I don’t know why the trailer for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is so interesting but I can’t look away. It’s nothing but Hitchcock walking around his movie set, talking about his movie, talking about his movie for six minutes and thirty one seconds, a movie-trailer eternity. The camera is high and his hands are in his pockets. He speaks slowly and deliberately. He is himself, but it’s not clear if he is in a real or imaginary place. The copy reads: The fabulous Mr. Hitchcock is about to escort you on a tour of the location of his new motion picture “PSYCHO,” but when he starts talking, I’m not sure if he’s talking about a movie at all.
Psycho was based on a book based loosely on the life of Edward Theodore Gein, a man who killed two people, two women, and was sentenced to life in an insane asylum. Gein was also a body snatcher. He dug corpses out of graveyards and made trinkets from their remains. After he was arrested, police searched his house and found four human noses, nine human masks, nine vulvae in a shoe box, ten female heads with the tops sawn off, chairs upholstered with human skin, bowls made out of human skulls, a woman’s head in a paper bag, a woman’s head in a burlap sack, a belt made from female nipples, bedposts made of skulls, a pair of lips on a window drawstring, and a lampshade made from a human face.
Good afternoon, Hitchcock says, Here we have a quiet little motel, tucked away off the main highway, and as you see, perfectly harmless looking. When in fact, it has now become known as the scene of a crime.
It’s as if Hitchcock has stepped inside his own story, removed his characters and stopped time. He’s not in any sort of hurry. He walks slowly and seems to be making this up as he goes. His voice is thick and soothing and he forms each word before letting it out of his mouth. The side house is for sale, he says, but who’s going to buy it now?
Psycho wasn’t the only story inspired by Gein. Other include: Silence of the Lambs, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and American Horror Story. After his mother died, Gein began constructing a woman suit made out of women. He used only bodies that looked like his mother. He sewed the pieces together.
Throughout the trailer, Hitchcock drops hints at what’s happened. He leaves clues. But he never gives anything away. In business terms, Hitchcock is making the hard sell. And he needs to. Nobody was interested in this film being made. Even after Hitchcock offered to waive his usual $250,000 director fee and shoot the thing on a shoestring budget, the studio still refused. So Hitchcock paid for the production himself, and after filming, insisted on controlling every aspect of the publicity. Actors were sworn to secrecy. Journalists were not given pre-screenings. Hitchcock sent his assistant out to buy up every copy of the novel so no one would know the ending. When the film finally released, audiences were not allowed into theaters after the movie had begun: The picture you MUST see from the beginning or not at all…for no one will be seated after the start of…PSYCHO.
Part of what makes this trailer interesting is Hitchcock’s refusal to finish his own sentences, his constant cutting away, changing the subject. He knows something we don’t, and he gives us just enough information to string us along. This is suspense stripped down to its barest bones. Storytelling at its most basic. A man looking into a camera, earning our attention. And he does earn it. For six minutes and thirty-one seconds he earns it. One commenter on YouTube wrote, “Hitchcock’s trailers are better than other director’s films.”
Gein claimed to have been in a trance those nights he visited the graveyard. He dug up middle-aged women, brought their bodies home and tanned their skins. He did not have sex with them. They smelled too bad. Art Schely, a detective who searched Gein’s house, who found the noses and the masks, died soon after of heart failure. He was horrified by what he saw. And yet we want to see these things, too. We want the details — the number of skulls, the number of bodies, the size of the hacksaw blade. We want to see the photographs. We want to see the film based on the book based on real life events. Before he started digging up bodies, Edward Gein read death-cult magazines and adventure stories, particularly those involving cannibalism. Our interests tell us things about who we are. And that’s the other reason why the Psycho trailer is interesting: Because we’re all a bunch of psychopaths.
Hitchcock could step into his own fantasy world, but could he step back out again? You put on your woman suit, but can you get it off? The line between what we imagine and what we experience grows thinner.
In the trailer’s final scene, Hitchcock takes us into the bathroom. Before he opens the door, he pauses and says, The bathroom. It’s hard to imagine someone not knowing what’s coming next. They’ve cleaned all this up now, he says, You should have seen the blood, but then he stops himself, It’s too horrible to describe, he says, even though we want him to describe it. We want him to describe it exactly, in perfect detail. We want to know how much blood and how it pooled against the sides of the tub. We want specifics, but he doesn’t give them to us. Instead he reaches for the shower curtain. He reaches for the shower curtain and the music turns sour. He reaches slowly. His shadow is cast on the wall behind him. And when he pulls back the curtain, a woman is standing there naked, screaming — shrieking — into the camera. Hitchcock’s fantasy has materialized around him. His characters have come out of the woodwork — were they here the whole time?
And it seems so obvious now I can’t believe I missed it. After all, Hitchcock has known things no one should have known. He knew where the victim was stabbed at the top of the stairs and the sound of her back breaking on the way down. He knew where she slept and where she kept her clothes. And then he snuck into the bathroom and he pulled back the curtain. We watched him do it. We watched and we didn’t think anything of it.
After Janet Leigh saw the shower scene in theaters she was afraid to take showers. She waited weeks and then she locked the doors. She should have known the scene was fake. She stood there for five days filming it. The blood was Bosco brand chocolate syrup. But still the fantasy and the reality bled together. Still it was hard to tell the difference between what she’d imagined and what she’d experienced. I’m starting to wonder if there is much difference at all. You flip a switch and the faces all light up. The vulvae are like mice in a box. And your suit, your woman suit, made from seventeen women, is waiting for you in the back of your closet. And if you couldn’t step back out of your fantasy, if you’d been stuck inside long enough, well you might as well start giving tours, start showing people around. Here we have a quiet little motel, you might say, your hands in your pockets, your expression relaxed, your diction perfect.
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