Crafting suspense: A look at Robert Bloch's '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. “To keep audiences in the dark about his film’s freaky plot twists, Hitchcock instructed his minions to buy all remaining copies of Robert Bloch’s Psycho novel” (Hart, 2012). 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. “This Tommy Cassidy was the worst—a big operator, loaded with money from oil leases. He didn’t have to turn a hand, but he was always dabbling in real estate, sniffing the scent of somebody’s fear or want, bidding low and selling high, alert to every possibility of squeezing out an extra dollar in rentals or income. […] And she never forgot that this world belonged to the Tommy Cassidys. They owned the property and they set the prices. Forty thousand to a daughter for a wedding gift; a hundred dollars tossed carelessly on a desk for three days’ rental of privileges of the body of Mary Crane” (Bloch 1959, 27-28). 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. “Remember—that was the trigger word. Now she could remember, dimly, how she’d hesitated back there about a half-hour ago, when she came to the fork in the road. That was it; she’d taken the wrong turn. And now here she was, God knows where, with this rain coming down and everything pitch-black outside—Get a grip on yourself, now. You can’t afford to be panicky. The worst part of it was over” (Bloch 1959, 19-20). 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. “When that time came, Mary would have to be prepared to handle her sister, keep her quiet in front of Sam and the authorities. […] Perhaps she could even give her part of the remaining twenty-five thousand dollars. Maybe she wouldn’t take it. But there would be some solution; Mary hadn’t planned that far ahead, but when the time came, the answer would be ready” (Bloch 1959, 31). 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. “It had been a mistake to invite the girl up to the house. Norman knew that the moment he opened his mouth, but she was so pretty, and she had looked so tired and forlorn. He knew what it was to be tired and forlorn, with nobody to turn to, nobody who’d understand. All he meant to do, all he did do, was talk to her. Besides, it was his house, wasn’t it? Just as much as it was Mother’s. She had no right to lay down the law that way” (Bloch 1959, 54). 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. “She screamed when she saw the old woman lying there, the gaunt, gray-haired old woman whose brown, wrinkled face grinned up at her in an obscene greeting. ‘Mrs. Bates!’ Lila gasped. ‘Yes.’ But the voice wasn’t coming from those sunken, leathery jaws. It came from behind her, from the top of the cellar stairs, where the figure stood” (Bloch 1959, 207). 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.
Hart, Hugh. 2012. "Hitchcock Shows 6 Ways Psycho Slashed Hollywood's Rule Book to Shreds." Wired. https://www.wired.com/2012/11/hitchcock-psycho/.