The Bates House in 'Psycho'
Gus Van Sant's
1998 remake of 'Psycho' was an interesting experiment that failed, despite being a reverent, shot-for-shot remake. The reason was simple: It's impossible for us to be that shocked, surprised and horrified a second time. Not just because we know what's coming, but because we can't forget what we know and imagine what moviegoing was like before 'Psycho' changed the rules. We live in the world 'Psycho' made, and we can't go back.

The history of horror filmmaking, and maybe Hollywood filmmaking in general, can be split into two parts: before June 16, 1960 (the day 50 years ago when 'Psycho' was released) and after. With 'Psycho,' director Alfred Hitchcock pulled the rug out from underneath audiences (and other filmmakers), and we've been reeling ever since. Here are some of the reasons 'Psycho' had such a huge impact, and why, half a century later, it retains its power to terrify and delight us. The Bates House in 'Psycho'
Gus Van Sant's
1998 remake of 'Psycho' was an interesting experiment that failed, despite being a reverent, shot-for-shot remake. The reason was simple: It's impossible for us to be that shocked, surprised and horrified a second time. Not just because we know what's coming, but because we can't forget what we know and imagine what moviegoing was like before 'Psycho' changed the rules. We live in the world 'Psycho' made, and we can't go back.


The history of horror filmmaking, and maybe Hollywood filmmaking in general, can be split into two parts: before June 16, 1960 (the day 50 years ago when 'Psycho' was released) and after. With 'Psycho,' director Alfred Hitchcock pulled the rug out from underneath audiences (and other filmmakers), and we've been reeling ever since. Here are some of the reasons 'Psycho' had such a huge impact, and why, half a century later, it retains its power to terrify and delight us.

The Misdirection. In an era before the Internet and spoiler frenzy, Hitchcock did everything he could to prevent revelation of the plot's jolting twists. He bought the rights to Robert Bloch's source novel on the cheap, then bought as many copies of the book as he could to keep the plot twists hidden from potential moviegoers. He distributed script pages on a need-to-know basis. He released a long teaser trailer in which he took viewers on a tour of the Bates Motel and the Bates House, pretending to be about to spoil the plot while keeping crucial details hidden. He refused to screen the film in advance for critics. And he planted posters in theaters warning that no one would be seated late, lest they miss any of the film's surprises and horrors, and urging audiences not to spoil the ending for other viewers.

Alfred Hitchcock's teaser trailer for 'Psycho'


Hitchcock wasn't the first to apply such gimmickry; low-budget horror mogul William Castle had pioneered similar techniques in the years just before 'Psycho.' But the posters and other misleading marketing materials succeeded in forcing long lines at movie theaters. Movie marketers have been following Hitchcock's spoiler-preserving lessons ever since.

The Rule-Breaking. Of course, Hitchcock saved his most brazen fake-outs for the movie itself. There's the fakery involving Norman and Mother, who really seem to be two different people because, for most of the movie, they actually are. Whenever Mother commits murder, she's played by a stand-in with a hidden face, not by Anthony Perkins. And the voice of Mother belongs to another performer as well. It's only in the final scenes that Perkins dons a dress and a wig and assumes Mother's voice.

Janet Leigh in 'Psycho'The biggest fake-out, though, comes from the very casting of Janet Leigh. A top box-office draw at the time, she's the central character for the first 45 minutes. She's the star, and audiences had routinely come to expect the star to survive to the last reel of the film. Hitchcock completely upended audience expectations, learned over the previous 60 years of filmgoing, by killing her off less than halfway through the movie. By shattering the rules of star-driven filmmaking, Hitchcock introduced us to a world where the comfortable old assumptions can no longer be trusted, and where no one is safe.

Anthony Perkins in 'Psycho'The Psychology. Before 'Psycho,' dramatic movies didn't really bother to explain their villains, and horror movies didn't bother to explain their monsters. Some villains simply crave money or power or sex, some monsters are simply evil or cursed. But 'Psycho,' from the hint within its title to the epilogue where the shrink explains Norman's pathology in detail, introduces a villain/monster who isn't driven by the usual motives. The shrink is there because Norman's motives are so complex that they require a Freudian explanation. Viewers have empathized with Norman throughout the movie, either because Perkins made him seem like a nice, cute, lonely guy, or because the viewers have been forced to participate alongside him in his acts of voyeurism. So at the end, the psychological explanation is necessary to show how someone not that different from the ordinary viewer could become such a twisted killer.

Ever since 'Psycho,' it's no longer been enough merely to present a villain or a monster; we want to understand their psychology as well. It's no longer enough to hate the killer; we want to know what makes him tick. It's probably too much to say that 'Psycho,' with its seemingly arbitrary murders, anticipated the wave of real-life assassinations and violence that would mark the 1960s (and, really, the next 50 years and counting), but it did anticipate our need to try to make sense of it all.

Janet Leigh in 'Psycho' The Sex and Violence. The realm of psychology wasn't the movie's only nod toward a more sophisticated realism. There was the graphic, bloody violence of the two killings. And there was the overt sexuality on display, from the unmarried lovers sharing a bed and clad only in their underwear in the opening sequence, to the shower scene, to Norman's Oedipal fixation and cross-dressing. All of these were violations of long-standing taboos that could finally be broken in the waning years of the weakened Hollywood Production Code. They were also all essential to the plot. (Screenwriter Joseph Stefano had to pull out a dictionary to assure the Production Code censors that "transvestite" was a proper clinical term and not a dirty sexual slang word.)

