The release of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho revolutionized cinema and changed the horror genre forever. Premiering in 1960, it effectively marked a dramatic shift in the kind of horror seen on the big screen. This shift mirrors a larger, cultural change in the mindset of Americans as the 1950s aged into the 1960s. It represents the fears of America, and how the evolving world affected the widespread societal anxieties of those time periods.
Mid-Century horror films can be marked by the prolific science fiction subgenre. These movies can be dubbed “monster movies,” where the central problem, and the thing that brings the fear, is a monster, or at least something not human. Some examples being Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) and The Blob (1958). These films have many common themes, the most obvious being science creating the monster. Films such as Them! (1954) displays the atrocities of radiation. The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) show the dangers of alien invasions. The Fly (1958) has its plot set in motion when a fly gets caught in a scientist’s experimental teleportation device.
It makes perfect sense as to why science would be hailed as the enemy of this time. The 50s was the Atomic Age, with the threat of a nuclear winter looming over everyone’s heads. It was an age of uncertainty, where technological advances presented a world without control. In regards to said uncertainty, there was also the percolating fear of communism and the loss of the democracy that supposedly created the American dream. These factors create a phenomenon where the solution came in the form of the government, which used the same science that started the disaster to fix it.
All this changed when Marion Crane was brutally stabbed to death while showering in 1960s Psycho. The abrupt stabbing is reflective of the change this film brought to horror, where it broke up the comfortably uncomfortable stagnation of the 50s ago of convenience. Psycho had no aliens nor creatures, but rather a human that didn’t require radiation in order to frighten. It turned a mirror onto the 50s, asking them who the true monsters were. The 60s saw an age of civil progress, where Americans turned inward, shifting a focus on their own already occurring injustices, rather than the Cold War politics of the possible horror. In 1963, their president was assassinated. The Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam war raged on harder than ever before. The anxieties became more tangible, less idle. The foreboding trepidation made way to suspenseful angst, perfectly symbolized by the master of suspense’s most iconic work.
This transformation can be seen in numerous ways. The 50s red scare was reflected in the way that the monsters had no sympathy, a divergence from the charismatic horror villains of the 1940s. The monster flicks shed no empathetic light on them, othering and creating an “us versus them” mentality. The 60s brought the trend back, where they humanized the monster, both literally and figuratively. It did not try to other the enemy, it instead told Americans that the enemy could be us. Peeping Tom (1960) follows a voyeuristic murderer who the audience elicits sympathy for and The Sadists (1963) has a murderous young couple as its antagonists. Carnival of Souls (1962) tells the story of a woman dealing with her shattering mental health through the poetic allegory of a man following her.
Additionally, Psycho was a film that broke the aesthetic distance of horror pictures, which is the gap between the moviegoers’ consciousness and the fictional reality of the film. Monster films created this distance by having their settings and characters be generic. This meant that while it seems like it could happen anywhere, the viewer doesn’t register it as happening to their reality at all. It provides a security blanket where they know that, after all, it’s just fantasy. Psycho, and movies that follow destroy that distance. They do this simply enough by adding small setting details and dismantling restrictions caused by what was thought to be taboo. Psycho was the first film to feature a toilet flushing, injecting realism into the sheltered minds of the aesthetically distanced audience. In the mid-century, you left the theater feeling vulnerable, like one would with the social convictions of the time, but after films following Psycho, you left feeling attacked.
As a whole, Psycho had an immeasurable amount of impact on horror, a quantity of which wouldn’t even be felt until the 70s, which saw a renaissance of the horror genre that can easily be found with Psycho as its inspiration. The film created an entirely new genre: the slasher flick. Movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Black Christmas (1974) have the film seeped into its cores. It brought America away from the nuclear, prepackaged scary movies of the time and flipped them over their heads. It told them that no, the monster wasn’t some unfathomable scientific abomination, that it was me and you and your neighbor Norman. It represented the slaying of the American themes that permeated their escapist horror. It reminded us that our mutually assured destruction wouldn’t have to come from our weapons of war, that we were perfectly capable of ravaging each other all on our own.