Did You Know Hitchcock Thought 'Psycho' Was a Big Joke and Was Horrified People Took It Seriously?

Did You Know Hitchcock Thought 'Psycho' Was a Big Joke and Was Horrified People Took It Seriously?

Feb 08, 2013

The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, created one of the finest horror films in cinema history when he directed Psycho in 1960. Loosely inspired by the Ed Gein murders, Hitch cast Anthony Perkins in his California-set story as a stunted man with major mommy issues, Norman Bates. Four years after the film became a smashing success, the director spoke freely about his movie that caused controversy for its unprecedented scenes of sexuality, violence and… a flushing toilet. Hitch was a guest on English television show Monitor, where he wondered, Why so serious? when it came to his horror opus:

"I once made a movie, rather tongue-in-cheek, called Psycho. A lot of people looked at this thing and said what a dreadful thing to do, how awful, and so forth. The content as such was, I felt, rather amusing and it was a big joke. I was horrified to find that some people took it seriously."

The filmmaker related his intended effect to that of a switchback railway (roller coaster):

"I'm possibly in some respects the man who says in constructing it, 'How steep can we make the first dip?' If you make the dip too deep, the screams will continue as the car goes over the edge and destroys everyone. Therefore you mustn't go too far because you do want them to get off the switchback railway, giggling with pleasure."

During a 1965 interview, which you can watch below, Hitch hinted at the same thing when he deconstructed a scene in Psycho and compared it to the form of a symphony. "If you have a symphony, always the last movement is the strongest and biggest when the full orchestra is employed," the director said. He also compared "the shape of the film" and all its "dips" to a short story. The bursts of drama and terrror elevated emotions, which Hitch always strove for in his work. 

1962 interview conducted by François Truffaut expounds on this:

"My main satisfaction is that the film had an effect on the audiences, and I consider that very important. I don't care about the subject matter; I don't care about the acting; but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the soundtrack and all of the technical ingredients that made the audience scream. I feel it's tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion. And with Psycho we most definitely achieved this. It wasn't a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance or their enjoyment of the novel. They were aroused by pure film…

People will say, 'It was a terrible film to make. The subject was horrible, the people were small, there were no characters in it.' I know all of this, but I also know that the construction of the story and the way in which it was told caused audiences all over the world to react and become emotional."

This also suggests that the analysis people have imparted on characters like Bates may have given Hitch reason to guffaw. He concluded: "I don't care whether it looked like a small or a large picture. I didn't start off to make an important movie. I thought I could have fun with this subject and this situation."

Pick up a copy of the audiobook Alfred Hitchcock: In His Own Words to hear the Monitor interview and more.

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