An Insanely Long Series: Reading Psycho Bit by Bit

Anthony Perkins is Norman Bates.  Point blank.  There are no two ways about it.  Except, of course, when he isn’t Norman Bates.  And what an unusual experience it is to envision someone else fulfilling the role, especially since it’s been years since I’ve seen the Gus Van Sant remake.  The beauty of the comprehensive exam is that I can select the books I put on my lists (based on a unifying theme), and I was really excited to add Robert Bloch’s Psycho.  Of course, I’ve seen the original movie many-a times, but I’ve never read the text, and like any horror fan, I was immediately interested in how the novel would compare with the film.  I decided, then, to do what I did with The Shining.  In “Let’s Not Overlook Anything” I blogged about the Shining in small increments and spent a considerable amount of blog space discussing one or two scenes.  I decided I would do the same with the text Psycho – blog a little bit about each section as I read it.  So this is my “insanely long series,” my observations about Bloch’s Psycho.  And my first observation is that Bloch’s Norman Bates is fascinating.

                In the film, we learn considerably more about Marion Crane than we do about Norman Bates, at least initially.  Norman’s thoughts are an ellipses in the movie until its conclusion, when we see him embody his mother and think as his mother thinks.  Marion’s thoughts are a string of understandably paranoid musings provoked by stealing a large sum of money from her boss and her boss’s client.  In the book, we meet Norman Bates immediately – indeed, the text opens with Norman sitting in his parlor – and we’re thrust unabashedly into his vaguely sinister, fear-filled inner world.  Unlike the young, lanky, awkwardly charming Anthony Perkins, this Norman has blonde hair, an “ample lap” and a plump face.  He considers the comfort of being surrounded by familiar objects at first, before being consumed by a written account of a violent ancient society.  Norman’s mind is fascinated by the gruesome details, a potential harbinger of his actions to come.  He carefully imagines how the society he’s reading about could create a drum out of a human body that they captured, and he is engrossed in his reveries. 

                The presentation of Norman’s mother in the text is also particularly interesting.  Of course, Bloch couldn’t have predicted the success of Hitchcock’s film, but reading the book after watching the movie really made me try to relate the book and its characters to the movie while reading.  Norman’s mother enters with sadistically condescending gusto, insulting her son and his lack of “gumption” with her own sort of mad, reckless abandon.  In my post on Insidious 2 I wrote about the monster mom, and “Mother” in Psycho is definitely depicted as monstrous; I could almost hear a cackling, angry voice as she verbally abuses Norman.  Indeed, on the subject of abuse, Mother sounds like an embodiment of Norman’s own worst thoughts about himself.  I am not sure, in the text, if Mother really is “Mother,” or if she’s a byproduct of Norman’s psyche from the start.  If so, he isn’t embodying her yet – he’s not adopting her thoughts and characteristics as his own.  Rather, if she’s not real, he’s projecting his thoughts onto her.  She remains a separate figure who looms behind him when she’s about to talk, and we hear Norman, inside his head, pausing for a moment and then daydreaming about killing her.  The fact that she detects this intent to kill, that she claims (rightfully) that she knows Norman better than he knows himself, provides another reason why she might be an imaginary figure, a hallucination constructed by Norman’s fragile psyche.

                Norman is, indeed, so fragile, that Mother chides him and calls him a “Mama’s boy.”  In Pinks, Pansies, and Punks, James Penner makes a delineation between “hard” and “soft” masculinity and asserts that as a society, especially in the early 20th century, we’ve preferred hard masculinity – the tough, emotionless male, the male with the “gumption” Norman lacks, who will take matters into his own hands.  In the 1950’s, when Bloch wrote Psycho (1959, to be precise) Penner contends that there was a crisis of masculinity; culture had become wary of the hard-masculine ideal, but it couldn’t find an appropriate competing paradigm.  While soft masculinity was a bit more embraced and became more prevalent and acceptable because of artists like the Beats, it was simultaneously scorned and condemned as it had always been by some sects of society.  Norman may be a sort of manifestation of this crisis of masculinity.  Because he’s a “mama’s boy,” so-called – someone who never had the “gumption” to defy his mother and act against her mandates– Norman predominantly embodies soft-masculinity.  Conversely, based on his aggressive tendencies, which we’ll inevitably see manifest later in the text but which he’s already demonstrating through his blood-soaked reveries of enemy slaughter and body mutilation, he is partially a hard-masculine male, but a model of hard-masculinity that underscores the insufficiency and danger of the paradigm. At the same time, his reaction to Mother’s rantings suggests that the “soft masculine male” snaps under the weight of his own self-condemnation, or the condemnation of others.  This catch-22, which highlights the problematic binary construction of masculinity in the 1950’s, reflects the mid-century crisis with what, exactly, masculinity is, and how men should be expected to act.

