I was too young to see Psycho. No doubt about it at all. I can’t remember now what kind of lies I told to get in, but I remember being asked if I was with my parents. With my dysfunctional family, that wasn’t happening. It was my good fortune to be given a few bucks along with instructions to stay out of the house for a few hours. That meant you were free to do anything that didn’t involve a police visit.
There were no movie ratings back then. When it came to teenagers, the choice of entertainment was mostly about what you could get away with. With Psycho, the only restriction was that no one was allowed in after the film had started. That just added extra appeal.
I think Psycho would receive a PG-13 if it were released today, but that does not account for how different the world was then. What’s changed is the background level of sex and violence.
Today a 13 year old probably sees several violent deaths every day, on TV. There is nothing noteworthy about stabbings, being blown up or murdered at all. If it’s not on TV, it’s on the internet, pretty much every day. Not to mention that teenage boys routinely kill a few hundred people, mutants or robots in an average video game session.
If a 2014 Victoria’s Secret TV ad had been shown in 1960, it would have been front page news. Preachers would have been screaming from the pulpit about the end days. There would have been boycotts and demonstrations. There’s no way it would have happened. The public was not ready. Now any teen who wants to see sexy videos has unlimited access to everything from erotica to hard core.
But when I saw Psycho, the sexy and violent scenes were forbidden, and that made them ten times more exciting, fascinating and appealing. It was a total thrill ride, an adrenaline rush. And don’t forget that we were innocent when it came to Hollywood trickery, so the scary stuff felt both immediate and shocking. It got to you in a primal way. Better than the best roller coaster ever.
For a long time after seeing Psycho, the creepy factor from being in an old house was raised about 1000%. People locked their bathroom doors when taking a shower. And seeing grandma walking around the house at night opened up a whole new set of possibilities.
I became a fan of scary movies forever, I feel like I owe Hitchcock a major debt for all the thrills that came later.
The “Psycho” effect
The first wave of the baby boomers were 13 years old when Psycho was released.
Back then movies were rated Pass-Fail by the censors according to the Motion Picture Production Code which had been in force since the 1930s. Nudity was not allowed, neither was graphic violence. Married couples slept in separate beds, everybody wore pajamas.
By 1960 the Studios were pushing the envelope on the Production Code. Alfred Hitchcock pushed the envelope even further with Psycho. The opening scenes featured Janet Leigh and John Gavin, apparently post some “lunch time” and very illicit sex. While that scene seems tame now, in 1960 it was shocking.
But Janet Leigh in a white brassiere was only the beginning. She embezzles money from her boss in the hope of running away with her lover. Just when her character, Marion Crane, feels remorse and decides to be a good girl, Hitchcock springs that shower scene on the audience. The audiences of the time were shocked and horrified. Nothing even remotely close to this level of terror had ever been seen in a wide release movie. Killing off an A-list star 20 minutes into the film left the audience disoriented and uncomfortable. The feeling was that now anything at all can happen.
We should have realized that the story line of Norman Bates trying to protect is crazy mother was just a setup. We were inexperienced movie goers then, we didn’t realize that a secret was waiting in the root cellar. Hitchcock had us in a spell. We sensed the final resolution would be some even more unspeakable horror, but we couldn’t leave our seats. The ending lived up to its promise. It was the stuff nightmares are made of. Not something that young and impressionable minds would easily forget.
Psycho changed the industry, and the expectations of motion picture audiences. Hitchcock’s low budget horror movie was the biggest money maker of the year. The slasher flick was born. Sex in movies become more open. Breaking the rules had the public lining up for the thrill ride. The Production Code had no chance against that much profit, it was well and truly on the way out.
More importantly it was a first step toward raising a generation on sex and violence as entertainment. We were shocked and thrilled. We loved the adrenalin rush. The studios made a ton of money. Psycho helped change an industry and showed us that almost nothing was off limits.