Award-winning thriller writer R. J. Ellory invites us to pause and ask ourselves: what would really scare us? For it may have been his own answer to this question that led Alfred Hitchcock to make his most successful film.
Sadly, it is ever more common to find that the film adaptation of a book is more famous than the book on which it was based. In the case of Psycho by Robert Bloch, I am on relatively safe ground if I suggest that Hitchcock’s interpretation garnered more attention than the literary work itself, and was perhaps one of the first adaptations to demonstrate fully how a screenwriter and director can stamp their style on a story and make it their own. Just as Kubrick’s Shining is very much a Kubrick experience, so Psycho is very much Hitchcock.
Bloch’s novel, inspired in part by the crimes of Wisconsin murderer Ed Gein, and Joseph Stefano’s brilliant Edgar Award-winning screenplay, opened the door to career-defining roles for both Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh. Though the film received relatively lukewarm reviews when it was first released in August 1960, the hugely impressive box office returns gave pause to those who at first criticised the film. Psycho went on to receive four Academy Award nominations, and is now preserved as a ‘culturally, historically or aesthetically significant’ addition to the National Film Registry.
In truth, the film is unsettling. It creeps beneath the skin with its implied violence, its suggested menace, its unspoken threat. And therein lies the rub: for Hitchcock was a master of ‘show, don’t tell’. Just as in the case of Spielberg’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s Jaws, where the most nerve-racking moments are those when no shark is visible at all, so it is with Hitchcock’s Psycho. The ‘shower scene’ is lauded as one of the most disturbing sequences ever committed to celluloid, and yet, really, we see nothing.
H. R. Giger was once asked for his most terrifying thought. He suggested that it would be the certainty that something was alive inside you, and yet you had no idea what it was. I believe it was horror writer Ramsey Campbell, who, when asked a similar question, said that waking in the darkness, with the sense of having heard something, and then turning to reach the light-cord only to have it placed in your hand, was the most unnerving thing he could think of. It is this sense of not knowing what is there that makes Psycho work so very well.
As far as tension is concerned, it set an entirely new standard. Hitchcock’s work raised the bar, and if I am right in my view that the film received more attention than the book, I believe I am also right in saying that Psycho – as a cinematic experience, both for film-maker and viewer – established a benchmark against which all subsequent thrillers, perhaps even horror films, have been judged.
R. J. Ellory is the author of twelve bestselling thrillers, the latest of which is Carnival of Shadows, published by Orion. His debut novel, Candlemoth, won the CWA Steel Dagger for Best Thriller. To find out more, visit R. J. Ellory’s website or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.