Revisiting the Bates Motel: Understanding Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho

This isn’t a traditional film review of Psycho, and as such, it’s full of spoilers, but just about everyone’s seen Psycho, so this isn’t much of an issue.  Besides, Pyscho is such a part of our collective unconscious by now that even if you haven’t seen Psycho, you’ve seen Psycho.  As it’s so widely watched, I thought I’d go ahead and write up my interpretation of the film, focusing largely on the story as well as the psychological, philosophical, and political aspects of it.  Sometime in the near future I’ll write up a more traditional review, but I think this post will prove more interesting.

Screenshot from Psycho: Sign for the Bates Motel

The first step in understanding Psycho: disregard Norman’s mother, her skeleton, and that entire portion of the plot.  I know this is hard because usually when one thinks of Psycho, one thinks of the twist ending.  I would argue that Norman’s mother is the film’s red herring, it’s macguffin so to speak, thrown in largely to add a sensationalist quality to the film, but, in breakdown, is irrelevant.  Norman’s mother is the quick answer to the mystery of the film that, upon further thought, doesn’t reveal much of anything, much like the sled in Citizen Kane.

Let me ask you this: how well is your memory of Psycho?  This is definitely one of those films that stands out as a classic largely because of a few memorable scenes.  This happens often in people’s appreciations of films.  Instead of recalling the entire films, people will often call a film a classic because of a line they remember or a particularly jarring scene.  Such is the case with the 1983 version of Scarface, a film that’s always listed as a must-see film because everyone remembers lines like “Say hello to my little friend,” or “Every dog has his day,” but, if you go back and watch the film itself, it’s as a whole pretty lousy.  Psycho is likewise remembered by a handful of scenes: the shower scene, the detective’s death, and the part where Norman has an inner-monologue about not hurting a fly.  People generally seem to forget how a large chunk of the film takes place before Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh) enters the Bates Motel.  To truly understand this film, you have to start from the beginning.

It used to be my opinion that the movie as a whole was weakened by Hitchcock’s decision to film so much that was just about Marion.  The way I understood it was that Hitchcock was essentially lulling the audience into a false sense of security by making the viewer think the film was just a heist caper for the first third or so, then taking advantage of that by abruptly having Marion killed shortly after entering the Bates Motel.  He uses a similar technique in Vertigo by making the audience think it’s a ghost story, just as he makes the audience think The Birds is a romance.  In those films, the facades are worked into the movies themselves seemlessly, not messing up the films as a whole.  In Psycho, the shift from the first aborted plot to the second creates an immense and incoherent schism.  I used to wonder why so much film was used to do this, but after analyzing it further, I believe I understand that the different parts do, in a complex way, fit together.

In case you have forgotten the first portion of the film, here’s a run-down of the important points:

1) The earliest scene features Marion Crane in lingerie in a hotel room with her boyfriend.  They are unable to marry because he is in debt.

2) Marion works as a secretary in an office building.  She decides to steal $40,000, then drives out of town.

3) She’s pulled over by a policeman who says she can’t sleep in her car.  She then buys a new car so she won’t be recognized.

4) She pulls in at the Bates Motel.

Who is Marion as a character?  What kind of story is this so far?  Marion is the protagonist, and at this point in the film, she’s undertaking a quest, one that’s very dark.  I want to stress the idea of the quest.  Think of other literary quests.  It’s a common story to have a character launch out on a quest then have several increasingly worse run ins with antagonistic or evil characters and forces, until that character is taken to the dark core, to the source and symbol of evil itself.  A good example would be Dante’s Inferno.  In that, Dante descends on a quest deeper and deeper into Hell, each layer being worse than the last, until Dante confronts the devil.  Compare that then to Heart of Darkness, where Marlowe goes down the river seeing worse and worse effects of imperialism until finding Mister Kurtz (or for that matter think of the plot to Apocalypse Now).  Another example of this story in film would be the original Star Wars trilogy:  Luke goes on a quest that gets increasingly darker until he’s confronted with the satanic Emperor.  I would argue that it’s just this kind of plot that makes up Psycho.

What marks Marion’s progress?  Watch closely, and you’ll notice that as Marion goes along, she’s confronted with worse and worse men, each representing an aspect of masculinity or misogyny.  First, she has her boyfriend, who, through their brief scene together, gives the impression to the viewer that he’s using her, and that he’s using his financial situation as an excuse not to marry.  Then, when she’s at her office, the men regard her basically as just the secretary, and don’t seem to take into consideration her human concerns.  For instance, if they had, they probably should have guessed she may feel inclined just to steal the money.  The next important male figure she runs into is the highway patrol man, who barely even seems human (an effect achieved in part by having him wear thick aviator glasses and barely emote).  If you remember correctly, it’s because of him that Marion even goes to The Bates Motel, otherwise she likely would have decided to sleep in her car.

screenshot from Psycho, the highway officer

The interesting thing with Norman is, when he first appears, he seems to be the nicest male character in the entire film and is not outwardly violent at all.  Where the other characters represent different aspects of the mind, from the romancer to the business man to the authoritarian figure, Norman represents to some degree the superego, the force that puts on a polite face for society, that makes civilzation possible.  Hitchcock is intent on proving to us that this politeness, this civility, is just a veneer over what lurks beneath.  For Norman’s post is the Bates motel, and what’s right next to the motel?

