Dissecting the Macabre: Psycho (1960)

Hey there, Creepy Peeps! This is something I wrote for my horror film class while going tos chool for my Film Studies degree! I thought it went well with this week's Dissecting the Macabre video, which you can watch here. Enjoy!

Peeping Tom also draws an uncomfortable connection between entertainment and violence, wondering where one stops and the other starts” (Muir 212).

Peeping Tom (Powell, 1960) was ahead of its time as a self-referential horror film; “more particularly, however, it is a horror metafilm: a film that has as its task to expose the psychodynamics of secularity and fear” (Clover 169). Powell forces the audiences into the point-of-view of the killer through the camera work, editing, and staging. By focusing on the killer in Peeping Tom, the audience is forced to confront the idea of their consumption of violent or disturbing images in the cinema.

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One example of this occurs in the scenes where Mark (Karlheinz Böhm) has filmed himself murdering his latest victim and then developing the footage and watching it. In the opening sequence, we watch Mark murder a prostitute through his camera. After the cold open, we see the credit sequence which is the event we just saw in the opening, but we see a man watching it on a projector. In these scenes, we watch Mark watching the screen and there is a fascination and addiction to not only the camera but the projection screen, as well. The audience is forced to confront the idea of themselves watching a violent horror film such as this for enjoyment. In this sense, it’s not so difficult to relate to the killer, as Powell points out repeatedly in the film. Peeping Tom is essentially a film within a film if we view it as the documentary of Mark’s life, started by his father, continued and finished by Mark (Clover 170).

There are similar instances in Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) when Norman (Anthony Perkins) watches Marion (Janet Leigh) through peepholes in the walls. By showing the reactions of the killer, the audience is asked to identify with the madman instead of a hero or final girl. This emphasizes the monsters that can live in human form by forcing us to follow the killer through the film, this is true in Peeing Tom and even in Psycho as Hitchcock kills off many of the would-be protagonists. Since Hitchcock continuously gets rid of the “heroes” of the film, we have no other consistent character to follow except for Norman.

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Powell and Hitchcock both emphasize the voyeuristic nature of the horror film audience by cutting to close-ups of the killers’ eye. These close-ups not only show the reactions of the killer but also helps the audience to relate to the killer as the eyes are the windows to the soul. Furthermore, the audience is reminded that they are watching a film about a psycho killer for enjoyment, just as the killers are watching their victims with anticipation.

Peeping Tom, along with Psycho, changed the structure of the classic horror film by placing the audience in the shoes of the killer and asking them to identify (and even sympathize) with the killer. Peeping Tom “is a self-conscious meditation on the relations between a sadistic voyeur-subject and the exhibitionist objects he murders” (Williams 26). Using point-of-view shooting, cuts to the reaction of the killer rather than the victim, and close-ups of the killer’s eye, the focus of the film becomes the killer, not the victims. By focusing on the killer, the audience confronts the idea of their own enjoyment of violent media. How can someone judge a manic for filming and re-watching his murders when we flock to the theaters to see the Freddy Kruegers and Michael Meyers dispose of some teenagers?

Thanks for reading! I'll leave links to watch both Psycho and Peeing Tom on Amazon Video (these are Affiliate links):

Psycho (1960)
Starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam
Peeping Tom
Starring Nigel Davenport, Jack Watson

Works Cited

Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton: Princeton U Press, 1992. Print.

Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That's Left to Know About Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Milwaukee: Applause Theatre & Cinema, 2013. Print.

Williams, Linda. "When the Woman Looks." The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. 2nd ed. Austin: U of Texas Press, 2015. 17-36. Print.