Hitchcock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho


This is a chapter from the book project, Freud’s Worst Nightmares, expected to be published by Cambridge University Press as part of their “Studies in Film” Series. For more information, contact William Rothman or Steven Jay Schneider.

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Like a lot of feminist film criticism of the period, my 1984 essay, “When the Woman Looks,” was written under the strong influence of Laura Mulvey’s psychoanalytically-motivated description of the dominant masculine “visual pleasure” of classical narrative cinema (Mulvey, 1975). Though I struggled in places to escape some of the limitations of a theory that described the dominant pleasures of film viewing as the twin perversions of masculine fetishism and voyeurism, I was still very much caught up in this paradigm. The result is an essay that fails entirely to address the issue that now seems to me most crucial in any discussion of women and horror: the pleasures, however problematic, women viewers may take in this genre. In addition, the essay slides too quickly from a hypothetical woman looking at the film to the experience of women looking in the film, suggesting that what is true of the woman in the film is also true of the spectator- both are punished.

According to the Mulveyan paradigm, if women viewers enjoyed watching films which placed a premium on what Carol J. Clover has since called “abject terror.gendered feminine” (1992: 51), then they could only be identifying with a masculine sadistic point of view. Identification with the terrified, suffering woman was simply unthinkable, too painful, masochistic. And masochism, as everyone seemed to know then, was automatically anathema to women. Thus, to thrill to the mutilation of the screaming and terrified Marion Crane in the shower sequence of Psycho could only be a form of false-and decidedly anti-feminist-consciousness. No wonder I praised the women in the audience who sensibly refused to look.

So, at least, it seemed in 1984. Since then, both Clover and Gaylyn Studlar have explored the masochistic pleasures of cinema in extensive studies. Clover’s Men, Women and Chain Saws (1992) especially showed how the strictly masculine, sadistic, and “assaultive” gaze has been overemphasized, while the feminine, masochistic, and “reactive” gaze has been ignored. Unfortunately however, Clover confines herself to addressing the masochistic pleasure of contemporary horror viewing for the genre’s supposedly targeted male viewers. (She herself claims to have seen her first horror film on a dare, as if a woman viewer was anomalous, not in the natural order of viewing pleasures [19]). Yet Clover’s own challenge to the orthodoxies of the “male gaze,” and her description of the fluidities of gender roles within the various horror genres, suggests that this female look at horror might be more significant, less anomalous, than the received opinion.

Expanding upon Clover’s work, Rhona Berenstein has recently characterized even classic horror cinema as an oscillation between sadism and masochism, identification and desire. Berenstein has also added an important feature to the conceptualization of spectatorship. She points out that horror films have traditionally been a place not only where women are terrified, but where they “flaunt their femininity” by screaming, fainting, and otherwise performing stereotypically exaggerated gender roles. Horror watching, for her, is thus also performance-a kind of drag-and it is especially so for female viewers (1995: 254-55).

In what follows, I shall explore both of these notions-Clover’s “reactive” gazing; Berenstein’s viewing as gender performance-with respect to women viewers’ “look” at Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. I choose this film because it is, as Clover notes, the ancestor of all contemporary psycho-horror. But this time around, rather than blame it as instigator of the new terrify-torture-and-blame-the-woman tradition of horror cinema, I will be interested in how this groundbreaking film worked to discipline female viewers to enjoy their highly gendered expressions of fear. This time, too, my investigation will proceed without recourse to psychoanalytic film theory, whether in its traditional Mulveyan or more recent feminist incarnations. Rather than posit a hypothetical woman spectator (“the woman” of my title), I shall speak, as much as possible, of the actual experiences of the women who saw the film on its initial release in 1960. The conventional distinction that often gets drawn here is between hypothetical spectators addressed by films (psychic subjects constructed by the institution of cinema and individual film texts) and “real” viewers (actual people who make up audiences, possessing certain shared social identities in addition to unique histories). However, this opposition is rarely so neat, since, as Judith Mayne has argued, real people do not escape being addressed by texts and constructed by ideology. Thus, while it is possible to draw a neat line between real viewers and hypothetical spectator-subjects, Mayne suggests, more fruitfully, that spectatorship occurs at “those spaces where ‘subjects’ and ‘viewers’ rub up against each other” (1993: 37). Though my 1984 essay is primarily concerned with spectator-subjects, and though this one is primarily concerned with “real” viewers, I do not mean to imply that now I have gotten closer to the truth of the spectatorial-viewing experience. My focus here on historically contingent disciplines of viewing may offer one way out of this dilemma.

