Exposing Psycho: How Hitchcock’s Famous Film Aided in My Recovery from Trauma
For Becky and Ryan
“Film should be stronger than reason.” –Alfred Hitchcock
As the therapist crossed her fingers in front of my eyes, my thoughts turned back to Enid, the woman who had taken care of me and my brother in her home when we were young children. In a flash that seemed to come from nowhere, I saw a familiar mise en scène, the basement of the Bates house at the climax of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film, Psycho. Lila Crane (Vera Miles) stands in horror, mouth agape, as a naked light bulb swings above her head and the chair swivels to reveal what’s left of Mrs. Bates, the skull with its empty eye sockets and grinning mouth hidden behind the salt-and-pepper wig tied up in a bun. “That evil bitch,” a voice inside me said and repeated out loud, “That evil, evil bitch. I want to kill her.” I could hear the violins from the famous Bernard Hermann score stabbing into my brain, but now it was me metaphorically stabbing the lady with the salt and pepper hair tied into a tight bun. It wasn’t Mrs. Bates but Enid, my babysitter. I wanted to kill that bitch once and for all.
This is a true story about a metaphorical convergence of a real woman I knew, I’ll call her Enid, and Mrs. Bates, the ontologically complex figure of Hitchcock’s most famous horror film. My visions of the two women collided during a therapy session with Becky, a practitioner from my local behavioral health clinic. In my mid-forties, I was seeking help for Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a condition diagnosed ten years before but suffered for as long as I could remember. Becky was using a therapy called EMDR to lead me through a series of troubling childhood memories. EMDR, or eye-movement, desensitization and reprocessing, a method I will explain in more detail later, uses bilateral eye movements to revisit troubling or traumatic memories from the past and to reprocess them by bringing to the surface mental images or other sensory data that is associated with the experiences and then closely examining them through “talk” with a therapist.
I was grappling with a story that seemed like it had come from another lifetime. When I was four years old and my brother three, we spent our days in the home of Enid H. and her husband, I’ll call him Opal, in a small white house on a tree-lined street in our rural Iowa town. One day during an EMDR session, my brain landed inside this house, where I recalled fragmented scenes, some vivid and real, others sketchy and metaphorical, about what I came to understand as instances of emotional and sexual abuse. One day during the eye movement segment, my brain involuntarily transformed into a film reel, constructing a pastiche of scenes from Enid and Opal’s house that were intercut with those from the cinematic world of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. In the therapist’s chair, my brain seemed to be making these connections involuntarily, with no clear meaning attached to them. Becky, who didn’t seem surprised at all, explained the connection as affect, that the feeling of horror elicited by my experience of watching Psycho as an adult gave me an emotional correlate to my experience as a very young girl. “That’s what you felt in that house,” she said.
Since EMDR therapy is intended to engage the patient’s own brain in the reprocessing of disturbing events or trauma, the affective connection was evidence that my brain was doing the work it was supposed to. And yet, what did my story’s convergence with a film text suggest about the metaphorical power of cinema? How might affective and cognitive responses to film, especially horror film, offer a key to unlock our own inner worlds, perhaps the corners that most terrify us? In what ways does a therapy patient whose work is to “pull forward” scenes and narratives from life replicate the position of a film spectator, and vice-versa? Why did my own brain choose Psycho as a way into that little white house in a small Iowa town?
Mr. and Mrs. H.’s house was fronted by a screened-in porch with an old-fashioned mail slot; at the south side was a clothesline that opened to a beautiful meadow of shimmery, green grass. To the back was an enormous, sheltering tree, and I remember crunching my small feet over enormous piles of triangular, colored leaves, some partly skeletal in the dead of the fall as we walked toward a back door that led into a long, narrow kitchen. Enid, whose tanned, wrinkled face and black eyes were set in front of a graying hard-twisted bun at the back of her head, wore an old-fashioned house-dress, often of a blue print as I recall, and black buckled shoes with a heel. Though she appeared neat, her breath was sour, and her body smelled of unwashed clothes.
Opal, a smallish man with a bald head the color of milk, slumped slightly in his kitchen chair, smiling weakly with a placid expression as he rested his hands together between his knees. As Enid towered over us—I hardly recall her sitting—his body seemed to curl inside itself in the way of a patient in an institution, either an ancient, senile man or a mentally impaired boy whom visitors might find drooling in a far corner. A mechanic at a local garage who came home every weekday noon for lunch, Opal wore a blue work shirt with his first name stitched in cursive over the front pocket. When he took off his cap, his ghost-white, bald head revealed a pattern of raised blue veins. He spoke in a voice barely above a whisper, smiling a sweet, sleepy, half-moon that barely revealed his teeth.