The movie even broke a taboo with its use of a toilet. No one had ever heard or seen a toilet flush in a Hollywood movie before, but Stefano made that action a censor-proof part of the plot, when Leigh's Marion flushes scraps of paper detailing her embezzlement down the toilet. (One shred remains in the bowl to be discovered later, as a clue.) And the swirling water is a visual foreshadowing of the shot a few minutes later of Marion's lifeblood ebbing into the vortex of the shower drain. Forty years after Duchamp, Hitchcock transformed even something as vulgar and commonplace as a flushing toilet into art.

The Technique. After a decade of increasingly elaborate Technicolor spectacles (including 'Rear Window,' 'To Catch a Thief,' 'The Man Who Knew Too Much,' 'Vertigo,' and 'North by Northwest'), Hitchcock wanted to shift gears. He wondered what a low-budget, black-and-white exploitation film would look like if it were made with real artistry. To that end, he employed the TV crew from his show 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents' and managed to shoot the whole film for just $800,000. Despite the film's being shot on the cheap, however, it's clear that Hitchcock worked out every visual detail with his usual meticulousness; there's plenty of artistry for scholars to chew on (the symbolism in the movie's frequent shots of mirrors, eyes and birds, for instance).

He paid his usual composer, Bernard Herrmann, a fraction of his usual fee, forcing Herrmann to economize by using a minimalist orchestra of just strings. The director had imagined the shower scene as unscored, but Herrmann insisted on composing music for it -- the shrill, shrieking, stabbing string arrangement that has become one of the most famous pieces of music in all of movies. (It's even been sampled by rappers, from Busta Rhymes to the Beastie Boys.) Hitchcock was so delighted that he doubled Herrmann's fee and would later attribute 33 percent of the film's effectiveness to Herrmann's score.

Mother in 'Psycho'In keeping with his new low-budget aesthetic, Hitchcock employed some very old filmmaking techniques, but in striking new ways. His use of light and shadow and contorted camera angles owed a debt to the German Expressionist directors of the 1910s and '20s, while the extreme cuts and edits of the shower sequence (Marion's murder is a montage of more than 70 shots in just 45 seconds) and the murder of private eye Arbogast borrow from Russian filmmakers of the same period. Those were the years when Hitchcock was starting out as a director, but while the Germans and Russians used those techniques to create meaning (to generate feelings and ideas not explicitly present in the content of the shots), Hitchcock also used them to mislead and misdirect (to create false meaning).

The shower sequence remains the most famous murder in movie history, still much studied by film students and directors today, as much for what it doesn't show as what it does. It does not show Leigh's naked breasts, it does not show the killer's face, and it shows knife touching flesh just once. Yet the scene's masterful editing is so suggestive that viewers have sworn that they've seen Leigh's nipples, or multiple shots of the knife penetrating her flesh, or even the color red as the blood (actually chocolate syrup) swirls down the drain.

The Shower Sequence in 'Psycho'


The Aftermath. There have been countless movies and entire filmmaking careers (hello, Brian De Palma) influenced by 'Psycho,' but the most immediate impact was on Hitchcock himself. Before 'Psycho,' he had been known as the master of suspense. (To illustrate how suspense was different from shock, he liked to use the example of the ticking bomb under the table. Any director can surprise you with an explosion, but suspense is when the audience knows the bomb is there but doesn't know how or if the characters will survive it.) With 'Psycho,' however, viewers had no idea what was going to happen, as Hitchcock deliberately shocked and surprised them. He described 'Psycho' as the first "shocker" he had ever made. "The pictures I've done before were thrillers. This one literally shocks you," he said. And while he made himself a fortune by taking a percentage of the gross instead of his usual upfront salary, he unwittingly destroyed his own brand. Suddenly, he was known as a horror director, and while he made one more masterpiece (also a horror film, 1963's 'The Birds,' an about-face that returned to Technicolor spectacle and monsters without a psychologically explicable motive), his career never fully recovered from 'Psycho's' success.

If 'Psycho' was Hitchcock's first shocker, it was also the first slasher film. It was the first modern horror film in which the monster was not supernatural or otherworldly but all too human and recognizable. Later horror films would emulate 'Psycho' with villains who stabbed sexually liberated young women out of compulsions they could not control, though some of these films (notably, the 'Halloween' and 'Friday the 13th' franchises) returned some of the supernatural to their monsters (making them unstoppable killing machines) and drained them of their humanity (making them silent automatons motivated only by bloodlust). 'Halloween,' in particular, tipped its cap often to 'Psycho,' from naming one of the characters Sam Loomis (after Marion Crane's lover) to casting Janet Leigh's daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, as the scream-queen heroine for a new generation of moviegoers.

In a way, 'Psycho' made a star out of Ed Gein, the real-life serial killer who had been the inspiration for Bloch's novel, and who would go on to inspire Leatherface in 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' and Buffalo Bill in 'The Silence of the Lambs.' Those were just two of many films over the last half-century that have explored a fascination with serial killers and their psychology. The best of these movies echo 'Psycho' in hinting at a Freudian explanation, a past trauma that poisoned the killer's mind, but they also suggest that some kinds of depravity and violence are beyond explanation. If 'Psycho' has taught us anything, it's that we live in a world without reassurance. We can't trust our own perception, whether we're peeping at others or looking in the mirror. And if we look through the killer's eyes and recognize that he is not so different from us, what does that say about us?

•Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.