'Psycho': The Mother of All Horrors
Psycho stands out not only for being one of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest films, it is also one of his most influential. It has been 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.
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.
"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.
Photo: Paramount Pictures
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 non-restoration 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.
Photo: Paramount Pictures
"The Opening of the Body"
One of the most important features of contemporary horror is the depiction of explicit graphic violence. Again, Psycho constitutes a first foray into this new tendency. Paradoxically, the famous shower scene is based on showing but without actually showing anything. What Hitchcock does is to create the illusion of showing through editing.
The opening of the body from this moment on will become a sign of the horror film. In Clover's words:
"For better or worse, the perfection of special effects has made it possible to show maiming and dismemberment in extraordinary credible detail. The horror genres are the natural repositories of such effects; what can be done is done, and slashers, at the bottom of the category, do it most and worst. Thus we see heads squashed and eyes popped out, faces flayed, limbs dismembered, eyes penetrated by needles in close-up, and so on."
The next step in this evolution is Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In these films, the opening of the body becomes real. In them, bodies are literally opened, dismembered with a chain saw, or eaten alive.
Hitchcock, as I have been pointing out, is a very innovative director, within the frame of classical narrative cinema. Similarly, Psycho is very innovative, but within the frame of classical horror. Hitchcock is, therefore, a pioneer on opening new paths, but without abandoning the main road.
He went even further with Frenzy (1972). Here, he showed graphic violence. But it was so unbearable that he chose to introduce some humor. The scene with the potatoes is a perfect example of this.
The ultimate example of the depiction of violence but without humor can be found in a film such as Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer (dir. John McNaughton, 1986). McNaughton shows us one violent murder after the other with the precision of a cold blooded surgeon. There is no emotion, no fun, no laughs at all, just the brutal depiction in a semi-documentary style of the savage atrocities of a serial killer. Hitchcock never did something like that. In Psycho, there is nothing shown, but only suggested. Clover comments on the shower scene:
"Of the forty-odd shots in as many seconds that figure the murder, only a single fleeting one actually shows the body being stabbed. The others present us with a rapid-fire sequence of shots of the knife, of the shower, of Marion's face, arm, and feet, finally the bloody water as it swirls down the drain and dissolves to the image of a large, still eye. The horror resides less in the actual images than in their summary implication."
I would argue that the shower scene is the most influential scene in the history of the horror genre. Most horror films after Psycho included one reference or another to this scene. The brutal stabbing, the shot of the hand with the knife, and the dead eye of Marion, are landmarks in the history of the genre.
To show the pervasiveness of Psycho in contemporary horror genre, I would mention an award-winning short named Aftermath (1994). It was shot in Spain by the promising young filmmaker Nacho Cerdá. The film is about what happens after death to a female corpse in an autopsy room. If I have brought it here, it's because it contains an explicit homage to Psycho, with a shot clearly reminiscent of that of the water flowing into the drain, along with Marion's blood. I think this shows beyond any doubt the influence Psycho has had and still has in filmmakers around the world.
"Closure of the narrative"
One of the most characteristic features of classical narrative cinema is the closure. Psycho is a starting point for the defiance of that rule too.
At the end of the film, an oscillating movement takes place between the closure and the non-closure of the narrative. The explanation provided by the psychiatrist provides a sort of closure to the narrative. But then, the speech of the 'Mother', inside the body of Norman, works against that closure.
Cut to Marion's car being pulled from the lake. This particular scene provides again a sort of closure to the story. But again, that closure is broken, with the parallel lines which traverse the screen, as I said above, in reference to the restoration of the order of the world.
In Psycho there is an imperfect closure, but it's a closure after all. Hitchcock went further three years later, with The Birds (1963). As William Paul argues in Laughing Screaming. Modern Hollywood Horror and Comedy (Columbia University Press, 1984):
"The Birds took the move against closure even further by ending in the middle of a suspense sequence, absolutely refusing to resolve the immediate concerns of the narrative –will this small family group escape from the next possible bird attack- or the tensions among its characters.
A perfect example of attack on closure can be found in Carrie (dir. Brian De Palma, 1976). Paul says:
Carrie's hand suddenly thrusting up through the charcoal, breaking Sue's reverie to grab her by the arm, produced the requisite scream... Carrie's ending was the most direct assault yet on closure's dominance in Hollywood films.
The absence of closure has become over the years in another constant in contemporary horror film. Leatherface with his chainsaw against the sunset, Michael Myers coming back to life over and over again, and Jason Voorhees emerging from Crystal Lake in the dream sequence at the end of Friday the 13th are just examples of this tendency that, again, had its origin in Psycho.
The soundtrack in Psycho is another landmark in the history of the horror genre. One cannot imagine the shower scene without the music it has. It seems hard to believe that Hitchcock didn't want any music for the scene. Bernard Herrmann wrote it anyway and after having heard it, Hitchcock thought it was too good to discard it. But anecdotes aside, the music in Psycho, and in particular in the shower scene, is fundamental for the ulterior evolution of the horror genre.
The violin in that scene is so effective because it is used as percussion, suggesting knife strokes. If the volume is strong enough, one can feel the knife strokes as penetrating his body.
From Psycho on, horror movies started to pay attention to the sound effects. One excellent example of this is The Exorcist (dir. William Friedkin, 1973). The level of complexity achieved in this film, in reference to the sound, was already announced in Psycho
With the sound, I close this section in which I have tried to review the main innovations that Hitchcock introduced in Psycho, and which would prove fundamental in the posterior evolution of the horror genre. I'm sure that there are many more aspects which reaffirm the central position of Psycho as the pre-history of the contemporary horror genre, but the ones we have seen gives us a complete picture of the character of those innovations. To name just one of those other aspects one could bring here the pleasure of watching, the voyeuristic tendencies of Norman as a peeping Tom looking through the hole. This motif will be present at The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for instance.
