Halloween is a month-long celebration that spans decades of movie history, from Southern Gothic to psychothriller. The film beat decided to embrace this history, dedicating each week of October to a different time period in horror. This series celebrates every nightmare you had when you were ten, every creak in the floorboards of an old house, every piece of candy stuck to the inside of your pillowcase and everything that keeps you up at night. For this week, we’re sticking to the beginnings of modern horror, with Hitchcock’s reign of the ’60s.
A lot of people wonder how people close to Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer managed to look past glaring character flaws to say, “He seemed like such a nice guy.” Coming from someone who just watched “Psycho” for the first time, I think it’s pretty obvious that we’ve always had a bit of a thing for the seemingly nice guy with skeletons (or just one skeleton dressed in a wig) in his closet. Director Alfred Hitchcock walked that line between creepy and charming with unprecedented grace, considering that the film was made while the Motion Picture Production Code was still enforced. Sometimes referred to as the Hays Code — named after president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Will H. Hays — it outlined specific requirements that films were strongly encouraged to meet before being screened in American theaters. “Psycho” didn’t just break these rules, it rewrote them.
Just a few of the prohibitions that the film explicitly violated were “lustful kissing,” “scenes of passion,” “discussions of sexual perversity” and “the sympathy of the audience […] thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin.” The opening sets the audience up for all the indecencies ahead, as we watch Marion (Janet Leigh,“The Manchurian Candidate,”) and her beau Sam (John Gavin, “Imitation of Life”) on what appears to be one of many afternoon trysts at a motel. The tenderness with which the couple treat each other tees the audience up for the sexual violence they have yet to see. It’s a challenge for any self-righteous viewers clutching their pearls to compare the crimes that lie ahead; which is more vile, a woman with a knife in her chest or a woman baring her chest?
For the button-downed beatniks who loved 1959’s “Some Like it Hot” with all its sexual humor and men in dresses? It was everything to see two people who love each other deeply and freely. But Marion leaves the safety and warmth of Sam’s arms to work her desk job, where she’s flirted with by an overzealous customer (who later claims that she was flirting with him — who knew that sexual harassment has stayed so consistent over 50 years?). Marion is tasked with taking the customer’s down payment of $40,000 (worth over $350,000 in 2020) to the bank, and she has to make a decision. Back at the motel, Sam and Marion had considered getting married so they wouldn’t have to hide their sexual relationship any longer. She pockets the cash and plans to elope with Sam. Here’s the first violation: Audiences in both 2020 and 1960 can empathize with “evil or sin” if it’s a crime of passion. Sometimes you just get flirted with at work one too many times.
The sexual undertones of the film add a perfect sense of urgency and claustrophobia to every narrative beat. A common critique of modern horror movies is that characters’ actions are too convenient or absurd to suspend disbelief. In “Psycho,” there are no easy outs — she can’t simply leave the haunted house and go home, nor can she call anyone for help, because she, like Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, “Is Paris Burning?”), also has a dirty secret. Sure, her extramarital affair and grand larceny pale in comparison to Bates’s homicidal tendencies, but it doesn’t matter. It matters that Marion seems to humor Bates’s red flags because she thinks she can’t run away, that if she tells the police about a murderer, they’ll turn and say, “Well, but you’re just as sinful as him.”
The more obvious side of the sexual horror in “Psycho” is in its transphobic metaphor. While the detective in the third act corrects the men who believe Norman Bates is a transgender woman (positing instead that Bates was trying to bring his mother back to life, subtly suggesting something Oedipal), the film still suggests that trans women are merely men who wear dresses and watch cisgendered women through peepholes. But if we turn this reading on its head and see Norman Bates’s crimes as the direct opposite of Sam’s love, then Hitchcock might have something really interesting to say about sexual agency.
It’s shame that drives every crime in the film. Marion’s willingness to do whatever she can to be with Sam without hiding behind a sock on a door might be something Norman Bates could achieve with some therapy. Instead, he berates himself for his sexual desires in character as his mother, grappling with his shame by taking on a double personality. He indulges his “ugly appetite” through voyeurism, then squashes the guilt by blaming it on the undressed woman, killing her to hide the evidence of his immorality. The now-iconic score which plays as Bates kills Marion nails down this relationship between sex and violence, as violins had previously been used in films to denote romance. The horror is in understanding that the same woman who was so comfortable with her lover in the opening is now at her “most passive.” One day she’s in love, the next she’s just another one of Bates’s stuffed birds. The real horror isn’t in death itself, it’s the precariousness of it all. Any of us could have been one of Norman Bates’s victims. We have these moments in motels where we feel completely safe and content, like nothing could go wrong, but the next one we check into could be our last.
Daily Arts Writer Mary Elizabeth Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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