by Paul Batters
On those cold nights when the winds howl, the rain is falling and perhaps even the lightning startles the dark sky, who has felt the need to immerse themselves in the deep abyss of a Gothic tale? Whether it be a book or a film, the atmosphere of dread, gloom and fear takes us down dark corridors through ancient mansions and past a myriad of doors behind which are secrets which shock us to the bone. We seem to be drawn to what lurks in the shadows and our curiosities are aroused. The Gothic tale, born in the era of Romanticism, has been interpreted and presented in fascinating ways and its’ themes and tropes are ever-present in popular culture. Whilst initially the classic Gothic tale was bound to its’ British and European origins, it has found life in the ‘New World’, with the term American Gothic also becoming a mainstay in literature (think Edgar Allan Poe!).
But with the birth of film, there was a new way of telling stories and Hollywood was not slow to exploit Gothic literature to not only tell stories but use the visual medium to its’ own advantage and establish a new way of telling stories. From the silent era to the present, Gothic horror has both fascinated and terrified us. Of all the directors who were adroit in bringing Gothic horror to the screen, none were as expert or as influential as Alfred Hitchcock. He was no stranger to Gothic literature, having made Rebecca(1940) and even drew on Gothic tropes when making Notorious (1946); and of course would later re-visit Gothic horror with The Birds (1963).
Hitchcock had long been considered a master of the thriller by the time he made Psycho. Loosely based on the infamous Ed Gein case, the film has oft been considered the beginning of a new wave of horror film and in some regards a precursor to the slasher film that would emerge in the 1970s. Yet it is far more than that and indeed. As Misha Kavka points out in The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction:
“Gothic film brings a set of recognizable elements based in distinct visual codes. Such codes constitute the language, or the sign system, of the Gothic film”
If ever a film had all the hallmarks of a Gothic horror film, then Psycho has them in spades.
(Warning! Be prepared for spoilers!)
The infamous (or famous, depending on your viewpoint) house is perhaps the most powerfully visual and recognisable Gothic element in the film. Once we start to unpack the powerful symbolism of the Victorian mansion, we discover there are incredible depths to what it reveals.
Art historian Rose Heichelbech states that Hitchcock used Edward Hopper’s The House By the Railroad (1925) (below) as the basis for the Bates’ Mansion. But unlike the bright water colours of Hopper’s work, Hitchcock has drained the colour through filming in black and white, leaving a house bathed in greys which give the house an omnipresence which informs the film. Sitting high on the small hill and imposing in its’ nature, its’ looming dominance highlights the relationship between Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his mother (which of course taps into another Gothic theme later to be explored). Later when Marion (Janet Leigh) and Norman speak of being unable to escape ‘traps’, the house certainly comes to mind as what Norman finds inescapable.
Not only does the house become a symbol of dominance and a foreboding presence over the characters but it is also a strong symbol of values and morals that belong in another era, in complete contrast to the present which could be represented by the Bates Motel below. Both buildings also represent Norman’s fractured state of mind, which in the end will be challenged to the point of breaking completely. In fact, despite the motel also suggesting a new progressive world on the move and the house representing ‘stability’, both are isolated from that same progress; particularly with the new highway built away from the motel. Like the classic Gothic house in literature, those who live there are thus isolated from society, wallowing in their stagnation and living in seclusion from the changes that are occurring in the larger world. They grasp onto the past with desperation which is also transforms into madness and insanity.
The house holds a fascination for the audience, especially one so old and steeped in history. What secret does it hold inside? What if those walls could talk? Indeed, the house remains one of the best advertisements for the film and would feature in trailers at the time. Hitchcock knew that the house had a life and spirit of its’ own – as it always has had in the Gothic tradition.
If Psycho holds its’ audience with incredible tension from the opening, it’s through the power of secrets. In Gothic literature, secrets run deep and dark, and their exposure reveals trauma, anxieties and conflict. In Psycho, these are already evident in a sexualised and lascivious way, as we become voyeurs to the illicit affair between Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin). But far darker are the secrets that will only slowly be revealed regarding Norman. All appearances will be shattered and the dark secrets within the Bates family exposed.
