Family architecture: A critical analysis of “Psycho” (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” was released on June 16, 1960, and three days later, it was Father’s Day. In hindsight, this seems like a commercial misstep. After all, wouldn’t Mother’s Day have been a more appropriate premier for the mamma of all slasher films?

While the role of “mother” in the film is obviously filled by Norma Bates, the role of “father” is not apparently filled by anyone. It is a psychological plot point of
“Psycho” that Norman Bates’s father died when he was five, and the film is infamous for its lack of a positive male figure, let alone a male hero (Norman is an antihero at best, ultimately a tragic villain).

There is, however, an arguably masculine presence in the film that fills the role of father figure for Norman. It’s not a character but a setting. In “Psycho,” for better or for worse, Norman’s father figure is the house up the hill from the Bates Motel.

It’s not as far fetched as it might sound. Father figures don’t have to be biological fathers, and they don’t even have to be people we know. The archetype of “father” can even be seen in national abstracts. George Washington was called “the father of his country” and Germany in the 1930s was called “the Fatherland.”

While archetypes can do without biology, what they can’t abide is a vacuum. Father figures are fathers because they have a relationship with a child. In the same way, the purpose of a building is, in part, constructed through its relationship with people. Churches, hospitals or schools can be defined by architecture or equipment, but they are also defined by the types of people–ministers, doctors or teachers–who inhabit them and by how those people use the buildings for their specific purpose–worship, healing or instruction.

This is no different for dwellings. Popular wisdom says that homes are houses that are lived in, in other words, that have a relationship with a family unit. To quote the poet Edgar Albert Guest, it takes a heap of living to make a house a home.

In “Psycho,” Norma establishes that we’re supposed to be looking for figures who represent the darker sides of parental archetypes when considering the Bates family. As a psychic force, Norma does not nurture or help fulfill her child. Instead, she is seductive and stifling to the point where she overtakes his identity.

The darker attributes of a father archetype, some seen in a reversed Emperor tarot card, are that it is austere, separate, unreachable, unflinching and aged. These attributes can also be seen in the Bates house as it relates to the other characters and settings in the film.

That the house is aged is clear in its architecture. It is Victorian in style and looks like it’s from another century, giving it the appearance of something that’s been around for a while. This is especially clear when the house is compared to the motel below, whose clean lines and accessibility for cars and travelers give it a modern, if utilitarian, feel.

Photography also separates the Bates house. The exterior of the house is photographed infrequently and from a distance. Unlike the motel, it is never photographed up close. It’s also typically shot by itself, without other characters or structures as reference. When they are seen in a shot with the house, characters are either tiny to the point of insignificance–the silhouette of mother seen from a window–or shoved in a corner to allow the house to take prominence–Norman noticing the house from a window of the motel, with Norman cut off around the shoulder but the house fully framed by the window.

The house is also separate from the members of the Bates family. Although Norman has a room in the house, we see him primarily occupy the motel office. One might think that Norma occupies the house, so the house has a connection to her, but that’s not quite right. Norma doesn’t occupy the house. She occupies Norman.

The physical distance between the house and the motel gives the house the room it needs to keep an eye on things, so to speak. Whenever the house is seen from a character’s perspective, its age and distance give it a look of seriousness, menace and authority.

Authority is one of the positive traits of the father archetype, but its negative aspect is authority that has turned cruel or violent. Notably in “Psycho,” the motel is the setting of the murder of Marion Crane, which was in a kind of defense of Norman. The house, on the other hand, is the setting of the murder of the private detective Arbogast, which was done to cover up the previous murder and is therefore in defense of the entire family unit.

One of the lasting horrors of “Psycho” isn’t that there are no parental figures for Norman to cling to–it’s that there are, terrible archetypes that Norman has perceived for himself out of a need for parental guidance. Like bad parents, they elevate his worst nature, subverting loyalty into violence and responsibility into guilt.

When you think of buildings in “Psycho,” what are you likely to conjure up (remember, a shower is not a building)? You probably think of the gloomy old house on the hill, overlooking the tired motel and its timid caretaker. Perhaps you see the harsh outline of an indistinct figure in an upper window. That architecture is as iconic for horror cinema and Norman and Norma Bates. Even if we don’t call the house “father,” it makes up the missing third of the Bates family’s nuclear unit. Perhaps it’s time to bring the house home.

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