Why Psycho’s (1960) Psychiatrist Scene is More Important Than You Think

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.

The Psychiatrist

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.

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Hitchcock does something interesting with his psychiatrist. Three things are unusual compared to other films with a psychiatrist expert:

  1. We do not get to see the psychiatrist’s interview with Norman. We, like Lila and Sam, only hear about it.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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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):

psycho2interviewnorman

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.

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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.

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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.

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17 thoughts on “Why Psycho’s (1960) Psychiatrist Scene is More Important Than You Think

  1. I also liked the way mental illness was handled by Hitchcock — even as a Horror offering — because the REAL Horror is that the people who suffer mental illness are PEOPLE first…it is the illness that is the antagonist…As much as we are mortified by his behavior, we empathize and even like Norman…a deft handling of this complicated reality!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Can you show where Hitchcock said the scene saved the movie, please?
    This from IMDB trivia “Sir Alfred Hitchcock hated the infamous psychiatrist explanation scene done by Dr. Fred Richman (Simon Oakland) at the end of the movie. He felt the scene was boring, and the movie came to a grinding halt at that point. The scene has also been ripped to shreds by critics over the years as the worst scene in the movie, and one of Hitchcock’s worst scenes ever. Hitchcock and viewers felt the scene was unnecessary, overly obvious, and too talky, slowing down the action and suspense of the rest of the movie. But there was strong pressure from the studios and powers-that-be that funded and distributed the movie to relieve the pressure from earlier scenes, and also to explain the action to less insightful audience members who might be confused by the big reveal at the ending, so the scene was kept in.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He said it to the actor, after he managed to do the scene in the very first take, the complete quote is: “Thank you very much, Mr. Oakland. You’ve just saved my picture.” >> should make several sources easy to find

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Okay. I just watched the scene from the remake. We don’t see the interview. We Just Forster go into the room where Norman is, with a cup of coffee, I presume. We don’t hear any dialogue between them.
    The original film is one of my favourites. I think it’s obvious that I am not a fan of this sequence. But I think
    it works better in the remake. I think this was because (A) it’s shorter and (B) Robert Forster is a better actor than Simon Oakland.
    Sorry, but your argument for the importance of this sequence doesn’t convince me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. WIth Gus van Sant we do see the interview, but we do not hear it indeed. We see it from a viewpoint we have been familiarized with over the years to indicate an expert-patient relation: high camera point, white room, bright light. This familiarity makes Norman much more part of a psychological thriller than a horror. Hitchcock intuitively (at least, that’s my take on it, it is not that he said so) used the exposition of the psychiatrist in a way that we sort of have to take the psychiatrist’s word for it (bc of the very, very long 6 minutes that tires us, and I am assuming especially for a public not used to psychological theories yet) and afterwards we are again alone with Norman: this adds to the experience of a horror quality of Norman.

      Of course we cannot know how the public back then experienced this scene. I know that this scene is considered the worst (and for sure it didn’t age well theory wise), but I do think that in how Hitchcock choose to show this scene any audience experiences much more mystery (and horror) about Norman.

      Thanks for commenting!! Appreciate it!

      Like

  4. Hi. Helene Thanks for responding. I found a few sources for the quote.
    I’ll just this paste from a book I downloaded
    The Psycho File: A Comprehensive Guide to Hitchcock’s Classic Shocker..
    “When Hitchcock had finished shooting the psychiatrist’s speech at the
    end of Psycho, he strode over to actor Simon Oakland, shook his hand, and
    said, “Thank you very much, Mr. Oakland. You’ve just saved my picture”
    (Rebello 128).
    On the one hand, as Rebello points out in the 2008 DVD commentary,
    Hitchcock felt that Oakland’s carefully balanced and emotionally detached
    presentation helped get Psycho past the censors—giving an air of clinical credibility to the risky and risqué material with which the film has grappled
    throughout.
    In addition, Hitchcock had worried that the scene would be a “hat-grabber”—that is, restless viewers would be more interested in getting home than
    in listening to the doctor’s long explanation of what they’d learned in the preceding scene.
    Joseph Stefano did not share this concern. “I never believed it would be
    a hat-grabber,” the screenwriter recalled in Janet Leigh’s book on the making of the film. “Because by this time, we would need to know the why of
    Norman” (40). Hitchcock, in other words, had perhaps overestimated the
    amount of information viewers could receive and process during the movie’s
    shattering climax. Still reeling from the multiple shocks piled on in the basement scene, they could hardly be expected to grasp all the implications of
    what they had seen.
    Yet Hitchcock also recognized what many Psycho fans now take for
    granted: Oakland’s presence surely helps keep viewers glued to the screen
    during this fuller explanation of the mystery. According to an interview in
    Philip J. Skerry’s volume on the shower scene, Stefano himself had recommended Oakland for the part of the psychiatrist; the original script even
    misidentifies him as “Dr. Simon.” (Perhaps such a Freudian slip is especially
    forgivable when dealing with the part of a psychiatrist.) ”
    But I still don’t like it. Ha Ha. But perhaps I’m being unfair to Mr Oakland.
    As for the remake, and that scene. I would say we see the interview about to begin, but not the actual interview. But I understand the point you are making.
    I’m not sure what “extra info” you are referring to.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Darn. Put something extra up. But not logged in. Don’t know if went through or not.
    Writing in Ellroy type style,
    learned from Rebello commentary (youtube)
    “saved my picture” meant saved from censors, particularly i believe because of crossdressing scene.
    Oakland speech-one take. New found respect for actor by me.
    Movie going to be two parter for director’s tv show.
    Part one ends with Leigh’s murder. Part two investigation by Balsam, Gavin and Miles.
    I can see that, with epilogue being psychiatrist scene,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Will check out the Rebello commentary on Youtube! I am still curious what the complete sentence is (“I can see that, with epilogue being psychiatrist scene,”). That comma makes me want to know what comes next!!

      You inspired me to write something more about the role of the expert and how that impacts the feeling of horror versus the feeling of thriller/detective. (Will take a bit of time tho.)

      Like

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