It could very well be that the period of Psycho‘s first run-the moment when the sexual secret that Norman and his mother were one was still well-kept-is unique in American film history, and therefore not typical of the kinds of generic expectations that would eventually accrue to psycho-horror. Nevertheless, as the moment when audiences were shocked, terrified, and astonished as never before, both in highly gendered ways and as a result of an unprecedented shake-up of gender roles, an account of what is meant for women viewers to see Psycho for the first time may clear the way for a better understanding of “when women look” to experience fear.

Disciplining Fear

From the very first screenings of Psycho, audience reactions in the form of gasps, screams, yells, even running up and down the aisles, was unprecedented. Although Hitchcock later claimed to have calculated all this, saying he could hear the screams while planning the shower montage, screenwriter Joseph Stefano claims, “He was lying. We had no idea. We thought people would gasp or be silent, but screaming? Never” (Rebello, 1990: 117).

No contemporary review of the film, whether normal press or trade, whether positive or negative, ignored the fact that audiences were terrified and screaming as never before. (2) Having unleashed such fear, one problem Hitchcock and theater managers faced was how to manage it effectively, both for maximum thrills and to keep it from ultimately subverting attention to the film. According to Anthony Perkins, the entire scene in the hardware store following the shower-murder, mopping up, and disposal of Marion’s body in the swamp, was inaudible due to leftover howls from the previous scene. Hitchcock even asked Paramount Studio head Lew Wasserman to allow him to remix the sound to allow for the audience’s vocal reaction. Permission was denied (Rebello, 1990: 163).

Hitchcock’s unprecedented “special policy” of admitting no one to the theater after the film began was one means of both encouraging, and handling, the mayhem. It also ensured that audiences would fully appreciate the shock of having the rug pulled out from under them so thoroughly in the surprise murder of the main character in the shower one-third of the way into the film. Most importantly, however, this policy transformed the previously casual act of going to the movies into a much more disciplined (in the Foucauldian sense) activity of arriving on time and waiting in an orderly line.

Going to the movies before Psycho changed American movie-going (not to mention bathing) habits was an extremely casual affair. Where audiences for sports events or ice shows were in the habit of arriving on time for the performance, movie audiences wandered in at any time where previews, short subjects, and double bills were in continuous run. Hitchcock’s insistence that the audience arrive on time was occasioned by his sense that to miss the beginning of Psycho would be to lose the whole impact of Marion’s murder, and thus the whole shock of the film. Although Henri-Georges Clouzot had already attempted to introduce a policy encouraging audiences to arrive on time for his Les Diaboliques (1955), Hitchcock was the first director to actually enforce such a policy. Psycho is thus the film that started film exhibition down a path that would eventually lead to the kind of disciplined efficiency of closely-spaced screenings, elimination of cartoons and short subjects, prompt arrival and departure of audiences at predetermined show times, and (more or less) patient waits in ticketholder lines that are now standard procedure.

Here is how one columnist described this new discipline as it had begun to take effect after Psycho was in release over a month:

There was a long line of people at the show- they will only seat you at the beginning and I don’t think they let you out while it’s going on. A loudspeaker was carrying a sound track made by Mr. Hitchcock.
He said it was absolutely necessary- he gave it the British pronunciation like “nessary.” He said you absolutely could not go in at the beginning.
The loudspeaker then let out a couple of female shrieks that would turn your blood to ice. And the ticket taker began letting us all in.
A few months ago, I was reading the London review of this picture. The British critics rapped it. “Contrived,” they said. “Not up to the Hitchcock standards.”
I do not know what standards they were talking about. But I must say that Hitchcock.did not seem to be that kind of person at all. Hitchcock turned us all on.
Of all the shrieking and screaming!
We were all limp. And, after drying my palms on the mink coat net to me, we went out to have hamburgers. And let the next line of people go in and die.
Well, if you’re reading the trade papers, you must know that Psycho is making a mint of money.
This means we are in for a whole series of such pictures. (Delaphane 9/12/60)

Michel Foucault writes that “discipline produces subjected and practiced bodies, ‘docile’ bodies” (1978: 138). Quite obviously, the bodies of the audience described above were more docile than the bodies of prior audiences. Indeed, the fun of this particular film was dependent upon the ability of these bodies to wait patiently in line in order to catch a narrative whose trajectory would lead them on a heretofore unexperienced roller coaster of shocks and thrills. However, the application of Foucault’s notion of discipline to the Psycho audience should not conjure up a picture of simple passivity, but also the active exercise of disciplines which enhance pleasure. In this sense, discipline can also carry a sadomasochistic connotation of role-play in the interest of pleasure.