Photo: Paramount Pictures
III. Influence of Psycho
It's very difficult to trace the influence of Psycho precisely because of its pervasiveness. There is virtually no horror, thriller, or suspense film made after 1960 which has not been influenced by Psycho
It's obvious the clear influence that Psycho had in horror directors such as George A. Romero, Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and Sean S. Cunningham in the '70s, to name just a few. More personal directors, such as David Lynch, have also found in Hitchcock a never-ending source of ideas and motives.
Hitchcock's influence is not limited to the suspense-thriller-horror genres. Directors such as Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese have been deeply influenced by Hitchcock's films. In Scorsese's words (quoted from CNN digital edition, August 13, 1999):
"Vertigo is ... important to me -'essential' would be more like it- because it has a hero driven purely by obsession. I've always been attracted in my own work to heroes motivated by obsession, and on that level, Vertigo strikes a deep chord in me every time I see it."
Probably the most obvious influence of Psycho has been the creation of a sub-genre: the slasher film. Clover puts it this way:
"The appointed ancestor of the slasher film is Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). Its elements are familiar: the killer is the psychotic product of a sick family, but still recognizably human; the victim is a beautiful, sexually active woman; the localization is not-home, at a Terrible Place; the weapon is something other than a gun; the attack is registered from the victim's point of view and comes with shocking suddenness.
Another one of the many products in which the influence of Psycho can be appreciated is in the Italian giallo. The most relevant aspect here is the character of Norman Bates. His condition of human being profoundly disturbed but human, made possible the swift from the monsters of classical horror film to the disturbing psychopaths of today. Another clear influence on the giallo film is the British film Peeping Tom (dir. Michael Powell, 1960).
The examination of the giallo film takes us into another director clearly influenced by Hitchcock: Brian De Palma. Movies such as Sisters, Dressed to Kill, or Body Double are pure imitations of Hitchcock. De Palma only copies the superficial aspects and themes, even specific scenes of Hitchcock's films. In that sense, De Palma may be considered a Hitchcock imitator. He's imitating Hitchcock, copying him, but not following in his footsteps.
James Naremore, in Filmguide to "Psycho" (Indiana University Press, 1973) talks about the importance of the film:
Psycho is especially important to us retrospectively, because we can see that it stands at an interesting juncture in the development of the American popular film. It is midway between the repressive manners of the classic Hollywood studio movie (Janet Leigh wears a bra) and the "liberated" ethos of the R-rated contemporary film (Janet Leigh is shown in bed with a man at midday). It might seem to point toward the "new" morality, but it belongs, as Durgnat has pointed out, squarely within the traditions of the "old" morality. It gives the audience satisfaction by titillating their libidos, but it makes them uneasy accomplices to a psychopath, cautious about their instincts. Clearly it does not induce us to live the sexually repressed life of a Norman Bates, but neither does it make us think that sex is good and innocent.
It's that interstitiality that makes Psycho so interesting. It's the last classical horror film, but at the same time it's the first contemporary horror film. Actually it's none of those things, and both at the same time. Psycho has one foot inside classical horror film and one foot outside of it.
Linda Williams, in "When Women Look: A Sequel" in Senses of Cinema, issue 15, July-August 2001, comments on the importance of Psycho:
"If any genre can be said to have continued the tradition of the cinema of attractions, it is certainly the horror-thriller. And if any single film can be said to have revived the acute, visceral shock of these attractions, it is certainly Psycho."
There's a big difference between the horror films made before and after Psycho. This particular film introduced so many new elements that prompted the apparition of a new way of understanding horror. One in which the destruction of the body is the central sign around which the narrative is constructed. To put it in other words, the defining moment becomes the opening of the body; and all this starts with the shower scene in Psycho.
Psycho is a descent into hell, from the bird's eye view of the first scene, to the depths of the swamp in the closing image. We never get out of the swamp. As I have pointed out throughout this paper, Psycho is just a starting point, a sort of first step. The subsequent steps would present movies such as Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, or Friday the 13th, to name just a few.
All the elements present in contemporary horror movie were already present, although some in a latent state, in Psycho. Not only the story/narrative, and the narrating were changed forever with this film; the experience of going to the theatre was also reborn. Psycho created the phenomenon of the long lines in movie theatres. Hitchcock defied the structures of classical Hollywood cinema by addressing his movie to a different audience. Psycho was the clear antecedent of the contemporary commercial films, addressed to an audience of teenagers. Most of the themes that Hitchcock introduced in Psycho had been used before in drive-in theatres, but never in the context of Hollywood mainstream cinema: this was the first time that they arrived to a large audience.
I would argue that the contemporary horror film still revolves around the triplet of films I have been discussing, that is, Psycho, The Night of the Living Dead, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Actually, there is only one film movie in the last 30 years which has dared to explore a different path, deep in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland. Obviously, I'm referring to The Blair Witch Project (1999), directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, but that's another story.
It's for all these reasons that I decided to call this essay "Psycho: The Mother of All Horrors."
Francesc Quilis was born in Spain. Fascinated by the horror genre since his childhood, he started his career as an amateur filmmaker, writing, directing and even starring in his own short films, which won different awards in his home country. After completing two MAs in Spain, one in Audio-Visual Communication, and another one in TESL, he came to the US to enter NYU, where he got his MA in Cinema Studies. Currently, he's a PhD Candidate (ABD) and his research focus on contemporary horror and the theoretical boundaries of the genre.
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