Again in terms of the house, the audience is desperate to look inside and see what it is hiding. When that chance arrives, we discover a house filled with antiquity and bejewelled in trinkets and fashion from a different era. Of course, the most shocking and terrible secret will be revealed in the deepest and darkest place in the house – the cellar. As in Gothic literature, the terrifying familial secrets in the Bates family provide the psychological reasoning for Norman’s mental state and perversities.
Corpses and Corruption
By corruption, the Gothic trope of death and decay comes to mind. But what also permeates is the corruption of the mental state and the decay of a family into madness. Strangely enough, corpses are not left to rot per se but are ‘stuffed and mounted’ (through Norman’s ‘hobby’ of taxidermy) and of course, he goes much further than that!
Norman sustains his insanity via the corpse of his mother and though physically dead, her presence is elaborately constructed and becomes a reality in Normans’ world. Any Freudian can go into great detail about the Oedipal complexities at play.
Madness and Insanity
The incredible twist in the tale hits the audience in the climactic scene in the cellar, where the truth behind Norman is revealed. Initially, the audience believes that Norman is a shy yet pleasant enough young man, who may have some serious mother issues – until his perverse ‘peeping Tom’ moment as Marion gets ready for her shower. The audience is also led down the garden path, when Norman and ‘Mother’ conversations are heard. Yet even then there is no indication of what will follow.
When Norman states with a smile ‘She just goes a little mad sometimes’, it becomes the forewarning for what will come – Norman as his own mother committing horrific crimes on his behalf. His personality is constantly at war with himself until the ‘mother’ part of him ‘wins’ the battle.
In Psycho, insanity and madness result in horrific violence and the infamous shower scene (which has been definitively unpacked and analysed a thousand times over) shifts the film’s narrative from the heroine to Norman Bates. The moment still shocks and is much a rape as it is a brutal murder. Again, the climax will reveal the full and terrible truth to Norman’s insanity.
And of course, the split personality is also suggestive of the darkness of secrets, and what is revealed to and hidden from the world.
Marion is the classic Gothic heroine – finding herself in danger and indeed even placing herself there, initially through her own act of stealing the money. Her own conscience pursues her, and she constructs conversations which question what she does. What makes Marion a classic Gothic heroine is that like her predecessors in classic Gothic literature, she’s a breaker of convention and seeks independence to find happiness in her life. The traditional role constructed for her by middle America is not enough.
Her pulling into the Bates Motel is a fateful one, a trope also present in Gothic fiction, and of course the pouring rain and gloomy atmosphere further adds to the strong Gothic overtones. The stormy night is an ominous sign that something bad will happen and indeed it is a terrible shock to the audience when it does. Marion’s horrific ending in the shower, is a ‘punishment’ for her deeds (as much as a reflection of Hitchcock’s pathology) but it also reflects the physical and emotional pain that the heroine traditionally experiences.
Mood And Atmosphere
From Saul Bass’ opening credits, underpinned by the anxious musical score and split titles, the tension is heightened and the audience knows they are going to be weighted down by it. The audience peering into the window find an attractive couple half-undressed but despite the sexualised scene, their conversation is one of despair and hopelessness, already setting a negative tone.
Marion’s flight from Phoenix with the stolen money thus drives the narrative into one of heightened tension, which is worsened for us by her interactions with the cop and the car salesman. Her nervous and an anxious state therefore becomes ours.
But of course, as Marion drives through the stormy night to find refuge in the Bates Motel, it evokes for the audience the familiar Gothic trope of the traveller lost in the storm and finding themselves in an old isolated house filled with dark secrets and danger (i.e Wuthering Heights, The Old Dark House). Again, the looming shadow of the house with darkened skies above it adds to the gloomy atmosphere.
Of course the audience enters the house itself, it is antiquated and frozen in another time, as well as being terribly silent and filled with shadows.
And of course the decision by Hitchcock to film in monochrome certainly helps shape the Gothic atmosphere!
Psycho would become one of Hitchcock’s most successful and well-known films. It is not only a superb thriller which still never fails to shock; it is also a superb example of the Gothic horror film.
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.