Private Traps and Poor Meek Women in Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ and ‘Murder!’ [The New Flesh]

Sam Moore examines the gender complexities in 'Psycho' and 'Murder!'

Psycho

Welcome to The New Flesh, a column from Sam Moore where they look at the narrative of trans-ness in horror and the thorny ways in which we’re able to relate to and respond to it. First their first entry, they examine Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Murder!

Not much about Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark suspense film, and one of the first cinematic stabs at the slasher genre, has aged poorly. The director’s craft continues to offer new things on repeat viewings; the performances are uniformly strong. Anthony Perkins’ Norman in particular is fascinating in his easy charm, and the relationship it has with his dark impulses. The (in)famous shower scene remains one of the best killings in the history of horror. But there are parts of the film that creak with time, like the doors of those abandoned rooms in the Bates Motel. One of those scenes is the reveal that the film’s killer, the eponymous psycho, is Norman Bates himself, wearing his dead mother’s dress, and embodying the version of her that lives rent-free inside his head. 

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This scene feels dated because the image of Norman in a dress is revealed in a jarring way. It betrays the ways in which the film has created tension up until this point; so much of the uncertainty and dread comes from the ideas that surround the act of looking; of perception and being perceived, the fraught back and forth of projection.

When Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) drives out of the city, she’s convinced every cop who crosses her path is looking for her. The final moment of voyeurism punctuates the shower scene; fading from the shower’s drain to Marion’s lifeless eye. Looking, and being seen are loaded with uncertainty; with fear. And while there’s a temptation to say that Psycho has aged poorly because of the wider meanings behind Norman’s psychology—explained in wildly unnecessary detail by a psychiatrist in the film’s last scene, a preamble to a truly chilling final moment— it’s this messiness, and the relationship it has with some of Hitchcock’s earlier films, that makes it an ideal starting point for the messy, fluid, monstrous idea of gender in horror films.

Throughout the history of the genre, the politics of gender have been thorny and, often, “problematic”. It’s seen with the puritanical point of the blade in slashers; the ways in which femininity becomes monstrous; the complexities of agency, violence, and victimhood in rape-revenge dramas. But when these ideas of gender are looked at beyond a cis perspective, then it becomes even more complicated. The Representation that surrounds it becomes increasingly negative. After all, one of the earliest major examples of what we might call a trans character in horror is Norma(n) Bates.

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The question then becomes what—if anything—to do with that bad representation; if it can be explored, reclaimed, or simply needs to be discarded to cinematic history, hand waved away by saying that things were different back then. Which, of course, they were. There’s only so much that can be gained from looking at the gender politics—or any politics—of film history through a contemporary lens; all it’s likely to provide is something that doesn’t measure up to how we view the world now. And at first glance, Psycho is one of those films. But, decades before Psycho, Hitchcock made another film where gender becomes a smokescreen that hides a killer: 1930’s Murder!

It would be an oversimplification to assume that either Murder!’s Handel Fane (Esme Percy), or Psycho’s Norman is trans. But their relationships with gender offer an interesting way of exploring worlds that lacked this kind of language. In the expository monologue of Norman’s psychology and motivation at the end of Psycho, a transvestite is described as “a man who dresses in women’s clothing to experience a sexual change or satisfaction”. Essentially, it’s something inherently perverse, driven by sex more than anything else. But it’s everything that happens beyond and beneath this explanation that shines a light on gender that’s more interesting than it might first appear to be. 

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Handel Fane is initially a female impersonator in an acting troupe. He’s described as being “100% he-woman” and a “leading man”; nobody in the cast of the film sees him as anything other than a man in a dress. But when Fane leaves acting and becomes a trapeze artist, the drag element of his act remains the same. It’s no wonder that one of the few lines that Fane overhears when on stage is “are you afraid of a poor, meek woman?”

As the film goes on, and the gender politics reveal themselves, the answer to this question becomes “yes”. When Fane is performing on the trapeze—its imagery, the shadow of ropes formed into a noose, is the most visually striking part of the film—the men investigating him argue that dressing as a woman is “an extremely clever way of hiding”. But it seems that Fane is hiding most explicitly when dressed as a man, a fate he shares with Norman Bates.

In his dinner conversation with Marion, Norman expresses the belief that we’re all “caught in our private traps,” as well as saying he was “born” in his. He adds, “I don’t mind it anymore. I do, but I say I don’t”. Whether or not this trap of birth is Norman’s gender is never explained. But this sequence—Norman at his most charming, most human, most pitiable—invites this reading, and so does the inaccurate idea that he’s a “transvestite”. Even this language didn’t exist for Fane in Murder! It’s impossible to divorce these films from the wears-dress-to-murderer pipeline that they make all too explicit, just as it’s impossible to ignore their dated, regressive politics. 

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But these films—and so many others that grapple with gender in horror—are more complicated than their motivation and their murders. Just as their lack of language and the violent connotations of their relationships with gender are a product of their time, so are the nature of these private traps. What each of the two men has found is a way to try and navigate their relationships with gender; where Fane’s is rooted in performance (in so many ways), Norman’s is twisted by his own violence, and the way that it was projected onto Mother.

In the final moments of Psycho, Norman sitting alone in a cell, as Mother’s voice insists that she wouldn’t even hurt a fly, capture the dark heart of Norma(n). While the pronouns change in Mother’s voice, the question of gender remains unanswered; a gesture towards uncertainty being the only available option for a world that contains a vast, violent lack where language ought to be.

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