Columns > Published on June 5th, 2014

Footnotes: Psycho

Footnotes is a look at how specific works of fiction were shaped by the culture of their time and how those works shaped the culture -- and are still shaping it.

In an interview for Douglas Winter's 1985 book Faces of Fear, Robert Bloch admitted that writing a psychopath is an uncomplicated process. Become one yourself, he said, which, as one might expect, is a rather effortless endeavor once you find your footing.

I discovered, much to my surprise – and particularly if I was writing in the first person – that I could become a psychopath quite easily. I could think like one and I could devise a manner of unfortunate occurrences. So I probably gave up a flourishing, lucrative career as a mass murderer.

Bloch, of course, is the prolific, pulpy writer of Psycho, the 1959 suspense novel that went on to become über-famous after the feature film adaptation hit a year later. It's ironic, this being Bloch's most famous work as well as Alfred Hitchcock's most famous film. Without the film, the novel would not be as well-known and Bloch would be just another damned good horror writer instead of one of the genre's most well-known practitioners and us fanboys would hang Hitch's hat on Vertigo or North by Northwest or a zillion other possible pictures not named Psycho.

But the film does indeed exist, and it's the reason Bloch was interviewed for Faces of Fear, and it's the reason Norman Bates is a household name, and it's the reason Bates Motel was just renewed for a third season on A&E.

Where does Bloch's story end and Hitchcock's begin, however? Is Bloch's novel not as important without the Hitchcockian treatment, as some critics and fans have opined? The short answer: Hell no. The longer answer?

Psychopathy was in vogue in the years between World War I and II. Maybe it was an unintended, subconscious side effect of raging against the Germans for so many years, but American popular culture turned its eyes and ears toward the psychopathic.

Horror is not about supernatural forces or things that go bump in the night; horror is about the fear we have within, buried deep in our brains...

The fascination began in 1933 when Fritz Lang's M was released in America. Lang's story of Peter Lorre as an average Joe obsessed with murdering children changed the perception, depiction and definition of psychopathy in American popular culture. Lorre's acting was superb as a guy-next-door type, and it baffled us that an ordinary man could be capable of such heinous atrocities. We didn't understand the fact that "ordinary people" could lack mercy or morality. And while that lack of understanding terrified us on one level, it fascinated us on another.

So, when director George Waggner's The Wolf Man came out in 1941 and quickly became the most successful of the Universal monster movies, it surprised no one. While some of us may think of werewolves as teenagers who dunk basketballs or the sworn enemies of vampires in sleepy small towns in the Pacific Northwest, in 1941 the lycanthrope was still an unfamiliar folkloric concept. It didn't go mainstream until Lon Chaney Jr. etched his portrayal of Larry Talbot into the annals of popular culture.

Talbot turned into a monster without remorse after being bitten by another werewolf, shedding light on the fact that a psychopath's thoughts and actions are not always under their control. And the powerful final scene, when Talbot turns back into human form after being bludgeoned to death by his own father, left viewers sympathetic. 

What Lang and Waggner and other auteurs of the time did was delve deeper into the realm of human psychology to help craft that understanding. They wanted to explore the human psyche's dark, distant crevices and bring to light the the fact that monsters came in all shapes and sizes and, sometimes, the fact that they were a monster to begin with was no fault of their own.

No longer was a psychopath a man or woman with a specific characteristic (a man without a job or a woman who enjoyed sex, according to psychiatric profiles of the time). We began to understand that a psychopath could be anyone — man, woman, child; averages Joes and average Janes; someone of any age or race or socioeconomic background. There was no mold anymore, no stereotype.

Like many other writers in the genre, Robert Bloch was a student of the Lovecraftian School of Horror, which shaped and molded his early writings. Personal correspondence with Lovecraft — Bloch was a member of the exclusive Lovecraft Circle — only advanced the iconic author's influence on Bloch, whose early work in the 1930s was heavily influenced by Lovecraft's.

It was only after Lovecraft died in 1937 that Bloch began to expand on his mentor's teachings. He took a cue from Lang and Waggner, as well as fellow influencer Edgar Allan Poe, and began to explore those dark, distant crevices of human psychology.

After a few so-so supernatural novels, Bloch broke through with Psycho in 1959, the same year he won the SF Hugo award. The novel, loosely based on the real-life story of serial killer Ed Gein, was Bloch's first attempt at telling a modern horror story using the abnormal human psyche as the basis for the scares, channeling Poe but also breaking the mold and creating his own unique style, as well as one of the most memorable fictional characters in the history of literature.

The most unique aspect of Bloch's approach, however, wasn't utilizing the abnormalities of the human brain as the basis for the horror; it was killing the story's central character, Mary Crane (Marion in the film), halfway through. While horror stories have long killed off characters at any point in a story, good luck finding a story before Psycho where the focal point for the first half is axed. (But please do look, cynical reader; I'm lazy.)

Norman Bates, of course, turned out to be Crane's killer, and his motives were absurd to readers and subsequent viewers of Hitchcock's film. They were strange. A seemingly normal Everyman with an Oedipal complex and a split personality? That seems like your Everyman today in 2014; in 1959, it was nearly unfathomable.

That was what Bloch accomplished with Psycho. He introduced to the American mainstream that Everyman psychopath. He spawned a fascination with serial killers, their motives, and the abnormalities of the human psyche, a fascination that Hitchcock and Anthony Perkins immortalized on film.

Bloch built on the legacy of storytellers that came before him — the Langs, the Waggners, the Lovecrafts, the Poes — and he expounded on the lessons he took from each of them: that horror is not about supernatural forces or things that go bump in the night; horror is about the fear we have within, buried deep in our brains, and the fact that anyone can become a psycho.

About the author

Ryan is currently at work on his first novel while also prepping the launch of a podcast called "the 45 minute radio hour."

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