How suspense is crafted in 'Psycho'
By taking Robert Bloch’s dark novel Psycho and turning it into the cult classic film, Albert Hitchcock did both a favor and a possible disservice to the story. On one hand, Hitchcock brought to life a fascinating psychological thriller and made it available to the masses. But by doing so, Hitchcock may have created the biggest spoiler in horror literature history. The novel was published in 1959 and the film premiered in 1960, giving audiences only a year to read the novel before the movie came out, and less than year before Hitchcock attempted to buy the book off the shelves.
The film was a success, but the twists had been revealed. Did the film’s revelations destroy the novel’s hard work of crafting a suspenseful masterpiece? Absolutely not. There’s a reason why Alfred Hitchcock was drawn to make Psycho into a film. Robert Bloch beautifully crafted a thrilling, suspenseful story that kept readers on their toes. Even having seen the movie beforehand, readers are sucked into Bloch’s plot; his storytelling not only creating, but masterfully maintaining suspense throughout the novel. Suspense is defined by Dictionary.com as “a state or condition of mental uncertainty or excitement, as in awaiting a decision or outcome, usually accompanied by a degree of apprehension or anxiety.” Bloch creates and maintains suspense in Psycho with various techniques, such as: emotional weight, tension, keeping the stakes high, applying pressure, creating dilemmas/complicating matters, and being unpredictable.
Emotional weight is a big player in creating suspense. When readers care about the characters and can identify with them on some level, what happens to the characters or what the characters are feeling becomes important. Bloch’s protagonist Mary Crane is a flawed character most people may be able to identify with. Although she gets into a dire situation because she stole money from work, her intentions are understandable. Mary cares about her boyfriend Sam and her younger sister Lila, which comes through strongly in the novel. After Mary meets her demise, Lila and Sam become the protagonists. The emotional weight from Mary’s character is then shifted from her and applied to them.
Bloch creates tension in the story by keeping the stakes high. He moves from scene to scene with an occurrence that raises the stakes. Mary takes the money and runs, she gets off on the wrong exit, she decides to stay at the creepy hotel with the creepy manager, and she agrees to go to his house where his creepy mother is! Each step is a step forward, building tension and keeping readers alert. Bloch’s description of scene, character, and inner thoughts are perfectly blended, generating a tense and anxiety fueled atmosphere. Bloch then applies pressure to the atmosphere by continuing to raise the stakes. Even after Mary is killed, the story is still evolving with Lila and Sam on the search for her.
Going hand in hand with keeping the stakes high, creating dilemmas and/or complicating matters amps up the tension and suspense. From the beginning of the novel, matters are complicated: Mary steals a large sum of money from her boss. She acts on impulse and a dilemma is created. Mary decides to drive out of town to her boyfriend’s home, but as she drives realizes the complications of her decision. It’s easy to care about a protagonist’s dilemmas, but Bloch also crafts issues for the antagonist Norman Bates.
Norman struggles with impulses as well and tries to keep himself in check by remembering what his beloved mother would say. But he also hates his mother. Norman’s entire life is complicated by his relationship with his mother, creating dilemmas whenever the status quo of their lives is disrupted. With this, suspense is created for the antagonist as well, raising his stakes and providing tension for that character, too.
Psycho is known for its insane plot twist at the end. Throughout the novel, Bloch creates suspense with gripping storytelling, tension, emotional weight, dilemmas, high stakes, and complicated matters. All the while, he is spoon feeding information of his big twist to his readers. Bloch’s plot turns remain unpredictable by sleight of hand, dangling Mary’s story line in front of audiences while Norman and his mother are up to no good. Bloch gives the right amount of information to readers at the right time, creating a false understanding of what is going to happen. Yet, when the reveal comes readers don’t feel cheated or tricked. Looking back at the story, the audience can see the clues and accept the turn of events.
The suspense in Psycho is created and maintained throughout the book with various techniques. Bloch uses emotional weight, tension, keeping the stakes high, applying pressure, creating dilemmas/complicating matters, and being unpredictable to keep the rapt attention of readers as the story unfolds. Even if someone has seen the film, or is reading the novel for a secondary time, the suspense is so well-done the audience is able to be swept away by the thrills and chills all over again.
Bloch, Robert. Psycho. New York: The Overlook Press, 2010. Kindle.
"Suspense." Dictionary.com. (n.d.) http://www.dictionary.com/browse/suspense?s=t