Freud’s Concept of the Unconscious – Hitchcock’s Psycho

2078 words (8 pages) Essay in Film Studies

20/07/17 Film Studies Reference this

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In this essay I have analysed the famous Hitchcock film ‘psycho’ using Freud’s concept of the unconscious.

The bleak, monochrome film is made more effective by Bernard Herrmann’s sparse, but driving, recognisable score, first played under the frantic credits. The criss-crossing patterns, like mirror-images, are correlated to the split, schizophrenic personality of a major protagonist. The initial usage of staccato chords immediately provides us with a hint of detachment of a character to be involved, this along with the titles created by Saul Bass, (who was known for his style reminiscent of 1920s Soviet poster art) immediately provide the audience with apprehension. The screech of the violins is representative of birds, which we later see depicted throughout the film. Many of Hitchcock’s recurring images are important in Freudian dream interpretation. It is apparent right from the beginning what lies ahead is no ordinary story, and a strange feeling of anxiety swells with the visual and musical intro. Screenwriter Joseph Stefano adapted Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho into what would become one of Alfred Hitchcock’s influential works and one of the classic films of all time. We are led to believe Psycho is a film about cloak-and-dagger affairs, misappropriation, murder, secrets, and mental struggle; although in the darkness, there lies an examination of the temptations of wealth, sexual identity, gender roles, sexual expression, it depicts the appalling events which can occur with the departure of “normal” advancement. Psycho reiterates to its viewers that people sometimes provide a visual falsity of who they are and stories we have read as children of a bad person visually representative of their character traits in life are not often the case, and when the personal development has not reached an ‘expected’ level that immoral crimes may occur.

Sigmund Freud wrote about the human psyche in the 1920 essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and fully elaborated upon it in The Ego and the Id (1923). Freud’s theory of the subconscious consists of three parts, the Id, the Ego, and the Super Ego and the interaction between them all. The Id is considered to be chaotic, the center for animalistic impulses, and is governed by the pleasure principle, otherwise known as instant gratification. It is also the location of the libido, which is our “life force” or our sexual drive. The Id’s driving instinct is for self-preservation. The Ego is quite different from the Id, it is the broker between the Id and the Super Ego. The Ego is also the personality we show others, founded upon the reality formula. The Super Ego represents our conscience or moral standards, ideas of right and wrong which are permanently instilled in our minds by our parents or other authority figures. Freud regarded the mind to be like an Iceberg (see Figure 1) where the unconscious lies below the surface, and the conscious above. To conclude: the Id demands gratification, the Ego responds to reality (civilization), and the Superego which is our moral code and also is dictated by the demands of society.

The storyline of this film involves a young woman who through the pleasure principle of the id steals $40,000 from her employer. Marion is motivated by her desire to settle down and have a family with her lover Sam and to have financial freedom. Her super ego and the moral side have been outbalanced by her personal desires to live the perfect life with her lover. She ends up on a personal odyssey towards terror when she encounters a disturbed young hotel proprietor who is dominated by his mother. Throughout the film is a parallel to psychoanalysis as it attempts to piece together limited parts to understand as a coherent whole. Even the film’s cinematographic techniques reinforce individual images as being composed of fragmentary pieces. Part of Psycho’s visual appeal comes from Hitchcock’s use of montage. James Naremore quotes Hitchcock describing montage as “putting…little bits and pieces of film together”

Marion drives to her lover and a curtain of rain leads her to check into the Bates Motel. Paths and steps and roads are prevelant in Pyscho , the path between the motel and house which symbolises a path between the normal and the insane, in Psycho stairs lead to madness. In his documentary The PervertHYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Pervert’s_Guide_to_Cinema”‘HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Pervert’s_Guide_to_Cinema”s Guide to Cinema, Slavoj Žižek remarks that Norman Bates’ mansion has three floors, paralleling the three levels that psychoanalysis attributes to the human mind: the first floor would be the superego (Figure 2a), where Bates’ mother lives on; the ground floor is then Bates’ ego (Figure 2b), where he functions as an apparently normal human being; and finally, the basement would be Bates’ id (Figure 2c).

For Freud, most repressed memories relate to sexuality. One type, for example, derives from the primal scene, where the child witnesses his parents having sex, then represses the memory of the scene. In Psycho, Norman Bates is said to have murdered his mother and her lover after finding them in bed together. Freud identified the tendency of a person who has experienced a traumatic event to re-live the negative event over and over, in action, in memory, or in dreams. A key aspect of the theory is the urge to put oneself into situations where the traumatic experience is likely to recur. Some forms of sexual dysfunction are interpreted as examples of repetition compulsion – for example, an individual spanked as a child may seek out masochistic sexual experiences

The best known of Freud’s theories about childhood sexuality is named from the mythological king Oedipus, who killed his father and married his mother. As Freud described the complex, a young boy is sexually attracted to his mother, and as a result desires to kill his father in order to possess the mother. This forbidden desire is then repressed, only to return later in neurotic form. In popular Freudianism, mothers are often seen as encouraging the Oedipal complex through possessive or flirtatious behavior toward sons. As Norman Bates tells Marion Crane, “a boy’s best friend is his mother.” (But also: “A son is a poor substitute for a lover.”). Freud believed the purpose of psychoanalysis is to recover these repressed memories so that the patient can deal with them in the conscious mind. In Freudianism, a successfully integrated personality is under control of the Ego.

