Psycho and American Wickedness

Alfred Hitchcock died 40 years ago, and his most famous movie, Psycho, is now also on its 60th anniversary, placing it halfway between his birth in 1899 and our own times. Hitchcock is the most celebrated of the masters, the only one perhaps sure to be known to everyone. But before we can properly celebrate his work, we have to answer three puzzling questions.

First, Hitchcock was born and raised in Britain by Catholics, yet he made his bid for immortality in America, indeed, in Hollywood. How did he persuade Americans that he knew us at least as well as we know ourselves? Why did we never take him for a stranger? Secondly, Hitchcock’s success came in the age of supreme American confidence, after the seemingly providential victory in World War II, when power, morality, and wealth all came together. How did a man persuade us to love thrillers and even horror at a time when we were as hopeful as we are now cynical?

Thirdly, Hitchcock’s movies have attained the status of myths among us, as dear as family stories and far more enduring than whatever happens to presidents or other officials. Why did he never win an Oscar, for all the stars in his movies, the box office success, and the love he attained as America’s favorite eccentric? Perhaps he was too popular, made genre pictures, often showed ugly things—tainted by his interest in American affairs, he was beyond glamour.

Midcentury Delusions

Hitchcock’s great successes came in the 1950s, the apex of liberal confidence in America. Indeed, in 1950, Lionel Trilling, a critic then celebrated, published The Liberal Imagination and famously lamented that liberalism was America’s only intellectual tradition, conservatism being a brainless afterthought.

One need not say anything dismissive of Trilling here—Hitchcock will do that for us. He shows in his post-war films that the confident American liberalism of the time was headed for trouble and that the conservative understanding of morality is far sounder, far less deluded. He told dark stories of contemporary America because he saw dark things coming. Indeed, the obvious explanation for his shift from thriller to horror is that the warnings he had to offer became more dire and making himself heard became more difficult as liberal ignorance turned into arrogance.

America was going mad, but Hitchcock was sober. He turned his eye to America with patriotic concern, but without the blindness typical of intellectuals or the carefree reassurance of ordinary people. Nor did he apply the intellectuals’ intellect to the concerns of ordinary people—he had no interest in jargon or the half-baked ideas that gain currency for a moment. He instead pointed out in his movies that ordinary people are all too tempted to embrace the madness of intellectuals.

There is therefore much to learn from the master, but only if we start from the obvious rather than the abstract. His American stories reveal much that is wrong with America because that’s what he thought should be on our minds. We must therefore reject the foolish liberal critic’s characterization of Hitchcock as a master of “suspense,” a word we prefer to fear. Our fears define us and are tied to our most cherished beliefs. So we must ask, with Hitchcock, Who’s afraid? And of what?

The Misery of Individualism

I’m writing a book about Hitchcock’s criticism of modern liberalism and I would like to now introduce conservatives to their best ally through an analysis of Psycho, a story that effortlessly brings together the American past and future, liberalism and tragedy, women and men, money and society, science and law. Psycho starts on Friday, December 11 (which suggests 1959), and the action comes to a climax on Sunday, December 20. It is all disturbingly close to Christmas and yet we think nothing of Christmas when we watch it, because family and the home are entirely absent, as is community. There is no individualistic Christmas!

The movie also looks nothing like Christmas because it’s set in Phoenix, Arizona. We know the place and the time from the opening shot. They just appear on the screen, and so we are inclined to ignore them. But the opening crane shots of Phoenix show us the new, post-war America. Phoenix quadrupled in population in the 1950s to more than 400,000 people: Behold American individualism and opportunity, mobility and the pursuit of property and happiness. A new metropolis in the desert.

From that moment on, the downfall begins—despite its optimistic setting, the story unfolds toward erotic tragedy. To begin with, our protagonist Marion (Janet Leigh) and her lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), are hiding in cheap love hotels. Young, healthy, beautiful—but they’ve been ruined by the individualism and personal liberation afforded by post-war America just as they reached adulthood. Sam feels emasculated by his previous divorce, humiliated to have to pay for his ex-wife’s lifestyle. The law can liberate people from marriage, but the consequences might be deeply painful.

An age of fantasies, including therapeutic and moralistic fantasies to explain away wickedness, was dawning. Beauty, and then terrible violence—erotic tragedy: that was Hitchcock’s vision of the American future.

