Having seen it more than twenty times, nothing much surprises me about Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, but that doesn’t diminish the experience. The power of a poem isn’t lessened by the memorization of it. With a work so well crafted, there is something satisfying about knowing the rhythms and enjoying them. And Psycho has held me in it’s grip since I was eight years old.
The shower scene is elegant and devastating, and it is no wonder that it will go down in history as masterful cinema. As a child, I was enthralled with this sequence, and would watch it over and over again; I even acted it out in my own shower—I’d mime a knife slashing through water, gasping for air, sliding down the wall with my hair sticking to the tiles, and then, in one final desperate gesture, reaching my hand out to grip the shower curtain, only to have it tear from the rail by my weight as I drop to floor with a wet thud.
Looking back on this strange phenomenon, I’ve recently begun to wonder: Why did I do this? All children do this sort of thing, re-enact behaviour that holds some fascination for them—it is play, and crucial to our development. There was something hidden in the shower scene that wasn’t made explicit in my child’s mind. A terrifying truth about life that I was responding to, that I was trying to explore and accept—I will, eventually, die. There is something strangely cathartic about acting it out, especially if there is an attractive “structure” to the enactment. The shower scene does provide a thrilling, elegant and oddly meditative little “play of death.” And once Marion Crane drops to the floor with that final thump, we suddenly begin to follow someone else’s’ story—Norman Bates. As a child, deep in my gut, I knew that I would someday cease to be and that life would still go on around me.
It was through multiple viewings of Hitchcock films that I began to understand exactly what a filmmaker does. I would sit, inches away from the television screen, with the VCR remote in my hand, inching through the shower scene frame by frame. It was then that I discovered the magic of editing. I was amazed at how the knife never once touched her body, that the illusion had been created by the rhythm of the editing, and by the jarring score—Here was the magic of film.
While the shower scene is, viscerally and stylistically, the most spectacular sequence in the film, it is not my favourite. For me, the most resonant scene is the one that comes before it—when Norman sits down with Marion Crane in the parlour behind the motel office and they have their conversation about personal traps. The stuffed birds of prey on the wall are disquieting, and seem to exist as an extension of Norman’s nervous—and potentially threatening—persona. They are alluded to in the dialogue as Norman explains his preference to stuff birds instead of beasts because they are so “passive to begin with.” And he himself seems passive, but we discover, as Marion taps into Norman’s relationship with his “mother,” that he is actually a bird of prey waiting to strike. When Marion suggests that he put his mother “someplace…” Norman leans forward, and for the first time, we see the angry and tortured soul that has been lurking beneath the gentle exterior. As Norman’s potential for violence becomes evident, the birds in the background begin to appear more menacing.
“I think that we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.” Indeed, our perspectives are traps and we can never truly escape them. We are goal-oriented creatures bound by our bodies and by the frame through which we view the world. That frame is constructed, unconsciously, by whatever it is we are trying to achieve. Marion remarks that she “deliberately stepped into” hers, Norman responds: “I was born in mine.” He is, on one level, talking about life with his mother, but he is also, in a much deeper way, commenting on the terrifying truth of our shared experience as vulnerable human beings. We are what we are, and we are not other things. From the moment of birth, we are trapped within a single body with distinct limitations that will eventually decay.
In the final few seconds of the film, just before we dissolve into a shot of Marion Crane’s car being hoisted out of the swamp, the teeth of a wizened corpse appear superimposed on Norman’s deranged face as he smiles directly at us. This is most explicitly meant to be understood as the corpse of his mother, whose personality has now taken over Norman’s mind, but looking deeper, it is a reminder of our shared fate—the reality of what awaits us when the window of opportunity for us to experience life has finally closed.
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Joseph Stefano
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles