Although it may seem impossible for such an old film to remain relevant in today’s vastly different society, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” is able to instill fear into all audiences alike by tapping into the fundamental principles of human fear. One way Hitchcock achieves this is by manipulating factors that affect a human’s basic needs. Hitchcock ties this to psychology through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and chooses to manipulate one of the building blocks of the pyramid: safety.
By understanding a person’s need for safety, Hitchcock decides to manipulate of his characters and their surrounds in a way that creates a strong sense of vulnerability. By limiting a character’s vision through the positioning of their body, Hitchcock leaves them unaware of their surroundings and exposed to attack. This lack of sensory feedback is then supported by both extremes of sound: complete silence or deafening ambient sound. With this character now lacking the ability to defend themself, they are placed in an unfamiliar environment and in the case of “Psycho” on the Bates’ estate.
The first scene that demonstrates these elements is the stabbing of Marion. Everything from the location to the positioning of characters in this scene add to the sense of vulnerability Hitchcock is trying to incorporate. Hitchcock’s motivation to set the scene during a shower comes from the degree of exposure being in a bathroom induces. In addition to her lowered guard, Marion’s sense of hearing is impaired due to the deafening sound of the shower, and her vision is limited by the presence of the shower curtain.
Timing is also key in this scene, and Hitchcock chooses to have her murderer enter while she has her back to the door, leaving her completely open to an attack. Due to the normality of Marion’s actions in the shower, all audiences can relate to her state of vulnerability, and therefore understand that there is a possibility of suffering the same fate as Marion.
Desperate vulnerability being one of the primary factors in scaring the audience, Hitchcock’s “Psycho” chooses to have a heavier reliance on a feeling of dread and anxiety. Hitchcock’s main method of incorporating dread is through the use of suspense by allowing viewers to see a threat before the characters do. While the character on screen is oblivious of the impending danger, the viewers are left on the edge of their seat, dreading the moment that they know will come soon. This foreshadowing of danger is only the catalyst for suspense, and its only through a build up of elements on set that allow Hitchcock to have audiences bracing for the climax. An example of Hitchcock’s implementation of suspense can be found during the stabbing of Arbogast.
Although the audience knows of the danger that lies on the Bates estate, Arbogast enters the house with his guard lowered, completely unaware of the looming threat. The house is dead silence, and the scene is accompanied by a track of eerie violin music. The camera pans to a top down view of Arbogast as he begins to ascend the stairs, the floor growing distant in the background. As this happens, the camera switches display the door slowly opening, signaling the presence of danger. At this point, viewers of the movie subconsciously understand that there will be a confrontation between the two, leaving only the timing of the encounter to question. Finally, the nerve wracking silence is broken by an accompaniment of screeching music and the quick approach of the murderer. Ultimately, while factors such as global events and generational issues may be subject to change over time, only by basing his film around basic human psychology, has Hitchcock succeeded in creating a film that can be enjoyed by such a diverse audience.