'Psycho': The horror movie that changed the genre

uwu_logo1[1]Take your seats, class: Movie critic Owen Gleiberman is kicking off his exploration of horror movies for week 6 of EW University. Check out our gallery of the 20 Top Horror Films of the Last 20 Years. Stick around all summer long for future EW University courses on Quentin Tarantino, vampires, and more.

‘Psycho': Still scaring the pants off us
If you’re reading this, it’s a fair bet that you, like me, are too young to have seen Psycho when it first came out, in 1960. And for anyone who didn’t see it then, it’s probably safe to say that none of us can ever fully know what it felt like to experience the shock — the sheer bloody jaw-dropping terror — of Alfred Hitchcock’s game-changing masterpiece of horror. Imagine the shivery jolt of the opening shark attack in Jaws, magnified 500 times. Because in Jaws, of course, everyone knows, on some level, what’s coming. Hitchcock, by contrast, used Psycho to play the ultimate dirty trick. He killed off his lead actress, Janet Leigh, halfway through the movie, and he did it with such unspeakable out-of-nowhere savagery that he seemed to be pulling the rug, the floor, and the earth right out from under the audience. He opened an abyss, exposing moviegoers to a dark side that few, at the time, could ever have dared to imagine.

Psycho was adapted from a novel that was based on the case of Ed Gein, the demented murderer and graverobber from rural Wisconsin who became the first — and still most legendary — of all modern serial killers. (Twenty-four years later, he inspired The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as well; he was the sick puppy who kept on giving.) But it’s doubtful, in the early ‘60s, that almost any American had ever even heard the term “serial killer.” We were still a long way from Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, or chianti jokes.

In the famous shower scene, when that big, fat kitchen knife, wielded by a mysterious Victorian shrew named Mrs. Bates, came slashing down, over and over again (Skree! Skree! Skree!), into the body of Marion Crane, it was also slicing through years — decades, centuries — of audience expectation that the hero or heroine of a fictional work would be shielded and protected, or would at least die (usually at the end) in a way that made some sort of moral-dramatic sense. In Psycho, murder made no sense at all; the suddenness — and viciousness — of it tore at the fabric of our certainty. What it suggested is that none of us, in the end, are ever truly protected.

You could easily claim that Psycho, more than any other film, is the movie that changed movies — that it broke down, and reconfigured, popular storytelling by shifting it from a form in which lives were orderly and cohesive, bound by the symmetrical conflicts associated with classic Hollywood, to one in which lives were loose, random, unpredictable, and violent, subject to the messiness we associate with the Hollywood films of the ‘70s after the collapse of the studio system.

But the most measurable and seismic effect that Psycho had was on the horror genre itself. Before Psycho, horror movies were “monster” movies. They were fantasies in which men battled supernatural creatures — or turned into them. The monsters could be big (Godzilla) or small (The Fly), sexy (Dracula) or ugly (Frankenstein); they could be spectral and profound (I Walked With a Zombie) or literal and rubbery (The Creature From the Black Lagoon); they could come from outer space (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) or they could be the beast within (Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde). But they were all, one way or another, not quite of this earth.

Psycho revolutionized all that. Here was a horror film in which the “monster” lived inside the head of one man — poor, schmucky Norman Bates, the mamma’s boy with a black secret. In truth, there was no monster at all, no shrieking outsize “mother.” There was just Norman and his rage. Yet Hitchcock’s genius is how deftly he created the illusion of a monster. The Bates house, that looming Victorian mansion full of cryptlike rooms and stuffed birds, was, in effect, a symbol of old-fashioned 19th-century terror. It was a Hollywood funhouse with a secret trap door.

Once inside that house, Hitchcock, drawing his camera back and up, up, up high, teased the audience with a great Freudian metaphor. Though he never, right up until the end, let us get close enough to see Mrs. Bates, what we did see was Norman carrying her around — which, of course, is exactly what the real monsters of our time do. They carry their private demons around, becoming slaves to them instead of mastering them. They become souls in demon drag.

By making the audacious claim that the darkest monsters — brutal, homicidal, and unknowable — live directly inside us, Alfred Hitchcock, in the grandest stunt of movie history, did more than kill off his heroine. He made a show of killing God; he expressed the horror of a world that had seen enough real horror (World War I, the Holocaust, the dropping of the A-bomb) not to need any more monsters. And that’s why the horror films of today are forever in his debt, and in his shadow. Every time you see a slasher movie with Jason, Freddy, Michael Myers, or whatever new name they come up with for some hulk in a mask with a big blade, you’re watching a remake of Psycho — an attempt to recapture its fear and insanity. But, of course, that can never happen again. Because now we know what’s coming. The movies, it turned out, could only kill God once.

For discussion: Is Psycho the scariest movie you’ve ever seen? If not, what is? And why is Psycho still so terrifying no matter how many times you’ve seen it?

