Psycho, a thriller film that aired in late June 1960 — a tense month that followed the Soviet downing of an American U-2 spy plane, the ensuing collapse of the Eisenhower-Khrushchev disarmament summit, continued Red Chinese shelling the off-shore islands Quemoy and Matsui, anti-US riots in Japan, and the expulsion of Cuban diplomats – furthered the global atmosphere of excited dread. The audience was united before the screen in fearful anticipation.
The protocol of the horror industry (and further, the motion picture industry in general) was revolutionized by several movies in the early ’60s including Peeping Tom, Breathless, and L’avventura. However, nothing could have prepared the audience for the tale of a psychotic, though seemingly relatable momma’s boy who lived with the preserved body of a woman he killed 12 years previously.
Previous to Psycho, most horror films were either stationed in far away lands that were separated from the American homestead. The invasion of insanity and violence into the daily lives and everyday occurrences such as motels was highly unnerving to the American audience. The idea of a killer who can easily function in the company of other people and blend rather easily into society was also previously unexplored territory. Psycho exposed Americans to the concept of a hidden killer, a silent maniac, who could strike at any time upon unsuspecting victims. The killer was not only invisible, but relatable, which further revolutionized Americas idea of a killer. After Leigh’s shower-slaughter, the film switches to Bates’ point of view and the audience is invited to sympathize with his agonizing dilemma over concealing his mother’s horrific crime.
Psycho relocated horror from faraway places like Transylvania to the doorstep of the American household. The combination of the star spangled cast list, including then teen idol Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates and voluptuous Janet Leigh, and the previously unexplored horror material, made Psycho a social sensation. For a time, Psycho upstaged the ongoing presidential campaign in popularity. Years before the sensational The Rocky Horror Picture Show, teenagers turned the showings of Psycho in their local movie theater into rituals by returning with their friends again and again.
The audience’s response to Psycho even shocked Hitchcock himself. The cops had to be called to various movie theaters due to the disruption caused by panicking audience members. Audiences reacted as though they were the victims themselves- shrieking and fainting in the isles of the movie theater.
This reaction was not only limited to the horror aspects of Psycho. The film also pushed the censorship boundaries of the time period by displaying explicit sexuality. This is especially exemplified during the scenes that featured Janet Leigh in a revealing bra and slip- female sexuality in cinema was especially repressed. At that time, most US studio films were constrained by the puritanical Production Code, which dated back to the 1930s and restricted depictions of sex, drug use, drinking, offensive language and anything else that could “lower the moral standards of those who see it”. Because Psycho was unable to secure financing from studios for fear of the potential controversy, Alfred Hitchcock scaled down the budget and funded the majority of it himself. This allowed him the freedom to work outside studio restrictions and do the film the way he wanted to.
The film Psycho had a great impact on the society at the time. Not only did it change Americas definition of a murderer, but questioned the limits of female power and sexuality through Janet Leigh’s character and perhaps even right and wrong through the audiences sympathy with the killer. The films sensational nature allowed its revolutionary ideas to be conveyed to a huge audience, making it one of the most iconic films in history.