“Oh, mother! Blood…blood!”
Moviegoers and TV viewers can’t get enough of the red stuff. Bates Motel debuted to 4.6 million viewers, the most for a drama premiere in A&E history, showing what a powerful chokehold Psycho, and the slasher film subgenre it spawned, continues to have on our cultural psyche. The modern day-set prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s legendary film is a show that the Master of Suspense himself might have liked: most notably because it identifies so strongly (and empathetically) with the central mother-son duo of Norma and Norman Bates. That distinguishes Bates Motel from much of slasher storytelling these days, movies that are so deliberately anti-humanistic that they’re not actually scary. Or that get so bogged down in elaborating every last bit of backstory, that they take all the mystery out of a slasher scenario…and aren’t scary. Or they go the way of a spoof…and aren’t scary. So what happened to the scare factor of slasher storytelling? On the occasion of Bates Motel’s killer debut, let’s retrace the genre’s bloody breadcrumbs to find out why, starting with the movie that kicked off the whole thing.
Alfred Hitchcock Releases Psycho in 1960, and the Slasher Film is Born
It’s hard to overvalue the impact the Master of Suspense’s film made upon its first theatrical run and the influence it’s had on 53 years of cinema since. Everything about it was unique. Its marketing campaign, including a trailer in which Hitchcock took us on a tour of the Bates House and Motel, was an elaborate bit of misdirection, indicating nothing of the out-of-blue terror that awaited its audience. With gimmicks like a nationwide ban on movie theater employees allowing patrons to enter Psycho after it began, it was pretty much the beginning of hype culture and spoiler culture. Except that it really delivered the goods.
Psycho rewrote the rules of horror filmmaking. For decades, Hollywood had mined fear in monsters, the supernatural, aliens, mutants from nuclear blasts, but rarely from anything like serial killers. There are a few exceptions of course. John Brahms’ 1945 version of The Lodger is a clear predecessor to Psycho in its uniquely Freudian take on the Jack the Ripper story, featuring Laird Cregar, in a towering performance, as the infamous London killer. Cregar’s Ripper was obviously suffering from a hard case of incestuous homoeroticism—he’d fallen in love with his brother—and had to vent his hatred against all womankind with a knife after a woman drove his brother to commit suicide.
Like The Lodger, and unlike all the monster movies that preceded it, Psycho drew deeply upon modern psychology in its portrait of Norman Bates. As inhabited by Anthony Perkins, here was a guy with a guilt complex related to his mother so severe that he basically adopts her personality and violently suppresses his male sexual urges by slashing to death the objects of his fancy: beautiful young women like Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane. But the really interesting thing about Psycho is that, for as much time as it spends having a psychologist character explain all of this Freudian stuff at the end, the movie—and Hitchcock—also seems profoundly skeptical of that psychological reading. How can headshrinking possibly explain all the crazy things that people do in this world? The psychologist who pops up at the end seems to give a rote explanation for Norman and his crimes, but Hitchcock doesn’t give the shrink the last word: he gives that to Norman, staring directly into the camera, as “Mother” talks about how she would “never hurt a fly.” And then suddenly, Hitch cuts to the closing shot of the movie, of a car being pulled out of a swamp. It’s like he’s saying that some mysteries can’t be explained. They’re as murky as that swamp and our attempts to make sense of them are inherently wrongheaded. The real truth is that crazy s*** that has no explanation can happen in this world, and can happen a lot, in fact. And that crazy s*** can have life-altering (or -ending) consequences. You can be going along, driving north to be with your boyfriend after having stolen some money from your company and thinking that crime alone will alter your life forever. Then, something completely out of left field, totally unrelated to your hopes, dreams, and fears, can enter your life and derail it. Psycho is fundamentally about the uncertainty of life, its precariousness, its randomness, and, above all, how the story continues after you’re gone.
Post-Psycho Slasher Cinema Found Its Terror in Outsiders
This was the first step to making slasher movies less thought-provoking, and it arrived as the next great wave of horror flicks after Psycho. We’re talking about ‘70s horror, particularly The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween. In Psycho, Norman Bates actively tried to appear “normal,” even if his attempts to do so made him especially abnormal. But on the surface he did pretty much seem to be like your typically awkward twentysomething—aside from the taxidermy hobby, his tendency to walk everywhere with both hands in his pockets, and a neverending hunger for candy corn. He was the boy next door. Except that this boy next door was also a serial killer. With The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, arguably the next great slasher flick after Psycho, the abnormal wasn’t located under a veneer of normalcy. It was just abnormal, no matter how you looked at it. There was a family of creepy, incestuous hillbillies, led by a chainsaw-wielder wearing a mask of leather, who lived up to their creepiness by killing young people who stray onto their farm. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is basically just Psycho meets Deliverance. Rather than the unnatural and the horrific being a part of everyday life, as Hitchcock had implied, director Tobe Hooper marginalized horror. It was to be found outside of civilized life, where people operate by different rules. That’s also the underlying premise of John Carpenter’s Halloween, where robot killer Michael Myers is just a mental hospital escapee. He’s a crazy guy! And crazy guys do crazy things like kill people.
Slasher Cinema Became Increasingly Puritanical, Making It Less Scary
Though The Texas Chainsaw Massacre featured hillbillies killing teenagers or twentysomethings, you didn’t get the sense that any of the young folks were being punished for there transgressions. That would not be the case in Black Christmas, Halloween, and Friday the 13th, all of which imply that teenagers who have sex or otherwise stray outside the confines of traditional morality are fair game for punishment at the dagger tip of a maniac. In essence, they get what’s coming to them. And only the virgin can be the “Last Girl Standing.”
