Narrative Parameters in 'Psycho'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

25 Pages, Grade: 1,0


1. Introduction

It was probably Psycho ´s expressionistic interplay between music, mise en scène and story telling which remotely reminded me of Martin Scorsese´s Taxi Driver, a film I had written about before, that fostered my decision to write about the film that is by many considered to be Alfred Hitchcock´s masterpiece.

As a student of English literature I became quickly interested in the literary model of Psycho by Robert Bloch. It soon dawned on me that since the book is basically a piece of pulp fiction with considerably low literary value I would not be able to draw very profound interpretations out of it.

Hitchcock however had not adapted the book for its substance but for its structure which he had incorporated with some minor alterations almost identically into the film.

On my search for the structure of my paper a book by Vibeke Reuter called Alfred Hitchcocks Handschrift rose my attention. Her starting point basically is the question what constituted Hitchcock´s originality and in how far his filmic material differs from its literary models. With occasional references to the books she analyzes Hitchcock´s films according to ten different narrative parameters. These parameters cover a broad range of aspects and in terms of narration display a rather integral picture.

I adopted her structure but omitted the parameter of the “structure of time” since Hitchcock pretty much conformed with the novel`s chronology and the fact that some characters are in a way imprisoned by their past did not prove to be enough to form a whole subsection.

As far as she referred to Psycho in her book I have integrated her arguments into my own argumentation. Like her I have primarily concentrated on the 1960 film and only referred to the novel in order to elaborate on Hitchcock´s innovations or his fixations that were already laid out in the book. How he tells his version of the story, creates suspense and produces identificatory uneasyness shall be worked out.

2.1. Peculiarities (Begebenheiten)

Sometimes Hitchcock added certain peculiarities to his films, at other times these peculiarities were already laid out in the literary originals and only confirm Hitchcock´s interests. Important peculiarities in Psycho are: heterosexual relationships, evil, guilt, the gaze, psychological ideas and the picture of state authorities.

2.1.1. Heterosexual Relationships

Relationships between men and women in Psycho seem to be rather ill-fated. Marion´s and Sam´s relationship is burdened by Sam´s debt, tampering her considerably more than him. Ambivalence pervades their realitionship. He comes across as slightly moody and weak and she as prude and unromantic. Their meetings seem slightly shabby and yet we respect them as decent people. She thinks of finding somebody available and has literally lost any hunger for these kinds of conditions whereas he seems to secretely enjoy the illicit character of their affair.

The shadow looming over relationships in Psycho is personified by the image of the controlling and oppressive mother. This image is introduced right at the beginning when Sam jokingly says: “And after the steak, do we send sister to the movies, turn Momma's picture to the wall?”. This theme is picked up when Marion´s colleague Caroline tells her that she got tranquilizers from her mother´s doctor on the day of her wedding.

Further sexuality is profanized and associated with money and violence throughout the film. For instance Marion stresses that she has to pay for the hotel room that accomodates their romantic meetings.

Typical for this threesome is what Cassidy says in Marion´s imagination:”If any of it`s missing, I´ll replace it with her fine, soft flesh” alluding at the same time to money, sex and violence. The subtle sexual tension that has been build up by the voyeuristic occasions throughout the film is abruptly released by the shower murder. Robin Wood pointed out that the shower murder “is primarily a sexual act, a violent substitute for the rape that Norman dare not carry out…” (Kolker 81)

A slight shimmer of hope is the relationship between Sam and Lila. The two eventually marry in Bloch´s novel but Hitchcock only insinuates that Lila might substitute Marion by casting two similar looking actresses for the sisters and styling them alike.

2.1.2. Evil

The sudden dawn of chaos and evil into an orderly and secure appearing life, a prominent motif in many of Hitchcock´s films, also pervades Psycho. Norman as the psychopathic murderer can be seen as the personification of this evil. The strong degree of identification with Norman psychologizes the issue of evil in the perceptor hinting that there is a spectrum between good and evil in everybody. By doing this the very concept of good and evil\ us and them which is at the core of the ethnocentric mythology of small town USA life is questioned.

The sheriff of Fairvale and his wife have known Norman and his mother for a long time. To them he is no social outcast but an equal member of their community albeit they admit that he lives “like a hermit”. We would expect them to be really shocked when they get to know the truth, the scene at the end however shows a relatively composed Sherif listening to the psychiatrist´s explanation. The final message is simple: given the adequately misfortunate conditions anybody is able to turn into a psychopath.