The above account portrays the exhilaration of a group submitting itself, as a group, to a thrilling sensation of fear and release. This audience is performing its part in a highly ritualized, masochistic submission to a “master” already quite familiar from cameos in his previous films and on his television show, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” (3) Thus, shrieking and screaming are understood frankly as a “turn on” leading to a highly sexualized climax (“go in and die”), a denouement described as detumescence (“we were all limp”), and, finally, a renewal of both literal and metaphorical appetite (“hamburgers”).

The passage also offers a rich mix of allusions to gender, class, and nationality: the mink coat next to the columnist is a clear indication both that these pleasures were democratic, and not only for men. Hamburger counters mink; snooty English “standards” are foils to America’s favorite fantasy of the leveling democratic entertainment of ‘the movies.’ What we see here is a conception of the audience as a group with a common solidarity- that of submitting to an experience of mixed arousal and fear, of recognizing those reactions in one another, and even, as we shall see, of performing them for one another.

In 1971, film critic William Pechter pinpointed this camaraderie of the audience in his own description of how it felt to watch Psycho: “The atmosphere.was deeply charged with apprehension. Something awful is always about to happen. One could sense that the audience was constantly aware of this; indeed, it had the solidarity of a convention assembled on the common understanding of some unspoken entente terrible; it was, in the fullest sense, an audience; not merely the random gathering of discrete individuals attendant at most plays and movies” (181).

This audience, surveilled and policed with unprecedented rigor outside the theater, responding with unprecedented vocality and mayhem inside the theater, has acquired a new sense of itself as ritualistically bonded around certain terrifying sexual secrets. The shock of learning these secrets helped produce both a sadomasochistic discipline of master and slave, and, around that discipline, a pleasure of the group. This discipline, if not new to American cinema, (4) was intensified by the self-conscious articulation of the experience of seeing Psycho, and by the unprecedented destabilization of gender at its core.

An important tool in disciplining this audience were the film’s promotional trailers, all of which encouraged audiences to arrive on time and not to divulge the film’s secret. One of these trailers was shown only to theater managers. Called “The Care and Handling of Psycho,” it was a filmed “press book” teaching managers how to implement the new policy that refused to admit patrons into the theater after the beginning of the show. This trailer is thus a remarkable document of one aspect of the inculculation of discipline around this film.

The black-and-white trailer begins with pounding violins of Bernard Herrman’s score over a street scene outside the DeMille Theater in New York where Psycho first began a limited engagement before releasing wide. A long line waits on the sidewalk for a matinee. An urgent-sounding male narrator explains that the man in the tuxedo directing the crowd on the sidewalk is a theater manager in charge of implementing the new policy for exhibiting the film. The trailer then explains the key elements of the policy, beginning with the sly, disembodied voice of Hitchcock himself broadcast from a loudspeaker. His sweet-sadistic voice informs the waiting crowd that “this queuing up is good for you; it will make you appreciate the seats inside. It will also make you appreciate Psycho.” This polite inducement is backed up by the presence of Pinkerton guards, and a life-size lobby card cut-out of Hitchcock sternly pointing to his watch.

Audiences did learn to heed the starting times. Not only did they learn to arrive on time, but they seemed happy to wait in line. This line-forming marked the moment in American culture when waiting in line for a movie began to become, like the lines that had already begun to form at Disneyland five years earlier, an important aspect of the show. By exploiting his popular TV persona as ‘the man who loves to scare you,’ Hitchcock effectively competed with television by providing the kind of big jolt roller coaster ride the little screen could not achieve. Yet paradoxically, the big jolt entertainment resulted in the kind of rapt audience attention that would have been the envy of a symphony conductor.