                While Norman reflects a mid-century crisis in masculinity, the text is also more overtly interested in both feminism and the consequences of capitalism.  In the film, we never hear Marion Crane justify, to herself, why she takes the money.  We know she wants to get married to her lover, but she does nothing to convince herself that what she’s doing is morally correct.  In the text, when Mary takes the money in chapter two, she does so by not-so-subtly constructing a Marxist and Feminist critique in her mind as she’s wrestling with the decision she’s made.  She criticizes her boss, Mr. Lowery, for being loosely involved in business transactions and making all his money by being a sort of middle-man who does nothing, who produces no capital himself, much like Marx’s criticized bourgeoise class.  She reasons, to herself: “People were always buying, always selling.  All Lowery did was stand in the middle, extracting a percentage for both parties just for bringing buyer and seller together.  He performed no other real service to justify his existence.  And yet he was rich” (23).  While Mary Crane may be partly justifying her decision to take the money, her observation is likely to resonate with a lot of readers, and her critique of a rich bourgeoise member who does nothing to contribute to the means of production seems rife with Marxism.   

                The aforementioned quote highlights how astute Mary Crane is about the power structures that surround her.  Because we can’t access as many of Marion Crane’s thoughts in the film, and because those thoughts are predominantly paranoid reactions to her own transgression, we don’t see the intellectual depth of her character in Hitchcock’s film, though her character appears insightful when talking to Norman about his problems and generally well-spoken.  Mary Crane, in the text, further demonstrates her ability to intellectually critique the society surrounding her when she gives an account of Tom Cassidy asking her out.  Tom Cassidy is the owner of the $40,000 who’s purchasing the new house for his daughter as a marriage present.  When he sets the bills down on the desk, he places a one-hundred-dollar bill on Mary’s desk and invites her on a “trip” with him.  Of course, Mary doesn’t accept the offer, and she reflects, as she’s running away with the $40,000, that “this world belonged to the Tommy Cassidys.  They owned the property and they set the prices.  Forty thousand to a daughter for a wedding gift, a hundred dollars tossed carelessly on a desk for three days’ rental privileges of the body of Mary Crane” (24).  Again, Mary is acutely aware, in a very Feminist-Marxist way, of the power structures that shape her life and define her options.  In Marxism, I believe the bourgeoise are even defined by being property owners, which is how Mary Crane describes Tom Cassidy.    

To that end, stealing the money in the book becomes not so much a self-centered transgression as an act of subversion, a reality which is implied in the film but isn’t as elucidated by the protagonist’s thinking.  In the novel, Mary couldn’t go to college because she was taking care of her dying mother.  I’ve written about the popularity of the caregiving trope in horror before, and Mary’s situation in Psycho greatly mirrors Eleanor’s situation in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, a text which, incidentally, was written in 1959 like Psycho.  Eleanor becomes a quiet sort of recluse during the stress of caring for her dying mother, just as caregiving precludes Mary from going to college and has a similar effect on her mental health before her mother dies.  Both girls’ stories start, from a diegetic standpoint, after the deaths of their mothers, and both of their fates are in some way shaped by this occurrence, and the trauma that caregiving without help inflicted.  Mary’s options, which would have necessarily been limited for a woman in 1959 anyway, are further limited by her inability to attend college and her years spent taking care of her mother.  Mary recognizes not just that her mother’s illness limits her, but that the power structure surrounding her further stifles her ability to do what she wants to do.  Stealing the money, then, becomes a conscious way to try to re-claim agency and control because she recognizes that society and life circumstances have taken that agency away from her in so many other ways. 

Despite Mary’s insight about her situation, she isn’t able to predict what will likely become her fate in the text.  I stopped reading on page 29, the first page in chapter three, when Mary’s taken a wrong turn and decides to stop at a roadside hotel.  She glimpses Norman Bates, and the narrator relates her train of thought as follows: “Mary made up her mind very quickly, once she saw the fat, bespectacled face and heard the soft, hesitant voice.  There wouldn’t be any trouble” (29).  Because Norman appears the quintessence of “soft masculinity” with his “soft, hesitant voice” (hesitance, as opposed to decisiveness, is of course a hallmark of soft, as opposed to hard, masculinity), Mary assumes everything at the hotel will be fine.  Her error may be less a result of poor judgement and more a result of the bizarre nature of the situation that will ensue – if, that is, the book follows the film.  Of course, since I’m not quite on page 30, I have yet to find out if it does.  Stay tuned as I take you through my reading of Psycho and share my observations.  I am, in conclusion, greatly enjoying Bloch’s novel.     

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An Insanely Long Series: Reading Psycho Bit by Bit

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