Only one horror story has ever been written and it is Oedipus the Tyrant by Sophocles. Freud had the story wrong, although he was closer than Rene Girard. Peter Leithart’s account of Oedipus in Heroes of the City of Man is one of the more penetrating I have ever read and the one I prefer to use when teaching the play. For Leithart, the riddle of the sphinx is a parable and prophecy about the sad fate of every man. Rational like the gods but mortal like the beasts, man is the only creature capable of contemplating his own death. At the same time, unlike the gods or beasts, man is capable of improving himself, and so on the cusp of his death, a tool—the “third leg”—appears. It is all for nothing, though, as man always dies despite his wisdom and his potential for self-improvement. The tragic nature of man is to be so like the gods, and yet so far. So wise, and yet so bestial. Unlike God, man is changeable, and all human suffering extends from the impermanence of man’s person.
In my own readings, I have always found Jocasta’s claims the least believable. A cursory read between the lines of the play suggests she has known Oedipus’ identity since he arrived in Thebes, but joins him to abate a political crisis (in this way Girard gets it half right). The horror of the play is tied up in Jocasta’s knowing and in the fact Oedipus should have known better (at very least); the changeability of man means he is forever realizing what he should have been doing yesterday. I should have been eating better. I shouldn’t have been smoking. I should have purchased stock in Apple back in 1987. I shouldn’t have bet on the Cubs. I should have told Suzanna I loved her. The Enlightened, progressive West understands the future as a place we enter into walking forward, everything in full view, and the past nothing more than a blackness behind us. A less Enlightened East imagines the future as a place we enter into walking backwards. Nothing is known. All the good stuff is out of reach by the time we see it. Oedipus finally gouges out his eyes because he knows they are worthless, that vision is nothing but mockery and taunt.
If there were a second horror story, it would be Tristan & Iseult, which explodes Oedipus and Jocasta’s flirtations with death in favor of the long form, artistic suicide. Denis de Rougemont makes the bold suggestion that Tristan hates Mark’s wife Iseult, even while he endlessly seeks ways of bedding her. She makes him sick, though that sickness is lacquered with “romance”. Love in the Western World is helpful in getting beneath the surface of the Tristan myth, though it never quite gets at the bizarre and powerful contradiction which sits at the center of the story. The contradiction is borrowed from Andreas Capellanus’ rules of courtly love, which imply that the young knight (of the love triangle) both does and does not take his lord’s wife to bed.
Students of mine who have read Tristan & Iseult typically balk when I make this point.
“Does Tristan sleep with Iseult?”
“Yes,” they say, obviously.
“That’s not a precise enough answer,” I reply.
I keep silent and after a few minutes of silence someone says, “No… yes and no.”
“Yes and no” is the proper answer, of course. Two Iseults flit through the pages of the myth, after all; Tristan makes a point of sleeping with the first Iseult over and over again, but he makes a point of not sleeping with the second, the coincidentally named Iseult of the White Hands, whom Tristan marries while away from his lover. The secret of the myth is that the two Iseults are the same woman; the whore and the Madonna are one.
The Birds, Vertigo and Psycho all borrow from the Tristan myth (aside from thematic similarities, the cover for an album of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is briefly visible in The Birds), but only Psycho borrows from both Tristan and Oedipus. I wouldn’t pretend to have gotten to the bottom of either myth; each might be appropriated to a hundred different zeitgeists over the next ten thousand years, as I trust each story delves so deeply into the unexplainable non-nature of evil. Psycho likely taps into the unspeakable in ways which defy critique. I’ll hedge my bets as such. But there’s much to say…
Nothing of significance happens just once in Psycho. Everything happens twice, once in life and once in death.
The film opens in a hotel and closes in a hotel, and as with so many other Hitchcock films, the exposition is a short, tight poem which presents the whole narrative in miniature. Marion Crane meets her boyfriend Sam in a cheap room for an afternoon romp in the hay, then the two discuss the possibility of getting married. Marion is disillusioned with their clandestine relationship and wants to be made respectable, but feels she can’t bring Sam home where her “mother’s picture on the mantle” will look down disapprovingly on them; both Marion and Norman have dead, restrictive mothers who disapprove of their children’s sexual adventures. Marion would rather have Sam over to her home for a respectable evening than meet in the kind of hotel “of this sort [which isn’t] interested when you come in, but when your time is up,” a nearly kitschy foretelling of Marion’s late night check-in at the Bates Motel, where the proprietor is far more interested in when Marion’s “time is up.” Sam suggests Marion could simply turn her mother’s picture towards the wall, an ironic suggestion given that the great reveal of Norma Bates in the third act begins with the old woman facing the wall.
When Marion and Sam part ways at their cheap hotel, she returns to work where she is entrusted with $40, 000 in cash, which she must deposit in the bank for her boss, a real estate dealer. She feigns illness, packs a bag and leaves town with the money in her purse.
Why does she run? Who knows? She is unhappy with Sam, although she might also be momentarily swayed by Tom Cassidy (whose forty grand she has been entrusted with) after he tells Marion he “buys off” unhappiness. Incidentally, it is Tom who tells Marion he is “able to keep” his money because he does not “declare” it, a cryptic statement which suggests he acquires or keeps it illegally. Marion might justify the theft on the grounds the money was acquired illegally; perhaps she also knows that Tom won’t report the money stolen because it would mean admitting he had cash beyond what he reported on his taxes. Really, though, the film isn’t about justifying anything. Horror movies aren’t logical. They are frustrating. Despite that Sophoclean third leg, or perhaps because of it, human beings tend to miss what is most important when it matters most. We all go a little mad sometimes, as Norman says.
