While known mostly for its famous shower scene, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is far more than one scene. It is above all a movie about guilt. Marion Craine (Janet Leigh) suffers the guilt of her decisions of having an affair with a married man and stealing money from the business she works for. Long before the Bates Motel and its proprietor Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) enter the picture, we see Marion seeking many attempts to escape her guilt. She drives aimlessly and we hear what’s going on inside her head as she drives. We hear all the accusing voices telling her the things that she knows she shouldn’t have done and the voice of dread regarding the future consequences of these actions.
This guilt is what makes her the perfect victim for a character with the type of psychosis that Norman suffers with. As the title implies, Norman is not in control of his actions, but this does not mean that the story has no villain, that he is just acquitted as a murderer. After all, Psycho, was probably the first slasher movie ever made, but unlike almost all slasher movies that followed it, Psycho does not have killings just because the story requires them. Like Marion, Norman is paranoid as the result of guilt, but unlike Marion it is not his own guilt that haunts him. It is the guilt of people who hurt him that began with transgressions very similar to those Marion has committed.
Norman Bates, then, is not a villain in a tradition sense. His mother is. “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” Everything Norman does, every word Norman speaks, every crime Norman commits is an attempt to escape the nagging guilt of his mother’s actions. Certainly he makes that guilt his own, so that his attempts to free himself from guilt only further bind him and make him increasingly more dangerous to anybody around him.
As everyone says, Psycho is a spine-tingling, terrifying, yet improbably fun experience. But it is far deeper than that. It doesn’t just inspire fear of showers (as Janet Leigh supposedly refused to shower for almost a year after finishing production). It inspires deep thought about the reality of guilt. It inspires fear about how far guilt can take people in directions they don’t want to go when it is not dealt with appropriately. Hopefully, it inspires us to stop trying to escape guilt but to take responsibility for it knowing that anything less will haunt us and have the potential to harm others deeply.
“Stumble” alert: For many years, Psycho has been rated “R” solely because of the shower scene. While that scene certainly pushed the envelope regarding what was acceptable in the movies in 1960, it is quite tame from today’s standards. When it airs unedited on Turner Classic Movies it gets a more appropriate “TV-PG” rating.