As Stephen Prince writes in his book about the genre of the horror film: “The true monster resides within us – not in some supernatural, external agent foreign to the human nature” (Prince 206)

2.1.3. Guilt

The issue of guilt in Psycho, far from being clear-cut stays ambivalent.

Like many Hitchcock movies Psycho explores the motif of a guilty woman[1]

However, Marion Crane commits theft not out of greed but solely to start a family with her fiancé and to be able to live under respectable cirumstances. It is in fact too easy, too tempting and all too justifiable not to steal since the victim of theft boasts with never carrying more money than he can afford to lose and unblushingly admits not to declare it. Marion quickly repents her mistake and is afterwards disproportionately punished for it.

Who is guilty of the murders is a question that also stays ambivalent which is due to Norman´s dual character. Norman is both victim and perpetrator, child and man, mother and son, tragic hero and ambiguous villain. His mother has completely taken control of his super-ego, the part of the psyche that punishes misbehaviour with guilt. It is safe to deduce that Norman suffers from an enormous guilt complex for having murdered his mother. His mother´s voice also condemns him in the end yet his split personality is by all means unfit to plead and the brief super-imposing of her skull over Norman's head visually illustrates his elusive borders of identity.

2.1.4. The Gaze

Another typical Hitchcockian motif is the gaze of madness – wide open eyes, an apathetic facial expression, a state of shock. There is no real correspondence in the literary original but the theme of voyeurism and sensationalism is already present in Bloch´s novel.[2]

Hitchcock artfully stages Norman´s voyeuristic gaze from the peeping hole in the parlor into cabin no. 1 by the use of a filter that darkens the outer fringes of the picture and thus models his subjective view. (cp. Reuter 43)

This staging of a subjective reality is also prominent in the shower scene as the muderer theatrically tears the drape open. William Rothman writes in his book Hitchcock: The murderous gaze: “ As always in Hitchcock, when the curtain opens, theatre is invoked. The intruder´s entrance is specifically dramatic, and we are the only audience for this theatrical entrance” (p.298)

Since Hitchcock had a passion for theatre to the degree that he even adapted several plays (e.g. Rope, The Secret Agent, I Confess, Dial M For Murder) Rothman´s comparison does not seem too far fetched.

2.1.5. Psychological Ideas

Most secondary literature on Psycho refers to Norman Bates as a psychotic schizophrenic and\ or as a dissociated individual with a split personality. It is important to stress that these are actually two completely different psychological disorders. The confusion probably comes from the Greek origin of the word schizophrenia which means "split mind”.

In Norman´s case it would probably be more correct to say that he has a dissociative (or multiple) personality disorder. Since probably neither Hitchcock, nor Stefano or Bloch had this expert knowledge and symptoms of schizophrenia like paranoia and hearing voices are strongly alluded to throughout the film, it is also correct to call Norman a schizophrenic in the pop sense of the word: a twofaced and dangerous madman.

The film intermingles schizophrenia, which today is considered as a biological disease of the brain metabolism, with psychoanaytic terms which was actually pretty common in the 60s. Back then the “schizophregenic mother” was due to her ambivalent communication style found guilty for the illness of her child.[3] In the film it is implied that Norman´s mother was a very domineering person who restricted his freedom and thus actively contributed to his pathology. The part of him that is her forces him to suppress his sexuality.

The Freudian concept of the oedipus complex is allegorized by the fact that Norman killed the man of her mother and turned her into a fetish by stuffing her and slipping into her role. Whenever he is aroused by women his mother takes over and he violently lives out his sexuality. In Freudian terms this can be seen as a regression into a phallic stage of development and the knive as a phallic symbol.

2.1.6. The Picture of State Authorities

The image of state authorities especially the police that is conveyed in Hitchcock´s films is usually rather negative. They are depicted as incompetent, autocratic, unsympathetic and with a lack of imagination. Psycho is no exception to this regularity. The officer who inspects Marion´s license is rather formal, his big, cold sunglasses looming over her. Eventually he is the one who drives her into the arms of Norman Bates.

Sheriff Chambers only reluctantly agrees to interview Norman and does not realize that there is something fishy so Lila and Sam have to take action themselves.

2.2. Structure

Viebeke Reuter uses in her book Ronald Tobias´ model of the 20 Master Plots and the screenwritng guru Syd Field´s three act paradigm to analyze the structure of Hitchcock´s films . [4]

Psycho cannot be matched with just one single Master Plot . The film starts as a “forbidden love” plot and ends as a “riddle plot”.[5]

The first is characterized by its illicit air and societal constraints whereas the latter deals with the question about Marion´s fate and Mother´s whereabout. These two plot structures are subtly woven into each other and Hitchcock takes care to hint at an early stage to the things to come. Having seen Psycho at least twice one notices the discreet foreshadowing of the riddle about Mother when Sam suggests to Marion to turn her mother´s picture to the wall while they are making love.

