Psycho Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Describe how Alfred Hitchcock implicates the viewer in both Marion's and Norman's crimes.

    After Marion steals the $40,000 from her office, Hitchcock uses point-of-view shots so that the viewer can experience Marion's uncertainty about committing the crime. Then, when she is driving away from Phoenix, Hitchcock takes us inside Marion's mind as she anxiously considers the reactions of her boss, coworkers, and boyfriend once they find out she's taken the money; we share her fears.

    While we don't initially know that Norman is the one who actually killed Marion, we do see him clean up the mess that his "mother" made. Therefore, we see him as a sympathetic character - a dutiful son who is just trying to keep his invalid mother safe in her home. Then, when he sinks Marion's car into the swamp, we feel his concern when it gets stuck. We, like Norman, just want this dirty business to be over and are relieved when the car finally disappears under the thick and oily grime.

  2. 2

    Explain how Hitchcock's use of mirrors creates a contrast between the characters of Marion Crane and her sister, Lila.

    Hitchcock juxtaposes Marion with mirrors and reflective surfaces several times in the first half of the film - she examines her reflection in the opening hotel room scene and at home, after she's stolen the money. However, in the bathroom of the used car lot and at the Bates Motel, Marion does not look at her image - showing that she has, in the words of Norman Bates, "gone a little mad" and is not thinking clearly about the consequences of her crime.

    Meanwhile, when Lila is investigating the Bates home, she not only catches sight of herself in a tall mirror, but it scares her. This comparison shows the duality that exists in all of us - Lila is the version of Marion that did not "go mad".

  3. 3

    Carefully examine the scene in which Norman Bates and Marion Crane sit in the Bates Motel's parlor. How does their conversation foreshadow the revelation of the secrets that will later come to the surface?

    At the beginning of their conversation, Norman talks about his hobby of "stuffing things", which we later learn is how he has preserved his mother's body for so long. Then, he keeps on emphasizing the bond he shares with his mother, saying that "a boy's best friend is his mother", and insisting "she needs me." However, he also reveals his internal conflict by saying that he often hates and loves her and thus, reveals his duality. "I was born in my trap", Norman admits, "I don't mind it anymore."

    When Norman speaks about his mother, Hitchcock shoots him from a low angle while stuffed birds of prey hover above him in clear focus; they look as though they're about to pounce. Norman tells Marion that his mother is "as harmless as one of those stuffed birds", but they certainly don't look harmless here. This framing foreshadows the fact that Norman's mother was a formidable woman when she was alive, and even though she's dead, the "mother" part of Norman is controlling and mean.

    Norman also describes a madhouse as being "cold and damp" like a grave, which foreshadows Dr. Richman's eventual revelation that Norman stole his mother's corpse out of her coffin.

  4. 4

    Describe how Hitchcock subverts American family values in Psycho.

    Hitchcock frequently uses voyeuristic shots to escort his audience behind closed doors and white picket fences, where they can see the corruption that lies beneath the ideal American family. For one, Psycho dismantles the idea of the mother-son relationship in the form of Norman Bates, who has committed matricide and now dresses up as his mother and murders women. In addition, none of the sexual relationships in the film occur between married couples; Marion and Sam meet secretly in hotel rooms and there are also hints of an incestuous relationship between Norman and Mrs. Bates. Lila and Sam act as a married couple, but it is only a ruse so that they can investigate the Bates Motel. In general, Hitchcock cautions his audience about the dangers of sexual repression - denying one's natural sexual urges can only lead to the corrosion of the soul. Even the minor characters in the opening of the film that appear wholesome are corrupted - secretary Caroline has used tranquilizers since her wedding day, and while rich family man Cassidy dotes on his daughter, he sleazily comes on to Marion and brags that he does not pay his taxes.

  5. 5

    Explain how Hitchcock uses the horizontal and vertical planes of his frame to emphasize the thematic content of Psycho.

    Starting from the opening credits, Hitchcock establishes a grid of vertical and horizontal lines. This pattern represents order throughout the film, most significantly represented in the juxtaposition of the tall Bates house with the one-story Bates Motel. Whenever Hitchcock's characters veer into the realm of "madness" - like when Marion is driving through the rain or during the shower scene - he slashes the frame with diagonal lines. This is one of the many ways in which Hitchcock immerses his audience in the world of his film; he visually carries us into madness and then restores order.