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Mind Over Pop Culture: Psycho
October 24, 2013
Movies have a set language they use to discuss issues. Short of a few outliers here or there, movies about mental health conditions use the same visual language to explain mental health to the audience. They use similar shortcuts to describe everything else. It took a master filmmaker like Alfred Hitchcock to subvert them so completely, and inPsycho, he fundamentally changed the way shortcuts about mental health in movies were depicted.
Psycho is a 1960’s movie based on a novel by Robert Bloch. The movie follows Marion Crane as she steals money from her employer to marry her lover. On the road following the theft, she checks into the Bates Motel to get some sleep. The hotel is run by Norman Bates, a seemingly nice, shy man about her age, and his unseen mother. That night, while taking a shower, she is stabbed to death. Her sister Lila and Marion’s boyfriend Sam go looking for her and come to the Bates Motel to ask questions. They soon find out that not everything is as it seems. In the end, it is revealed that Norman killed his mother years before, and has developed a split personality to deal with his crimes. The movie ends with a voiceover by a psychologist giving his diagnosis and a supremely creepy shot of Norman.
Psycho is a horror movie classic for many reasons. Hitchcock’s camera work is fantastic, his pacing is perfect, and the scary scenes are still very scary, even if you’ve seen the movie before. It works as a story on a few different levels, making it effective on all of them. It’s the complete package of a scary movie (for my money, the scariest movie ever made).
What makes it interesting is how much empathy Hitchcock has for Norman Bates. Bates is a murderer, a troubled man with no problems murdering people to protect himself. But Hitchcock makes you feel something for him. By casting Anthony Perkins, then best known as a romantic lead, he made Norman a potential boyfriend. He’s shy and kind and when he’s fighting with his mother, a sweet person. Watching the movie, you like him. You think he might be able to help Marion. His panic at what his mother’s done is real, and you are on his side when Marion’s sister and the police come looking for him. You don’t want him to get caught. Without the reveal at the end, you are completely on his side.
But that reveal changes everything. Psycho is one of the best multiple personality movies I’ve seen so far, even though there’s no real look at it as an issue. The twist is purely for shock value, except that it isn’t. Because we get to know Norman so well, and even his mother to a certain extent, the twist makes us question why we were so easily swayed to his point of view. By playing with the audience’s expectations with casting and plotting, Hitchcock manipulates us into empathizing with Norman and wanting answers. It’s a twist that shows like Criminal Minds tries all the time but never really succeeds at.
This twist sets up an additional subversion of the mental health tropes, the all-knowing doctor. The final scene of the movie is an unseen psychologist telling Lila and Sam about Norman’s condition. Having killed his mother out of jealousy, he took on her personality to deal with the guilt. Because he had been jealous of her love life, he assumed she was jealous of his and acted accordingly. As an explanation for the actions of the movie, it makes sense. As an actual diagnostic explanation, it makes no sense at all, but it doesn't matter. It's too late for the audience. We were on Norman’s side, and now we’re horrified by that impulse in ourselves. The doctor is a great play on the usual psychologists in movies though. He sounds official and uses the right words, except he’s not giving any advice. He’s also not giving the audience any assurance that he can help. Psychologists in movies to this time were all paternal, solid father figures who showed the central character the right direction to wellness. Here, the doctor’s best answer is that Norman is broken. He doesn’t even pretend to help him. It’s another way Hitchcock subverts the audience’s expectations. By the time Norman is in custody, it’s too late.
Psycho takes the stereotypes of mental health conditions that existed at the time and undermines them at every turn. Norman is both a sweet guy and irredeemable killer. The doctor not only can’t explain him, he can’t help him. These two inversions make the movie go in a completely different direction. They fit perfectly with all of the other stereotypes that Hitchcock is subverting in the movie. The result is an unsettling experience of a film that leaves the audience unsure of where they stand. That effect makes it a wonderful horror movie. Well worth watching.