The discipline inculcated outside the theater was paralleled by a new discipline inside. For even though unprecedented screaming and terror was unleashed within the theater, it would be a mistake to consider these reactions chaos. Perhaps the best way to construe them is as a return, on some level, to what Tom Gunning has termed the “cinema of attractions.” Gunning exploits this term, borrowed from Eisenstein, in order to highlight a quality of early cinema that has been ill-understood by historians and theorists influenced by the hegemony of the classical narrative cinema: exhibitionistic attractions that are not dependent upon absorption into the narrative; the thrill of shock, assault, and surprise at the early revelations of the cinematograph itself; or at the sensations of crude comedy, prize fights, or even the electrocution of an elephant.

Crucial to the concept is the idea that viewers initially went to the movies to be moved, and that visual (and later auditory) shocks have always been a key component of pleasure in the medium. Gunning develops the term in order to counter the theory of the naïve spectator of early cinema who simply believed in the reality of what was shown on the screen. The picture he draws instead is of knowing spectators cannily balancing belief in the reality of a train speeding at them with the knowledge of illusion (1995: 116-17). If any genre can be said to have continued the tradition of the cinema of attractions, it is certainly the horror-thriller. And if any single film can be said to have revived the acute, visceral shock of these attractions, it is certainly Psycho, though ironically it could only elicit its greater degree of attraction by requiring more initial absorption than the average film.

If the above description of “attractions” and sadomasochistic audience discipline can be said to operate in general terms in Psycho, and eventually for later forms of the psycho-killer-on-the-loose thrillers generated out of its influence, what can we then say about the precise role of gender in these attractions and disciplines? And if we can say, in a general way, that Hitchcock the masculine master feminizes his audience, what can we say about the way this feminizing discipline operates on the “women who looked” at his film?

To answer, let us begin by examining the experience of a few women who submitted themselves to the discipline of going to see Psycho during its initial release. The first experience is my own: in the summer before entering high school I ventured, with two girlfriends, to a screening at the El Ray Theater in Walnut Creek, California. I cite my own experience not because I really remember all I went through, but in order to account for the acute sense of the audience cited above, and, through that account, to note some quite obvious, but surprisingly unremarked upon, pleasures that were entirely repressed in my psychoanalytically-informed theoretical account of 1984. This memory, along with the photos that follow, should give access to a more embodied and historically contingent experience of viewing that produced in my earlier piece.

The second form of experience comes to us through publicity photos taken with infrared film at the Plaza theater in London during the film’s first run in Britain and published by the trade journal Paramount World. These photos saw men and women watching Psycho. In nearly every one of them, we find at least one woman averting her eyes (Fig. 1, 2, 3). These women are thus seen embodying what I hypothesized in my earlier essay: ducking, averting their eyes (though significantly, they are not hiding behind the shoulders of their dates).

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that these scared women in the audience are looking at one of the following: the “scary woman” at the moment of attack (“Mrs. Bates,” Fig. 4); the scared woman being attacked (Marion, Fig. 5); or, finally, at one of those prolonged moments of exploration in which it is possible to anticipate an attack (Lila’s exploration of the Bates house, Fig. 6). Most of these images, with the striking exception of the scary woman “herself,” are classic tropes of feminized fear. Though men express fear on the screen and in the audience-see, for example, the man tugging on his tie (Fig. 7)-they seem to be working hard to remain in control, not to show the fear that women are expected to embody and express.

What is the best way to describe the specifically gendered reactions of women spectators to terror and its anticipation? Consider the experience of watching the first attack on Marion in the shower. At this point in the film, all viewers can be assumed to be identified with Marion and to be relatively, though not completely, unprepared for the attack- after all, the film is called Psycho. They (we) are taken by surprise by this first irrational irruption of violence, mystified by the lack of a distinct view of the attacker, shocked by the eerie sound and rhythms of screaming violins blending with screaming victim, and energized by the rapid cutting of the scene. This much is true for all spectators. Why, then, do women appear (as in Figs. 1, 2, and 3) so much more moved, whether to the point of smiling, grabbing ears, averting and covering eyes? And why is my memory of the film that of listening to, as much as looking at, the screen? The question, it seems, is whether female viewers can be said to be more closely identified with Marion, especially at the height of her fear and pain, than male viewers. Do we identify more, and thus find ourselves more terrorized, because we are insufficiently distanced from the image in general, and from this tortured image of our like in particular?

