In this section of the Colossus Movie Guide for Psycho, we talk about themes that help us understand the film.
The themes and meaning of Psycho
Being driven to madness
The most significant theme and the underlying meaning lie right within the title of the film. As we discussed in the Title Explanation section, the word “psycho” works on two levels. On a purely surface plot level, Norman Bates is the psycho. He suffers from multiple personality disorder and kills anyone whom he believes his mother would detest. But on a deeper level that becomes a psychological observation of society (and everybody watching the movie), Marion Crane becomes an example of how a “psycho” exists within all of us. Or at least how easily an ordinary person could be driven to madness.
At the end of the movie, a psychiatrist explains Norman’s behavior as multiple personality disorder. He has a clean, easy answer to explain away Norman’s psychosis. But we know that Norman’s psychosis runs much deeper (and darker) than the psychiatrist lets on. We’ve seen the lonesomeness, the detachment, the dejectedness he feels living alone in this parents’ barren mansion. As time passed on, Norman lost his touch with reality because he lost his touch with society. And instead of trying to understand his deeply troubling background, the doctors and police simply label him as “mad.”
If isolation, if feeling rejected by society is all it takes to drive someone mad…then how close was Marion to madness? In a single spiritous moment, Marion was ready to throw away everything in her life. She was in a sexual relationship looked down upon by society, she felt smaller than rich men like Tom Cassidy, and she didn’t make much money in her secretarial job. Essentially, she already felt lesser-than, felt small within the rigid confines of society’s rules. And the further she felt the pressure, the closer she inched to madness—which is right when she meets Norman, the ultimate example of madness, the embodiment of a societal outcast.
So how close was Marion to madness? Isn’t this something that could happen to anyone?
The feeling that you’re being watched
From the moment Marion steals the money, she is constantly paranoid that she is being watched, that people will discover her crime. Often times she is making it up by playing out fake conversations in her head. But other times, as is the case with the highway patrolman and the car salesman, people are indeed suspicious of her behavior. It’s a loop: because she suspects suspicion, she draws suspicion. Thus, suspicion pervades her everyday.
But really, this feeling of voyeurism had persisted already. Alfred Hitchcock was smart to use an opening crane shot that traveled across the city into a hotel room—where Marion and Sam were sharing a steamy lunch break tryst. Their relationship is considered immoral by society because they’re not married, because Sam has debts—and Hitchcock highlights this uneasiness by sneakily bringing the very audience that will judge her into that hotel room (an interesting side note: Hitchcock used 50 mm lenses in the film to mimic human vision).
Even once Marion decides to return the money, when she believes she’s in the clear, Norman spies on her from an eyehole in the wall—then, before long, kills her. This becomes commentary that you can never truly evade judgement and indictment from others. Marion may have felt cleansed in that shower, but Norman came to remind her that her identity, her very ethos was forever jeopardized because of her decisions, because of the life she chose to live.
The prevalence of lies and deception
Lies and deceit almost become a game for Hitchcock in Psycho. Sometimes, we know when people are lying. Such as when Marion lies to Norman about her name, or lies to California Charlie about her reason for buying a new car. But other times, we have no idea who’s lying or why there’s confusion. Such as when Sam and Lila believe Norman lives with his mother…who’s been dead for years.
This becomes an interesting theme in a film where small town ideals are portrayed as good and moralistic. People like Sam and Lila and the sheriff are confused by all the lies and deception, curious to figure out why terrible things are happening to their ordinary lives. But the characters doing the lying, like Norman and Marion, are outcasts of society. They feel rejected and out-of-place with the lives they lead, so they constantly skirt around the truth to fit in.
This gives power to the mystery at hand. People like Arbogast and the psychiatrist want to make sense of oddity, to give logical answers that calm the waves of uneasiness. But what if the real culprits aren’t the ones who committed a crime? What if Marion and Norman were just lying and deceiving to fit into a society that doesn’t make sense in the first place? In a world that’s constantly judging them and trying to confine them to a set of uncompromising rules? The movie forces us to ask these questions, to sympathize with people like Marion and Norman.
What are your thoughts?
Are there more themes you think should be part of the Colossus Movie Guide for Psycho? Leave your comments below and we’ll consider updating the guide.