Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Heath Holland On...Is Psycho a Horror Movie?

by Heath Holland
Let’s try to settle this once and for all.

The debate has raged on for hundreds and hundreds of years. Socrates and Plato hashed it out in Ancient Greece during a series of epic debates that are still studied in philosophy classrooms today. It was the cause of both the English and American Civil Wars,  as brother turned against brother and picked up arms to defend their stance. And, most recently, the politicians in Washington have been so unable to agree on what kind of movie it is that the government has actually entered a shutdown.

In one corner are those that say Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece and most famous film Psycho is not a horror movie, but rather a suspense movie with psychological elements, intended to merely thrill the audience and make them squirm in their seats.

In the other corner are those who say that Psycho was a landmark movie in the horror genre because it opened up the types of stories being told in horror movies and moved beyond monsters and aliens.
If you haven’t seen Psycho, you should stop whatever you’re doing and go watch it right now. It’s as good as film gets and deserves to be seen and studied and loved forever like the perfect creation that it is (I sleep with a copy of it under my pillow). This column will spoil MANY things for you if you’ve never watched it. Beware! Abandon all hope, ye who enter but have not seen Psycho.

The arguments for the "suspense movie" position make a lot of sense. Only a couple of murders are shown on the screen. Despite suggestions and clues, the killer remains a mystery right up until the last few minutes of the movie, therefore lending the film the qualities of a whodunit.

Also, it’s mostly a quiet, character film. It’s a potboiler that slowly ratchets up the intensity. For half the movie, we’re following Janet Leigh’s character as she commits a crime and flees the authorities. For the other half, we’re wondering what exactly is going on and who’s behind the knife. There’s no graphic gore, few --if any-- jump scares, and merely the suggestion of the supernatural or occult.

Hitchcock’s greatest talent was in pushing the buttons of his viewers; that’s what he does more than anything else in Psycho. His characters are fully realized and feel like real people, so we are uncomfortable when they are uncomfortable. We’re nervous when they’re nervous and worried when they’re worried. What Psycho excels at is tension. The film is packed (like peanuts in a Snickers bar) with little moments that unnerve the audience and set us on edge.
In this sense, the movie is clearly a suspense film. And horror and suspense, while two bastard children of the same mother, are not the same thing. Yet trying to define what separates horror from suspense is not an easy thing to do. It’s largely subjective. Both are unnerving, but suspense seems to be about making a viewer unsettled, whereas horror seems to be more interested in freaking them out.

So let’s look at the horror side: Psycho bears many of the elements of the slasher films that would follow in the ‘70s. We have a lone killer who has murdered his mother (with whom he had an extremely close relationship) and her husband and who is prompted to further violence as the story unfolds. So we have the tragic origin story.

And like most slasher movies, we have a mentally damaged killer who is willing to murder countless people without any remorse. This killer has a gimmick, too. He’s got a butcher knife and even a “costume.” Most slasher killers in horror movies have a recognizable outfit and a trademark weapon.

And the Bates Motel and the Bates House, in all its American gothic splendor, serve as a base of operations for our killer, just like so many slashers have a connection to a home or a place. The killers are almost always connected to a particular location that serves as their base.
There’s no denying that the shower scene is pure horror. The screeching violins, the quick editing and multiple stabbings, the blood flowing down the drain, and finally the dead body sprawled in a horrible, twisted mess.

Is the entire first half of the movie, the crime portion, a misdirection to lull viewers into one mode so that Hitchcock could “horrify” us with where the story was about to go? The horror camp says that’s exactly what’s happening.

The horror camp also says that Psycho revolutionized horror films and took them away from vampires and werewolves and cat people by bringing the genre into a more realistic (and therefore more terrifying) territory. Supernatural monsters, Hitchcock seems to be saying, aren’t real, but human monsters are. And they could be anyone, anywhere. They could be sitting right next to you. They’ve adapted and they know how to appear completely normal to society. Isn’t that scarier than a boogeyman in the closet?
The truth is that Psycho is such a well-crafted film that it holds up to multiple interpretations across multiple viewings. Like the best art, it can be what you need it to be. Whatever opinion you take, you won’t be wrong. Great movies can transcend the limits and borders that we impose on art.

But then again, that’s boring. I say pick a side! Like the founding fathers of America who started an entire nation because they didn’t agree with Imperial England’s stance on Psycho, let’s stand up for what we believe in.

What do you think? Is Psycho a suspense/thriller film or is it a horror movie?


  1. Not sure it applies to movies, but "suspense" suggests a feeling of dread, while "horror" implies a final release via some terrifying act or reveal. Psycho has both the build-up (the "a-a-a-a-a") as well as the release (the "CHOO!"), so I see the confusion. It's certainly hard with early examples of any genre to say it's one thing or the other. Is it blues? Bluegrass? Rock and roll? WHAT IS IT???

    1. Maybe it's a jam band. You guys, Pyscho is Phish.

    2. Blues, bluegrass & rock are all the same.

      Psycho is SO not fish. She's too classy for that. She likes to take a shower now & then.

    3. We don't know how long it had been since her previous shower. She sleeps in her car.

  2. Oh for God's sake - I had enough of this mental masturbation in college.

    Is Psycho a horror movie? YES!

  3. Fist of, our founding fathers didn't agree with each other (relevant?).

    Okay let's break up the camps then. What are the elements in each.

    elicits negative emotional reaction by playing off primal fears.