Syd Field´s paradigm transfers the basic Aristotelian three act structure on movies and calls these acts “Set-up”, “Confrontation” and “Resolution”. (cp. Field 333) He expands this model to that effect that he pinpoints two plot points, shortly before the end of Act I and Act II, where the story is fueled by a new impulse and a midpoint that seperates the film into two parts.

Plot Point I in Psycho is marked by Marion´s arrival in the motel that sets loose the story of Norman Bates. Shortly before that the pouring rain water being cut away by the car´s wipers structurally anticipates the shower scene. Marion´s murder marks the structural midpoint of the film although it is settled at only about one third of it. With this midpoint the violence, absurdity and senselessness of the things to come are shockingly introduced into the story and the first plot “forbidden love” is abruptly ended. The audience is in no way prepared for the murder. In order to make it more shocking the audience is misdirected by the “forbidden love” plot.

Plot Point II occurs when Sheriff Chambers tells Sam and Lila that Norman´s mother is long dead and thus moves them to explore the Bates house and consequently to solve the riddle of Marion´s and Norman´s fate.

The ending in no way resonates with the beginning and stays full of ambivalence. There is a shimmer of hope to make sense of the evil and absurdity that has happened as the psychiatrist gives his explanation but this is tainted by the gloomy pond as well as by the superimposition of Mother´s skull over Norman´s face.

2.3. Narrative Situation

One can say that Hitchcock´s narratology fluctuates between rather subjective and emotional and rather objective and rational scenes. This has been described in varied terminology.

David Bordwell writes that “Hitchcock´s films alternate between sequences of great subjectivity and sequences that flaunt the narrator´s unrestricted knowledge”. (Bordwell Narration 58) This is certainly true for Psycho. The film starts with an emotional scene between Sam and Marion, which is followed by the money handover in the bank. Then she agitatedly leaves town. Rather formal and rather informal scenes keep alternating. The cop questions her, she drives, she buys a car, she drives, she takes a room in the motel, she has dinner with Norman and so on.

William G. Simon distinguishes between an experiential register of narration vs. an analytic register of narration in Hitchcock´s films (cp. Simon 111ff) The first highlights the subjective experience of the protagonist, which in Psycho are rather neurotic or psychotic respectively.

The latter, in contrast, serves to relativize the irrationality of the first and is often transmitted via dialogues. Simon however points out that the analytic register of narration does not stand as an adequate counterbalance to the experiential register of narration in Hitchcock´s films. As an example for this rational insufficiency he adduces the end of Psycho:

The psychiatrist´s words ring hollow, given the extended presentation of Norman´s madness in the experiential register over the course of the film. The scene does not provide PSYCHO with its closure. Insteadt it is followed by the great shot of Norman which reasserts his experience of madness, as if nothing had been changed by the psychiatrist´s diagnosis. The psychiatrist may have clinically defined Norman´s psychosis, but that has little effect on the experience and continuity of his madness (Simon 114)

Paranoia runs like a red line through Psycho, the viewer is so drawn into the spiral of psychotic identification that the kitchen sink psychology at the end really is not able to rationalize all away. A rest of mistrust against one´s own perception stays.

The paranoia, the feeling of being watched or just a general uneasyness about uncertainty looming at the horizon is the only narrative constant there is in Psycho whose identity endowing protagonist is unexpectedly and shockingly murdered at about one third of the film.

The film starts with the intimate conversation between Marion and Sam exposing the viewer to the pervading uncertainness in their relationship. Also Sam´s last name “Loomis” is rather telling since he is the man for Marion looming at the horizon, not threateningly but still very present and an inconvenient reminder of the disrespectable conditions.

When Marion flees out of town, she hears the dialogues of the left behinds´ surprise and anger with such vividness that one could argue that she experiences the voices not as her ongoing internal monologue or rather dialogue but as external entities threatening her.

This supernatural appearing perception continues in the Bates´motel when she hears the mother´s voice reprehending Norman as if she were speaking in the cabin next door.

There always seems to be something threatening coming from the outside. The cop at the car dealer, the passing car when Norman wants to get rid of Marion´s body, the bad weather or the scene in the Bates house when Lila is scared by her own mirror image are just a few examples.

