Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is known for the fact that the main character is killed halfway through the movie. In 1960, when the film was released, this was an unprecedented dissection of a traditional character arc – conflict set-up, drive to accomplishment, resolution. However, it is not just innovative as a story structure; it is innovative as a fictional presentation of a serial killer.
Most serial killer movies follow a similar structure. The killer is set up as a killer, and then commits a series of grisly murders. Sometimes it is from the perspective of the killer, as in American Psycho, Monster and My Friend Dahmer, other times it is from the perspective of the investigators, as in Seven, Zodiac and Memories of Murder. Often, these deaths are preceded by a short vignette from the victim’s life. Before they are killed by the Zodiac killer, we see a California couple talking and enjoying a romantic picnic.
This structure provokes a cycle of anticipation and catharsis in the viewer. When we are presented with a random new character going through their everyday life, we know they will eventually be killed, and so these scenes become the most exciting. We wait for them to be killed, and there is a bloody satisfaction when they are. In these films, the entire story is now centered around the killer. There is only the killer, the police, and a world of faceless victims.”
Psycho radically breaks this structure. It’s a movie about what it is like to be killed. It is told not from the eyes of a killer, but from the eyes of his victim. Instead of devoting a three minute vignette to the victim before killing them off to the audience’s satisfaction, Hitchcock devotes 45 minutes – half of the film – to exploring the main character, Marion Crane. We get to know her as a person, and though she is not an especially good one, she is far from the worst that Hitchcock had put on the big screen. There is a small plot about Crane embezzling money from her employer, mainly written in to create the illusion that the film will be about her theft. Despite the crime she commits, we gain sympathy for Marion, and by the 45-minute-mark, Hitchcock has thoroughly put us inside her perspective.
Then, he tears the rug out from under us. After a long and leisurely scene in which she flushes evidence down a toilet and showers, she is suddenly murdered by an unknown assailant in the shower. It’s so shocking because it transgresses the story arc we are used to seeing. We didn’t know this was going to be a serial killer movie until then (part of the reason why Hitchcock took incredible measures to keep the plot a secret). We weren’t expecting her death, while reveling in the anticipation of the killer’s violence. Instead, we were genuinely invested in Marion as a person – through the power of fictional connection, we became her for 45 minutes. Her death is our death; it is the death of a real person.
Psycho was, and still is, a radical approach to serial killer films. Even the Robert Bloch novel upon which the film is based conforms to all the other serial killer stories. In the novel, Norman Bates is introduced from the beginning, setting the timer for the murder. Hitchcock’s brilliance came in the form of subverting the “Chekhov’s Gun” principle of storytelling, employed by Bloch in his novel.
Chekhov’s gun is the idea that: “if in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” In Psycho, the gun is fired, but we were never shown it hanging on the wall. This is what violent death is really like. It is unexpected, out of nowhere – it cuts our stories short. Victims of homicide do not pop into existence three minutes earlier in order to be killed. They had lives of their own that were abruptly ended (without any setup and payoff) by their aggressor. All other serial killer movies use the fabric of storytelling. Psycho rejects it.