I was excited to read Psycho because the movie is such a cornerstone of modern horror flicks. I can’t remember the first time I saw it. It’s as though I’ve always known this story somewhere deep in my American bones. And on some level, a level constantly disappointed by book to film adaptations (Ender’s Game anyone?), I expected the book to blow me out of the water by being very different. Except for lots more creepy back and forth dialogue between Norman and his mother it’s basically the exact same story (although, Patton Oswalt would be a more accurate Norman Bates than Anthony Perkins). Why is the movie so similar? Because Alfred Hitchcock knew a good story when he read it. He respected it. He knew he could translate that same tension to the screen and not destroy the story in the process, a lesson lost or ignored by most of today’s directors.
The movie and book essentially follow the same beats to the point that I could almost hear the soundtrack screeching when Mary meets Norma in the shower. If anything, the book does a nice job of slowing things down: showing us that “Mary giggled again, then executed an amateurish bump and grind, tossed her image a kiss and received one in return.” A gesture that might have melted people’s brains in the 50’s if they saw it on the big screen. We also get a nice sense of Norman’s cunning. He takes his time disposing of Mary’s body. He thinks through all the details, and even after he kills Arbogast there isn’t anything the law can pin on him. He’s calm and collected because he’s done this before. He’s aware that he killed his mother’s boyfriend when he was a child, but he has convinced himself that he fooled everyone because his mother is still alive. We get to see all of these wonderful mental gymnastics as the brilliant side of Norman gets blended with the psychotic side that can rationalize anything. That’s the scariest part of the story, not the murders, which are quick and sharp, but the realization that a psychotic person can commit these acts and get away with anything guilt free. Being blamed for your own death, being both the victim and culprit of a trespass that exists only within the mind of the disturbed, that is the terrifying knowledge this story reveals.
It seems predestined that this should be my first blog posting. After all, the story is almost a legend in our collective consciousness, carving out a place for itself in our horror cannon. There are few things scarier than the wolf in sheep’s clothing or the communist not wearing red. On a historical slant, this is one of the best examples of the McCarthyism fear in the early 50’s, and if you haven’t experienced the book or the film then you owe it to yourself to take some time, tap into that fear of the deadly stranger. Who knows, it might even save your life someday. The psycho could be anyone….