If you’ve seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (and I really hope you have), you might not believe me when I tell you that the book it’s based on, written by Robert Bloch, is even scarier than the film. And, since Psycho is considered to be one of the scariest films eve made, that’s saying a lot.
I think the main reason I found the book scarier than the movie is that we can get a little closer to the character of Norman Bates on the page than we can on the screen. And if you know anything about Norman Bates you know that you want to stay as far away from him as possible. But in the book you get to know him really well, and the way Bloch describes him in certain scenes is downright distressing.
Like when Mary (Marion in the film) suggests to Norman that he put his mother in an institution, we get a little glimpse at what’s really going on inside his head:
“‘They’d have locked me up in a minute if they knew the things I said and did, the way I carried on. Well, I got over it, finally. And she didn’t. But who are you to say a person should be put away? I think perhaps all of us go a little crazy at times.’ He stopped, not because he was out of words, but because he was out of breath. His face was very red, and the puckered lips were beginning to tremble.”
And when Detective Arbogast pays Norman a visit, something about their interaction gave me shivers:
“I’m trying to locate a girl.”
Norman’s hands twitched. He couldn’t feel them, because they were numb. He was numb all over. His heart wasn’t pounding any more—it didn’t even seem to be beating. Everything was quiet. It would be terrible if he screamed.
“Her name is Crane,” the man said. “Mary Crane. From Fort Worth, Texas. I was wondering if she might have registered here.”
Norman didn’t want to scream now. He wanted to laugh. He could feel his heart resume its normal functions again. It was easy to reply.
“No,” he said. “There hasn’t been anybody by that name here.”
You might be wondering how it’s possible to compete with what Alfred Hitchcock did with the famous shower scene. Well, it’s not. This scene in the movie is perfection (you can even watch an entire documentary devoted to it). And while the book is gorier (because Mary is also decapitated), seeing it all happen on film is much creepier. After all, Hitchcock used 78 different camera angles and 52 cuts, not to mention that iconic music. If I were Robert Bloch I would feel honoured to have something I wrote be the basis for such an iconic moment in cinema.
But I have to hand it to the book, because even though I’ve seen the movie many times and know what the “twist” is, my stomach still dropped when the Sheriff does the big reveal because the writing does such a good job of building it up:
“I don’t understand Sheriff. Just what did he lie about?”
“Why, when he said he was going up to see Norman Bates’s mother. Norman Bates has no mother.”
“Not for the last twenty years he hasn’t. She’s dead.” Sheriff Chambers nodded.
And while seeing Norman’s mother turn around at the end of the movie always scares the crap out of me, there’s something about the description in the book that left me just as frightened:
“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.
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.”
The only thing I didn’t like about both the book and the movie was the summary at the end where we learn how Norman Bates became Norman Bates, through a very long explanation from a doctor. It was longer in the book than it was in the film, but both times it felt like it went on and on. I’ll let Roger Ebert’s movie review sum up my feelings about it:
“If I were bold enough to reedit Hitchcock’s film, I would include only the doctor’s first explanation of Norman’s dual personality: “Norman Bates no longer exists. He only half existed to begin with. And now, the other half has taken over, probably for all time.” Then I would cut out everything else the psychiatrist says, and cut to the shots of Norman wrapped in the blanket while his mother’s voice speaks (“It’s sad when a mother has to speak the words that condemn her own son…”). Those edits, I submit, would have made “Psycho” very nearly perfect. I have never encountered a single convincing defense of the psychiatric blather…”
But even with those final expository moments at the end, Psycho in all forms is a pretty incredible story. If you’re looking to pick up a quick read that will creep you out a little (and today would be the perfect day for that), get yourself a copy of Psycho. And if, like Hitchcock himself, you believe that “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music”, feel free to hum the all-strings score (written by Bernard Herrmann) while you read. I know I did.
P.S. There are a ton of resources out there that get really specific on the differences between the movie and book versions of Psycho. My favourite is the CineFix video below.