Tuesday, June 16, 2020
June 16, 2020: American Horror Stories: Psycho, The Birds, and Defamiliarization
[On June 16th, 1960, Alfred Hitchcock premiered his new film Psycho in New York. So to celebrate that anniversary, this week I’ll contextualize Psycho and other horror films, leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on your own spooky story studying!]
On defamiliarization, horror, and prejudice.
In his essay “Art as Technique,” pioneering Russian Formalist theorist Viktor Shklovsky (whom I never imagined I’d be discussing in this space, but I am an AmericanStudier and I contain multitudes) developed the concept of “defamiliarization”: the idea that one of art’s central goals and effects is to make us look at the world around us, and particularly those things with which we are most familiar, in a new and unfamiliar light. Such defamiliarizations can have many different tones and effects, including positive ones like opening our minds and inspiring new ideas; but it seems to me that one of their chief consistent effects is likely to be horror. After all, the familiar is often (even usually) the comfortable, and to be jarred out of that familiarity and comfort, whatever the long-term necessity and benefits, can be a terrifying thing.
Steven King, by all accounts one of the modern masters of horror, seems well aware of that fact, having turned such familiar objects as dogs and cars into sources of primal terror. And Alfred Hitchcock, one of the 20th century’s such masters (and, yes, a Brit, but he set many of his films, including today’s two, in the U.S.), certainly was as well, as illustrated by one of his silliest yet also one of his scariest films: The Birds (1963). The film’s heroine Melanie, played by the inimitable Tippi Hedren, asks her boyfriend, “Mitch, do seagulls normally act this way?”; it’s a ridiculous line, but at the same time it nicely sums up the source of the film’s horror: we’re always surrounded by birds of one kind or another, and there are few ideas more terrifying than the notion that such accepted and generally harmless parts of our world could suddenly become constant threats. I defy anyone to watch Hitchcock’s film and not look askance at the next pigeon you come across.
The Birds was Hitchcock’s second consecutive horror film, following on what was then and likely remains his biggest hit: Psycho (1960). Psycho relies for its horror more on a combination of slow-burn suspense and surprising and very famous jump scares than defamiliarization, with one crucial exception: the ending, and its relevation of the killer’s true identity and motivations. If that ending is meant to be the most terrifying part of all—and the film’s marketing campaign suggested as much very clearly—then there’s no way around it: the defamiliarization of gender and sexuality that accompanies the revelation of Norman Bates’ cross-dressing is presented as something fundamentally frightening, not only connected to Norman’s murderous ways but indeed the titular psychosis that produced them. That is, while those murderous birds are clearly deviating from their familiar behaviors, I would argue that Bates is presented as deviant in his normal behaviors—and that his gender and sexual deviancy represents, again, the film’s culminating and most shocking, and thus troubling and prejudiced, horror.
Next horror story studying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other horror films or stories you’d highlight for the weekend post?