In later years, I learned that the two had somewhat of a reputation for the bizarre. Folks riding by their house on a summer day could see condoms that had been washed and hung out on the clothesline to dry. This strange sight was the subject of town folk chatter, local lore. Mealtimes at the H’s house ranged from the bizarre to the nightmarish. Every day at noon, Mrs. H. would spoon a variety of foods on to our plates and stand over us in that towering way of hers, instructing us to take a bite of each in turn, moving clock-wise, now a meatball, now a bite of rice, now a pickled beet, now a spoonful of cottage cheese. Varying the pattern was not allowed. Once when I left the table, saying that I wouldn’t eat her vegetable soup because I didn’t like it, she grabbed me, holding me in a tight grip as she forced a big spoonful of it into my mouth until I vomited on a silver tray that she was holding under my chin. I can still hear the metal of the big spoon scraping against my teeth.
In the living room, a full Kleenex box was perched on a small shelf, but when I came down with a cold, Mrs. H. gave me only one tissue for the day; when I was done sneezing or blowing, she instructed me to carry the glistening wad back to the table and set it down in front of the full box. Once after I soiled my pants, she laid me on the couch under a blanket and instructed me not to move, especially not to get up to use the bathroom, while she went out to work in the garden. Even as I felt Mrs. H’s cruelty on me, I watched how she seemed to delight in and fawn over my brother. I remember thinking that she must not like me because I was a girl.
Aside from the kitchen, the bedroom is the place that I remember most distinctly, small and plainly furnished with a double bed covered in a patchwork quilt. In one memory, Wilbur and I together atop the bed quilt: he is wearing a tool belt and leering at me. Against the white of this bedroom wall, another haunting vision appeared to me in an early EMDR session: Opal standing upright, his arms sheathed flat against his sides in the blue-gray mechanic’s uniform, the matching work pants drawn around his ankles. The frame is very distinct to me—the cadaverous, blue-veined head, the fish-belly-white penis.
Opal’s spread-eagle, naked below-the-waste stance appeared to me as a spontaneous memory picture in an early EMDR session with my therapist, Becky. The method, founded by Francine Shapiro, is based on the idea that human beings possess an information processing system that integrates experiences and stores memories in a way that is accessible and useful. Learning takes place when new material is forged with the old. When a traumatic or negative event occurs, the system may break down, causing memories to be “dysfunctionally stored without appropriate associative connections and with many elements still unprocessed” (EMDR Institute). Memories of the trauma may then resurface through flashbacks or the “intrusive thoughts, emotional disturbance, and negative self-referencing beliefs of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)” (EMDR Institute).
Shapiro developed a method whereby a pattern of bilateral eye movements (e.g. the patient’s eyes following the therapist’s fingers as they move back and forth in a regular pattern) will prompt the brain to dislodge memories that have been improperly stored in the memory network as a result of a deeply disturbing or traumatic event. Once the raw materials of the memory surface, the talk sessions move the patient through a “desensitization” (the “D” of EMDR) process that allows her to look more closely at the puzzle pieces, to work at reassembling a fuller picture and then “reprocess” (the “R” of EMDR) in ways that encourage a more adaptive understanding of the traumatic event.
In her inaugural publication, EMDR: The Breakthrough Therapy for Overcoming Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma, Francine Shapiro, now Senior Research Fellow Emeritus at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California, describes a number of early case studies in the method, with patients reprocessing trauma from a variety of situations—a woman who was trapped in the rubble of her Oklahoma City apartment building on April 19, 1995, after the bombing of the Federal Building, a combat veteran from Vietnam, and a rape victim who stayed silent and held her body over her young daughter to shield her from a view of the attack.
In terms of affect, my own experience of sitting in the therapist’s chair while I was processing the memories from the H’s house felt a bit like going to the movies to watch a horror film, as Becky’s notes from one session reveal: “During today’s processing, large amounts of material surfaced regarding the babysitter’s home, husband, affects, somatic sensations of fluid rushing up in her body from abdomen to head (she noted symbolic to blood rushing in anxiety or vomit exiting the body) and thoughts of self from the time of early childhood . . . Jacque simultaneously pulled a symbolic parallel from the movie Psycho to the feelings from these early life experiences” (Becky’s case notes 10/5/2009). Why was this happening? What did it mean? My investigation of this question eventually led me to research and think about how film, particularly horror film, and more particularly Psycho, might provide a worm-hole into my memory. Could a reading of Psycho turn a key that would open up a world of understanding for me?
