Has there ever been a film that so greatly influenced and changed the course of a single genre as Psycho?

With one swish of a shower curtain and a chorus of shrieking violins, Alfred Hitchcock’s bold and bloody take on the horror genre sent shockwaves through the film industry, and its impact on horror cinema is felt just as strongly today. The story of reclusive motel owner Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) – whose mind is corrupted by the dark shadow of his dead mother, leading him to commit a spree of murders in her guise – was a shockingly transgressive film that killed off its leading lady at the end of the first act and pushed the industry’s strict censorship laws to their very limits

When we think of Psycho now, we think of that infamous shower scene that sees Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) murdered. It was a defining moment in horror that lasted just 45 seconds but changed cinema forever. And it stretched far and wide, triggering the rise of the slasher sub-genre that would reign supreme in the 1970s and ’80s through films like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. 

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But looking at Psycho today, perhaps the most interesting element of the film’s success is the way in which it perfectly encapsulates Norman’s tormented mind and the struggle between his two split identities. With the recent spike in the popularity of psychological horror through the work of directors like Darren Aronofsky, Robert Eggers, David Robert Mitchell, and Ari Aster, Psycho’s lasting influence on the sub-genre has never been clearer.

To see the way in which Psycho plots out a battle between Norman’s multiple personalities, we only need to look as far as his first encounter with Marion. Agitated, jumpy, and anxious, Bates not only comes across as the king of social awkwardness but Perkins also nails the mannerisms of a man at war with himself. It’s all there in his jumpy movements, like fighting his own hand as he reaches for a room key, or his stilted conversation and foreboding hesitation surrounding the bathroom (“And the uh… over there.” “The bathroom?” “Yeah”). Sadly, the price of such an indelible performance was that Perkins would be typecast for the rest of his life – spoiling much of the rest of his career. 

Throughout this sequence, Hitchcock builds the whole of the motel around Norman, trapping us in his fractured mind and emphasising the struggle with his mother. Sharp contrasts in lighting are used throughout the film to represent the two sides of Norman; Perkins constantly moves back and forth between inky black shrouds of darkness and sudden slats of light that cast his face into a jarring jigsaw of shadow and lamplight. 

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This focus on murky lighting also has the effect of tying Norman to his shadow. It follows him everywhere and casts a dark mark over him at all times, just as Mrs Bates does in his mind – something further illustrated by the many stuffed birds that loom over Norman in the parlour. 

The psychological torment that Norman is burdened with is further addressed in Marion and Norman’s first, and final, conversation. When Norman shows Marion around her room and stands at the door, poised to leave, Marion says “thank you, Mr Bates,” and Norman corrects her: “Norman Bates.” This is coupled with a sudden change in camera setup to a side-facing shot-reverse-shot between the two characters. In addition, when the camera cuts back to a side view of Marion, we see a reflection of her in a mirror on the wall behind. 

This 15 seconds of film is a stunning encapsulation of everything Norman is struggling with. Hitchcock stacks up layer upon layer of conflict with this series of reflections and reverse shots, gradually building a war of attrition within Norman’s mind that spills out into this claustrophobic motel room – a pitch-perfect building of tension that will erupt mere moments later as the shower curtain is ripped back and our leading lady is no more. 

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By the end of the film, Norman has completely surrendered to his mother and the battle between the two personalities is over. While this is mainly depicted through another literal act of violence – Norman rushing in dressed as his mother to attack Marion’s suspicious sister Lila (Vera Miles) – Hitchcock turns to lighting once again to cement the destruction of Norman’s psyche. When Lila walks into the basement and discovers the corpse of Mrs Bates, she reels backwards in shock and knocks the room’s bare lightbulb, causing it to swing back and forward, adding a disorientating, surreal edge to the scene. 

Norman bursts in behind her, brandishing the knife, and as he is wrestled to the floor by Lila’s boyfriend Sam (John Gavin), the swinging bulb casts a confusing cycle of light and dark across Norman’s face. Followed by that final slow zoom shot of Norman with his mother’s voice echoing in his head, this sequence becomes the final decisive battle within Norman’s confused mind and – as the light quickly disappears into dark again and again in that basement – Mrs Bates emerges victorious once and for all.

