'Psycho': The Mother of All Horrors

Francesc Quilis

Psycho stands out not only for being one of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest films, it is also one of his most influential, providing both a template and source material for an almost endless succession of later horror films, making it appropriate to identify it as the mother of all horror films.


Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Cast: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin
US date: 1960-06-16

I. Introduction

Psycho is a landmark in the history of the horror genre. It's a unanimous claim among scholars the consideration of this film as a highly influential work. Even authors who challenge his ascription to the horror genre, such as Noël Caroll in The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart (Routledge, 1990), acknowledges his status:

For even if Norman Bates is not a monster technically speaking, he does begin to approximate the central features of art-horror as I have developed them. That a madman with a butcher knife is threatening needs no comment. But, as well, Norman Bates, in virtue of his psychosis, resembles the impure beings at the core of the concept of art-horror.... Whether in the long run we count Psycho as horror may be a matter of decision.

In the following, I'll deal with the innovations present in the film, both in its story/narrative and in its narrating. I'll be following here Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse. An Essay in Method (Cornell University Press, 1980). Each of those innovations will be exemplified with reference to specific scenes in the film. Moreover, I'll trace the posterior evolution of those tendencies, which originated in Psycho, in other horror films.

In the field of the story/narrative, I'll touch upon issues such as the restoration of the order of the world, the role of Mother, the final girl, and the duality city/countryside. Regarding the final girl, we'll be referring to the concept developed by Carol J. Clover in Men, Women and Chainsaws. Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton University Press, 1992).

In the narrating field, I'll focus on the opening of the body (that is, the depiction of explicit graphic violence), the closure of the narrative, and the use of sound.

Next, I will examine the overall influence that Psycho has had in many films, of very different backgrounds and traditions. Finally, I'll include a conclusion, in which the transcendence of the film will be underscored.

II. Innovations in Psycho

In the analysis that follows, I consider Psycho a starting point. It's as if this movie was a first timid attempt at the creation of the contemporary horror film. From that point of view, Psycho is just a first step in a magnificent staircase which would render pieces such as Night of the Living Dead (dir. George A. Romero, 1968), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (dir. Tobe Hooper, 1974), Halloween (dir. John Carpenter, 1978) or Friday the 13th (dir. Sean S. Cunningham, 1980).

Psycho ventured into realms which had never been explored before. Not only did the plot include very innovative elements, but Hitchcock with Psycho even changed the way in which movies had to be experienced. When I consider innovative the themes developed by Hitchcock in Psycho, I'm doing so from a teleological perspective. That is, viewing Psycho as the first instance of what I would call "contemporary horror film". Rather, Psycho is an antecedent of this new way of understanding the horror genre. From that point of view, one can term as innovative the introduction of a female victim or the ominous presence of an uncanny 'Mother'. Regarding those innovative elements, Raymond Durgnat, in A Long Hard Look at 'Psycho' (BFI, 2002) put it this way:

"Not only did publicity urge spectators not to tell their friends the ending; but exhibitors were pressured to admit no spectators once the film had started. This went right against the 50-year-old practice of 'continuous performance', to which the whole industry was geared. Working hours being what they were, spectators could, and very frequently did, drop in whenever convenient, maybe halfway through the film they wanted to see... Hitchcock's advertisements were admirably tactful. 'Please don't tell the ending; it's the only one we have'. And: 'We won't allow you to cheat yourself...'"

I'll discuss those innovations in the story/narrative on the one hand, and in the narrating on the other. For instance, Psycho included a scene in which Marion Crane flushed the toilet. It was the first time in American cinema that such a scene was shot (for decades the Production Code forbade the showing of a toilet in any film). This example shows the innovative that the film was, daring to do things that had never been done before, both in form and in content.

a. Story/Narrative

"Restoration of the order of the world"

Up to this point, horror movies were based on the restoration of the social order disrupted during the course of the movie. In that sense, the cycle of horror films made by Universal in the '30s and '40s is a perfect example. At the end of the movie, the monster was killed. It's true that sometimes in the sequel the audience realized that the monster was not really dead, but that was in another movie. Films such as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, etc. ended with a perfect restoration of the social order, which had been disrupted by the apparition of the monster.

I would argue that the first film which clearly defies that rule is Night of the Living Dead. Psycho is important in that respect though, because for the first time we have an ending which is problematic. Norman staring at the camera, possessed by his mother, was a first disturbing attempt at a completely different way of (not) restoring the order of the world.

The film could have ended with the explanation provided by the psychiatrist. That would have restored perfectly the social order. But Hitchcock takes us into the cell with Norman. There, the voice of his mother resonates into his head. It's a sort of contradiction which stresses the character of indefinition that I would argue that the ending has. The voice of 'Mother' is free from any restraint. Norman is in a cell, captured by the police, and in that sense, the movie provides a perfect restoration of the order of the world. But, at the same time, one can't escape the fact that Norman is possessed by his mother. That's why I consider Psycho in this respect a sort of a starting point, of a first step. The movie restores the social order: Norman is in jail, but at the same time his mother is free, one can feel her in the air, one can hear her words echoing in the room.

In the very last scene of the film, Marion's car being pulled out of the swamp; that incompleteness of the ending is again emphasized. To restore fully the social order, Marion's car should have been pulled out of the swamp completely. On the contrary, to be a first genuine example (not only a starting point) of a contemporary horror film, the car should have stayed in the depths of the swamp. What does Psycho do? The car is being pulled out of the swamp, but not completely. A graphic design of parallel abstract lines (like the ones in the credits designs) traverses the screen, truncating the complete retrieval of Marion's car. Then, is there a restoration of the social order disrupted during the course of the movie? Well, there is no univocal answer to that question. Yes and no at the same time; Hitchcock provides us with different clues to think one thing and the contrary. I would argue again that Psycho is just a first step in the direction of not restoring the social order.

