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A Filmmaker's Guide to Horror Techniques Used in 'Psycho'

Study, Experience, and Analysis

(Note: this article will be covering analysis on the film 'Psycho' (1960) and so in order to get the best insight it is recommended that you watch the entire film at least once).

One of the most iconic horror films of all time may be in black and white, but also has a really good method to showing us tension, suspense and a twist that if you haven't seen the film then you'll probably never see coming. Let's have a look at our themes then: 

  • Darkness
  • Suspense
  • Setting

Let's have a look at the themes then:

Darkness

In Psycho the theme of darkness is very important for creating the correct atmosphere in the correct places. This isn't darkness as in colour as this film is in black and white. But, this darkness is within the way in which the scene presents itself to the audience. The theme of darkness is one of the many ways in which the audience realise that something is about to go horribly wrong. 

Let's take a look at the frame then:

Frame

This frame is very important for creating this atmospheric darkness. The first thing your eyes are drawn to is the near-centre of the frame in which we see the taxidermy owl. Apart from the fact that in a lot of cultures an owl represents the dead (which is why my own mother would never let me own the owl-apparent merchandise that is normalised today), the taxidermy is very disturbing to exist within a motel. 

The next thing we notice is the shadows. The fact that there is a focused light source means that various shadows are being thrown around the room. This means that the entire room looks darker, almost more menacing. It is an interesting technique to use, especially within a black and white film. 

If you wanted to do this within your own black and white film, you would want to use the shadows especially. This is because those shadows being thrown by that focused light source means that you can get the correct darkness in the correct places. It also means you can control how light or dark your scene is better than if you just used lighting. Remember, shadows are thrown by objects, which means there must be a good amount of props within the scene to be able to do this. 

Suspense

Suspense is a very important theme in Psycho and is another one of the methods used to create atmosphere alongside darkness. Suspense is no foreigner to the film even from the beginning in which we see the pursuit by police. However, let's have a look at how suspense is created within the climax of the film and its future build-ups. 

Let's have a look at the scene:

Scene

Suspense and terror flood this scene in which Marion's sister goes into the cellar to find the body of Norman Bates' mother sitting there fully clothed and realises exactly what is going on. There are a few things here that create atmosphere. The first thing is the cellar. The cellar makes the descent into realisation more terrifying as there are more chances of it being darker and more "unknown" as she descends the stairs. 

The second thing is the emptiness of the cellar. There seems to be not a lot of decor in the cellar compared to the rest of the house and therefore, it is confusing as to why the mother would be sitting down here, and this is all before she has been turned around to reveal the terrifying dead body. 

The third thing is the fact that the mother is sitting so entirely still that the suspense has been created from the fact that this doesn't look like an entirely human movement. It's something that not many people could achieve without giving away that they are breathing or looking fairly alive. 

If you wanted to achieve this in your own film then you'd have to build up the "look" of suspense. As we've already seen, the descent down the stairs and the stillness of the body are key to building the "silence" of this scene. It is impossible to create suspense with too much of something, and so this is why we have the movement of the character and their confusion which becomes mixed in with this atmosphere.

Setting

The setting of the Bates Motel is very important in creating the correct atmosphere for horror. Just take a look at the other settings, all of them are urban and in the middle of some city. This is completely different to the Bates Motel, it is in the middle of nowhere and, according to the characters "off the old highway"—which means that part of the highway is now abandoned. 

Let's have a look at a scene:

Scene

In this scene we see the exact setting in which the motel creates tension and atmosphere. This is done by the separation between the house and the motel. It is within this scene that we simply see the motel and therefore, there is an element we know is missing. As the house and the motel are always kept completely separate and the house is in some secrecy, it creates a perfect setting in which the characters seeking out the missing characters can explore. This exploration is built upon by the previous themes of suspense and darkness; but it is the setting that separates the socially acceptable nature of Norman Bates and the psychopathy of Norman Bates. He frequently mixes the two of them in order to correctly kill people. 

If you were looking to use a setting as symbolic as this in your own film, you would probably want to steer clear of making it too obvious. In no way does Psycho make the situation obvious, but it is very easy to think you are being very obscure when you are actually either being obvious or confusing. Make sure you don't go too far out and you keep it within the understanding of an audience so that, when your twist finally happens, it can all be completely understood. 

Conclusion

As one of the most iconic horror/suspense films of all time, Psycho makes a pretty good argument as being one of the films you should watch in order to learn about horror filmmaking. If you wanted to explore this film in more detail, you could look at the following themes: 

  • Characters
  • Normality vs. Abnormality
  • The Decor of the Bates' House
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