Intro: Art and psychology are intrinsically linked. The best art illuminates (or attempts to) the human condition, which is, after all, at the core of psychological investigation. This linkage is perhaps best evidenced by looking at popular cinema. While film does not always offer the most insightful perspective on human psyche, it is an effective gauge of the public mindset, if for no other reason than its uncommon hold on the culture's collective imagination. For good or bad, cinema (and television) has far surpassed the popularity of all other narrative art forms. One can convincingly argue that this is partially due to the ease with which most cinema can be digested, when compared with, say, a novel. However, much of film's popularity can certainly be attributed to its overwhelming raw power. Film is a visceral medium, or to paraphrase Canadian director David Croneberg, "Film has teeth." Movies are potentially an effective instrument by which we can examine our modern psychological landscape, both personal and social, because more than any other medium, it enables us to experience life from another person's vantage point, to walk in their shoes, as it were. Queendom's Reel Psychology series will highlight some of the films that most effectively (or perhaps ineffectively) demonstrate a psychological bent.
Editor's note: The articles comprising this series are written in a decidedly informal, personalized format. In other words, they are opinions and express only the views of the writer. If you have a problem with the views expressed, please, feel free to express yours by dropping us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Released 1960. American psychological suspense/horror directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Psychological suspense, mystery, horror; if any of these terms holds an appeal to you (especially the last) than you are probably already aware of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho. When placed in the proper historical context, Psycho is probably the most notorious, shocking, and influential film of its kind. In this writer’s humble opinion it is certainly the best.
Though modern audiences might find much of the film tame, even quaint by modern horror standards, when Psycho was first launched on an unsuspecting public it definitely upped the bar in terms of onscreen violence and terror, to a level that many considered appalling and unbearable (much to the subversive delight of Mr. Hitchcock, no doubt). Many critics of the day slammed the film for its graphic violence and lurid subject matter. However, in spite of the mixed reviews, it did exceptionally well at the box office and has gone on to be regarded by many as one of the greatest artistic achievements in cinematic history. For good or bad, it has inspired several sequels, an almost shot-by-shot remake (the point of which still eludes me) and a whole sub-genre of horror film, the psycho-thriller. The infamous “shower scene” is perhaps the most widely discussed and studied single scene among moviegoers and film academia. The film is probably largely responsible for the term “psycho” entering common speech (much to the chagrin of the psychiatric community, no doubt); the central character Norman Bates, his somewhat unique relationship with his mother, and peculiar ideas about taxidermy remain a fixture of popular culture still.
The plot revolves around Marion Crane, a secretary who enjoys lunch hour trysts with her lover Sam Loomis. When given forty thousand dollars to make a bank deposit on a Friday afternoon, Marion seizes the opportunity to abscond with the money in order to bail her lover out of financial debt which is impeding the progression of their relationship. Fleeing the city to surprise Sam (switching cars along the way to cover her tracks) Marion stops at an isolated roadside motel. Here she meets Norman Bates, the lonely motel proprietor who operates the motel, presumably under the watchful eye of his domineering mother. Feeling a touch of pity for the lonely young man, Marion accepts his invitation to share a sandwich with him in the front office. The conversation begins pleasantly enough with Norman doing his best to be charming in spite of his shyness. It is apparent Norman is attracted to Marion. He tells of his lonely existence at the motel and his hobby, taxidermy. When the subject of his mother arises, however, the conversation and Norman’s manner shift perceptibly. Clearly, Norman is conflicted about his mother, alternately referring to her as his “best friend” one moment and complaining of her cruel behavior towards him the next. When Marion sympathetically suggests that Norman consider putting his mother in a home, we catch a glimpse of his “dark” side as he lashes out at Marion verbally for daring to make such an appalling suggestion. Sensing his outburst has frightened Marion, Norman backtracks, stating he has often considered putting his mother “someplace” himself, but the thought is too unbearable for him, adding that she is quite harmless, in fact as harmless as one of the “stuffed birds” that decorate his office.
After a few more pleasantries, Marion quickly excuses herself. Her encounter with the lonely, “trapped” Norman has caused her to rethink her plans and return the stolen money. Tragically, her fate has already been sealed by her brief encounter with Norman. As Marion undresses, preparing to shower, Norman spies on her from a small hole in the wall, an activity that we presume he has engaged in with many previous lodgers. While showering, Marion Crane is brutally murdered by what appears to be the shadowy figure of Norman’s mother. We won’t bother with a detailed analysis of the scene here. Academics and film historians have dissected and analyzed the scene ad nauseam already. Suffice to say the scene is highly effective and memorable, so much so that many viewers of the day reported being “shower phobic” after seeing the film.