One of the most influential films of the 20th century, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho has been immortalised in popular culture. The Master of Suspense’s most recognised work is responsible for inspiring generations of young filmmakers to explore the world of horror and psychological thrillers. More than 60 years later, Psycho continues to be regarded as the apotheosis of the genre against which all other horror films are measured.
Based on Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel, Psycho transports the idea of horror from the realm of the supernatural to the mundane which amplifies the dread. It is a cinematic adaptation of Bloch’s assertion “that the man next door may be a monster unsuspected even in the gossip-ridden microcosm of small-town life.” It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the iconic character of Norman Bates (played by Anthony Perkins) was included by the FBI in their list of the 10 most iconic psychopaths in cinema because he has unsettled audiences for years.
At the centre of Psycho’s legacy is the memorable conceptualisation of Norman Bates. He represents the symbolic Other, an individual who launches a transgressive rebellion against the normative forces of society. Hitchcock conducts a violent deconstruction of conventional ideas of identity and evil, drawing the audience in to see things from Norman’s point of view only to sever that bond through the manifestation of schizophrenic paranoia. Perkins explained: “The realer it is, the scarier it is, which is why Psycho was so scary. It wasn’t about the supernatural… There’s no place to hide in Psycho. It’s all so real.”
When it was first released, Psycho received mixed reviews with some critics dismissing it for its lack of subtlety. The film went against the conservative code of propriety of its time, boldly depicting scenes containing sexualised violence, voyeurism and digging deeper into psychoanalysis. Prior to Psycho, most American films indulged in sexual explorations only in a suggestive capacity. Hitchcock dismantled such reservations by opening with scenes of “immorality” and filming what was considered to be inappropriate back then. The funniest example of this is the fact that Psycho broke the norms by showing the flushing of a toilet as well as the contents which American films generally avoided.
Psycho’s most famous contribution to the world of cinema is the iconic shower scene where Hitchcock generates a new cinematic language by employing jump cuts and over 90 breaks in 45 seconds. With just one scene, the great filmmaker managed to translate the overwhelming anxiety of violent disruption to the cinematic medium. The shower scene is not only important for its subversion of ordinary visual grammar but also for its narrative implications, mainly the murder of a main character in the first half of the film itself.
While explaining the psychological effects of such a disorienting aberration, Hitchcock said: “They thought the story was about a girl who stole $40,000. That was deliberate. And suddenly out of the blue, she is stabbed to death. Now, a lot of people complained about the excessive violence. This was purposely done, because as the film then proceeded, I reduced the violence while I was transferring it to the mind of the audience. By that first impact, so the design of the film was very clearly laid out.” The shower scene ended up generating its own mythology and even had a feature-length documentary made about that single scene – 78/52 (2017).
Pioneers of the French New Wave like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut placed a lot of emphasis on the works of Hitchcock while developing their theories about what an auteur is. Psycho is often counted among the first slasher films ever made and consequently, it has inspired other directors from that genre like John Carpenter who borrowed a lot from the cinematic legacy of Psycho for his own seminal 1978 slasher Halloween. Hitchcock’s examinations of psychological volatility have been continued by the likes of Wes Craven, Mel Brooks and David Fincher among others.
Most notably, Jordan Peele has been earning comparisons to Hitchcock due to his recent experiments with the horror genre which have garnered critical acclaim. His 2017 horror film Get Out was described as “Hitchcock-like” due to its ability to expertly manipulate the expectations of the audience like many Hitchcock films. Although Peele has been dubbed the “New Master of Suspense” by many, the filmmaker went on to distinguish between Hitchcock the man and Hitchcock the artist before accepting the title: “He’s kind of a creep. Of course, on the artistic level, I love being compared to the man who brought me Psycho, The Birds, Rear Window, Vertigo… he’s the greatest.”
After all these years, Psycho still remains one of the definitive psychological thrillers in the history of cinema. There can be no doubt that Hitchcock’s masterpiece will continue to shape the genre for many more years to come. Despite its status as one of the greatest horror films of all time, Hitchcock actually considered Psycho to be a comedy! “The content was, I felt, rather amusing and it was a big joke,” the filmmaker clarified. “I was horrified to find some people took it seriously.”