Psycho Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Motif: Birds

Birds (especially ones that are trapped in one way or another) are a prominent motif in Psycho; Hitchcock uses birds and bird-related language to emphasize the themes of isolation and duality. First of all, it is interesting to note that Marion's last name is Crane, and she lives in Phoenix. When she sits down to dine with Norman in the parlor at the Bates Motel, he tells her that she eats like a bird, which segues into Norman admitting that he knows a lot about stuffing birds, but not a lot about how they behave when they are alive. This is indicative of the fact that Norman does not know how to function in normal society, but he does know how to coexist with his "mother", who turns out to be a stuffed specimen, as well.

Meanwhile, Norman and Marion are surrounded by stuffed birds in the parlor. Norman is frequently alone in the frame with the birds of prey hovering over him, just as his (stuffed) mother has power over him and prevents him from getting close to others. Hitchcock specifically gives the crow and the owl their own one-shots. He said to Truffaut, "Owls belong to the night world; they are watchers, and this appeals to [Norman's] masochism. He knows the birds and he knows that they're watching him all the time. He can see his own guilt reflected in their knowing eyes" (Truffaut).

Motif: Mirrors and Reflections

Hitchcock uses mirrors and reflections to underline the theme of duality that runs through Psycho. Mirrors "also mark the need for introspection" (Spoto). After Marion has stolen the money, Hitchcock frequently juxtaposes her with her reflection (like in the used car lot), even though she does not look at it. Marion's refusal or inability to consider her own image shows that she is past the point of reflecting on her actions and fully driven by her bout of "madness". George Toles writes, "In the world of Psycho, whenever one picture of the self cracks or is denied recognition, another more dangerous image must form in its place. Inside the crack, so to speak" (Kolker 134). Marion's denial of her reflection leads her to the Bates Motel, and her subsequent disappearance results in the uncovering of Norman Bates's dark and twisted world. It is telling that after Marion is dead, the narrative immediately shifts to Norman. It is as if Hitchcock is using Marion's madness as a way to organically lead his audience to Norman's much more sinister secrets.

Motif: Uneaten Food

Throughout Psycho, Hitchcock uses uneaten food or the refusal to share food - the interruption or denial of a natural act - as a way to reinforce his characters' inability to communicate - either with their innermost desires or with each other. Eating is a communal activity, but by refusing to indulge, the characters in Psycho increase their own isolation. During Sam and Marion's lunchtime tryst in the hotel room, we see her uneaten sandwich sitting on the night table; the lovers are arguing about whether or not to get married. Later, Norman's mother won't let him invite Marion over for dinner, so he brings food to her - but he doesn't eat his serving and she only picks at hers. Concurrently, Norman and his mother are arguing over Marion, and then, Norman and Marion get into a disagreement over Mrs. Bates. When Arbogast comes to the Bates Motel to inquire after Marion, Norman offers him candy, but the detective refuses. Norman later conceals the true nature of Marion's disappearance. Finally, Sam and Lila reject Mrs. Chambers's offer to file police paperwork over dinner. In that scene, we see that Sheriff and Mrs. Chambers believe that Norman is alone at the Bates Motel, while Sam and Lila think that something else is going on and want to take matters into their own hands.

Motif: Eyes

The visual motif of eyes underlines the theme of voyeurism and surveillance in Psycho; Hitchcock is telling his audience that this film is showing us what we shouldn't be seeing. When Marion is fleeing town with Mr. Lowery's money, she locks eyes with her boss while he's crossing the street - she knows she's been spotted doing something she shouldn't be doing. During Marion's drive to California, Hitchcock positions his camera straight on, so that the viewer is watching Marion; we can also hear her innermost thoughts. The patrol officer who wakes Marion up on the side of the highway is wearing intimidating dark glasses and stares right into the camera, which makes him menacing - we, like Marion, feel nervous even though the officer has no idea what she's done. His skull-like appearance mirrors Mrs. Bates's eyeless corpse - all-seeing and judgmental. In the parlor of the Bates Motel, the eyes of Norman's stuffed birds peer down on him just like his omnipresent mother. Then, while Norman watches Marion undress through the peephole, Hitchcock employs an extreme close-up of Norman's eyeball, implicating us in his voyeuristic secret. Later, when Marion is lying dead on the ground, Hitchcock goes in close on her lifeless eye; this image connects to the close-up of Mrs. Bates's hollow sockets in the fruit cellar. Both women got too close to Norman and threatened the monster that lay within; he ended their lives in order to escape their prying eyes.

Symbol: "Susanna and the Elders"

The painting that Norman Bates uses to cover the secret peephole in the Bates Motel parlor symbolizes his repressed sexuality and foreshadows what is about to happen to Marion. The image is a replica of a painting called "Susanna and the Elders". It depicts a story from the Bible in which three old men spy on an innocent woman as she gets ready to bathe, but when they find themselves overcome with passion, they accuse her of sexual blackmail. Later, when he is caught by Sam, Norman's position mirrors Susanna's in the painting - clothes torn at, head thrown back and right arm lifted to the sky. Stripped of his mother's dress, Norman is finally "seen" for all that he is - both guilty and innocent.