We see Norman engage in a discussion with Marion in the parlour where he reveals a desire to escape from “mother’s” tyrannical grip, but cannot gain the will to do so. Norman fails to achieve the self-mastery which Freud claimed psychoanalysis may provide. At this stage Marion retires to her room and decides to return to her old life.

In the parlour adjacent to Marion’s room we see Norman remove a painting to reveal a spy-hole. The audience is forced into Normans secret world as he watches her undress. Normal develops masculine and sexual feelings towards Marion. Bates alter ego of his mother is not happy about the prospect of an attractive young woman disrupting the love affair between mother and son. He even holds conversations with himself thinking he’s speaking to his mother.

While dressed as his mother, Bates with knife in hand murders Crane while she is taking a shower in one of the Bates’ motel rooms. During the shower scene the piercing violin strings play a large part in creating sheer terror during the horrific scene, screaming begins before Marion’s own shrieks. The murder during the shower scene destabilises the audience as the blade is pointed at her abdominal womb area, attacking the site of motherhood is perhaps a gesture to prevent her giving birth to men like himself – see Figure 3a and 3b. From Freud we learn Normans id becomes the core of the psyche and determining force causing the “mother” half of Norman Bates’ to commit murder. Normans psyche represses this information – causing the fear of reappearance. The compulsion to repeat is a “manifestation of the power of the repressed” (Freud, 1920), illustrating the strength of the influence of the repressed and the unconscious. 

After the murder of Marion and Norman disposing of her in the swamp next to the house, the spectators turn to Norman to replace Marion as its main focus in its subjective role. Later on, when Sam and Lila search for evidence regarding Marions disapparance, Sam Loomis distracts Norman as Lila quietly walks up to the house to talk to Normans mother. She finds in the lower floor Normans mothers dead body which has been removed from its grave and preserved. At this point we realise Norman is two people. Norman is metamorphosised and revealed as his “Mother” when as he attempts to kill again his disguise is stripped away and ripped off. The ‘Norman’ self completely dies, while his macabre ‘Mother’ self is brought to life, shown by his mothers hysterically-laughing face, animated and resurrected by the light.

Normans restricted personal growth this can be linked with the Oedipus complex. During the development of the Oedipus Complex the child develops a strong sense and powerful urges for sexual possession of the opposite sex parent. This urge gives rise to serious problems. The boy identifies with his father, and in doing so, internalises the fathers moral standards – consequently the boy takes on the morals from his father, forming the superego. In Normans case, the absense of his father has resulted in an unresolved oedipus complex which results in a weak superego. Perhaps it’s this reason why he struggles with identity disorder as he houses his mothers superego in attempt to compensate for the one which he never developed as a result of his fathers absence.

At the end of the film the psychiatrist explains: “When reality came too close, when danger or desire threatened that illusion, he dressed up, even to a cheap wig he bought. He’d walk about the house, sit in her chair, speak in her voice.” “He was never all Norman, but he was often only Mother.” Freud believed that traumatic events, usually from childhood, are repressed by the conscious mind. However, these destructive memories remain in the subconscious, where they are the source of neuroses and psychoses. The purpose of psychoanalysis is to recover these repressed memories so that the patient can deal with them in the conscious mind.

The audience, although they had received an explanation for Norman’s actions, is left terrified and confused by the last scene of Norman and the manifestation of his split personality. Faced with this spectacle, Hitchcock forces the audience to examine their conscious self in relation to the events that they had just played a role in. Psycho creates a fear not necessarily from the brutality of the murders but from the subconscious identification with the film’s characters.

To conclude, Hitchcock enforces the idea that all the basic emotions and sentiments derived from the film can be felt by anyone as the unending battle between good and evil exists in all aspects of life. The effective use of character parallels and the creation of the audience’s subjective role in the plot enables Hitchcock to entice terror and convey a lingering sense of anxiety within the audience through a progressively intensifying theme. Freud’s concept of the unconscious is so explicitly mirrored throughout the film. We have a seemingly normal woman whose balance is offset by a desire and which drives her to commit a financial crime. At the other end of the spectre we have again a man who most would think was harmless enough but due to his childhood and developmental restrictions has for other reasons allowed his unconscious to take full control of his conscious. According to Freud ‘the essence of repression lies simply in the turning something away, and keeping it at a distance for the conscious; Freud believed traumatic memories usually of childhood events are repressed as a defence mechanism which keeps the ego free of conflict and tension, however something can induce the momentary retrieval of a repressed memory and in the case of Norman Bates this triggered a psychotic in his ‘mother’ psyche episode.

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