Psycho (1960) is a classic psychological horror film whose screenplay, written by Joseph Stefano, is loosely-based on a novel of the same name authored by Robert Bloch and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The plot follows a Phoenix real estate secretary named Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) who embezzles $40,000 from a client and subsequently goes on the lam, during which she checks herself into Bates Motel.
Here, she meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), the troubled individual who manages the motel, living under the tight yoke of his overbearing mother, Norma. In the end, we discover that Norma had in fact, died a decade earlier at the hand of her jealous son, not wanting to share his mother with anyone. Norma’s death comes as such an emotional shock to him that he develops—or perhaps it simply triggers—some form of dissociative identity disorder, to cope with his loss of the person on whom he felt entirely dependant on and overwhelmingly guilty for having killed. As a result, Norman exhumes Norma’s corpse, preserves her, and continues to live life as if she’d never died. He routinely assumes her voice and personality whenever he feels attracted to a woman, filling the blanks where his clingy mother, were she alive, would have berated him.
The impactful ending to the film has Norman taken away by authorities to be sent to a mental institution, a place for which Norman expressed a distaste and fear in discussions with Marion. The audience is given a masterful reveal through imagery and psychiatric narration, that when Norman is faced with his greatest fear, the ‘mother’ persona takes full control of his mind in an attempt to shield Norman from the horrors of the “mad house.” Even after being discovered, “Norma” attempts to manipulate the situation, by portraying herself as a harmless individual who couldn’t hurt a fly.
It’s interesting to note way this film portrays the psyche of its characters. Almost immediately after he’s introduced, it’s indicated that Norman’s relationship with his mother is psychologically unhealthy. However, a subtler characterization is of Marion. It’s suggested in the film that she experiences intense paranoia and hallucinations when she sees a police officer following her, who interacts with only her, or sometimes no one at all. She even concocts conversations in her head that she assumes people are having about her.
Although we see Norman’s mental state at the forefront of this film, the beautifully artistic way in which we are given small glimpses of Marion’s state of mind allow us to think further than the obvious and truly absorb the entire well-weaved web of this timeless story. Beyond the characterization, the smooth cuts and instantly recognizable, chilling, string-heavy score contribute to an engaging build of suspense, culminating with a reveal that feels worthwhile. Psycho is a film so culturally significant that it has since been added to the National Film Registry by the U.S. Library of Congress. Viewers of the film will not find it difficult to understand why.