    Suspense (aka Thriller)
    elicits roller-coaster of mood mood: anticipation, expectation, uncertainty, suspense, anxiety, terror, etc.

    Now let's put her to the test. Does our 53 year-old-gal meet the criterion of horror? I'd say so! Fear of parents, fear of getting caught, fear of the "boogeyman", etc. All the characters hit a primal fear--including Norman himself.

    Okay then, it can't certainly be a thriller then?! Well actually, it meets that as well.

    Which brings us to genre itself. Of course genre's can overlap. In fact horror usually overlaps.

    So to say its one or the other, and must only be that is silly.

    Thats like saying only one side of the political debate is only right--oh wait?! too soon...

    Fine you want me to commit? is it more than the other? Sure.

    Not telling.

    1. Well, I absolutely think that Pyscho is horror (I wrote about it during #scarymoviemonth, after all) but I would love to hear from someone who disagrees because those people are out there (I've read about them in Newsweek). I was hoping for a dialog, but we all seem to be on the same page.

    2. i think its both. sorry unsexy.

  4. I've always been one of those guys who didn't consider Psycho as horror because it didn't contain supernatural elements. To me anything that is plausible enough that I would believe it if read in a newspaper is not horror. Silence of the Lambs and Jaws are also not horror films. These are films that I could watch any time of year but horror films I tend to only watch as Halloween approaches.

    I realize it's a personal categorization and have stopped trying to convince people they're wrong.

    Anyway, since it is called The Scary Movie Challenge rather than the Horror Movie Challenge, I have allowed a few slasher movies into my mix.

    1. Right on! Thanks for commenting, Darren.

    2. This kind of goes hand-in-hand with your earlier article, Heath, regarding the need to believe something is plausible to find it scary. I want my horror movies to cause me to suspend disbelief and induce a fear in me for something I don't believe in. To me that's a different type of fear than the fear of a knife-wielding maniac. It's tougher to achieve and I admire it all the more for it.

    3. So you like horror movies to be more outside reality instead of "the devil you know." I see what you're saying. This is exactly the kind of discussion I was hoping for. I don't see a right or wrong. I'm more interested in how people approach this movie.

    4. Re-reading your article with a willingness to be persuaded, I do think you make a compelling argument for why it can be classified as Horror with regards to its gothic elements. I imagine that if the film ejected the psychiatrist sequence and cut straight to Norman in his cell with his internal monologue as Mother, viewers might interpret it as a supernatural possession rather than a case of multiple personalities. So it really is borderline for me now since I give films like The Innocents a horror classification even though there may be a reality based explanation.

      It's also possible that I have a different relationship to Psycho since I actually saw Psycho 2 numerous times before seeing the original. Norman has always been a sympathetically sick individual to me. But then again, the original is so flawlessly executed that it does induce fear in me regardless of what I know going in.

  5. It's a horror movie. Period. And not to be a "horror snob" but if somebody told me it wasn't, I would listen politely, nod my head and give the person their say because that's their opinion and they are entitled to it...but I wouldn't give a whole lot of weight to anything they ever said about horror like, ever. It might make me an asshole, but an honest one, anyway.

  6. It's a horror film because that's where the video store always had the box. :)

    It's a film that has everything you could want in a (Hitchcock voice) motion picture. Is it a horror film? Yes, 'cause there are many moments you make you cover your eyes and ears, but it's the suspense that is created that makes us peek through our fingers to watch.

    It's just a masterpiece, pure and simple... or as John Carpenter likes to say, "It's the granddaddy of the modern horror film".

    Oh and Saul Bass suggesting he filmed the shower scene... ugh. Although his original storyboards featured in the BBC documentary Fear in the Dark are worth checking out.

    1. When I was at Target recently, Spring Breakers was in the Comedy section.

    2. I want to go home with whoever blind-buys it from there just so I can watch them watch it.

    3. I don't know. James Franco's grills are pretty amusing.

  7. I believe Psycho is horror for one simple reason: the first time I saw it, it scared the ever-lovin' shit out of me.

  8. I would call Psycho a horror movie, but I think it suffers from a little bit of that thing where people don't want to call "respectable" movies HORROR because the genre still carries a stigma. The Silence of the Lambs gets labeled a "psychological thriller" so that it can win Oscars, even though it's about a guy who EATS PEOPLE and another guy who SKINS WOMEN AND WEARS THEM AS A SUIT. Not horror. Psycho gets called a "suspense" movie so that people don't feel bad about liking a horror movie.

    Obviously, it's not ONLY those people that label it "suspense." Just part of a phenomenon that I am not the first to point out.

    1. @Darren Reid -- I just read your comments above; my post is NOT in any way a response to yours. I will not disagree with your definition of horror even if it does not match my own.

      Just didn't want you to think I was being a passive aggressive dick. Sorry about that.

    2. Thanks. I think your initial post was clear enough and I agree with your point.

      For my part, "respectability" has nothing to do with it as I'm just as inclined to describe "Sleepaway Camp" as non-horror.

    3. But that's because it's a documentary, right?

  9. How about this...

    A "suspense" movie (thiller, what have you) is a movie about deaths and or potential deaths....but you do not see them acted out on screen.

    In horror movies they are.

    Hence, Psycho is horror but Silence of the Lambs isn't.