The Modern Prometheus

Creature and Creator in 'Vertigo' and 'Psycho'

by Andrew W. M. Smith

20 June 2010


Emerging from a mire of broken bones and twisted bodies soaked in spilt blood, the cracked mind of the creator reverberates with the heavy burden of his creation. The gnawing certainty of madness colors only his perception of the tragedy, however, and his loss is absolute. This description of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein could well describe the close of either Psycho or Vertigo, and it is demonstrative of Hitchcock’s talent that his work stands alongside the pinnacle of literary horror. The protagonists all create, yet their inability to confront their creations is the trigger for blood, tragedy, and profound loss. Shelley’s searing literary exploration of this relationship is echoed in Hitchcock’s striking visual representation of this phenomenon. The foreshortening focus pull of Vertigo speaks perfectly of Scottie’s bewildering relationship with a reality which has failed him and a woman who has vanished. Likewise, the crooked domesticity of the Bates Motel is captured memorably in the silhouetted figure of ‘Mother’ and our snatched glances of her grisly form. In both cases, the outcome is nightmarish and the creator’s relationship with their creature is their downfall. Scottie’s recreated memory of Madeleine and Bates’ construct of his mother mark them as creators, yet swapping monsters for madness and detectives for demons only accentuates the craft of Hitchcock’s masterpieces.

Romantic Horror and Monstrous Births

Mary Shelley’s Romantic horror provides perhaps the perfect insight into the fraught relationship between creature and creator that runs below the surface of both these films. Although their links may be a little hazy, the Romantic roots of Shelley’s horror could hardly be plainer. The very concept for Frankenstein was born on a stormy night amidst some of the most feted members of that movement. Yet it was not from the pen of Byron or Percy Bysshe Shelley that the greatest terror sprung. Indeed, it fell to the only woman present; a woman whose own experience of creation had been marred by family troubles and a challenging upbringing. Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died giving birth to her, meaning for Shelley the image of ‘Mother’ was always intrinsically bound up with guilt and death. Shelley herself gave birth to a sickly child who died soon after, cementing the bond between creation and death. She referred to her seminal work as “my hideous progeny.” One of the most interesting themes in Mary Shelley’s work is that of the ‘Monstrous birth.’ this, in turn, is a facet reflected both in Psycho and Vertigo. Scottie’s refashioning of Madeleine is uncomfortable for Judy and unsettling to the audience. Norman’s creation of his Mother is palpably monstrous in both its implications and its impact.

Using these traditional models of horror can help to highlight the skill with which Hitchcock’s works convey the central tragedy of his scripts. Interestingly, however, despite parallels in the creative relationship, both Hitchcock’s characters are far from the “Modern Prometheans” of Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein. Theirs are creations of the past, recreations of the lost which are perverted by their relationship to the living. In Frankenstein the Creature, composed of rendered corpses, is emblematic of this loss and a criticism of just such a regressive intention. Although Victor Frankenstein is cast as a dangerously progressive character, his creature remains one composed of dead things and it is this origin which it struggles to escape. Later Promethean myths of the 4th century involved Prometheus creating humans out of clay, a base composition which in turn can be held up as illustrative. In Kavalier and Clay,  Michael Chabon compares Frankenstein to the traditional Jewish Golem myth, coming full circle in relationship to early images of Prometheus.

The notion of some spirituality or belief involved in fashioning life takes the concept away from the purely scientific realm of Frankenstein’s laboratory. This in turn is a useful insight into the creators seen in Hitchcock’s films, especially in the case of Vertigo, where Scottie literally engages in the act of reconstructing an image from memory. This is the creative relationship exercised by both Scottie and Norman Bates, utilising mental projection to recreate idealised images of the past. Both act audaciously to give these created ideals some measure of flesh, and it is this attempt which is their undoing. These classical models of Satan (as presented in Milton’s Paradise Lost) and Prometheus (as presented in Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound) provide the archetypes for the sympathetic yet flawed over-reacher, now commonly referred to as the Byronic hero.