Marion does not have a plan. She steals forty grand then heads to her sister’s house in Fairville, where the cops would go right after they checked her apartment (if there were cops involved). As she drives, a heavy rain falls and Hitchcock shows us numerous shots from Marion’s point of view, water splashing down on the windshield and the wipers slicing it away.
Later, when Marion takes a shower, we see water shooting from the shower head from her point of view.
When Norma shows up to do her slicing mid-rinse, she bends her arm at the elbow, not at the shoulder, and brings the blade down in a sweeping motion, mimicking the action of the wiper blade.
Marion’s conversation with Norman Bates before he slaughters her is rife with the kind of punchline innuendos which ride roughshod over most scripts which treat on sexual deviance. When Norman describes the death of his mother’s first lover as a widow, he concludes his story:
NB: …it was too much of a loss for my mother… she had nothing left.
MC: Except you.
NB: A son is a poor substitute for a lover.
I’ve sometimes told coworkers that International Delights hazelnut flavored non-dairy creamer is “a poor substitute” for half & half, and said as much while pouring International Delights hazelnut flavored non-dairy creamer into a cup of coffee. Anthony Perkins delivers the line with premeditated immediacy, as though he has drawn this conclusion from years of experience. The “poor substitute” line occurs in a room full of taxidermied birds, Norman’s hobby which passes the time. He compares the way Marion eats a sandwich to a bird, and in the same way an eye accustomed to dark must slowly adjust to light, the audience gradually recalls Marion’s last name is Crane, doubly identifying her with the dead things Norman stuffs. It’s not enough to have Norman possess his mother’s name, Norma; Hitchcock also reflects Marion’s name into the Bates family. “Marion” is nearly a letter-for-letter inversion of “Norma”. Why does Marion run? Hitchcock aesthetically shapes Marion until the poetry of film won’t not let her end up dead at the Bates Motel. She slips into the place, into death at Norman’s hands, with scientific ease.
When Marion turns up missing, her sister Lila tracks down Sam, as does a private investigator named Arbogast hired by Marion’s boss. Arbogast scours surrounding counties, looking for leads with a photograph of Marion. Sam and Lila simply pass the time together. When Arbogast phones Lila with a hot tip on the Bates Motel, but then never calls back, Lila and Sam drive out to have a look for themselves. Lila is initially apprehensive about what they will say when they show up, though Sam matter-of-factly suggests they will check in as “Mr. and Mrs. Sam Loomis” and have a look around. While this might seem the obvious thing to do, I wonder if Lila notices how readily this plan comes to Sam. Just a few days earlier, he was checking into a different hotel with Lila’s sister and probably declaring them to be “Mr. and Mrs. Sam Loomis.” The Tristan narrative comes snaking in, and as with the legend, the Crane sister who sleeps with Sam dies, while the chaste one lives.
The film concludes with a psychologist delivering a long explanation of how Norman came to see himself as Norma, though, on my fifth viewing of the film, my confidence that Hitch wants anyone to believe the psychologist has completely waned. Norman looks directly into the camera twice, once when he is pushing Marion’s car into a bog, and once as the car is coming out. When Norman “awakes” from the Norma dream to find Marion dead, he is terrified and panicked. He hides her corpse in the trunk of her car, then drives it behind the hotel where he sinks it in a deep pool of mud. When the car is only halfway sunk, it stops moving and Norman looks worried. After a brief pause, it continues to sink and Perkins offers us this:
In the closing moments of the film, while Norman is in a holding cell after being arrested, we hear his thoughts in the voice of his mother. The grin comes back right before the shot cuts to Marion’s car being wrenched out of the mud.
That first little grin gives Norman away. He’s psycho, for sure, although the psychiatrist isn’t really necessary. He was Norman while dumping the car, and apparently Norma while in the cell, although it’s the same self-satisfied, mischievous grin each time. Were he merely the son of a killer, the smile over Marion’s car continuing to sink would be out of place.
In “Oedipus”, a discrepancy emerges in disparate stories recounting the death of Laius; some say he was killed by many men, others say he was killed by just one. While this discrepancy is never resolved, Leithart comments that the discrepancy is no discrepancy at all; Oedipus is son and husband to the same woman, thus making him “many” men and yet only one. As with Oedipus, Norman Bates’ multiple persons slowly coalesce until he is both killer and victim, son and mother. Hitchcock’s Oedipus knew all along. As Norman’s grin fades into the shot of Marion’s car, Hitchcock minutely superimposes Norma’s skull onto her son’s face for just a few frames, creating a jarring, surreal image:
No one ever gets to genuinely plead ignorance in Hitchcock’s twisted world. Contra Christ and Stephen, Hitchcock’ victims prove villains, and everyone “knoweth what they do.” In the end, everyone always confesses everything, admits it was a charade. For a while, the game hangs suspended over the heads of the audience, but the final act of Hitchcock’s best work brings the façade down. Hitchcock’s work is always driven by these little blasphemies.