This is the first time that the actual scariness of the genre began to be undermined. If you don’t identify with the characters who are getting killed, if you think that on some level they’re getting what they deserve by being stabbed to death, how can you genuinely be frightened for them? In order to feel fright on behalf of a movie character, you’ve got to have empathy for that character. In fact, you could argue that horror in its purest form—horror movies that elicit genuine fright—have to be humanistic by their nature. If you want to see the people onscreen get slaughtered, then you’re not going to be scared. You can’t have suspense if you’re not invested in the survival of the characters, only shock. The killings, then, become the equivalent of money shots in porn—context-free arousals of momentary sensation.
Again, Hitchcock’s unique perversity stands in contrast to the more puritanical streaks you’ll find in the Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises. Rather than Marion Crane being slashed to death inside Cabin No. 1’s shower at the Bates Motel because she stole that money and had sex with her boyfriend out of wedlock, she is only killed after she has resolved to return the money and make good. She takes the shower to symbolize her purification, that she’s redeemed herself. She wears a white bra instead of a black bra. And then she’s killed. Hitchcock gives us the exact opposite of what would come later—he kills the good girl.
NEXT: A Nightmare on Elm Street is one step forward for the genre. Scream is two steps back. Plus, the rise of torture porn and the "origin story."
Though some of its sexual politics are no more progressive than what you’d find in Halloween or Friday the 13th, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street does represent a different, more provocative punishment narrative. Rather than the young people being idiots who need to be killed, the teenagers in Nightmare are suffering because of the sins of their parents, and they need to redeem their parents’ sins in order to save themselves. Years before, the parents of a bunch of high-school kids had committed an act of vigilante justice: they cornered a known sex offender, Fred Krueger, in a warehouse and burned it down, with him in it. His body died, but he lived on in spirit form to menace their children in their dreams. The implication is that the parents didn’t obtain justice correctly—they did so in a way that was vengeful rather than noble—so Krueger's evil was never properly exorcised. The kids, led by Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), have to reclaim their lives from the horrible consequences of their parents’ mistake. Here, the young people are the heroes, and the old, “wise” folks are not so wise.
Scream(s)…of Laughter? The Slash Spoof is Born
Craven himself would help put the nail in the coffin of slasher cinema. By turning it into a joke. His Scream movies diced up the genre’s conventions and revealed how staid they had become. The only way to make slasher movies fresh was to make fun of their very existence, until the spoofs themselves become even more uninspired than the movies they’re making fun of (see: Scream 3 and 4).
That’s why Drew Goddard’s The Cabin In the Woods was such a revelation. More a legitimate satire than a spoof, it showed real affection for the genre, created a truly lovable group of college kids to root for, then came up with a hilariously mythic explanation for why they’d have to die—and even beyond that, why we’re filled with bloodlust to want to see them die. It’s the one and only entry in this entire genre that locates the mentality of wanting to see people slaughtered onscreen in the same part of the human psyche that used to find human sacrifices, gladiatorial matches, and public executions to be forms of entertainment.
Other than The Cabin In the Woods, the slasher spoofs have discouraged emotional investment beyond the level of light chuckles. In a sense, they’re not that far afield from the torture porn sub-subgenre, where fear of death (the essential ingredient for true horror) totally evaporates and is replaced by a longing for it. The audiences who go to see Saw or Hostel and get off on people being mutilated in increasingly Baroque ways are no longer afraid of Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger. They themselves have become Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger, even if they confine their bloodlust to the images they vicariously receive onscreen. These movies don’t encourage identification with the victims, they only identify with the killers. That’s the complete reversal of a true horror movie setup.
Getting back to Psycho, if we accept that part of what made it so great was its view that psychology couldn’t explain what happened, by extension, then, examining the biographical details of Norman Bates’ life shouldn’t be any more revelatory. Hence, the inherent (possibly damning) flaw of Bates Motel. Doesn’t an origin story by its very nature seek to dispel any mystery about its subject? And isn’t the presence of mystery an important part of horror? In the long run, that could be a major issue for A&E’s show. So far, though, I don’t think so, because Norman hasn’t shown any sign of being a psycho himself just yet, and also because the show seems to empathize so strongly with both him and his mother.
That said, the “high concept” mindset of Hollywood that demands that each little crevice of every major franchise be explored and explained in detail has meant the return of shallow pop psychology to a whole bunch of horror projects. There are almost as many horror franchise origin stories as there are superhero origin stories these days: Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning; Rob Zombie’s Halloween, which showed Michael Myers’ early days; The Exorcist got not one but two prequels; and now Bates Motel. It used to be that horror flicks were turned into franchises by getting sequelized. Now, if there are too many sequels, make a prequel, with all the details that the original filmmakers didn’t think were necessary to include in their first film.
So, yeah, slasher films—and really, horror movies in general—have all but creatively expired, even if they're still making box office ticket-takers happy. Compared to almost all of its copycats and successors, it seems that Psycho is the film equivalent of the Last Girl Standing: fierce, untainted, and as strong as ever.
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
[Photo Credit: A&E; Lionsgate; Compass International Pictures; Paramount Pictures; Dimenion Films]