In this section of the Colossus Movie Guide for Psycho, we will discuss the meaning behind the movie’s title.
Why is the movie called Psycho?
“Psycho” seems like a clear reference to Norman Bates, as he clearly suffers from dissociative identity disorder, aka multiple personality disorder. He is, by society’s definition, a psychopath. In this light, the movie is simple: Norman is a psycho who kills in the name of his dead mother and he must be stopped. He killed our heroine, Marion, who did something wrong but was planning to fix it. She didn’t deserve to die, and her friends now have a chance to avenge her death.
But Psycho goes deeper into the human psyche. Yes, Norman is a psycho…but is he so different from Marion?
Remember Norman and Marion’s conversation in the motel parlor? Marion asks if Norman has thought about committing his mother to a mental institution. To which Norman has an aggressive, enlightening response:
“It’s not as if she were a maniac, a raving thing,” Norman says about his mother. “She’s just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes.”
Norman then turns his attention to Marion: “Haven’t you?”
Marion isn’t crazy like Norman, who is certifiably “psychotic” in the medical sense. But Marion did go a little mad when she stole that $40,000. A normal, upstanding citizen would have taken that money to the bank like their job had instructed them to do. But Marion had a moment of madness. She decided to color outside the lines of society, even though she knew it would cost her job, her relationships, her entire livelihood. She was ready to give up everything just to make some money. And one has to wonder: isn’t that psychotic?
Herein lies the beauty of Psycho. Norman Bates is the ultimate psycho. He represents what can happen when nobody will listen to your problems; when parents have unhealthy strangleholds over their children; when society would rather place you in a mental institution than give you the comfort and care you deserve and need. He truly suffers from psychosis, which the dictionary defines as “a severe mental condition in which thought and emotions are so affected that contact is lost with external reality.” And during that conversation between Norman and Marion…we realize the two are not so different.
This reveals the power of defamiliarization—of making the familiar feel unfamiliar. Yes, Norman is certifiably psychotic in a way that Marion is not. But his manic presence makes Marion feel as though she’s done a horrendous thing by stealing the money. She sees Norman and his struggles with his mother. She sees a man who feels lonely and has nobody in his life. In Norman, she sees her own reflection—Marion sees her potential future. Their conversation convinces her that she has gone a little mad, and that she still has time to amend her wrongs.
So the title Psycho isn’t just a reference to a little psychopath, but also to the feeling of losing touch with reality. Marion already felt like an outsider, given her immoral, sexual relationship with Sam. And she felt she could get ahead, she could build a brand new life with the stolen money. The rigid rules of society made her feel trapped, like she couldn’t move forward—so she broke the rules and ran away. But by doing so, she risked everything she had built.
So after Marion dies, the pursuit of her killer becomes an interesting self-evaluation for society. Marion must be avenged—society can’t continue to subjugate people for their mental struggles. Which means punishing Norman for his sin. But doesn’t Norman deserve the same level of comfort and care? Doesn’t he also need someone to listen to him, to help him during this trying period? Does Norman deserve to be branded as a psycho? Is he really so different from Marion? The characters don’t necessarily have to struggle with this dilemma—but the viewers do.
What are your thoughts?
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