A long line of feminist psychoanalytic theory has argued in effect that women do not gain access to “the gaze” because feminine sexuality has been constructed as lacking the phallus as signifier of desire. Without it, women are all proximity and closeness. Lacking “lack,” they lack a proper distance from the image (see, e.g., Irigaray and Doane for two very different interpretations of this “lack of lack”). Feminist psychoanalytic film theorists have theorized spectatorship along these lines, and my 1984 essay is fully within that paradigm. Here, I am much less interested in the psychic spectatorial subject, and much more interested in the social viewing subject (though as previously noted, the two may not be as easily separated as it sometimes seems). Since it is contrary to my goal here to offer a psychoanalytic interpretation of masochistic identification, I will evade the intricacies of the above question by simply noting what seems to be occurring in the theater. Marion screams and recoils in terror; at least a significant number of us (women) scream and recoil in terror. Our scream and recoil are an echo and a mirror of the woman victim.

But where Marion is really in danger, we experience what Noel Carroll calls a second order of fear that “corresponds” to, but is not the same as, her fear (1990: 31). Carroll has argued that audiences learn how to respond to horror by watching how the scared victims in the film respond. This seems an apt enough observation so long as we stipulate that gender differences can greatly affect the degree of correspondence.

For example, though men may identify with Marion, they forcefully limit their correspondence to her. Since terror is itself “gendered feminine,” the more controlled masculine reaction immediately distances itself from the scared woman on the screen. It more quickly gets a grip on itself (note the tie, the clenched male jaws), and checks its expression. Yet at the same time that it exercises this control, this masculine reaction fully opens up to the image in order to, as Clover puts it, “take it in the eye” (1992: 202). If, as Clover argues, all forms of contemporary horror involve the masochistic and feminine thrill of “opening up” to, of being “assaulted” by, penetrating images, we might say that the men can be seen to open up more because they feel they “correspond” less to the gender of the primary victims (and to the femininity of fear itself).

Clover uses the terms “reactive” and “introjective” to describe the general form of the viewer’s look at horror. As we have seen, she argues that the “classic” position of voyeuristic mastery has been overemphasized in cinema in general, and in horror cinema in particular. She also notes that the reactive, introjective gaze which is often caught vulnerable and unawares, is feminized no matter who does the looking (204-208).

For the woman viewer, however, this “taking it in the eye” pleasures her less, initially, than it does the man. Because women-for all sorts of social, physiological, and psychosexual reasons-already perceive themselves as more vulnerable to penetration, as corresponding more to the assaulted, wide-eyed, opened-up female victim all too readily penetrated by knife or penis, our response is more likely to close down, at least initially, to such images. This is not to say that the reactive, introjective gaze is pure and simple pain. Rather, it is to say that the mixture of pleasure and pain common to all horror viewing, and aligned with a feminine subject position, is negotiated differently for men than for women. Thus, all viewers experience a degree of pain that is felt as feminizing. But in their greater vulnerability, some women viewers react by acting to filter out some of the painful images. In my earlier essay, I took the woman’s refusal to look at the screen as a sensible resistance to pain. Now I am more inclined, on the basis of these photos, the accounts of audiences, and my own memory of seeing Psycho, to suggest that a much more complex negotiation of pleasure is taking place, and that this negotiation takes place over time, as we watch first Hitchcock’s film and then its eventual imitators- something the instantaneous photos cannot render. In averting our eyes involuntarily, for example, we partially rupture our connection with the female victim. In the process, we may also establish a new connection with the other women in the audience whose screams we hear. This new connection then itself becomes a source of highly ritualized feminine pleasure. We enjoy being scared with one another– a camaraderie that allows us to measure our difference from Marion. Notice, for example, the smile on the half-hidden mouth of the woman in Fig. 3.

Thus, while our first reactive, introjective experience of fear may elicit almost involuntary screams and the “closing down” response of not looking, we don’t stop feeling the film because we stop looking. In fact, our reliance on musical cues may even induce us to feel more at this juncture. What are the violins saying about the danger of looking again? What is my girlfriend’s posture telling me about how I might respond? Eventually, however, through the familiarity afforded by the film’s repeated attacks, we begin to discipline ourselves to the experience of this reactive, introjective gaze. At this point, we discipline ourselves to keep our eyes more open.

