Thursday, February 28, 2013

Shocking the System: The American Horror Film After PSYCHO

My friend Maya Montanez Smukler invited me to do a guest lecture for her online course "This Picture is Condemned! Censorship, Controversy, and the Movies" at The New School University in New York, NY.  The unit was on American horror films in the 1960s and 1970s, and she showed Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.  In case anybody is interested in what my classes are like, here is my guest lecture:

Watching Psycho in 2013, it can be difficult to understand how shocking, terrifying, and traumatic it was for audiences watching it in 1960.  I first saw it when I was around 11, after having devoured a steady diet of Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers, and I remember thinking "What's the big deal?  It's not so scary."

In order to understand why Psycho was so controversial, and why it both disrupted our culture and represented traumatic real world disruptions, I find it useful to explore some historical background information.

When Psycho was released in 1960, mainstream American horror movies were mostly geared towards kids and teenagers who wanted to make out at the drive in.

The Blob (1958)

During this sequence in 1959's goofy House on Haunted Hill, a plastic, glow in the dark skeleton would fly over the audience in the theater while kids laughed and screamed and threw popcorn at it. 

Psycho's ad campaign, which insisted that "No one...but NO ONE...will be admitted to the theatre after the start of each performance" promised similarly fun, gimmicky entertainment.

I find that this context makes it somewhat easier to imagine the terror and discomfort that audiences felt when they encountered the film's startlingly realistic depictions of violence and perversion (not just its depictions of shocking pre-marital post-coitus, but its suggestions of an incestuous relationship between Norman and his mother).  People often cite Psycho's deceptive, seemingly graphic violence and its unusually explicit sexuality as the primary reasons for the controversy that surrounded it, and they're certainly not wrong.  However, I think that Psycho also stirred up a lot of controversy and disturbance because it was one of the first films in which such violence and perversion took place in an incredibly ordinary setting.

Before Psycho, horror films often took place in the distant past and/or in far off lands (like Transylvania).  They featured over the top characters, performed with gusto by highly theatrical actors like Vincent Prince.  Roger Corman's hit film The House of Usher, released the same year as Psycho, exemplifies this type of horror film.

Psycho was unusual.  It took place in the present day, in relatively humdrum Phoenix, AZ and a non-glamorous part of California that could have been Anywhere, USA.  It was set in a somewhat sad and isolated, but seemingly clean and typical, roadside motel.  Many of the film's audience members had probably stayed at one just like it.  Its characters had boring jobs and seemingly average lives.  Unlike the glamorous Hollywood spectacles for which Hitchcock was known in the 1950s (like 1959's North by Northwest, which directly preceded Psycho), or a gothic Edgar Allen Poe adaptation, Psycho didn't offer the comfortable distance provided by stereotypically "Hollywoodsy" cinematic qualities.

And then there was Anthony Perkins!  Most people tend to think of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates these days, if they think about him at all.  But before Psycho, he was known as your typical all-American boy.  Like Zac Efron, if you will.  He played cowboys and romantic leads.

The Matchmaker (1958)

That, I think, is why Psycho scared people so much.  It told people that incest, murder, and other unspeakable horrors and/or social violations could be happening in your own backyard.  The perpetrator and victim of these horrors could be the boy next door.  The romantic lead.

The house of serial killer Ed Gein.
The house of Norman Bates.

For people who knew about the grotesque murders committed by Ed Gein that took place in the 1950s (upon which both Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre were partially based), Psycho signaled--for one of the first times--that the line between horror films and reality had begun to get much thinner, and blurred.

A "skull bowl" found in Ed Gein's house in 1957.


Beginning in the 1960s, the comforting cohesion of 1950s popular culture (which represented a certain conservative ideal of "American life" that was never accurate) fell apart.  Psycho, with its representations of sexual repression, independent women, alienation, the failure of the nuclear family, and generational discord signaled the beginning of the social and cultural tensions that exploded on and off movie screens throughout the 1960s and 1970s. After Psycho, the American horror film became very interested in debunking all of the institutions that our society holds near and dear.




Dawn of the Dead (1978)

And, of course, the nuclear family:

The horror genre became unusually adept at literalizing cultural anxieties that manifested themselves at the time.  In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, you can find traces of many social trends that were taking place in the early 1970s.  
We see hints of feminists' and gay liberationists' deconstruction of the nuclear family's many forms of oppression in Sally's determination to overcome the abuses of a vicious patriarchy.  

We see the generation gap, and how young people distrusted and villainized authority figures (sometimes characterizing them as killers) after Vietnam and Watergate.  

We see anxieties over corporations' destruction of small town businesses.  Leatherface's family, after all, "used to be in meat," until food corporations put them out of business and led them to resort to cannibalism.  What would the authors of Food, Inc. say?  Many people watching the film at the time must have thought about the Manson family, a cult of killers who, like Ed Gein, reminded us that evil could be living right near the house that your grandparents used to own, and could infiltrate "normal society" at any time. 

The Manson Family's Ranch
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

The tensions and uncomfortable emotions created by the social unrest of the 1960s and 1970s became concentrated, literalized, and amplified in American horror films.  No wonder people were scared.


  1. This is a great article, and I especially like that you've included Holy Terror among the examples.

    1. Thank you!! I just re-watched HOLY TERROR recently--it is so unforgettably creepy.

  2. Hi Ben, can I ask where you found the "No one...but NO ONE...will be admitted to the theatre after the start of each performance" image? I'd love to have a higher resolution copy!

  3. Hi Sam! I wish I had a high res copy for you, but I actually just found it through google image! I think I typed in "Psycho advertisement"?

    1. No worries Ben, I'll keep looking.

      Good read by the way.