Hitchcock’s Psycho and the Violence of the Viewer’s Gaze

Hitchcock was certainly not above mocking (or even insulting) his viewers. One of his films in which he does so quite intensely is the extremely well-known Psycho (1960).

One of the things that Psycho dramatizes is the potentially violent and destructive nature of the film viewer’s gaze. In doing so, the film actually implicates its audiences in the (rather gruesome) death of Marion Crane, and it does so quite explicitly (Hitchcock does something similar in Vertigo, though it’s a bit more subtle). If viewers of Pyscho are disturbed by the film, it may not only be because of Norman Bate’s particular brand of insanity; it may also be, because they themselves have been accused of violence.

Hitchcock, Laura Mulvey, and the Cinematic Gaze
So, Imma use a piece by Laura Mulvey titled “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (which is often taught alongside Hitchcock films methinks and can be found in a book titled Feminist Film Theory: A Reader) to make several of my points in what follows.

It’s more or less self-evident that film is, above all, a visual medium. What may be less obvious (but is no less true) is the fact that the acts of looking that film audiences engage in are not neutral or inert. The presence of the film viewer and assumptions about how they will look at a film are bound to have an influence on the film. As Laura Mulvey writes, the “conditions of screening and narrative conventions” of Hollywood cinema “give the spectator the illusion of looking in on a private world,” and this illusion is often a source of pleasure (Mulvey 60-61). Still, while the world of a film may seem “private,” it is not isolated, it does not exist in some vacuum (Mulvey 62). Films (particularly mainstream ones) are undoubtedly shaped (and even tainted) by the desires of those watching them. In Psycho, Hitchcock takes advantage of this fact and uses it to show viewers just how dark and sinister some of their desires can be (even if they are not conscious of them).

With Psycho, Hitchcock reminds viewers that they are voyeurs only to also remind them just how violence and dehumanizing voyeurism is. While exposing the more violent aspects of his audience’s gaze, Hitchcock also uses their tendency to identify with the characters on screen to increase their potential culpability in Marion’s death. That is, in Psycho, Hitchcock acknowledges the narcissistic aspects of the pleasure flimgoers obtain through looking (in addition to the voyeuristic).

As Mulvey claims, there are two sides to the “pleasurable structures of looking in the conventional cinematic situation”—“The first, scopophilic, arises from pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight. The second, developed through narcissism and the constitution of the ego, comes from identification with the same image” (Mulvey 62). Viewers often desire and objectify the figures they see on screen, but the may come to identify with them as well. In Psycho, Hitchcock establishes a connection between film-viewing and violence while also using film-viewing’s tendency to cause feelings of identification to liken his audience to Marion’s murder, Norman Bates.

Killing Marion Crane
Psycho begins by calling attention to the act of looking. Some of the film’s first shots make it quite clear that to watch the film is to be a voyeur. Thus, Hitchcock seems to confirm Mulvey’s claim that one of the attractions of cinema is that is allows viewers to intrude in to a seemingly private world (Mulvey 60-1).

Psycho‘s first shots show a bird’s eye view of Phoenix (which, of course, is named for a bird). At first, the camera pans lazily over the city. Then, it cuts to a shot of a single building, and then to one of a single window in that building. The shades of the window are mostly drawn, and the camera zooms in on the small gap beneath them until, finally, it enters the hotel room where Marion and Sam have (probably) just had sex. And, of course, where the camera goes, the viewers follow. The drawn shades and the fact that Marion and Sam are not fully dressed suggest that they do not want to be seen.

By beginning the film as he does, Hitchcock puts the voyeuristic nature of the audience’s gaze right before their eyes. That the camera’s movement (and thus, the viewer’s) is birdlike in the opening sequence is also significant. By having the camera swoop in through the window as it does, Hitchcock establishes an association between the film and birds. So, even before viewers are introduced to Marion (who has an avian surname, who “eats like a bird,” and who ends up as dead as one of Norman’s stuffed birds), Hitchcock connects them to her symbolically. Of course, viewers aren’t allowed to identify with Marion for long. In the middle of the film, she is taken from them, and they are made to identify with Norman instead. Not only are viewers of Psycho implicated in Marion’s horrific death, they are also violently punished for their initial voyeurism; for her death is also an attack on them.

