This piece will show a semiotic and psychoanalytical analysis of the Alfred Hitchcock film psycho using some of the theories of Dr. Sigmund Freud, as well as highlighting some of the critical differences between men and women when it comes to power.
The storyline of this film involves a young woman who steals $40,000 from her employer’s client, and ends up on a personal odyssey towards terror when she encounters a disturbed young hotel proprietor who is dominated by his mother. Patrick McGilligan (2003) wrote that the Bates character was based on Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, who may have had an incestuous relationship with his mother. (McGilligan, 2003. Page 579)
One of the biggest signifiers in the film is cash. Money is the initial drive that leads the main character, banker Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh), down a path towards her own destruction. What is signified is the power that money and greed have over people, and how you pay a price for succumbing to its powers.
Facing a paradigmatic structure composed of desiring to marry her boyfriend, but lacking the finances to do so, Crane stumbles upon a solution when a rich oil tycoon enters the office and asks Crane to deposit $40,000 cash in the bank. (Berger, p. 24) While driving to the bank, Crane dreams of how the money could help alleviate her repressed desire to escape a boring job and set her free to flee the state and go on a fairy tale romance.
The oil tycoon practically waves the cash in her face while flirting with her. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why she was able to absolve herself of any guilt – she was stealing from a rich, creepy guy. This would be a form of rationalization.
While driving to see her boyfriend, she grows tired and pulls over to the side of the road and falls asleep. She is awakened by a police officer who suspects that the woman might be in some sort of trouble. Crane’s hurried manner and defensive attitude only increase the officer’s suspicions. The officer is an example of Freud’s theory of ego. He is very cool, emotionless, and almost mechanical in his demeanor. No doubt a logical thinker who relies on police intuition and paying close attention to the environment and noticing subtle cues about Cranes behavior. This contrasts with Crane, who represents the id – basing her decisions on emotions such as desire, greed, lust and love. She is unaware of how her defensiveness makes her look more guilty.
The police officer eventually lets Marion go. Eventually, she grows tired and decides to stay at a motel. The motel is run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) who turns out to be a serial killer. Bates is a deeply disturbed young man who has a strong Oedipus complex in regards to his mother. It is so strong, in fact, that he had murdered his mother in a jealous rage after he found out that she had found a male lover. Unable to mentally handle the loss of his mother and his own guilt, he keeps her corpse, dresses it, and cares for it by using his taxidermy skills. His mind fragments and splits into two personalities. He adopts the persona and dress of his mother.
While dressed as his mother, he murders Crane while she is taking a shower in one of the Bates’ motel cabins in one of the most talked about scenes in cinematic history. (House of Horrors, para 4). Prior to the murder, the audience’s attention is drawn to the money, safely wrapped in a newspaper on the nightstand. Hitchock allows the audience to bask in the guilty pleasure of sharing in the sense of comfort that Crane may have felt believing that the money was all hers. The second guilty pleasure, one that Hitchcock was probably teasing the audience with since the beginning of the movie, was seeing Crane naked, basking in the warmth and sanctity of the restroom – painted white as if to offset the uncleanly business that goes on in restrooms. The comfort of the phallic, anal and genital stages of Freudian theory contribute to the sanctity of the setting, as a bathroom is a safe haven for these Freudian stages to manifest. Crane, as well as the audience, pays for their enjoyment of the shower as the curtains are ripped open and she is stabbed to death. This is accompanied by a piercing, terrifying score. (House of Horrors, para 3)
Bates had taken a liking to Crane after having dinner with her the night before. However, his alter ego of his mother is not happy about the prospect of an attractive young woman disrupting the love affair between mother and son. He even holds conversations with himself thinking he’s speaking to his mother.
Therefore Bates, dressed as his mother, represents the jealous side of the mother persona – she needed to eliminate the threat posed by an attractive young woman who could steal her son away. The mother side of Bates’ mind could represent the superego – the domineering personality of a mother whose son is beholden to her. At the same time, there is an element of id in the mother persona if you are to assume that she killed Crane out of jealousy towards a young attractive woman who might steal her son. Bates ends up trapped in ambivalence, taking a liking to the girl with the mother side hating her for being a threat to their relationship. It serves to negate guilt over the murder. (Berger, Arthur. P. 90)
Following the murder, Norman Bates returns to the crime scene as the innocent son who cleans up the evidence simply because he is being a dutiful son doing what he has to do to protect his mother. This serves two psychological purposes for Bates fragmented persona – alleviating the big green eyed monster of his jealousy towards his mother and her lover by making his mother the jealous one, and absolving himself of guilt related to the murder at the same time. This love hate relationship is another example of ambivalence – hatred for the murder, but covering up the scene of the crime out of love, as well as projecting the jealousy to his mother to alleviate his own.
Ironically, as reality starts to catch up to Norman Bates and his demented game, a private investigator, as well as Crane’s family assumes that Bates was involved in Crane’s disappearance to get to her cash.
Money had nothing to do with Norman Bates’ motivation. In fact, Bates didn’t seem to have any use for money whatsoever. Hardly anyone ever stayed at his motel.
Crane, on the other hand, could have avoided her death if she would have just deposited the money in the bank in the first place. In this case the use of money in this film is a conventional symbol. The money signifies the root of all evil and paying the ultimate price for succumbing to its power.
As for Bates, a perverted form of justice seemed to crystallize in his twisted mind. As he sat in a holding cell at the end of the movie the persona of the mother had taken over, consigned to the fact that her son would go away for murder for a crime that she had committed. This is an example of Bates’ psychological defense mechanism of reaction formation, to escape having to accept the reality of being caught and going away for life. (Berger, Arthur. P.90)
The conclusions about critical differences are that women can have a great deal of power over men. According to Anderson, men seem to hold the cards professionally and financially, as evidenced by the oil tycoon and the male employers at the real estate office while women hold low wage jobs with a lot of stress (P. 81). However, the power of an attractive young woman can cause a man, who prides himself on being able to control his emotions, to do things he normally wouldn’t do. This played a part with the oil tycoon giving Crane the cash – he wanted to flash money at her in an attempt to eventually gain sexual favors. Normally, he probably wouldn’t be so irresponsible with his money. Also, the power of sexual attraction came into play with Crane at the hotel. Bates attraction towards her caused his alter ego to snap with jealousy stemming from the power of sexual attraction. Also, Hitchcock used her attractiveness to entice the viewers into an erotic scene and then make them pay for their sin by enduring the stabbing scene. Beautiful women have enormous power, more power than a man – no matter how rich or attractive he may be. More so than money, sexual attraction towards women was the main signifier in the movie and served as the root cause of the main character’s dissent into complete and utter madness.