Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho has been commended for forming the archetypical basis of all horror films that followed its 1960 release. The mass appeal that Psycho has maintained for over three decades can undoubtedly be attributed to its universality.
In Psycho, Hitchcock allows the audience to become a subjective character within the plot to enhance the film’s psychological effects for an audience that is forced to recognize its own neurosis and psychological inadequacies as it is compelled to identify, for varying lengths of time, with the contrasting personalities of the film’s main characters. Hitchcock conveys an intensifying theme in Psycho, that bases itself on the unending subconscious battle between good and evil that exists in everyone through the audience’s subjective participation and implicit character parallels.
Psycho begins with a view of a city that is arbitrarily identified along with an exact date and time. The camera, seemingly at random, chooses first one of the many buildings and then one of the many windows to explore before the audience is introduced to Marion and Sam. Hitchcock’s use of random selection creates a sense of normalcy for the audience. The fact that the city and room were arbitrarily identified impresses upon the audience that their own lives could randomly be applied to the events that are about to follow.
In the opening sequence of Psycho, Hitchcock succeeds in capturing the audience’s initial senses of awareness and suspicion while allowing it to identify with Marion’s helpless situation. The audience’s sympathy toward Marion is heightened with the introduction of Cassidy whose crude boasting encourages the audience’s dislike of his character. Cassidy’s blatant statement that all unhappiness can be bought away with money, provokes the audience to form a justification for Marion’s theft of his forty thousand dollars. As Marion begins her journey, the audience is drawn farther into the depths of what is disturbingly abnormal behavior although it is compelled to identify and sympathize with her actions.
It is with Marion’s character that Hitchcock first introduces the notion of a split personality to the audience. Throughout the first part of the film, Marion’s reflection is often noted in several mirrors and windows. Hitchcock is, therefore, able to create a voyeuristic sensation within the audience as it can visualize the effects of any situation through Marion’s conscious mind.
In the car dealership, for example, Marion enters the secluded bathroom in order to have privacy while counting her money. Hitchcock, however, with upper camera angles and the convenient placing of a mirror is able to convey the sense of an ever lingering conscious mind that makes privacy impossible. Hitchcock brings the audience into the bathroom with Marion and allows it to struggle with its own values and beliefs while Marion makes her own decision and continues with her journey.
The split personality motif reaches the height of its foreshadowing power as Marion battles both sides of her conscience while driving on an ominous and seemingly endless road toward the Bates Motel. Marion wrestles with the voices of those that her crime and disappearance have affected while the audience is compelled to recognize why they can so easily identify with Marion despite her wrongful actions.
As Marion’s journey comes to an end at the Bates Motel, Hitchcock has successfully made the audience a direct participant within the plot. The suspicion and animosity that Marion feels while at the motel is felt by the audience. As Marion shudders while hearing Norman’s mother yell at him, the audience’s suspicions are heightened as Hitchcock has, at this point, made Marion the vital link between the audience and the plot.
The initial confrontation between Marion and Norman Bates is used by Hitchcock to subtly and slowly sway the audience’s sympathy from Marion to Norman. Hitchcock compels the audience to identify with the quiet and shy character whose devotion to his invalid mother has cost him his own identity. After Marion and Norman finish dining, Hitchcock has secured the audience’s empathy for Norman and the audience is made to question its previous relationship with Marion whose criminal behavior does not compare to Norman’s seemingly honest and respectable lifestyle. The audience is reassured, however, when Marion, upon returning to her room, decides to return the money and face the consequences of her actions.
Upon the introduction of Norman, Hitchcock introduces the first of several character parallels within Psycho. The clash between Marion and Norman, although not apparent to the audience until the end of the film, is one of neurosis versus psychosis. The compulsive and obsessive actions that drove Marion to steal the money is recognizable, albeit unusual behavior, that the audience embraces as its sympathy is primarily directed towards her character.
The terror that Hitchcock conveys to the audience manifests itself once the audience learns that it empathized with a psychotic person to a greater extent than with a rational one when its sympathy is shifted to Norman. The shift from the normal to the abnormal is not apparent to the audience in the parlor scene but the audience is later forced to disturbingly reexamine its own conscience and character judgment abilities to discover why Norman’s predicament seemed more worthy of its sympathy than Marion’s.
During the infamous shower scene, Hitchcock conveys a sense of cleansing for the audience. Hitchcock has reassured the audience of Marion’s credibility and introduced Norman as a wholesome character. The audience’s newly discovered security is destroyed when Marion is murdered. Even more disturbing for the audience, however, is that the scene is shot not through Marion’s eyes, but those of the killer. The audience, now in a vulnerable state looks to Norman to replace Marion as the main focus in its subjective role.
After Marion’s murder, the audience’s role in the film takes a different approach. Hitchcock provokes the audience to utilize the film’s other characters in order to solve the mystery of Marion’s death yet he still successfully maintains the sympathetic bond between Norman and the audience. Interestingly, Hitchcock plays on the audience’s obsession with the stolen money as the audience knows that it had been sunk yet clings to the fact that Marion’s death may have been a result of her crime with the introduction of Sam, Lila, and Arbogast.
Hitchcock uses Arbogast’s character to arouse suspicion within the audience. Arbogast’s murder is not as intense as Marion’s because the audience had not developed any type of subjective bond with his character. Arbogast’s primary motivation, however, was to recover the stolen money which similarly compels the audience to take an interest in his quest. Despite the fact that Arbogast interrupts Norman’s seemingly innocent existence the audience does not perceive him as an annoyance as they had the interrogative policeman who had hindered Marion’s journey.
When Sam and Lila venture to the Bates Motel to investigate both Marion’s and Arbogast’s disappearances, Hitchcock presents the audience with more character parallels. As Lila begins to explore Norman’s home, Hitchcock conveniently places Sam and Norman in the parlor where Marion had dined with Norman before she had been murdered.
As the two men face each other, the audience is able to see their contrasting personalities in relation to Marion. Sam, who had legitimately gained Marion’s affection, is poised and respectable in comparison to Norman, whose timid nature and sexual repression are reflected in the scenes of Lila’s exploration of his bedroom. The conflict that arises between Sam and Norman reflects the fact that Sam had what Norman wanted but was unable to attain due to his psychotic nature.
Psycho concludes by providing a blatant explanation for Norman’s psychotic tendencies. The audience, although it had received a valid explanation for Norman’s actions, is left terrified and confused by the last scene of Norman and the manifestation of his split personality. Faced with this spectacle, Hitchcock forces the audience to examine its conscious self in relation to the events that it had just subjectively played a role in.
The fear that Psycho creates for the audience does not arise from the brutality of the murders but from the subconscious identification with the film’s characters who all reflect one side of a collective character. Hitchcock enforces the idea that all the basic emotions and sentiments derived from the film can be felt by anyone as the unending battle between good and evil exists in all aspects of life.
The effective use of character parallels and the creation of the audience’s subjective role in the plot allows Hitchcock to entice terror and convey a lingering sense of anxiety within the audience through a progressively intensifying theme. Hitchcock’s brilliance as a director has consolidated Psycho’s place among the most reputable and profound horror films ever made.