A Thematic Analysis Of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho


Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho has been commended for forming
the archetypical basis of all horror films that followed
its 1960 release. The mass appeal that Psycho has
maintained for over three decades can undoubtedly be
attributed to its universality. In Psycho, Hitchcock allows
the audience to become a subjective character within the
plot to enhance the film's psychological effects for an
audience that is forced to recognize its own neurosis and
psychological inadequacies as it is compelled to identify,
for varying lengths of time, with the contrasting
personalities of the film's main characters. Hitchcock
conveys an intensifying theme in Psycho, that bases itself
on the unending subconscious battle between good and evil
that exists in everyone through the audience's subjective
participation and implicit character parallels. 

Psycho begins with a view of a city that is arbitrarily
identified along with an exact date and time. The camera,
seemingly at random, chooses first one of the many
buildings and then one of the many windows to explore
before the audience is introduced to Marion and Sam.
Hitchcock's use of random selection creates a sense of
normalcy for the audience. The fact that the city and room
were arbitrarily identified impresses upon the audience
that their own lives could randomly be applied to the
events that are about to follow.
In the opening sequence of Psycho, Hitchcock succeeds in
capturing the audience's initial senses of awareness and
suspicion while allowing it to identify with Marion's
helpless situation. The audience's sympathy toward Marion
is heightened with the introduction of Cassidy whose crude
boasting encourages the audience's dislike of his
character. Cassidy's blatant statement that all unhappiness
can be bought away with money, provokes the audience to
form a justification for Marion's theft of his forty
thousand dollars. As Marion begins her journey, the
audience is drawn farther into the depths of what is
disturbingly abnormal behavior although they are compelled
to identify and sympathize with her actions.
It is with Marion's character that Hitchcock first
introduces the notion of a split personality to the
audience. Throughout the first part of the film, Marion's
reflection is often noted in several mirrors and windows.
Hitchcock is therefore able to create a voyeuristic
sensation within the audience as it can visualize the
effects of any situation through Marion's conscious mind.
In the car dealership, for example, Marion enters the
secluded bathroom in order to have privacy while counting
her money. Hitchcock, however, with upper camera angles and
the convenient placing of a mirror is able to convey the
sense of an ever lingering conscious mind that makes
privacy impossible. Hitchcock brings the audience into the
bathroom with Marion and allows them to struggle with their
own values and beliefs while Marion makes her own decision
and continues with her journey.
The split personality motif reaches the height of its
foreshadowing power as Marion battles both sides of her
conscience while driving on an ominous and seemingly
endless road toward the Bates Motel. Marion wrestles with
the voices of those that her crime and disappearance has
affected while the audience is compelled to recognize as to
why they can so easily identify with Marion despite her
wrongful actions.
As Marion's journey comes to an end at the Bates Motel,
Hitchcock has successfully made the audience a direct
participant within the plot. The suspicion and animosity
that Marion feels while at the motel is felt by the
audience. As Marion shudders while hearing Norman's mother
yell at him, the audience's suspicions are heightened as
Hitchcock has, at this point, made Marion the vital link
between the audience and the plot.
The initial confrontation between Marion and Norman Bates
is used by Hitchcock to subtly and slowly sway the
audience's sympathy from Marion to Norman. Hitchcock
compels the audience to identify with the quiet and shy
character whose devotion to his invalid mother has cost him
his own identity. After Marion and Norman finish dining,
Hitchcock has secured the audience's empathy for Norman and
the audience is made to question their previous
relationship with Marion whose criminal behavior does not
compare to Norman's seemingly honest and respectable
lifestyle. The audience is reassured, however, when Marion,
upon returning to her room, decides to return the money and
face the consequences of her actions.
Upon the introduction of Norman, Hitchcock introduces the
first of several character parallels within Psycho. The
clash between Marion and Norman, although not apparent to
the audience until the end of the film, is one of neurosis
versus psychosis. The compulsive and obsessive actions that
drove Marion to steal the money is recognizable, albeit
unusual behavior, that the audience embraces as their
sympathy is primarily directed towards her character. The
terror that Hitchcock conveys to the audience manifests
itself once the audience learns that they empathized with a
psychotic person to a greater extent than with rational one
when their sympathy is shifted to Norman. The shift from
the normal to the abnormal is not apparent to the audience
in the parlor scene but the audience is later forced to
disturbingly reexamine their own conscience and character
judgment abilities to discover why Norman's predicament
seemed more worthy of their sympathy than Marion's.
During the infamous shower scene, Hitchcock conveys a sense
of cleansing for the audience. Hitchcock has reassured the
audience of Marion's credibility and introduced Norman as a
wholesome character. The audience's newly discovered
security is destroyed when Marion is murdered. Even more
disturbing for the audience, however, is that the scene is
shot not through Marion's eyes, but those of the killer.
The audience, now in a vulnerable state looks to Norman to
replace Marion as its main focus in its subjective role.
After Marion's murder, the audience's role in the film
takes a different approach. Hitchcock provokes the audience
to utilize the film's other characters in order to solve
the mystery of Marion's death yet he still successfully
maintains the sympathetic bond between Norman and the
audience. Interestingly, Hitchcock plays on the audience's
obsession with the stolen money as the audience knows that
it had been sunk yet clings to the fact that Marion's death
may have been a result of her crime with the introduction
of Sam, Lila, and Arbogast.
Hitchcock uses Arbogast's character to arouse suspicion
within the audience. Arbogast's murder is not as intense as
Marion's because the audience had not developed any type of
subjective bond with his character. Arbogast's primary
motivation, however, was to recover the stolen money which
similarly compels the audience to take an interest in his
quest. Despite the fact that Arbogast interrupts Norman's
seemingly innocent existence the audience does not perceive
him as an annoyance as they had the interrogative policeman
who had hindered Marion's journey.
When Sam and Lila venture to the Bates Motel to investigate
both Marion's and Arbogast's disappearances, Hitchcock
presents the audience with more character parallels. As
Lila begins to explore Norman's home, Hitchcock
conveniently places Sam and Norman in the parlor where
Marion had dined with Norman before she had been murdered.
As the two men face each other, the audience is able to see
their contrasting personalities in relation to Marion. Sam,
who had legitimately gained Marion's affection is poised
and respectable in comparison to Norman, whose timid nature
and sexual repression is reflected in the scenes of Lila's
exploration of his bedroom. The conflict that arises
between Sam and Norman reflects the fact that Sam had what
Norman wanted but was unable to attain due to his psychotic

Psycho concludes by providing a blatant explanation for
Norman's psychotic tendencies. The audience, although they
had received a valid explanation for Norman's actions, is
left terrified and confused by the last scene of Norman and
the manifestation of his split personality. Faced with this
spectacle, Hitchcock forces the audience to examine their
conscious self in relation to the events that they had just
subjectively played a role in.
The fear that Psycho creates for the audience does not
arise from the brutality of the murders but from the
subconscious identification with the film's characters, all
of whom reflect one side of a collective character.
Hitchcock enforces the idea that all the basic emotions and
sentiments derived from the film can be felt by anyone as
the unending battle between good and evil exists in all
aspects of life. The effective use of character parallels
and the creation of the audience's subjective role in the
plot allows Hitchcock to entice terror and convey a
lingering sense of anxiety within the audience through a
progressively intensifying theme. Hitchcock's brilliance as
a director has consolidated Psycho's place among the most
reputable and profound horror films ever made.


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