Let us now imagine that we have been thoroughly terrified, but also thoroughly thrilled, not only by the first attack, but by the exquisite drama-of attraction and repulsion-of our own responses to it. What happens next? Slowly, we begin to calm back down and to pay attention to a plot that has famously pulled the rug out from under us. The primary issue now, more important than the enigma of who “Mrs. Bates” is and why she kills, is simply, when will she strike again? When she does, we will be more ready-not necessarily fully “open,” like the guys-but in our various states of semi-openness we will be more prepared to enjoy the “ride.” For at this point, the pleasure has become quite distinct for us. It is not simply that of taking it in the eye; rather, it is the peek-a-boo of letting in some of the assault while also screening some of it out. It is also that of performing our fear along with the terrorized figures on the screen and alongside our differently responding male and female friends in the audience.

By the time of the film’s third assault-on Lila in the fruit cellar-we are practically experts. But we are expert women viewers, whose pleasures have been disciplined differently than those of our male friends. By the time these kinds of slasher assaults become codified as a recognizable genre in the mid-late 70s, this different disciplined, differently performing audience will know its roles perfectly.

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Thus far, I have characterized a discipline that plays out along highly conventional gender lines: the scared woman viewer watching a scared woman and negotiating a complex reaction to their correspondence. Where Psycho diverges from the gendered clichés of horror is, of course, in its image of the cause of all this fear: the “scary woman”- the indistinct, but apparently female “Mrs. Bates” (Fig. 7) whom everyone is straining to, but cannot quite fully, see. This “mother” who kills to protect her son from the sexual aggressions of loose women represented a new type of the monster labeled by Barbara Creed in 1993 the “monstrous feminine.” In my 1984 essay, I had suggested that when the woman looked at the monster there was sometimes a flash of potentially subversive recognition, a moment when woman and monster perceived their difference from the masculine norm- a difference that was potent without being phallic. This recognition could account, I suggested, for the “frequent sympathy of the women characters, who seem to sense the extent to which the monster’s death is an exorcism of the power of their own sexuality” (1984/1996: 23-24).

However, Psycho‘s reformulation of the monster as female did not seem to me to offer this form of subversive power. Rather, the fact that the film figured the woman as both victim and monster seemed a misogynistic double-bind, blaming the woman as villain and torturing her as victim. Pointing to what she sees as Freud’s failure to note the significance of the castrating, as opposed to the castrated, mother, Creed argues that “a major archetype of female monstrosity” has been ignored in favor of the repeated insistence that woman represents absence and lack (1993: 151-53).

Applying these ideas to Psycho, Creed argues that the really important story of this film is that of the castrating mother. While it has become conventional to interpret the phallic mother as endowed with a fantasy phallus whose function is to disavow the male fear of castration-and thus the “actual” lack in the mother’s body-Creed insists that Psycho does not offer an image of a phallic mother disavowing lack, but of a castrating mother whose power is located, presumably, in her difference from the male.

Creed has a strong argument about the Kristevan powers of horror as opposed to an Oedipal model of castration and lack. But her argument only works for Psycho if Mrs. Bates really does represent a stable figure of femininity. I would suggest, however, that the deeper thrill of Psycho is that she does not. Hitchcock’s decision to make the traditional monster of horror cinema a son who dresses up as his own mummified mother, was a decision not so much to give violent power to the “monstrous feminine,” but, much more dramatically, to deploy the sensational (and sociocultural, as opposed to merely psychoanalytic) powers of drag.

“He’s a transvestite!” says the District Attorney in a famously inadequate attempt to explain the root cause of Norman’s disturbance. The line has been criticized, along with the psychiatrist’s lengthy speech about how Norman became his mother, as Hitchcock’s jab at the inadequacies of clinical explanation. Certainly Norman is no mere transvestite-i.e., a person whose sexual pleasures involve dressing up as the opposite sex-but rather a much more deeply disturbed individual whose whole personality had at times, as the psychiatrist puts it, “become the mother.” Yet in the scene supposedly showing us that Norman has finally “become” the mother, what we really see is Norman, now without wig and dress, sitting alone in a holding area reflecting, in the most feminine of the many voices given Mrs. Bates, on the evil of “her” son.

