The Mother of All Horror Films

By Jones, Malcolm | Newsweek, January 18, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Mother of All Horror Films

Jones, Malcolm, Newsweek

Byline: Malcolm Jones

Near the end of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, a psychiatrist pops in to explain serial killer Norman Bates to his captors--and to us, the audience: "I got the whole story--but not from Norman. I got it--from his mother." It's a scene that always elicits unintended laughs from contemporary audiences: they laugh at Norman's need to explain himself through the voice of his mother, they laugh at the dumbfounded looks on the faces of the local hicks--but mostly they laugh at a film that thinks it must explain a serial killer. I laughed, too, when I saw it again recently. But even as I laughed, it occurred to me that this wasn't just one unintentionally funny moment in this--can it really be?--50-year-old film. It was the only one.

Psycho not only doesn't seem dated, it feels almost completely contemporary, a sort of Dorian Gray of a movie--we get older, but it doesn't. This is true of Hitchcock films generally: take the hats off the men, give the women new hairdos, and a lot of his pictures could open next week. Hitchcock's genre gave him an edge, of course: most humor has the shelf life of milk, but terror never goes out of style. When it comes to what makes us jump, we're still frightened by the same things that scared cavemen. As a result, Hitchcock's films require less explaining, less context, than most old great movies. Which isn't to say they're simple. Gus Van Sant remade Psycho in 1998 with an exact shot-by-shot re-creation and still came up short. More pointedly, Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche fell far short of Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh. The circumstances of the plot held up fine.

Everything holds up fine in Psycho. That's the mystery. After a half century of far more graphic slasher movies, a genre pretty much kicked off by Psycho itself, why does this dark little film continue to captivate and unsettle us? What makes it so infinitely watchable? After all, the most memorable character is a serial killer, albeit a serial killer as boy next door, and the most likable character gets hacked to death a third of the way into the movie. The dialogue, with a couple of notable exceptions, is perfunctory, and so is a lot of the photography. Other than the cinematic dazzle of the shower scene and Bernard Herrmann's terrific soundtrack, why do I sit there time and again, straight through to the final image of -Marion Crane's car being winched out of the swamp behind the Bates Motel? How sick am I? How sick are we all?

Given Psycho's undeniable influence on popular film, it's tempting to theorize that it had the same pervasive effect on public opinion, that singlehandedly it made us more willing to watch violence, cruelty, and other hitherto unspeakable things, such as flushing toilets. (Psycho was the first film to show a toilet being flushed.) But there is something too simple about that formulation. In his new book, The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, David Thomson points out that in November 1959, the same month in which filming on Psycho began, Truman Capote came across an article in The New York Times describing the murder of a Kansas family that would become In Cold Blood. The sordid story of Ed Gein, the serial killer who inspired the novel on which Hitchcock based his movie, was only two years in the past. So maybe Hitchcock was just keeping up with the times. Give him this much: no other filmmakers of his stature saw what he did then, or if they did, they didn't put it onscreen.

Hitchcock said he made Psycho after noting the healthy box office for a string of violent B movies made in the '50s by William Castle (House on Haunted Hill) and Roger Corman (A Bucket of Blood), and wondering what could be done if a more adept director made such a film. He was also said to have been piqued at the success of the 1955 black-and-white French shocker Les Diaboliques, which some critics claimed out-Hitchcocked the master. Determined to prove that he did not need glamorous stars and locations, Hitchcock shot Psycho for about $800,000. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

The Mother of All Horror Films


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.