Subversion of romance through irony
In Psycho, Hitchcock subverts the romantic elements that are seen in most of his work. The film is instead ironic as it presents "clarity and fulfillment" of romance. The past is central to the film; the main characters "struggle to understand and resolve destructive personal histories" and ultimately fail. Lesley Brill writes, "The inexorable forces of past sins and mistakes crush hopes for regeneration and present happiness." The crushed hope is highlighted by the death of the protagonist, Marion Crane, halfway through the film. Marion is like Persephone of Greek mythology, who is abducted temporarily from the world of the living. The myth does not sustain with Marion, who dies hopelessly in her room at the Bates Motel. The room is wallpapered with floral print like Persephone's flowers, but they are only "reflected in mirrors, as images of images—twice removed from reality". In the scene of Marion's death, Brill describes the transition from the bathroom drain to Marion's lifeless eye, "Like the eye of the amorphous sea creature at the end of Fellini's La Dolce Vita, it marks the birth of death, an emblem of final hopelessness and corruption." Unlike heroines in Hitchcock's other films, she does not reestablish her innocence or discover love.
Marion is deprived of "the humble treasures of love, marriage, home and family", which Hitchcock considers elements of human happiness. There exists among Psycho's secondary characters a lack of "familial warmth and stability", which demonstrates the unlikelihood of domestic fantasies. The film contains ironic jokes about domesticity, such as when Sam writes a letter to Marion, agreeing to marry her, only after the audience sees her buried in the swamp. Sam and Marion's sister Lila, in investigating Marion's disappearance, develop an "increasingly connubial" relationship, a development that Marion is denied. Norman also suffers a similarly perverse definition of domesticity. He has "an infantile and divided personality" and lives in a mansion whose past occupies the present. Norman displays stuffed birds that are "frozen in time" and keeps childhood toys and stuffed animals in his room. He is hostile toward suggestions to move from the past, such as with Marion's suggestion to put his mother "someplace" and as a result kills Marion to preserve his past. Brill explains, "'Someplace' for Norman is where his delusions of love, home, and family are declared invalid and exposed."
Light and darkness feature prominently in Psycho. The first shot after the intertitle is the sunny landscape of Phoenix before the camera enters a dark hotel room where Sam and Marion appear as bright figures. Marion is almost immediately cast in darkness; she is preceded by her shadow as she reenters the office to steal money and as she enters her bedroom. When she flees Phoenix, darkness descends on her drive. The following sunny morning is punctured by a watchful police officer with black sunglasses, and she finally arrives at the Bates Motel in near darkness. Bright lights are also "the ironic equivalent of darkness" in the film, blinding instead of illuminating. Examples of brightness include the opening window shades in Sam's and Marion's hotel room, vehicle headlights at night, the neon sign at the Bates Motel, "the glaring white" of the bathroom tiles where Marion dies, and the fruit cellar's exposed light bulb shining on the corpse of Norman's mother. Such bright lights typically characterize danger and violence in Hitchcock's films.
The film often features shadows, mirrors, windows, and, less so, water. The shadows are present from the very first scene where the blinds make bars on Marion and Sam as they peer out of the window. The stuffed birds' shadows loom over Marion as she eats, and Norman's mother is seen in only shadows until the very end. More subtly, backlighting turns the rakes in the hardware store into talons above Lila's head.
Mirrors reflect Marion as she packs, her eyes as she checks the rear-view mirror, her face in the policeman's sunglasses, and her hands as she counts out the money in the car dealership's bathroom. A motel window serves as a mirror by reflecting Marion and Norman together. Hitchcock shoots through Marion's windshield and the telephone booth, when Arbogast phones Sam and Lila. The heavy downpour can be seen as a foreshadowing of the shower, and its cessation can be seen as a symbol of Marion making up her mind to return to Phoenix.
There are a number of references to birds. Marion's last name is Crane and she is from Phoenix. Norman comments that Marion eats like a bird. The motel room has pictures of birds on the wall. Brigitte Peucker also suggests that Norman's hobby of stuffing birds literalizes the British slang expression for sex, "stuffing birds", bird being a British slang for a desirable woman. Robert Allan suggests that Norman's mother is his original "stuffed bird", both in the sense of having preserved her body and the incestuous nature of Norman's emotional bond with her.
Psycho has been called "the first psychoanalytical thriller." The sex and violence in the film were unlike anything previously seen in a mainstream film. "The shower scene is both feared and desired," wrote French film critic Serge Kaganski. "Hitchcock may be scaring his female viewers out of their wits, but he is turning his male viewers into potential rapists, since Janet Leigh has been turning men on ever since she appeared in her brassiere in the first scene."
In his documentary The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, Slavoj Žižek remarks that Norman Bates' mansion has three floors, paralleling the three levels of the human mind that are postulated by Freudian psychoanalysis: the top floor would be the superego, where Bates' mother lives; the ground floor is then Bates' ego, where he functions as an apparently normal human being; and finally, the basement would be Bates' id. Žižek interprets Bates' moving his mother's corpse from top floor to basement as a symbol for the deep connection that psychoanalysis posits between superego and id.