classic narrative styles precisely by undermining the workings of suspense. Even though Psycho at first addresses us as a detective/crime/suspense film, its real energy comes from violating the implicit epistemological contract of these generic conventions, and by exploding the tightly woven and perfectly balanced narrative economies of Hitchcock’s earlier films. Psycho enacts and produces a palpable sense of the unknowable, the truly random, which is exactly the opposite of the detective story’s baseline assumptions that both motives and actions can be traceable, that a kind of causality, however strange, rules narrative development, and that the list of motives and implications is limited.
Placing the “Shower Scene” back into Psycho, or getting our understanding of Psycho out of the shower, allows us to appreciate Hitchcock as a narrative director, as a master of the balancing of energies and unfolding of events, rather than as a master of shock. In a contemporary media context, neither the horrific nature of Marion’s murder nor the intensity of the editing and filming style are remarkable—music videos, advertisements, and narrative films all have intensified rates of editing and a much wider available range of what is shocking or unexpected. The real power of Psycho and the quality that remains relevant for contemporary viewers regardless of their slasher violence threshold or horror film training, is the balance between what can be expected and what cannot, what allows an audience to invest deeply in minute details, and what allows an audience to abandon their logic or sense of control and let themselves be thrust about or carried along.
What is masterful about Psycho is not the surprise of the “Shower Scene,” but the way in which Hitchcock manages to gather up that rampant energy again and reorganize it in a newly suspenseful packet afterward. Having constructed a viewer who may sit back and just wait for the next round of fireworks, a viewer for whom suspense is irrelevant, Hitchcock gradually recreates a viewer who cares and looks attentively, a viewer who worries and thinks about what is behind the next door. He scares the wits out of that attentive viewer at the end, of course, but those final terrors are the effect of gradual buildup, a process that culminates in Lila’s approach and slow investigation of the Bates house, in my view the most suspenseful scenes in the film. One can feel the tension mounting as the camera cuts from Lila’s open and determined face to the front door of the Bates house, the doorknob itself glowing with ominous meanings with each cut back and forth. Creating that dense sense of investment for an audience after twice betraying similar feelings earlier in the film is a masterful move indeed.
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- Linda Williams, “Discipline and Fun: Psycho and Postmodern Cinema” in Reinventing Film Studies. Eds. Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000: 351-378.
- Raymond Durgnat, A Long Hard Look at Psycho. London: BFI, 2002.
- Philip J. Skerry, Psycho in the Shower. London: Continuum, 2009.
- Peter Bogdanovich. The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1963.
- Stephen Rebello, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 1998.