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A Short Analysis of How Mental Disorder and Instability are Portrayed in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho

Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Psycho”, while entertaining and thrilling to watch, may shed light on how outsiders perceive mental disorders and mental instability in others. This short analysis discusses Norman Bates’ mental state specifically.

By Melle Hsing

Published 2:15 EST, Sun November 7th, 2021

Warning: spoilers of this film are contained in this article.

Often when we talk about mental illness we may view it in a scientific light — the pathophysiology, symptoms, and consequences of the illness. However, one advantage of film is its ability to portray the realistic and humanistic side of mental illness in a cohesive manner through mise-en-scene, characterization, dialogue, and sounds which pull the audience into the world of those suffering from the mental illness. Such is the case of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, in which the curious psyche of Norman Bates is heavily explored through stylistic devices. Instead of understanding mental disorder from a scientific perspective, this article explores how mental disorder — dissociative identity disorder in this case — presents itself directly through the character of Norman Bates, a peculiar antagonist with a traumatic childhood.

Excerpt 1 – The Last Conversation between Norman Bates and Marion Crane

“She just goes … a little mad sometimes… we all go a little mad sometimes! Haven’t you?” – Norman Bates

Psycho | Cinema Sips
Norman Bates talking to Marion Crane as one of his stuffed birds stares threateningly at the audience

In this scene where Norman Bates talks about his mother with Marion Crane, there is a disturbing atmosphere created by the tense non-diegetic sound of the strings being played in the background as well as Bates’ quietly menacing tone at the suggestion by Marion Crane that he should put his mother into a mental institution. The tension within this scene suggests that behind the formalities there is a mysteriously dark and ugly side to Norman Bates, which has not yet been revealed (also shown through the darkness of the room). Throughout the play, the music changes based on the tension of the scene, particularly in the presence of Bates which hints at the fact that the music may be a motif for Bates’ disturbed mental state. The music in this scene thus foreshadows Bates’ mental instability which is further supported by the unusually anxiety-inducing environment even demonstrated through Crane’s increasingly concerned facial expression in the close-up shots as Bates carries on the conversation. 

We can observe the slight transition from the persona of Bates to the persona of his mother, as Bates’ speech becomes much slower and more dragged out just like how his mother speaks at the mention of a mental institution. Furthermore, the jealousy of “his mother” is hinted at by the cold stare which Bates imposes on Crane, emphasized by the protruding white in his eyes against a very dark background, suggesting that he is tethering on the border between his identity and his mother’s identity (or at least his mother as perceived by him). This scene can therefore be a representation of Bates’ dissociative identity disorder early on in the film before it is finally revealed at the end, hinted to the audience through the clever use of music, tone, and lighting.

For an audience who is not familiar with dissociative identity disorder at the start of this film, such clever use of film techniques to foreshadow the central mental disorder in the film would not have been obvious during the first time watching it. However, I believe that this notion of a mental disorder or instability “going under the radar of awareness” is intentionally portrayed in order to reflect the fact that such mental disorder often go unnoticed to a passersby in real life and that they do not present themselves obviously to the eye.

Psycho revamp changes 'transphobic' shower scene | News | The Times
orman Bates dressed up as “Mother”

Excerpt 2 – The Final Scene

“They’re probably watching me. Well, let them. Let them see what kind of a person I am. I’m not even going to swat that fly. I hope they are watching. They’ll see… they’ll see… and they’ll know… and they’ll say… ‘why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly…’”

This simple yet extremely unsettling scene of Bates’ narration using his mother’s voice reveals his dissociative identity disorder in its clearest state to the audience, completely reigning over Bates’ own personality. The huge negative space in the long shot of him sitting in a chair creates a sense of isolation where he seems detached from reality, left to roam silently in his own thoughts. Furthermore, the window with bars to the right can be viewed both as a symbolism for the prison of Bates’ mind as well as the opening with which people may view and judge people who are mentally disoriented. The irony of Bates talking cynically about his murder crimes in his mother’s voice further shows his alienation from his personal identity at the end as he truly believes that he is his mother. Finally, his chilling smile cross-dissolved with his mother’s skull clearly depicts the fact that his alternate identity and his identity as Bates are inseparable to him as a whole, and that he would continue to cope with his condition even after his crimes have been exposed.

Norman Bates - Alchetron, The Free Social Encyclopedia
Norman Bates’ terrifying smile 

The traumatic past including the death of Bates’ father and his own severe attachment to his mother influenced the development of his dissociative identity disorder which demonstrates the detrimental impacts of a poor family network on a child’s mental stability. Indeed, dissociative identity disorder is quite rare but is still able to be developed under extremely severe childhood circumstances.

Melle Hsing, Youth Medical Journal 2021

References

“Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personality Disorder).” Cleveland Clinic, my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9792-dissociative-identity-disorder-multiple-personality-disorder.

Norman Bates. Alchetron, alchetron.com/Norman-Bates.

Norman Bates Dresses in His Mother’s Clothes to Kill a Guest in the 1960 Original. The Times, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/psycho-revamp-changes-transphobic-shower-scene-025tpcflx.

Psycho, 1960. Cinema Sips, cinemasips.com/2020/10/26/psycho/.

By Melle Hsing

Melle Hsing is a student at Chinese International School in Hong Kong. She is interested in the fields of medicine, biology, and neuroscience.

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