Psycho the film and Psycho the book weave around each other like no thriller pairing before them. Modern horror writer Andrew Pyper examines this marriage and its contemporary offspring.
Hitchcock’s Psycho is a masterpiece. But that’s not saying much, is it? It’s a film that always finds itself near the top of those Top 100 of All Time lists. Film students still write essays about it; composers still pay homage to its score; directors still rip it off.
For me, what’s particularly interesting about Psycho is the way it continues to influence storytellers in so many ways. And I don’t just mean cinematic storytellers, or even screenwriters, but novelists, too. Especially novelists.
Some might say that Robert Bloch should be given credit for this last seam of influence, since he wrote the book that Joseph Stefano adapted and Hitchcock shot. And Bloch was an accomplished novelist himself, after all. Shouldn’t he be cited as the Father of the Psychological Thriller?
For some, I’m sure he is. But for far more thriller writers working today, the film of Bloch’s book has marked our imaginations more deeply than the book itself. If we’ve even read the book.
With Psycho, Hitchcock’s particular genius lies in the way he makes the movie feel like a novel. It is a uniquely literary film. The way Norman’s interior life is rendered through his outward actions, his voice, his character, is as much a writerly accomplishment as a directorial one.
The set-up of the story (the misdirection of the embezzling secretary plot, which signals a noir trajectory that is abandoned in favour of something more complex and unsettling) is something you’d find in a book, not a movie, as movies aren’t usually allowed to take their time getting to the ‘heart’ of the story in the way books are.
Finally, the voyeuristic point of view that the film exquisitely recreates on screen is what a novelist does in writing an effective first-person narration.
Psycho is a movie for writers.
There would be no Silence of the Lambs without Psycho. I don’t think there would be a Gone Girl, either. In fact, what we understand as the ‘psychological thriller’ today would be a different – less interesting, less twisted, less revealing – beast if Norman Bates hadn’t shown us how to be unexpectedly, monstrously yet still understandably beastly back in 1960.
By way of personal example, I recently completed writing a novel featuring a sociopathic villain (a young girl in this case) who afflicts her fraternal twin brother with all manner of mental challenges and horrors. One is what she calls ‘the shower game’. Whenever the brother enters the bathroom and finds the shower curtain closed, he must summon his courage and pull it back. Each time he does, he finds something different there. A fresh hell.
Naturally, the shower game in my novel comes straight from Psycho, bears meaning for the characters because they’ve watched Psycho, echoes through the tradition of thrillers after Hitchcock by way of Psycho. Even more than this, it works. Pulling back the curtain: this is what all psychological thrillers ultimately do. And they’ve been doing it, in varied and fruitful ways, ever since Janet Leigh screamed.
Andrew Pyper is the author of six novels, most recently The Demonologist, which is in development for a feature film with director-producer Robert Zemeckis and Universal Pictures. His new novel, The Damned, will be published by Orion in March 2015. To find out more, visit Andrew Pyper’s website or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.