This article was originally an essay for my media and cultural studies degree. Was originally not going to post it as I do not think it was up to the standard of the rest of this blog. However after seeing students use my work, thought it maybe helpful to someone. May have another one of these next month as trying to post every month this year while working on a more in-depth project. Also would just quickly like to state that although Freud’s work is basically never used within modern psychology (it is still taught to my knowledge but more as a history of the subject with a quick follow up of the many criticisms) it still bleeds into our culture works.
Alfred Hitchcock is known as one of the greatest directors of all time, this however was not merely a consistence. Sloan states that “One of the Many Directions in which Hitchcock’s own lust for knowledge sent him was on a quest for an understanding of human psychology” He applied this knowledge within his films with a variety of methods. This was generally very subtle not even being noticed by many viewers. However this does not mean they were not affected by it. The reason his films are so notorious is because they do not only work on a conscious level but he was able to make the audience feel a range of emotions without even realising why. This was a very powerful tool and he used to its full effect within Psycho (1960). Offbeat camera angles during many of the murder scenes are a prime example of this as they create a sense of uneasy in the audience. The film deals with the theme of psychoanalysis on the surface narrative while having hidden narratives that cause the audience to have a subconscious feeling of unease. Hitchcock was known for his use of sexual themes within his films and Psycho is no exception. It is impossible to say whether or not Hitchcock did this due to his learning of Freudian Psychoanalysis however many people have made connections between many Freudian theory’s and Hitchcock’s Films. This essay will look at how the Oedipus complex is at the heart of Psycho with focus on the character Norman Bates.
Freud’s Oedipus complex can be split into two similar theories, the male and the female. The theory itself does not change much; however we shall be focusing on the male Oedipus complex as this is what is important when studying Norman Bates. Freud (1991, p. 243) describes the Oedipus complex as “While he is still a small child, a son will already begin to develop a special affection for his mother, whom he regards as belonging to him; he begins to feel his father as a rival who disputes his sole possession” Freud’s Oedipus complex has an integral relation to his theory on castration anxiety. He believed that during the Oedipus complex the son would fear castration from the father, causing the son to want to kill his father and take his mother as wife. According to Freud’s psychosexual development that is made of five stages of a child’s sexual development, the Oedipus complex is part of the phallic stage aging from three to six. Each stage relates to a body part of the child, a fixation in one of these stages can cause the child to not full develop and have adverse effects into adulthood.
Before starting the analysis, we can look at the poster for the film which gives possible clues to the subtle use of the Oedipus complex. The idea at its simplest is that of a love triangle between the mother, father and son. The poster symbolically displays this by having Marion in between Sam and Norman, a love triangle, as Sam is her partner and Norman displays sexual attraction towards Marion. The title has also been split into 3 pieces to possibly emphasise this. Lewes (1995, p.107) states that “Sexual strivings are renewed at puberty when he seeks an object that unconsciously resembles his mother”. This idea can be symbolically applied to the poster, it shows the love triangle we see in the film but what if it also shows the love triangles we do not. These are of Norman, his mother and father or her second husband. Norman stays as himself on the poster, but it could be implied that he is childlike as only a small image of his head is used. He even has a confused childlike expression when he could quite easily have had one of the many creepy expressions he shows throughout the film. Marion can be seen as Norman’s mother, he displays attraction to her during the film so it is possible she even looks similar to his mother. She is also wearing underwear implying the sexual nature of the Oedipus complex. Sam on the poster very much looks like a father figure, with his top off he looks very masculine when compared to Norman.
The Oedipus complex is interwoven into the relationship of Norman and his mother. Although throughout the film Norman’s mother is part of his split personality. It appears throughout the film that he has supressed this and may not even be conscious of it. Elliott (2002, p.22) when speaking about Freud’s work gives a possible legitimacy to this idea when he states “Selfhood is formed under the sign of the loss of the object, in an attempt to become like the lost love.” Norman killing his mother and lover in a fit of rage causes him to lose his object (his mother) and attempts to become his mother keeping her alive. Most of the film Norman acts as himself, however at times his mother side would come out; the reasoning for this has a direct relation to the Oedipus complex. Throughout the film Norman shows clear attachment to his mother, he reacts aggressively towards Marion when she suggests that his mother might be better suited in a home. Shortly after this Marion goes back to her room in the motel, she is getting unchanged to have a shower. Norman moves a photo in the office that reveals a hole in the wall where he can see her getting undressed. Norman feels sexual attraction towards Marion causing his mother side to take over and kill Marion. These acts have a direct relation to the Oedipus complex, Marion is seen by Norman on a conscious and un-conscious level as a threat towards his relationship with his mother. The conscious threat is of an ideological basis the idea of his mother being taken away from him. The un-conscious threat is his sexual attracts towards Marion will get in the way of him relationship with his mother, this cause Norman to turn to his mother side and kill Marion.