In other words, while ostensibly illustrating that Norman now “is” the mother, the film provides a visual and auditory variation on Norman’s earlier sexual indeterminacy. The shock of this scene is the combination of young male body and older female voice: visual evidence of male, aural evidence of female. It is thus not the recognition of one identity overcome by another that fascinates so much as the tension between masculine and feminine poles. The film’s penultimate image drives this home. Briefly emerging as if from under Norman’s face is the grinning mouth of Mrs. Bates’ corpse (Fig. 8). Again the shock is partially that of indeterminacy: neither Norman nor mother, but Norman and mother. Thus, the psychiatrist’s point that Norman is entirely mother is neither visually nor aurally proven. Instead, these variations of drag become overtly thematized as an ironic, and by this point almost camp, play with audience expectations. Norman is not a transvestive, but transvestitism (as Berenstein has argued with respect to the spectatorship of classic horror) is now a foregrounded attraction of these scenes.

The clichéd, self-consciously performed responses of the gender-differentiated audience need to be viewed against the background of Psycho‘s new gender-twisted monster. Consider the moment that I remember as the scariest of the entire film: not the shower sequence, but the moment “Mrs. Bates” makes her final assault, this time on Lila, in the fruit cellar. After Lila discovers Mrs. Bates’ lifeless mummy, the animate “Mrs. Bates” attacks, knife in hand, violins screaming. Sam arrives in the nick of time, and in the ensuing struggle Mrs. Bates’ old-lady wig slips partly off (Fig. 9) to reveal Norman underneath.

I recall that this last image gave a different jolt than the previous, already very unsettling shock of seeing that Mrs. Bates was a lifeless mummy. For at the precise moment that the wig began to slip off-when we see a masculine head emerging from under the old-lady wig, and before we recognize Norman-we glimpse an indeterminacy that was scarier than either the female mother or the male Norman. At this moment my screaming friends and I glimpsed, for one of the first times in a movie theater, the kind of absence of stable gender identity that would eventually become institutionalized as generic expectation in the slasher genre of the ’70s. Gender of the monster is revealed in this film in very much the terms Judith Butler offers: as an imitation without an origin, a corporeal style of performance, a construction (1990: 138-39).

Butler’s point is the performative, constructive nature of all gender. My point is that Psycho is the film in which horror is based upon the instability of this performative construction. It is also possible, of course, to view this performance as queer. Steven Schneider writes, for example, of the moment of Norman’s final attack on Lila: “The restrictive movie codes of the time would have prevented any overt reference to queer sexuality, but the overtones are definitely there. Why is Norman grinning like that” (1999: 75)? Schneider also notes that Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho plays up “the homoerotic charge of Sam’s ‘manhandling’ of Norman” (75). Queerness, however, is today an all-too-easy pigeonhole that may function to stabilize what was radically unstable in its first appearance in 1960 in a mainstream film.

I would argue that in 1960, for both female and male viewers, gender instability was a key component of our differently performed fears. For what was really scary about this movie was precisely the fact that we finally couldn’t be sure of either the gender or the sexuality of what was scaring either us or the people in the movie. It was precisely these kinds of dislocations of the film-between normal and psychotic; between masculine and feminine; between Eros and fear; even between the familiar Hitchcockian suspense and a new, more frankly gender-based horror-that constituted the historically new terror of Psycho. Over the next twenty years the psycho-horror genre would begin to establish a formula for reproducing, and refining, the various sexual and gendered elements of this experience in ways that would not lessen the attraction of the violence against women, but which would empower the “final girl” (Clover’s term) to fight back and invite spectators to identify alternately with her powerless victimization and subsequent empowerment. Psycho is both a harbinger of a new kind of contemporary “cinema of attractions” and a complete unique film whose shocks and terrors were, unlike the “slasher” genre it spawned, completely unpredictable. The film thus needs to be seen as an important turning point in the pleasurable destabilizing of sexual identity in American film history: it is the moment when the experience of going to the movies began to be constituted as providing a certain generally transgressive sexualized thrill of promiscuous abandonment to indeterminate, “other” identities. But as we have seen, audiences had to be disciplined to enjoy these indeterminacies.

Discipline operates in this film in several different ways: in the simple sense of the discipline of punctuality and line-standing; in the more complex sense of the disciplines governing gender performance inside the theater. All viewers are subjected to a masochistic ritual of abandonment to the power of the film’s assaultive gaze, a form of pleasurable enjoyment. But if the evidence of these photos, and of my own and others’ experience of viewing Psycho, is to be believed, differently gendered persons have historically negotiated this abandonment differently.