With Marion’s murder, Hitchcock makes is explicit just how terribly violent the film-going gaze that Mulvey writes about can be. The first close-up of an eye in Psycho is, quite importantly, of one engaged in a clear act of voyeurism. After talking with Norman in his parlor, Marion returns to her room to shower and go to bed. Norman goes to the wall, removes a picture (of a bird no less) hanging there, and looks into her room through a hole hidden behind it. the sequence features a close-up shot of Norman’s eye looking through the hole (in profile). Here, the hole in the wall is clearly analogous to the window from the beginning of the film. By focusing on Norman’s eye, the film calls attention to Norman’s actions. More importantly, the shot establishes a strong sense of identification between Norman’s gaze and the the gaze of those watching the film.

Not only does the hole with light coming through it resemble the lens of a film camera or projector, but as Norman looks through the wall, viewers see what he sees. What he sees is Marion in her underwear. Except for the fact that her underwear is now black instead of white, Marion as Norman spies on her is dressed exactly as she was when audiences first swooped into her hotel room at the film’s beginning. Not only does the use of subjective shots through the hole in the wall create the illusion that viewers are literally sharing Norman’s gaze, but the sequence’s similarities to the film’s opening also remind viewers that they have been looking at Marion voyeuristically since the film began. If viewers are bothered by Norman’s apparent violation of Marion’s privacy, perhaps they should also evaluate themselves.

The fact that Marion is murdered within minutes of the shot of Norman’s eye strongly suggests that her death is a result of his gaze. The psychiatrist’s explanation of Norman’s madness at the end of the film confirms this fact. According to him, “if [Norman] ] felt a strong attraction” for any woman besides his mother, “the mother-side of him would go wild” and cause him to kill the woman. Thus , by having Norman Kill Marion just after he spies on her, Hitchcock declares that her death is as much a result of voyeurism as it is of Norman’s madness or the knife he wields.

Additionally, because Hitchcock establishes an identification between his audience’s film-watching gaze and Norman’s murderous one, some of the blame for Marion’s death is placed on Psycho‘s viewers. For that, they are punished. Hitchcock encourages Psycho’s voyeuristic viewers to identify with Marion only to violently murder her less than halfway through the film. Like Norman, they violate her privacy and, for that, she is taken from them. After her death, viewers are left to identify with Norman instead, with a man who turns out to be a savage murderer consumed by madness. Marion’s death leaves Norman as the “main” character of the film, and with him, Hitchcock puts the darkest, most disturbing depths of the filmgoer’s scopophilic desires front and center.

The manner of Marion’s death is as important to all this as its timing. According to Mulvey, one of the key “pleasures” that “cinema offers” “is scopophilia (pleasure in looking).” She then goes on to add that Freud “associated scopophilia with taking people as objects” (Mulvey 60). To gain scopophilic pleasure from watching a film is, on a certain level, to objectify at least some of the (typically female) figures in the film. Though viewers may have no conscious awareness of the fact, such objectification is not innocent or harmless; rather, it dehumanizes people by reducing them to their pleasant-looking parts.

Psycho‘s shower/murder scene is shot in such a way that the camera effectively divides Marion’s body into sections as Norman’s knife does something similar. The shower scene is made up of an unusually high number of shots, most of which are of Marion, but none of which are of her entire body. The camera, Norman’s knife, and the viewer’s gaze cut her into pieces. This is voyeurism made explicitly destructive. That the shower scene ends with a swirling close-up of Marion’s dead eye reinforces the role of the visual in her gruesome death. Had Norman (who is, to a degree, a representative of Psycho‘s viewers) never looked at and objectified Marion, she would not have died.
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The End
If viewers are unaccustomed to closely examining the more disturbing desires that bring them to the theater, Psycho is one film that asks them to do so. Hitchcock uses Marion Crane’s death to declare that even though the filmgoer’s often voyeuristic gaze can be a source of pleasure, that pleasure is not without its consequences.

It is also worth noting that Psycho itself could be said to bear the scars of the same destructive gaze that leads to Marion’s death. The structure of the film is a fragmented one. Much like Vertigo, Psycho consists of two halves (before the death of Marion and after), each of which is, to a certain extent, narratively distinct from the other. Films do not exist separately from the gazes that both consume and produce them—gazes that, according to Psycho, bring pleasure as well as pain.
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Until Next Time
Thanks for reading. If you have any thoughts or questions you would like to share, feel free to comment.

P.S. Let me know if you’d like to see a similar companion post to this one on Vertigo.

4 thoughts on “Hitchcock’s Psycho and the Violence of the Viewer’s Gaze

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