What's so scary about Alfred Hitchcock's psycho?
Six decades after it first shocked audiences, Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece, Psycho not only continues to terrify but to leave an indelible mark on cinematic history.
Even for those who have never seen Alfred Hitchcock's horror masterpiece, they very likely know the legendary shower scene punctuated by the blood-curdling scream of star Janet Leigh. They likely know something of the knife-wielding Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins, and the stuffed woman's body he keeps in his motel. Sixty years after it hit cinemas, Psycho has left an indelible mark on our cultural memory.
When Psycho had its premiere in New York on June 16, 1960, breathless audiences soon realized they had witnessed a new kind of suspense horror that would redefine the genre.
The film was also topical in that the character of Norman Bates was adapted from Robert Bloch's 1959 novel, Psycho, which is said to have been inspired by real-life serial killer Ed Gein – who in 1957 was charged with the murder of two women in Wisconsin. While Bates' character suffered from dissociative identity disorder, Gein, known as the Butcher of Plainfield, also had severe mental health issues.
The French film critic and director, revealing that he viewed Psycho as an experimental film, asked Hitchcock if he agreed with this description of the work: "Possibly," said the British filmmaker, however adding: "My main satisfaction is that the film had an effect on the audiences, and I consider that very important. I don't care about the subject matter; I don't care about the acting, but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the sound-track and all the technical ingredients that made the audiences scream."
This leads to another mystery of the film: The impression it leaves. As author Donald Spoto wrote in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: "The first viewing of Psycho is marked by suspense, even mounting terror … [yet] repeated viewing leaves one mostly with a profound sense of sadness."
"For Psycho describes, as perhaps no other American film before or since, the inordinate expense of wasted lives in a world so comfortably familiar as to appear initially unthreatening: the world of office girls and lunchtime lovers, half-eaten cheese sandwiches, secluded motels, shy young men and self-sacrifice for a mother."
According to Spoto, Psycho asks the viewer to consider how "a moral and psychological decay of frightening proportions" can remain hidden behind everyday lives.
Psychologically, audiences are given plenty of warnings that Norman himself is duplicitous. In fact, the one moment we get inside the mother’s room, there are two mirrors that reflect one another! This gives us a startling visual that represents an infinite repetition into psychosis.
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