To truly understand why requires us to take a trip down that groovy path called memory lane. So get into your Volkswagen and drive backwards until Simon says stop. Okay, Simon says, “Stop! The year is now 1960. That banner year was a crossroads in many ways. The nation coming out of the Eisenhower-led 50s, squeaky clean role models set the template for us to follow. The perfunctory funk of picture perfect families delivered to us via several popular shows, an undercurrent was growing. Led by such rebels as James Dean, the prosperity that made establishment self-indulgent was about to be questioned in a big way. John F. Kennedy poised to be elected, our shores would be invaded by a group called The Beatles in four short years. Culture, baby, was about to be shocked out of its complacency by taking a plunge into an ice-cold shower mixed with blood.
Psycho was one of the impetuses that woke us from our sound sleep. A marriage of this unwholesome underground of switchblade wielding youth and sterile hierarchy, it was a perfect expression of the times. While the plot description for the movie was fairly unimpressive and mundane, that was the point. Just as that gray flannel suit hid all manner of sins from prying eyes, it was a perfect parallel.
The story centered around a secretary named Marion Crane (brilliantly portrayed by Janet Leigh). Deciding to help out her low-life, cash-poor-but-hunky boyfriend, she embezzles $40,000 from her boss’ client. Pocketing the cash rather than depositing it in the bank, she quickly skadoodles with the booty. Not about to let any grass grow under her feet (ironically, it would soon be growing above her), she relentlessly drives, paranoia distorting reason. Barreling through small town America, she becomes exhausted and barely able to keep her eyes open. Making the fatal mistake of stopping at a secluded motel, she’s unwilling to drive the extra few miles that would have kept her out of harm’s way.
“Bates Motel” is blasted out in fluorescent lights that sometime falter. Exhibiting the same nervous tic as the motel’s disturbed owner-manager, she checks in for the night, and we finally meet the ultimate in legendary monsters. The kind that are truly frightening, they could be our next door neighbors. Why fences were invented, they disguise their inner workings behind a shy, introverted, slightly awkward exterior. It’s at the fateful late night business transaction, that we are introduced to Norman Bates. It’s here the story deviates widely from what the audiences had been expecting. As the movie poster proclaims, Psycho offers a “New-and altogether different- screen excitement!!!” Understatement.
It was as if Hitchcock spiked the punch, lacing it with a lethal combination of speed and LSD. What went on in the 45-second scene was like opening Pandora’s Box and letting violence roam free. Forget about breaking the rules, he demolished them. Killing off the heroine of the movie one-third of the way into the film, theater goers were in a state of shock. And forget about the way he chose to have her exit! It was worse than if she’d lost a contract dispute to the late Aaron Spelling! Hacked to death in the shower, 70-plus shots were needed for the scene that took a week to film. Ending with the hollow blank stare of the decimated Marion Crane staring at her blood (actually chocolate syrup) swirling down the drain, our collective virginity composed of stalking, peeping, and brutalization was busted and broken. The membrane penetrated, it bled, mixing seamlessly with the concoction the screen actress watched.
Opening the floodgates of copycat filmmaking, it was Psycho that started it all. The shower scene skirting censorship by Hitchcock filming it in black and white, it made the gritty essence all the more real. Touching on psycho-sexual-erotic themes, Mapplethorpe’s later photographs were birthed that day. Sprinkling in repression, serial killing, an Oedipus complex, Norman Bates was the neurotic villain that made it all work and hang together.
A thoroughly insane character, his timid personae shielded a split personality that had been halved in hell. It was this silent partner that meted out demonic punishments for those trespassers that shook the fruit on his peach tree. The inner contradiction unleashing an unyielding Puritanical devil, it became the sole arbiter of right and wrong. It was this harsh inquisitor that made the judgments and distinguished harlot from saint. Discerning good girl from one that needed to die, die she did—while Norman professed outrage for acts he alone perpetrated. Talk about the lunatic running the asylum.
If Helen of Troy launched a thousand ships, then Norman Bates in Psycho did the same for depraved murderers. That sickening smile delighting us, it was tantamount to the room that hid the portrait of Dorian Gray. Masterfully portrayed by Anthony Perkins, add in a spot on script delivered by Joseph Stefano. What you end up with are all the right elements blending to make a perfect storm. Allowing the movie to rise out of the trash heap assigned to works of horror, it leapt onto the mantle of Legend and became high art.
Even the film score worked to its favor. The unforgettable melodies and violin staccato highlighting the classic film that is now considered one of the best ever, it goes to show you what hindsight sometimes delivers. When first viewed, audiences and critics were stunned by the enormity of a social change and gave it inconsistent reviews. You often get this kind of reaction. Walls erected rather than an embracing of the vanguard of things to come, our subconscious attempts to hold back the flood, but there is no going back. The juggernauts will always thrust us forward, and bad guys like Norman Bates will always inspire fear.
P.S. As if this guy isn’t creepy enough, I’ve copied the link to the score below. Think if you click to play while reading this, it’ll help establish the atmosphere that earned Norman the title of Biggest Legendary Creep Ever!