Francine Shapiro’s concept of an information processing system is closely akin to the concept of a “sensorium’ as it is posited by Angela Ndalianis in The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses–a system that “physiologically . . . comprises the sensory and intellectual capacities of the body; it processes sensory information, and, in doing so, it facilitates our understanding of and reaction to the world around us” (3). Ndalianis argues that “While film is an audio-visual medium, sight and sound often migrate their sensory effect onto other sense modalities, therefore making the horror experience all the more potent” (6) and that New Horror Cinema “deliberately addresses its spectator through an intense and unforgiving corporeality that demands the attention of the senses. Onscreen, characters suffer graphic violence at the hands of the monsters, and this violence continues to be played out offscreen and across the body of the spectator” (5).
In my own EMDR sessions, when scenes from Psycho intruded into my memories of the H.’s house, my therapist Becky explained the phenomenon as affect, that the imagery from the film was “symbolic or metaphorical and congruent with the felt sense or affect or emotion of that time.” In other words, she said, my mind had stored the memories of that past time as trauma and then in a therapeutic situation “pulled forward” (her words) the scenes from Psycho to help explain what I felt in that house. “It’s not that the houses looked the same; it’s that they felt the same,” she said.
Even though Becky’s explanation was satisfying to me, I still couldn’t help asking, “Why Psycho?” Again, Ndalianis’ work on the horror film gave me a helpful point of departure: “Since the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1960, the direction of the contemporary horror film increasingly led to a disturbing confrontation between the spectator and his or her worst fears about the collapse of identity, system and order (15). Noting that “the horror genre has been one of the longest surviving and consistently popular genres in the cinema,” Ndalianis explains that “The entry of the monster—whether Nosferatu, King Kong, Count Dracula, or Michael Myers—serves a crucial function in the horror film: by embodying society’s dark side, it tests the rules, morals and ideological structures that operate in our culture, holding these structures up for analysis, contesting their worth, and exposing the instability of the system that informs the social order. The horror film is about crossing boundaries. One side of the border constitutes order, the other chaos; the horror manifests itself where meaning, which is established by civilization, collapses” (15).
The reader can see these themes in “Her Body, Himself,” the first chapter of Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, where Carol J. Clover presents an inventory of slasher film conventions, naming as examples The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, The Eyes of Laura Mars, Dressed to Kill and The Silence of the Lambs, which Clover quotes one reviewer as naming “a Nightmare on Elm Street for grad students” (232). The “appointed ancestor” (23) of all of these, according to Clover, is Hitchcock’s Psycho. The generic conventions are as follows: first, “a killer propelled by psychosexual fury, more particularly a male in gender distress” (27); second, “The Terrible Place, most often a house or tunnel. . . . What makes these houses terrible is not just their Victorian decreptitude, but the terrible families—murderous, incestuous, cannibalistic—that occupy them. So the Bates mansion enfolds the history of a mother and son locked in a sick attachment” (30); third, “pretechnological” (31) weapons like “knives, hammers, axes, ice picks, hypodermic needles, red hot pokers, pitchforks, and the like” (31); fourth, a victim or victims, who might be of any age range or gender, but “most often and most conspicuously [a] girl” (33) who dies, most often “because [she is] female” (34); fifth, “the final girl,” who survives because “she alone . . . finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or to kill him herself (ending B)” (35).
Clover’s unpacking of the horror genre allowed me to see my own story as an (albeit metaphorical) example. (I felt crazy, but not that crazy). Mr. and Mrs. H. were the “terrible family,” and their house the “terrible place,” where her ritualistic and sadistic controls over my eating in the kitchen were paired with Mr. H’s positioning of me as a spectator for his act(s) of sexual exhibitionism in the bedroom. In both situations, there was no option for escape. Beginning at around the same time, when I was four years old, I began a pattern of spontaneously gagging when I was expected to eat in a public place. I had no control over my body. I remember feeling that “there was something wrong with me,” together with a profound sense of extreme alienation, a malady so deep and pervasive that it could not be named or cured. I felt shameful, undone. When EMDR allowed me to connect this experience with my time at the H’s house, I began to see that there might not have been “something wrong with me,” as I had always believed. Rather, instead, was there “something wrong in the house.”