 It’s my theory that the home of Norman’s “mother” is a visual representation of the subconscious mind.  It’s the dark, ungainly, creepy place where one keeps all of one’s secrets.  Oftentimes the subconscious is depicted in such a way, like the attic where Dorian Gray keeps his picture or the dark laboratory where Dr. Jekyll works out his experiments.  Norman is the gate keeper in effect, he oscillates between the two places.  In the motel he is reserved, pleasant and polite, but in the house his baser urges are given free reign.  That would explain (symbolically) why he runs to the house before returning to the Bates Motel where he murders Marion.  It’s also in the house that he kills Detective Arbogast.  The house is also where the killing of his mother took place.

It’s after Marion’s death that the film becomes almost polemical in its use of psychology.  Hitchcock has always been a psychological director, and even his early British work in the 30s shows an influence from the Viennese school of psychoanalysis, Freud in particular.  By the time Psycho came out, psychoanalysis itself was falling out of fashion, gradually being replaced by Postmodern theories which evaluated things more in terms of money than as Oedipal complexes.  Hitchcock very adamantly asserts the dominance of psychology in Psycho.  For example, after Norman kills Marion, he basically throws the $40,000 away.  Everyone else assumes he killed her for her money, but for him, the murder was an abreaction to the repression of human urges.  It’s this misreading of the situation that costs Detective Arbogast his life.  In the end, instead of the detective being victorious, it’s the psychologist who delivers a long monologue.  The scene’s almost a parody of the “parlor scenes” in mystery novels (Agatha Christie’s for example), except with a psychologist explaining everyone’s role in the murder.

In the dark quests that I mentioned before, who are the people who represent the “evil” core?  The dark quest is always an anti-climax.  Dante’s Inferno is the ultimate anti-climax.  Readers who follow Dante will expect the layer of Hell featuring the devil to be unbearable scary, but then, the devil himself does very little; he’s so big he can barely move, and Dante slips by him without much hassle.  Something similar happens in Heart of Darkness.  After going so far to reach Kurtz, the man himself is frail and unimposing (“Kurtz” is German for “short” I believe).  In Star Wars, the Emperor is defeated by being picked up and thrown, thus exposing this “evil” as someone who ultimately has a corporeal form and is susceptible to harm.  In essence, what happens is, after reaching the core, evil is demystified.  This is exactly what happens when the psychologist delivers his monologue about Norman, although the psychologist attaches far too much importance to the fact that Norman dressed up like his mom.

Also, in the dark quest archetype, what happens to the hero after they confront the evil?  If you remember The Inferno, after confronting Satan, Dante literally turns himself upside down.  Since Satan is at the earth’s core, Dante has to turn down into up in order to step onto the other side of the core and ascend.  Other characters experience such a change.  Marlowe becomes a drifter, and Luke after leaving the Death Star doesn’t say another word for the rest of the film.  In the literal sense, Marion dies, but symbolically, she can be said to turn over similar to Dante, because, shortly after she’s killed, one of the next characters we see is Marion’s sister (played by Vera Miles) who looks practically identical to Marion (so much so that Hitchcock filmed Vera as Marion in the original trailer when Janet Leigh was unavailable).  In a sense, Marion and her sister are the same characters.  Marion is victimized by men while her sister (literally) learns from Marion’s mistakes.  So in a way, Marion emerges from the ordeal conscious of what she faces in the world of men.

Screenshot from Psycho, The World of Men

As for Norman’s mother, she’s the film’s gimmick.  I often wish the scene where the psychologist explains it all was not even in the film.  It would leave the audience thinking and grasping at answers at the film’s conclusion rather than going home thinking the wrong thing.  The whole part about Norman’s mother denies the film’s message universality.  Instead of thinking of this as a film that relates to the darker aspects of life, it instead turns into a perverse case study of a gross young man.

If you’re interpretation of Psycho differs (I definitely don’t call this interpretation definitive) write up your take in the comment box.

I’ve written up another post that goes into more detail about Detective Arbogast.  To read that, click here. 

If you like Psycho, I’d definitely recommend you watch the film that in many ways inspired it, Les Diaboliques.

If you’re looking for different scary thrillers along similar lines, check out:

Audrey Hepburn

click here to read a review of Wait Until Dark

The Perfect Host starring David Hyde Pierce

click here to read my review of The Perfect Host

If you’re looking for something new to read, please check out my book The Madness of Art: Short Stories. It’s available in paperback and as an ebook through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It features 8 short stories written in several different genres, including scifi, fantasy, murder-mystery, and a coming-of-age story. Each story shares as its theme the creative process and the madness it gives rise to.

click on the ad to read my book The Madness of Art: Short Stories

If you like Psycho, what are your other favorite movies?

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