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Up until Hitchcock’s death 20 years later, Psycho was left pretty much untouched and its legacy seemed destined to remain pristine. But as is inevitable for any successful horror film, there were always talks of a sequel. In 1983, just three years after Hitchcock’s death and free of his ability to object, Universal commissioned one. Directed by a close friend of Hitchcock, Richard Franklin, and written by Tom Holland (who would go on to direct Child’s Play and Fright Night, both iconic horror trend-setters in their own right), Psycho II bravely throws Norman forward as the central protagonist from the get-go, beginning with his release from a psychiatric hospital after 22 years. 

The biggest challenge for Franklin and Holland was how to create a new air of mystery and fear around a character who was now so notorious. To further add to the studio’s troubles, Perkins himself was getting cold feet about returning to the role, and the studio briefly shopped around for a different actor. 

What makes Psycho II so interesting, and further testament to the success of the original film’s psychological focus, was that instead of leaning entirely on the more literal terrors of Hitchcock’s original, Holland decided to delve further into Norman’s mind. As such, the sequel sees a fresh conflict plotted out within his head, beginning with Norman returning to the motel. It quickly becomes clear that he is a reformed character seeking a new start and trying to distance himself from his past.

Perkins only returned to the project upon learning that it would be “Norman’s story”, and this time he plays him as a man more in control of his own mind. For a while he genuinely seems to have banished his mother to the grave once and for all. Sure, he still has all of his awkward mannerisms, but here these come across more as the symptoms of a man adjusting back into the world than someone at war with themselves.

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By centring the sequel completely on Norman and introducing him as a character on the mend, Holland and Franklin took the bold path of turning him into a far more sympathetic character. Watching him murder Marion 20 years prior, it would’ve been hard to imagine ever encouraging Norman, but here, desperate to prove himself against the suspicious townsfolk, we find ourselves now genuinely rooting for him and his recovery.

Obviously Psycho II would’ve been a very flimsy excuse for a horror film if Norman had simply recovered and moved on with his life, wholesome though that would’ve been, and so before too long we see Norman’s reformed side beginning to slip. This is where Franklin borrows liberally from his mentor’s book of tricks to illustrate Norman’s gradual decline into the clutches of his mother, returning to the use of mirrors and long shadows to show his personalities beginning to split once again.

In Psycho II’s best moments Franklin introduces some of his own clever indicators of Norman’s psychological state. Consider a moment where Norman answers the phone and, believing it is his mother speaking, quickly moves it to the other ear – a wonderfully understated nod to his two-sided character. 

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I’d like to give a quick final nod to Psycho III, directed by the man himself, Anthony Perkins. This time Norman is introduced as already falling deeply into the shadow of his mother, perhaps even faster than in the original, and it doesn’t take long before the knife is out and the motel is swiftly racking up a body count once again. 

But beneath all of this, Perkins shows Norman at by far his most vulnerable and tortured. He is a completely helpless vessel for his bloodthirsty mother, and played as a man with no autonomy or say over his own actions. In a 1990 interview with David Letterman (two years before he would tragically pass away), Perkins expressed a huge amount of sympathy for Bates and almost seemed to be defending him against the audience. He told Letterman, “Norman really is a good-hearted guy, who wishes he hadn’t killed anyone – in fact he hasn’t killed anyone,” while the audience laughed, assuming he was joking. But Perkins looked deadly serious. 

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Psycho III is a film that is very low on subtlety and wears its message all too firmly on its sleeve, but it is fascinating as a show of Perkins’ clear sympathy for his infamous character. Despite the typecasting troubles Perkins had experienced ever since the release of Psycho, perhaps it is understandable that he would want to return to the role to deliver his own say on Norman’s fragile mind.

60 years on, it is remarkable just how well Hitchcock’s film still stands up. Equal parts shocking and haunting, it is a supremely well-crafted thrill ride that delivers both in boundary-breaking violence and convention-shattering filmmaking. Released at the start of a decade that would see attitudes shift and progressivism advance in leaps and bound, Psycho, for all of its B-movie fun, was a boldly modern character study that would change horror cinema forever by bravely crafting its whole world around its central character’s turbulent mental state.

The swift swipes of the knife and the steady trickle of blood down the plughole may be our defining memory of Norman Bates, but we should also remember the many layers of Norman’s disintegrating mind that tragically fell away to reveal the dark shadow of his mother. Shower safely, folks.