Night of the Living Dead, eight years later, is a fundamental step in that direction. The movie does not close with the extermination of the flesh-eating zombies, but with the killing of Ben, the African-American hero of the film. Here, the social order is disrupted by these zombies; a classical horror film would have ended with the total annihilation of the plague. What Romero does, instead, is kill the protagonist, with a shot between the eyes. This ending meant a clear departure for the horror genre, a departure which had been started with Psycho.

In 1974, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre completed the evolution of the genre. As for the restoration of the order of the world, it simply does not exist in this film. Leatherface, with his chain saw facing the sunset, defines one of the best and most disturbing endings in the history of the horror genre.

Halloween and many other films afterwards would continue this trend, but it's only fair to acknowledge that everything started with Norman possessed by the voice of his mother, and by Marion's car resisting to be retrieved from the swamp.

It's very significant that Hitchcock introduces this nonrestoration of the order of the world within the constraints of classical horror film. Even in a film as innovative as Psycho, Hitchcock is working within the boundaries of classical narrative, and that interstitiality is what makes his work more interesting.

"The Ominous Mother"

Another motif which was introduced in Psycho is that of the ominous mother. The uncanniness of such a figure will populate the contemporary horror film and, again, it all started with Psycho.

I have decided to call this section 'the ominous mother', but I could have opted for titles such as 'the monstrous feminine' or 'the abject mother'. Barbara Creed, in The Monstrous-Feminine. Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 1993), identifies the importance of the abject in horror films. The abject crosses the border and threatens the stability. In that sense, it's reminiscent of Carroll's notion of interstitiality. It's a confrontation between parameters such as good/evil, human/inhuman, normal/abnormal, proper/improper gender roles. Therefore, the maternal figure may be considered as the monstrous feminine. As Creed argues, when a woman is constructed as monstrous, it is almost always in reference to her capacity to reproduce and to mother.

Norman's mother in Psycho becomes the monstrous feminine par excellence.

A very interesting variation on this theme is the one we found in Friday the 13th. Here, Jason's mother is the actual killer. Again, it all started with Psycho. The variation introduced in Friday the 13th is that this time, it's the son who's dead (or that's what we think in this first installment of the series of films) and the mother who goes on a killing spree.

Movies such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or the recent House of 1000 Corpses (dir. Rob Zombie, 2003) feature ominous mothers. Furthermore, in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, there are several scenes which show Leatherface dressed as his mother. Some of those scenes were deleted from the final cut, such as a particularly disturbing scene in which Leatherface applies makeup to his leather mask. The abjection or interstitiality of Leatherface (in relation to gender) is directly related to that of Norman Bates in Psycho.

"The Final Girl"

I'm referring here to the concept coined by Carol Clover. As she puts it in Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992):

"The image of the distressed female most likely to linger in memory is the image of the one who did not die: the survivor, or Final Girl. She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and she perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again."

Just as I argued in reference to the restoration of the order of the world, in Psycho there is only a starting point of this notion. Actually, there is no final girl in Psycho. At least, there is no pure final girl. One can argue though, that Lila Crane is the clear antecedent of that figure.

In Psycho one can find a truncated final girl. Marion and Lila form a very incomplete primitive version of Clover's final girl. Lila survives, but she doesn't subdue the monster. She needs the help of the hero, Sam Loomis. We found again that classical narrative structure within which Hitchcock introduces variations.

As Clover points out, some elements in the Psycho formula needed to be changed in order to have a genuine final girl.

It is not merely a question of enlarging the figure of Lila but of absorbing into her role, in varying degrees, the functions or Arbogast (investigator) and Sam (rescuer) and restructuring the narrative action from beginning to end around her progress in relation to the killer.

In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre we found the first final girl: Sally. She survives the psycho-killer, but still needs some help to escape (a pickup driver). Taking that into consideration, I would argue that the first complete final girl is Laurie, in Halloween. Not only she escapes the killer, but gets to kill him on her own (even though he gets to survive, due to his indestructible nature). In Halloween there's a very interesting aspect. As I have been arguing, in this film, the final girl no longer needs the hero to subdue the monster. In Psycho, Lila Crane needed Sam Loomis. In Halloween, Sam Loomis arrives late at the scene of the crime. I've made no mistake: the Donald Pleasence character in Halloween is actually called Sam Loomis.

"City / Countryside"

This is another theme treated superficially in Psycho, and which would be developed in films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes (dir. Wes Craven, 1977) or House of 1000 Corpses.

The motif revolves around the confrontation between the city, the urban landscape, and the wilderness of the countryside. Psycho offered us for the first time a place as the Bates Motel, located in an abandoned solitary road, due to the recent construction of a highway. The same story, but taken to the extreme will be featured in the movies I mentioned above.

I find particularly interesting, and a further development of this idea, the confrontation in The Hills Have Eyes. Here, it's not only the urban landscape versus the countryside, but also two different ways of understanding life and human relations. On the one hand, the Carters, a middle-class family from Los Angeles; on the other, a primitive clan of scavengers ruled by a monster figure named Jupiter. As the movie will show, the violence will be present in both families. Craven will succeed in showing that they are two sides of the same coin.

In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, five teenagers go on a road trip to encounter a family of cannibals. There is a solitary roadside gas station and a gruesome family home.

Maybe the clearest comparison may be established between Psycho and House of 1000 Corpses. In Rob Zombie's movie there is the gas station again (which is also a freak show and chicken stand here) and especially the old dark house clearly reminiscent of the Bates Motel.

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