In this essay, I have chosen not to speculate on the theories that might explain these differences. Ultimately I do not know why fear is “gendered feminine,” or why women make the ideal victims. Hitchcock’s dictum, “torture the women!” borrowed from Sardou (quoted in Spoto, 1983: 483), and the long tradition of scaring women more than men both in and at the movies, is certainly cause for feminist scrutiny. However, my 1984 essay is so preoccupied by this problem that it presumes women viewers could take no pleasure in the frightened and tortured image of their like. Some ten years later, with the tradition of scared women still going strong, even as the newer (or more recently noticed?) tradition of scary women augments, and as gender destabilizations of all sorts mount too, it seems imperative for feminist scrutiny to “open up” to the feminine pleasures of fear.

Works Cited

Berenstein, R. (1995). “Spectatorship as Drag: The Act of Viewing and Classic Horror Cinema.” Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film. Williams, L. (ed.). New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York, Routledge.

Carroll, N. (1990). The Philosophy of Horror; or, Paradoxes of the Heart. New York, Routledge.

Clover, C. (1992). Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Creed, B. (1993). The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. New York, Routledge.

Delaplane, S. (1960). Los Angeles Examiner. 12 August.

Foucault, M. (1978). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York, Vintage Books.

Gledhill, C. and L. Williams, eds. (2000). Reinventing Film Studies. London, Edward Arnold.

Gunning, T. (1995). “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Specator.” Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film. Linda Williams (ed.). New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press.

Hatch, R. (1960). The Nation. 2 July.

Kapsis, R. (1992). Hitchcock: The Making of a Reputation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mayne, J. (1993). Spectatorship and Cinema. New York, Routledge.

Mulvey, L. (1975). “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 10.3: 6-18.

Pechter, W. (1971). Twenty-Four Times a Second. New York, Harper & Row

Rebello, S. (1990). Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. New York, HarperCollins.

Rowe, J. (1998). Culture and the Problem of the Disciplines. New York, Columbia University Press.

Schneider, S. (1999). “Manufacturing Horror in Hitchcock’s Psycho.” CineAction 50: 70-75.

Spoto, D. (1983). The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock. Boston, Little Brown

Williams, L. (1984). “When the Woman Looks.” Reprinted in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Grant, B.K. (ed.). Austin, University of Texas Press, 1996: 15-34.


  1. This essay was originally written for a 1994 conference at U.C.L.A. on “Scary Women” organized by Rhona Berenstein. When the book from that conference did not materialize, the essay eventually bifurcated into two different versions, “Discipline and Distraction: ‘The Care and Handling of Psycho‘” (Rowe, 1998) and “Discipline and Fun: Psycho and Postmodern Cinema” (Gledhill and Williams, 2000). I thank Steven Schneider for helping me to resurrect and edit this earlier version.
  2. This is as true of the positive reviews as it is of the negative ones. Here are two examples: “Scream! It’s a good way to let off steam in this Alfred Hitchcock shockeroo, .so scream, shiver and shake and have yourself a ball” (L.A. Examiner 8/11/60). “Psycho is being advertised as more a shocker than a thriller, and that is right- I am shocked, in the sense that I am offended and disgusted. The clinical details of psychopathology are not material for trivial entertainment; when they are used so they are an offense against taste and an assault upon the sensibilities of the audience.it makes you feel unclean” (Robert Hatch, The Nation 7/2/1960). Audience members acted like six year olds, according to amazed screenwriter Josef Stefano. And Janet Leigh was told by a theater manager of a little boy who attended every show on the day of the film’s release in order to run up and down the aisle yelling “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh- wait till you see what’s going to happen” (Rebello, 1990: 162-63)!
  3. The television show began in 1955 and ran for over a decade (Kapsis, 1992: 29).
  4. Berenstein shows, for example, how extensive publicity campaigns for classic horror films capitalized upon publicity stunts that featured fainting women taken to ambulances. Similarly, William Castle’s low-budget thriller The Tingler (1959) had actually wired the seats of some theaters to deliver a mild shock.

About The Author

Linda Williams is Professor of Film Studies & Rhetoric and Director of Film Studies, University of California at Berkeley. She is author of Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson (Princeton University Press, forthcoming), Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible (U.C. Press, 1989) and Figures of Desire: A Theory and Analysis of Surrealist Film (University of Illinois Press, 1981).

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