After processing the memory of Mr. and Mrs. H.’s house for a number of weeks, my mind spit out the image of the dark skull head with its salt and pepper bun. It was Mrs. Bates, turning there in her chair in that final scene of Psycho. But it was also Enid. The convergence of the images of Mrs. H with the preserved corpse of Mrs. Bates offered me an interesting window into what might have been the psychosexual dimensions of my experience there. Mrs. H., wearing her house dress and buckled shoes, appeared normal but revealed herself to be monstrous in her extreme parsimoniousness and desire to control what came in or went out of my body– food, snot, excrement. My therapist challenged the local story that hanging washed condoms on a clothesline was simply a sign of parsimonious, suggesting rather a form of exhibitionism. Although I have never been able to explain the memory of him sitting next to me with the tools, another EMDR elicited an image of a woman’s genitals being tortured with a pair of pliers. I have no evidence that the two images are connected, but I wonder. If I was, at the very least, a target for his sexual displays, her knowledge of this behavior and her cruelty against me made sense, as did my instinctive understanding that she meted me out for punishment because, like the victim Carol Clover describes in the typical horror film, I was a girl.
When I thought more deeply and read more widely about Psycho, interesting metaphorical connections between my experience and the film began to emerge. In both dramas, the female victim’s position as a sexual object is tied to rituals of eating. In my own story Mrs. H.’s most violent abuse took the form of a forced act of eating where the metal spoon became a crude, penetrating object. In Psycho, Marion Crane’s figurative and literal appetites, first for sex with Sam Loomis in the dingy hotel, and then for the sandwiches that Norman serves her in the parlor of the Bates Motel, are conflated in Mother’s warning to Norman: —“Go on! Go tell her she’ll not be appeasing her ugly appetite with my food, or my son” (Anobile 74). “We’re all in our private traps” (Anobile 79) Norman has said to Marion, yet she cannot guess that she has already been ensnared, put on a trajectory that will reach its “logical” conclusion (according to the logic of the horror film) when she is knifed to death in that famous scene that Francois Truffant and others have likened to a metaphorical rape (269). Parlor to Cabin #1 to shower: the Bates Motel has become “the terrible place,” an apt metaphor for what the H.’s house represented to me, the place where I felt trapped, “undone.”
Norman’s words of apology to Marion for Mother’s bad behavior, “uh, uh, Mother—m-my Mother, uh—What is the phrase? ‘She isn’t quite herself today’” (74) prefigure Marion’s fate, too; after the shower scene, she won’t be “herself” either, so to speak. Robert Samuels’ “Epilogue: Psycho and the Horror of the Bi-Textual Unconscious” invokes the psychoanalytical theories of Jacques Lacan to speak about what the viewer might see as the literal and figurative “dissolution” of Marion Crane that takes place in the shower when, after she is killed, her blood mixes with the running water and washes down the drain. Samuels notes that Norman’s efforts to “mop up all of Marion’s feminine fluids” will not “be able to erase all of the blood from his memory” (159) and draws a link between the bathtub and the swamp: what remains of the woman whose life-blood has been washed down the drain is submerged in the mud, the dark corollary to the white, sterile bathroom. Both serve as reservoirs for the woman/waste who has been killed because she dared (albeit unwittingly) to trespass and arouse.
My own experiences of abuse in the H.’s house, as I have previously mentioned, were centered around bodily fluids and wastes—the vomit, the Kleenex snot wad, and the excrement that Mrs. H. instructed me to keep inside my body while she went out to tend to the garden. EMDR, as I mentioned earlier, allowed me to connect (early on, by way of the sensation of rising fluids that I reported to Becky) these experiences and my own feelings of “dissolution” that attended the spontaneous gagging episodes that I experienced during the same time.
Perhaps the most interesting and suggestive metaphorical link between Psycho and my own story occurred in a frightening session where Norman-as-mother, the monstrous double, the figure on the stairs wearing a house dress and ladies’ black, old-fashioned shoes, became Opal. The man was in the guise of his wife, their two subjectivities melded into a macabre creature that in the film was poised to kill Arbogast and in the world of my own “film” was seeking to destroy me. Here, in Norman Bates, we see the signs of what Carol Clover has called “gender distress” (27). The image of Norma-as-mother running down the stairs reanimated Enid and Opal as one being rather than two, a unit acting together. Again, the metaphor suggested a psychosexual triangle, the possibility that Enid’s cruelty and Opal’s exhibitionism were related rather than isolated incidents.
