Hitchcock said about Psycho (1960) that the psychiatrist saved the movie. And it did. But not only because of the production code; Hitchcock employed the psychiatrist in a much more interesting way than one usually thinks. The psychiatrist scene makes it possible to experience Psycho as a horror movie.
Horror and Protagonists
First, we need to take a look at the role the protagonist usually plays in horror and the way Hitchcock uses the protagonist, and how he uses us – the viewer, the public – in Psycho. In the horror genre, the public usually follows the same protagonist. This protagonist is from a world like ours and his or her (emotional) reaction to the encountered monstrosities cues us about what’s going on – there really is a vampire in that dark corner! The impossible is possible! – and how we should react to it; with horror. (In science fiction the protagonists don’t share ‘our’ world and they show this difference to us in their reactions to their world; for example by acting casual when seeing a group of oozing monsters play basketball.)
In Hitchcock’s Psycho we follow protagonists as a relay race. We start with Marion, until the iconic shower scene. Arbogast takes over, until the stairs-shot-from-above scene. We continue with Lila and Sam, until the basement (reveal) scene. And then something strange happens. We find ourselves with a psychiatrist in a five-minute-long scene who explains it all to us. This way Hitchcock relies on us too. We are the ones who witness Marion’s terror in her eyes during the shower scene. She cues us about the monstrosity of the killer. We are left with her body, and we catch a glimpse of the killer from an outside viewpoint. We follow Arbogast but we, the public, know at this point more than he does: we know there is a killer. Arbogast’s terror in his eyes during the stairs scene cues us about the monstrosity of the killer, and again, after the murder, we catch a glimpse of the killer from an outside viewpoint. Once again we switch protagonists, we follow Lila and Sam. We have spent more time with the killer than any of the protagonists.
After the psychiatrist’s lecture, once more, we are left alone with Norman Bates. With one change: finally, we can see him too.
And what is it we see? Let’s delve into the psychiatrist scene.
At first sight, the psychiatrist scene looks like a pure exposition scene: the psychiatrist explains Norman’s psychiatric state to the viewers. In 1960 it might have been new to the public to hear about the mental state of a murderer, but since then there have been a lot of series and movies about the psychiatric state of a murderer. However, these are rarely experienced as horror.
Hitchcock does something interesting with his psychiatrist. Three things are unusual compared to other films with a psychiatrist expert:
- We do not get to see the psychiatrist’s interview with Norman. We, like Lila and Sam, only hear about it.
- There is a lot of impurity in the psychiatrist’s lecture about Norman. With impurity I mean the term as it is used by Mary Douglas (and by Noël Carroll in his horror definition); impurity refers to something that doesn’t fit a certain category, to dirt, or to matter out of place. The ‘traditional’ horror monster shows its impurity by combining categories or lacking them all together, for example, the zombie: being dead and alive, the haunted house: being animate and inanimate, a werewolf: mixing two species, or a hand acting on its own without its usual body. The psychiatrist tells us Norman only half existed, Norman killed and didn’t kill. Norman committed matricide, and he informs us that that’s the worst crime of all, but Norman took care of her (stolen) corpse. He didn’t dress as a woman for lust. He gave his mother half and sometimes all of his identity, dressing and talking like her to give her life. This sounds like being two: or transgressing the category of being one person: the area of horror.
- After the lecture, the camera takes us to the room where Norman is, and it does this without a policeman, without the psychiatrist.
In a way, Hitchcock has turned the viewer into a protagonist. At this point, the viewer has spent the most time with Norman and has seen what he has done. However, the viewer was not allowed to see the interview with the psychiatrist. By not allowing this, Hitchcock prevents us to experience the psychiatrist as a protagonist, we are not allowed to see Norman as the psychiatrist did – as a patient -. The psychiatrist does tell us about Norman but in a way that is a bit unscientific. He talks about two people in one, a person that only half exists. He is quite calm about it but because we have not experienced the questioning we are left to our own devices. In our current day and age we will probably fill in the blanks with our general knowledge of (movie)killers, but still, this way of showing us has an effect.
After the lecture, the camera sways toward Norman in a different room. Or is it Norman? Again, there is no expert with us, we are facing Norman alone. He looks us right in the face. Then we see his face merge with Mother.
This impossible image, of two people in one, is quite horrific. And because we have to face Norman alone in this scene, without the interpreting help of a police expert, or the psychiatrist, it is up to us what to make of it. Does it creep us out? Is he possessed? Does Mother crawl under our skin? Or do we brush it off as a visual metaphor?
Gus van Sant’s Psychiatrist
Van Sant’s remake changed the psychiatrist scene on all three points. It starts by letting the viewer see the interview (like we are used to in the crime genre):
This way, we as viewers feel much safer. The camera point is high, and we get a clear view. Norman is being dissected by a scientifically trained psychiatrist. We can see the sterile environment, and we are secure in our sense that Norman Bates is a patient.
When Van Sant’s psychiatrist speaks we get to see him up close, instead of further away. He speaks empathically, and we relate to him. Norman Bates is a disturbed person. The speech is much shorter, so the public doesn’t get the chance to feel somewhat alienated from his words. The judgment about matricide (the worst crime of them all) and questions about Norman wearing women’s clothes are erased. Lila, and we, listen and understand.
After this, we switch over to Norman, but not alone. We follow a policeman in the cell where Norman is. We are not confronted with Norman Bates ourselves, we just see him as a patient. He sits below. We get a good view. He is dissected. There is nothing for us left to doubt.
Gus van Sant removed exactly the subtleties in the psychiatrist scene that made it possible for Hitchcock’s Psycho to be experienced as a horror movie and not as a detective. Hitchcock masterfully used the psychiatrist against us.