Marion herself is fatherless, a young independent woman, and would like to get married. As soon as we see her job, we see why. Her boss is a coward who has her go deposit large sums of money he fears to handle; her married coworker wants men to make passes at her and relays the depressive story of her mother telling her to take tranquilizers on her wedding night; and her boss’s big new client is a Texas oilman, a devil tempting Marion with a Vegas getaway while talking of how he loves his own innocent, beautiful daughter.

Sam feels he can’t be a man in this new America; Marion feels she can’t be a woman. But she does act on temptation and steals her boss’s money—that’s all you need in America, and you can always make a new beginning, no? Justice isn’t a big concern, so why not? She sets off for California, the future, and the promise of happiness. She has embraced an individualism which, faced with social hypocrisy, identifies the good with one’s strongest passion. How could this go wrong?

The Return of Tragedy

The film’s title suggests that the horror that befalls Marion is nothing more than an accident. After all, we don’t punish theft with bloodshed! Some might simply reject moral judgment, for aesthetic reasons or otherwise. But we are stuck with this matter—halfway through the movie, the protagonist is killed. It won’t do to say something clever about overturning audience expectations. We would like to know why this should happen.

We should start with where Marion ends up. California, instead of being the future, turns out to be the past—an old turn of the century mansion on a hill and a motel, implausibly full of the relics of culture: classical music, Renaissance paintings, and many small objets d’art. Here, wisdom and, we learn, evil are mixed together. A certain criticism of aristocracy is implied (concealed behind splendor is wickedness), along with a critique of the democratic desire for luxury.

The sole inhabitant of this strange world, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), spies on Marion in the shower through a peephole. To do so, he removes a painting of Susannah and the Elders, depicting the similarly voyeuristic story that concludes the Book of Daniel. Our heritage, both art and religion, is emphasized as out of place and implausible. The film thus points out what we have lost before we see the consequence of abandoning it. What conservatives know and liberals desperately deny is that the beautiful is tied up with desire, that human beings can never overcome shame without becoming lawless, and therefore that chasing after fantasies leads to death.

This is why Marion is murdered when she feels safest. She has resolved to return to Phoenix, pay for her wrongdoing, and start again like a respectable person. America is the land of second chances, after all, and breaking the law is not such a terrible thing. But the morality of second chances only works if nothing terrible ever happens to human beings when they step beyond the laws. Marion is both clueless and heedless, and she runs out of luck. Being only a little indecent is dangerous.

Marion, in the shower, feels cleansed, as of sin. She is then slaughtered to ear-piercing music. Freedom as she understood it met a necessity she couldn’t see, a madness that turns violent. The second half of the movie is about her corpse—to find it and bury it properly is the demand of justice. Individualism gives way to community. For all their faults, we see a town, sheriff, and ordinary people seeking to do what justice demands. America has to face up to this evil everyone so blithely ignores. Unlike in Phoenix, here we see justice as an inherent part of our communal nature.

Psychiatry and Wickedness

All this, however, does not suffice to explain why Psycho should be a horror movie. But think of this title—calling someone a psycho is an insult, but the word itself only means soul. It is part of the modern language of therapy: To call someone a psychopath, or suffering in the soul, is a scientific euphemism meant to hide the truth about madness behind the pretense that it can be understood or even dealt with by the right scientist.

Here is evil, here is wickedness, but people cannot see it. Even in the little town of Fairvale, a psychiatrist comes along to explain away evil and make everyone feel like they can understand it. Horror is a reaction to a liberalism that has embraced madness in the process of trying to overcome it. Science has been replaced by a kind of scientific poetry—performance, imagery, and choice of words replace facing the facts.

Hitchcock concludes the story by showing us that, far from being understood by the scientist, the wicked Norman Bates understood and manipulated him. Perhaps that’s in a way true of us, too—the audience is sympathetic to this murderer. Our scientists only tell us what we already wanted to believe—nobody would do something wicked if he could help it! Good intentions govern our world, and we’ll be alright.

Hitchcock suggests that America is being transformed by erotic individualism. Nothing we see in the movie—starting with divorce and crazy families—was normal in America at the time, but it would become so, once people began to define themselves by their desires. An age of fantasies, including therapeutic and moralistic fantasies to explain away wickedness, was dawning. Beauty, and then terrible violence—erotic tragedy: that was Hitchcock’s vision of the American future, and the 1960s-70s proved him right. Hitchcock teaches us that there is always arrogance behind ignorance and that the apparently innocent misunderstanding of freedom leads to moral slavery. This is his great gift to us and must be what previous generations noticed to always return to his remarkable mysteries. We are, as we were, trying to understand ourselves, and at least at the movies, we could stop pretending or idealizing ourselves and recognize the tragic part of our nature.