Psycho and the Creature Beneath the Skin

Romantic scholars surmise that these flawed representative figures used in ‘Romantic myth-making’ allow the audience an ability to understand the humanity behind the evil that they see in the world. Hitchcock achieves this from the outset of Psycho. His opening shots challenged Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil in the use of a four-mile dolly shot by helicopter. They also shared a tone, as the audience’s scanning eye (represented by the dolly) fell on one seemingly random focus. In Psycho, as we scan the Phoenix skyline at the time appointed by the on screen text, our focus falls somewhat randomly on the second floor window of a somewhat typical building during a young couple’s lunch-break. With this shot, Hitchcock sets up the averageness of the people on whom horror is about to be wrought. Hitchcock’s real message here is of the humanity behind the monstrous events that will unfold. For the audience, this technique centres the story on the couple whilst for the storyteller it ably sets up the later twist. The young couple’s ill-gotten gains may be a MacGuffin, but their all-important journey leads us to the setting of our story.

Marion’s eventual stop, the Bates Motel, rises out of the storm like the Castle of Otranto (so famed of gothic horror) as a haunted figure glides past an illuminated window. The haunting image of the figure unseen is one of the most fundamental features of Psycho and Norman Bates provides perhaps the most obvious parallel with the Frankenstein story and Romantic horror more broadly. It is his creature which is the most violent and also perhaps the most memorable of Hitchcock’s films.

Norman’s mental creation of his mother is both a means of overcoming his grief at her death and also a fundamental symptom of a broken mind. Yet Bates’ creation is not simply presented to the audience as a traditional movie monster, instead heightening the thrills by initially concealing the killer’s identity. Hitchcock masterfully builds up to the film’s central revelation by strikingly silhouetting the murderess who stalks the Bates motel. The mysterious and murderous “woman” that appears each time is, of course, Norman Bates. His awkward diversion of a neighbour’s enquiry is a telling insight into the relationship he shares with his creature: “Mother… how shall I put it?... isn’t quite herself today.”  Norman Bates is no hero, nor even anti-hero. He is irreducibly a mentally ill man whose freedom is a danger to those around him.

Another iconic Romantic pen-smith and wag, the inimitable Lord Byron, spoke of similar creative angst in his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.
‘Tis to create, and in creating live
A being more intense, that we endow
With form our fancy, gaining as we give
The life we image, even as I do now.
What am I? Nothing: but not so art thou,
Soul of my thought! with whom I traverse earth,
Invisible but gazing, as I glow
Mix’d with thy spirit, blended with thy birth,
And feeling still with thee in my crush’d feelings’ dearth.

Byron’s Harold, the subject of his narrative poem, is a character of some deprivation, with whom the audience sympathizes only because of his desperation. Like Norman Bates, Harold‘s sins are precipitated by an ancestor, and the stain of impurity is writ large on both their characters. Norman’s largesse may not be that of Byron’s wandering aristo, yet this extract speaks of an all-consuming bond between creature and creator which consumes even as it creates life. Hitchcock initially presents Bates as a pitiable individual and this can be seen most notably in the effect he has on Leigh’s Marion Crane. Her recognition of Bates’ subservience to his ‘Mother’ and inability to address his own problems is what drives her towards a resolution of her own misdemeanours. That this resolution is—shall we say—punctured by events doesn’t initially reflect on Norman until it becomes clear he is donning the garb of his deceased mother to strike out at those around him.

In highlighting this troubled relationship, the Bates family dynamics are shown to be dominated largely by the overbearing mother. When Norman attempts to recreate this influence his creation runs amok and in the final scenes we are genuinely presented with the triumph of creation over creator. As Mother’s skull is superimposed over Norman’s face whilst he languishes in gaol, Hitchcock is both making clear the separation between creator and creature and also highlighting their dysfunctional relationship. Essentially, the act of creation has failed to alter the original relationship. Despite creating his own image of his mother, her deceased form is the ultimate victor. Like the Creature languidly stalking the ice floes at the end of Frankenstein, Mother’s unhampered resurgence gives her the run of Norman’s broken mind.

The bloody creative force which Bates unleashes is directly mirrored in Frankenstein’s creature. In both stories, the creator loses control of the monster and its murders are seen to impact upon the well-being of the creator. If Bates’ unhinged mental creation is born of grief and a desire to reclaim the love of his mother, then it triumphs when that creation holds dominion over his mind. Born of grief and bathed in blood, Bates’ motivation differs fundamentally from the ambitious transgression of Dr Victor Frankenstein, yet returns to similar ground in its bloody denouement. As we learn from the mouth of Frankenstein’s creature itself, “the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil.”

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