More EW University:
Check out Owen’s class on seminal horror flick The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Slideshow: The best horror films of the last 20 years
Final exam: Take a stab at our horror film trivia quiz
See all EW University courses

Comments (34 total) Add your comment
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  • Nerwen Aldarion

    What I find most interesting about Psycho is that it was an experiment by Hitchcock to see if movie viwers would rather have an expensive eye catching movie or a cheap gripping plotline movie. He used black and white because it was cheaper, her cut costs by using the staff from his TV show etc. And he proved that audiences would rather have a juicy tale than cool special effects. The sad thing is that I sometimes believe Hollywood has forgotten this lesson.

  • Wojo

    I love “Psycho,” but it’s never really been scary to me. It’s almost too artistic to be scary if that makes any sense. I think “Halloween” is the gold standard for horror movies. The music itself is infinitely more terrifying than anything in “Psycho.” However, I do agree that without “Psycho,” maybe “Halloween” never even happens.

  • Jay

    I recently picked up Universal’s 2-disc DVD of “Psycho”, as I had not watched the movie in several years. It still holds up. I love the fact that Hitchcock demanded that no one be allowed into the theater once the film had started (this is all covered in the supplements to the DVD); if only theaters would implement this policy now!

  • jen

    Halloween is the scariest movie to me, even though I have seen it dozens of times. Psycho is not that scary, but it is beautiful & masterful storing telling. I love all of Hitchcock’s movies for the same reason. he had true vision.

  • Pete

    I don’t remember being scared by Psycho, but I could appreciate how well made it was, and could imagine how shocking it must have been in 1960. For me, the scariest film is Halloween. The first time I watched it I got so scared I had to switch it off – and it was still daytime in the movie. The scene with Michael watching Annie in the laundry house is so suspenseful, it still gets to me.

  • amy

    It is so nice to read a well written article; it happens so rarely within the blogging world. Thoughtful and thorough, your article was an interesting read. Kudos!

  • Linda

    For me, The Exorcist is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. As a child, I walked in on my dad and grandpa watching it. I sat down, unnoticed, for several scenes. I was okay, until the scene in Reagan’s bedroom where she stabs herself with the crucifix while her mom cowers in the corner. I screamed, giving my dad and grandpa a heart attack and ran from the room. I still watch scary movies, but I’ve never been able to watch The Exorcist ever again.

  • Mike

    Psycho is great, and probably the gold standard, but The Exorcist is still THE scariest movie I’ve ever seen.

  • C.J.

    Yeah, I love-love-love ‘Psycho,’ but it’s never really been scary for me. Disturbing, engaging, and absorbing, but not scary.

    I think ‘Psycho’ is one of the best dramas I’ve ever seen. Scary? Maybe ‘The Exorcist,’ or even ‘Scream’/’Scream 2,’ which I consider the last horror franchise to have the cajones to kill off lovable characters. Lovable people dying? THAT’S scary.

  • Roy

    You know what movie always terrified me? Barton Fink. Something about the closing credits. With the music, the camera slowly tracking down and the pattern of the wall paper of Barton’s hotel room has always made me feel trapped in a burning room with a sweaty John Goodman waiting outside to rip out my soul.

  • J

    Well done OG! The idea that Psycho represents a recapitulation of a Nietszchean moment is an original one, indeed. But one that took the security of an orderly, knowable universe and removed it from the philosophy classroom and placed it on the movie screen. In the words of Gilles Deleuze, “The great auteurs of cinema [are comparable] not only to painters, architects and musicians, but also to thinkers. They think with [images] instead of concepts”

  • Audrey

    Thank you for that beautiful piece about Psycho. I love it when Hitchcock and his many masterpieces get the recognition that they deserve.
    Psycho isn’t scary in the way that we’re used to today – buckets of blood and zillions of deaths. However, it is the creepiest movie I have ever seen. Actually, I think the movie is pretty terrifying, but we’ve become so over-exposed to what about it is terrifying, that we’re almost unable to be scared by it.
    By the way, the movie that terrified me the most (and still does) is The Shining. I’ve only seen it once, but I remember it vividly. I couldn’t shower without being terrified of dead, naked women for months.

  • LC

    I agree that “The Exorcist” is the scariest movie of all time, but “Psycho” is up there. It’s not the shower scene that gets me though. It’s at the end when Lila sneaks into the Bates house and goes upstairs into Mother’s bedroom, then runs downstairs into the fruit cellar for that famous climactic scene… her scream and that swinging light bulb… it gives me the willies just thinking about it. I’ve probably seen “Psycho” 50 times, and it never gets less creepy and ominous.

  • Sean Mc

    Saw Psycho on the big screen a few years back as part of a summer classic film series in Austin TX. As many times as I had seen the film on television, I was not prepared for some of the shocks that came from seeing it in a theater with an audience. What got me most however was not the reaction to the shower scene which due to it’s infamy is expected by audiences but the other killings (especially that of the character Arbogast (oops spoiler alert)). This movie still lives on as a prime example of how to scare right.

  • Barbara

    I saw Psycho in the movies when I was 11. Movies weren’t rated then and you just went the movies with your parents instead of them having to get a babysitter. What made Psycho so scary was that Janet Leigh was in the shower — naked and at her most vulnerable. And, yes, no one expected the star of the movie to be done away with so early on, and in such a completely unexpected and violent way. That movie stayed with me for years. Hitchcock was a genius.

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