The bird is made reference to a lot within Psycho, however what many do not understand it has narrative and Oedipus complex context. Within the narrative Norman has put a lot of pictures of birds around the motel and stuffing birds is his hobby. This explains how he would have the skill, knowledge and recourses to attempt to preserve his mother’s body. Normans mother is throughout the film seen as bird like, Norman tells Marion and his mothers narration at the end explain how she is no more harmful that “one of his stuffed birds”. There are many subtle examples of this, one of which happens during the films most iconic scene, the shower murder. Marion is killed by what we believe at the time to be Norman’s mother, what is interesting is how the scene is shot. It looks as if the mother is pecking at Marion with the knife like a beak. The music reflects this as well, we hear bird like screeches that synchronize with the pecks of the knife. This explains what context it has in the narrative but what about the Oedipus complex. Well Phillips (2008, p.14) maybe be able to shed light on this when he states “And like a bird of prey, “she” preys on the young women to whom Norman is attracted.” Hitchcock is making the reference that Norman’s relationship to his mother is similar to that of a mother and a bird, very close. Hitchcock goes on to explore the idea of bird attacks as an embodiment of sexual tension in his next film The Birds (1963).
Although Hitchcock encoded this idea into the film as a more subliminal theme there are also hints to the Oedipus complex in the dialogue. Norman states during the film that “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” This directly relates to Normans feels towards his mother, although it is clear that he resents what she has become his relationship is still very strong. Some may believe that the quote “Well, a son is a poor substitute for a lover” disproves this as the Oedipus complex is all about sexual desire. However a lot of Freud’s work is based around dreams and the sub-conscious, the Oedipus complex is no different in that respect. Freud (1916, p. 243) states how “in a large number of people, dreams disclose their wish to get rid of their parents and especially of the parent of their own sex. We may assume that this wish is also present in waking life and is even conscious sometimes.” This idea that the Oedipus complex is primarily a sub-conscious effect fits into psycho perfectly. Norman shows a lot of anger towards his mother, yet his sub-conscious keeps their relationship tight.
Norman shows signs of resentment towards women. An example of this is when Arbogast (the private detective) is questioning Norman and he says “And I’m not capable of being fooled! Not even by a woman.” Norman felt emasculated by Arbogast this caused his resentment of women to come out. This idea becomes even clearer when Normans pasted is understood. His experience with women would have been very limited due to the way his mother treated him. This explained why the psychiatrist at the end of the film when he says “His mother was a clinging, demanding woman, and for years the two of them lived as if there was no one else in the world.” Norman’s experiences with other women would have been prevented by his mother fear of losing her son. The mother in Normans head emasculates him so it is possible his real mother would have done this as a child.
This essay has so far focused on Norman’s relationship with his mother, as this is one the key themes in the film. However it is important to consider what Norman’s relationship with his father was like. Norman’s father we are told died when he was five, this is very interesting as this coincides with the phallic stage in Freud’s psychosexual development. This is the stage, at which the Oedipus complex is developed. Gordon (2008) states “Normans’s Father, we are told, died when the boy was still young, and so his death allowed Norman to live out the oedipal fantasy of having his mother to himself, an attachment that lead to his intense jealousy when Norman’s Mother took another Lover.” Norman could now live without the fear of castration and developed a very close relation to his mother. Although it is very likely she mistreated him, his Oedipus complex would affect his subconscious forcing him to stay with her.
During the film it is stated the Normans mother finds a new lover and marries him. Jealous that he no longer has his mother to himself, he kills them both. This event has connection to the Oedipus complex. Norman’s father dying young means his oedipal fantasy could be lived out. The arrival of this new man and relationship to his mother would cause Norman to have a father figure. Norman kills the two of them but then tries to keep his mother alive in his head and by preserving her body. Did he mean to kill her? It is impossible to say but the way in which he is trying to keep her alive implies it could have been a mistake. He may have been trying to kill his new father figure to regain his oedipal fantasy. When doing so he killed his mother by mistake. His conscious mind would not have been able to deal with the loose of the one person he loved, so he brought her back to continue living his oedipal fantasy.
In conclusion it is clear that Hitchcock employed the theory of the Oedipus complex within psycho. Norman losing his father during the phallic stage caused him to live out fear of castration and was able to fulfil his oedipal fantasy. He and his mother grew very close over the years even if she mistreated him. The arrival of a new father figure caused jealousy and possible re-emergence of castration anxiety. He kills them both if he was trying to kill his mother or not is unclear. However what is clear is that even after her death he could not let his oedipal fantasy go so kept her alive in his head and by preserving her body. Hitchcock employed the use of the Oedipus complex in a very smart way; he displays it in the film similar to how it affects the person on a conscious and unconscious level.
Elliott, A. (2002) Psychoanalytic Theory: An Introduction. Hampshire: Palgrave.
Freud, S. (1991) Introduction lectures to psychoanalysis. London: Penguin Books.
Gordon, P. (2008) Dial “M” for Mother: A Freudian Hitchcock. Massachusetts: Rosemont Publishing & Printing Corp.
Lewes, K. (1995) ‘Psychoanalysis and Male Homosexuality’ in Diamant, L. and McAnulty, R. (eds.) The Psychology of Sexual Orientation, Behavior, and Identity: A Handbook. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, pp. 104-121.
Phillips, J. (2008) Cinematic Thinking: Philosophical Approaches to the New Cinema. California: Stanford University Press.
Sloan, J. (1998) Alfred Hitchcock: A Filmography and Bibliography. California: University of California Press; New Ed. (1995, p.27)