The menace is further amplified by Hitchcock´s subjective tracking shots, bringing the audience closer to the characters and thus invigorating identification. Scenes like the close up from a low angle of the policeman´s cold, present, sunglassed face as he questions Marion or Lila´s close up when she approaches the Bates´ house contribute to the structure of fear in Psycho.[6]

Robert Bloch´s novel is narrated from an auctorial perspective i.e. an omniscient narrator is able to tell about both the characters´ interior emotional and cognitive developments and external circumstances, directing the plot as he best thinks.

The narrator freely switches between Norman, Mary, Sam and Lila not allowing a clear identificatory preference.

Hitchcock´s Psycho shares this repeated change of perspectives but tends to focus the identification first on Marion and later on Norman. When Sam and Lila begin their investigations, the viewer is confronted with an inner conflict because as yet we do not know about Norman´s madness and the murder cases still have to be solved. This split identification contributes to the genreral air of uneasyness in Psycho. When the viewer in the end finds out about the truth, that he has been identifying all along with a mad criminal, he is confronted with his own psychological and moral abyss.

2.4. Distribution of Knowledge

Hitchcock equates suspense with the distribution of knowledge when he says:

As far as I´m concerned you have suspense when you let the audience play God. […] [I]f [the audience has] been told all the secrets that the characters don´t know, they´ll work like the devil for you because you know what fate is facing the poor actors. That is what is known as `playing God.` That is suspense. (Gottlieb 113)

The Hitchcockian suspense basically works by providing the audience with an edge of information over the characters. This could be an impending danger that is repeatedly referred to. However Hitchcock takes care that the obvious never happens, or at least not in the expected mode and thus he creates surprise.

According to him his suspense is based on two simple ingredients.

Besides from informing the audience whenever possible (cp. Truffaut 73), Hitchcock emphasizes the importance of endowing the characters with a sense of credibility and the need to make their motivations and emotions comprehensible in order to create emotions in the audience. (cp. Gottlieb 114) This simplification however disregards the systematic restriction of narrative information and the distortion and corruption of its nature. (cp Reuter 98) Further Hitchcock states that suspense is always preferable to surprise except when there is a twist at the end. (cp. Truffaut 73)

In fact, as many scholars have pointed out, his films are driven by a complex interplay of surprise and suspense. (e.g. Smith 43)

In Psycho the viewer is always one step ahead to the characters up to the point when the question about Marion´s fate turns into the mystery of Norman´s mother. The audience intuitively knows that Marion will be caught when she meets her boss and when the police watches her, only the degree of her punishment is unforeseen. A long shot of Marion´s quiet movements heightens the suspense that is released in the surprising appearance of Mother. After the murder the audience knows about the impending danger of Mother and Arbogast´s nearing death fills the viewer with paralyzing suspense. The narration is however in film and book most scrupulously eager to avoid bringing the issue of Mother´s identity into the limelight.[7] When Marion hears her reprehending Norman the viewer is tricked by the unrealistic volume and the femininity of her voice. The unexpected surprise at the end answers a riddle that the audience did not really know it existed. It is hinted at by Sheriff Chambers but nevertheless meticulously concealed.

More or less subconsciously we are aware of the pending solving of a mystery when Sam and Lila head toward the crypt. A good deal of the suspense is due to the ambivalent identification that fluctuates between Norman and Sam\ Lila. On the one hand we want the murders to be solved on the other hand Norman still seems too much like the cheerful good guy who only does his job. This identificatory dilemma creates the uneasyness that serves as a catalyst for the suspense.


[1] Other movies being: Rebecca, Notorious, Under Capricorn, The Paradine Case, Vertigo, The Birds, and Marnie

[2] The concept of the gaze as an instrument of social power relation has of course been extensively wrought by postmodern scholars.

[3] see the concept of „double bind communication”

[4] She also uses Tzvetan Todorov´s model but comes to the conclusion that it is inapplicable for both the films and their literary models.

[5] Marion´s „quest“ for a private island is no real Master Plot but a McGuffin.

[6] This subjective tracking shot, is in fact an alternation between objective shots of Lila and subjective shots (her point of view) of the house. At the same time the camera continues to track in towards the house, which becomes larger and larger in the frame.

[7] The book has long conversations between Norman and Mother. Hitchcock´s high angle shots in order to mask Norman as Mother´s face are the filmic equivalent.

Excerpt out of 25 pages


Narrative Parameters in 'Psycho'
University of Trier
The American Films of Alfred Hitchcock
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Hitchcock, Narratologie
Quote paper
Daniel Roth (Author), 2009, Narrative Parameters in 'Psycho', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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