As I moved forward in my processing of the babysitters’ house, I, much like Carol Clover’s concept of horror film’s “final girl,” enacted metaphorical revenge on my perpetrators, as Becky’s notes of 10/19/2009 reveal: “Material surfacing in today’s desensitization and reprocessing was largely comprised of internal dialogue expressing anger toward the woman and husband babysitters, imagery created from Jacque’s adult imagination that manifested in the emotions of her child and adult self toward the couple—violence toward both in the form of battery, dismemberment, gruesome images one might see in a horror film, and imagery of them and their home being paper and of self crushing them up. It should be noted the couple is deceased and Jacque has no homicidal or suicidal ideation plan or intent . . . . Jacque was also able to verbalize a visual and affective sense of confinement much like she felt there as a young child, with a part of her wanting to get out and experience life freely . . . . Suggested she begin to write her own narrative to the material that is reprocessing” (Becky’s case notes). At that point, I set out to write this story.
I should note that while Marion Crane’s fate is uncommon, mine—sexual objectification and mental cruelty of a young child—is not. I wondered, and still do, if the popularity of Psycho and its cinematic descendents is a function of how this story speaks to a primal fear, perhaps, as Ndalianis’ posits, of a monster, often in disguise, and of our own failure to see him for what he is in time to save ourselves from annihilation in whatever form—physical, emotional, psychological. In addition, memory work like this is difficult and demands that we ask challenging epistemological questions: how do we know what we know? How does knowledge that cannot be spoken manifest in the body? How can the body become a means of expressing what words cannot? I am certain that every detail of what happened to my four-year-old self in that house is unknowable. One day, though, in EMDR session, I walked out of that house, my feet again crunching under the fall leaves, but now with a greater sense of peace that came from a greater understanding of what had happened to me and, perhaps, why. I am still uncertain about the line between what part of my knowledge is “real,” and what part is “metaphorical,” but perhaps that is an epistemological distinction that all of we humans grapple with and one that our experience of cinema and other art forms can illuminate as we struggle to bring meaning to our lives.
Anobile, Richard J., ed. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho: The Film Classics Library. New York: Darien House, 1974.
Clover, Carol . Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Derry, Becky, LCPC. McDonough District Hospital Behavioral Health. Macomb, IL. Case Notes.
EMDR Institute, Inc. 2011. 19 July 2015.
Ndalianis, Angela. The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2012.
Samuels, Robert. “Epilogue: Psycho and the Horror of the Bitextual Unconscious.” Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho: A Casebook. Ed. Robert Kolker. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 147-162.
Shapiro, Francine and Margot Silk. EMDR: The Breakthrough Therapy for Overcoming Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
Truffant, Francois. Hitchcock/Truffant: The Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock by Francois Truffant. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.
The seeds for this auto-ethnography were sown when I was four years old and suffered abuse at the hands of my babysitters, a middle-aged couple. I told no one what had happened to me for twenty years. Later, in my forties, my therapist suggested that I work with one of her colleagues, Becky, who did EMDR therapy. As I reprocessed, I recalled more details about the babysitter and her husband; came to understand a likely connection between my experiences with them and an eating disorder; and (to my surprise) uncovered the metaphorical link to my memories of watching a horror film, as my essay explains. This therapy was like opening a box and watching all the mysteries of my life tumble out, for this early abuse set me up for a series of disturbing encounters that I lacked resources to understand or repel. My interest in writing about trauma, in part, led me to co-found and co-advise a magazine, SITREP: Veteran Perspectives on Combat and Peace, for Western Illinois veterans and service members.
Jacqueline S. Wilson is an Assistant Professor of English at Western Illinois University, where she coordinates and teaches Basic Writing. A graduate of WIU’s College of Business (Marketing, ‘86) and Liberal Arts and Sciences (MA in English, ’88), she finished a Ph.D. in at Northern Illinois University in 1999, where she studied American Literature. She has published articles and a book chapter on the American short story, focusing on works by Edith Wharton, Henry James, Stephen Crane, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Joyce Carol Oates. A 2002 article “’Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’ as an Initiation Story” has received widespread online interest recently, perhaps because its examination of the main character Connie as a victim of rape and murder raises questions directly related to the #metoo Movement.
Recent publications include creative non-fiction and poetry in Gravel, the Blue Bear Review, the Fem, Mulberry Fork Review and Ink-in-Thirds. She currently serves as co-advisor for SITREP: Veteran Perspectives on Combat and Peace, and her recent conference presentations have focused on the work of engaging students who write about trauma, including gun violence, police brutality, child abuse and war. In her spare time she sings and plays guitar, folk and alt-country, and enjoys spending time with her teenage daughter and their dogs and cats.