The Original Psycho

You’ve probably seen Psycho, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous films (and my personal favorite). If not, you’ve definitely heard the music, or at least seen the shower scene or one of the movie’s many parodies. If not, there are some spoilers ahead, but honestly, it’s been forty-one years since the movie came out, so if there’s any kind of statute of limitations on that kind of thing, it’s definitely passed.

Personally, I saw the movie for the first time a few years ago, having seen plenty of pop-cultural references to it, but never the film itself. And then about a month ago I was in the library when I stumbled across the original novel, and I absolutely had to read it. I’m not one for most genre writing, and I’d never actually read a horror novel, but I figured since I can handle the movie (I’m a bit squeamish), I could handle the book.

Psycho (the book) is only 142 pages long, and though the dialogue is actually quite different from the movie, it often reads like a movie script. But the most interesting part, to me, was getting inside the characters’ heads in a way the movie can’t. Especially Norman’s–he so firmly believes his mother is alive. Mary (Marion in the movie, but just Mary in the book) is much more developed, and her troubles are both clearer and more complex:

The opportunity to go on to college had vanished, at seventeen, when Daddy was hit by a car. Mary went to business school for a year, instead, and then settled down to support Mom and her kid sister, Lila.

The opportunity to marry disappeared at twenty-two, when Dale Belter was called up to serve his hitch in the army. Pretty soon he was stationed in Hawaii, and before long he began mentioning this girl in his letters, and then the letters stopped coming. When she finally got the wedding announcement she didn’t care any more.

She meets Sam (the half-naked man in the first scene of the movie) on a cruise that her sister insists she take after a bit of a nervous breakdown. But, as in the movie, Sam is deep in debt and, unlike the movie (as in the half-naked first scene), she rarely gets to see him while she waits for him to pay them off (PS: every time you see Janet Leigh’s bra, take a shot).

The prose in Bloch’s book is quite terse (a lot happens in those 142 pages) and to-the-point; there’s nothing too poetic about it. At times, it borders on cheesy, with its dramatic chapter endings:

Mary started to scream, and then the curtains parted further and a hand appeared, holding a butcher knife. It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream.

And her head.

And obvious foreshadowing of danger and death:

But no help for it–she’d made her grave and now she must lie in it.

Why did she think that? It wasn’t grave, it was bed.


Then they were on the sidewalk. The late afternoon sun cast slanting shadows. As they stood there the black tip of the Civil War veteran’s bayonet grazed Lila’s throat…She raised her face defiantly, and the sharp shadow line slashed across her neck. For a moment, it looked as though somebody had just cut off Lila’s head….

And yes, that last ellipsis is part of the text: the last punctuation of the chapter, to be exact. But there’s something delightful in the book’s tendency to turn cheesy. As you read, especially if you’re reading in one sitting, it tends to suck you into its noir-ish world where such things don’t seem so silly. And this book really is more about the story than the prose–if it didn’t serve as a supplement to a classic movie, I’m sure I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much. But I’m always interested in how stories can morph from page to screen, and how casting and location can affect things (the book’s Norman is fifty-plus and chubby, not a charmingly shy young man, and the movie has Mary heading coastward instead of inland). I would recommend watching the movie, reading the book, and then watching the movie again.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *