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The Guardian (10/Nov/2000) - Anatomy of an obsession

(c) The Guardian (10/Nov/2000)

Anatomy of an obsession

At the age of just 13 Peter Conrad defied the law, his parents, his aunt and his schoolteachers - by sneaking into a cinema to watch a shocking new movie called Psycho. It was to be the beginning of a life-long fixation with the master of suspense

I cannot recall how my obsession with Hitchcock started; it goes back almost far enough to qualify as an original sin. But there is a specific date that solemnised the affair. One afternoon in 1961, aged all of 13, I lost my virginity at a screening of Psycho. Strictly speaking, it was only my innocence I lost. The technical loss came later, but you spend so long preparing for it - rehearsing the scenes in your head, starting with a jerky silent movie to which you gradually add dialogue - that by the time the occasion arrives, it is probably anti-climactic. Your graduation from innocence to experience occurs when the feverish business of imagining begins, and for me, this raid on a forbidden knowledge will always be associated with Psycho. During my first under-age exposure to the film, the images that thrilled me were those of trespass and guilty surveillance. This, surely, was why the cinema existed: to depict what you were not supposed to be looking at.

An aerodynamic peeping Tom hovers above a city, which drowses in the early-afternoon sun. The people in those faceless boxes are presumably working, or eating their lunch. No, not all of them. The camera, nosing the air suspiciously, swoops towards a certain window on an upper floor of a hotel, nudges the sill and sidles into the room, blinking at the contrast with the glare outside. The couple it spies on think they are safe from scrutiny because they are so high above street level, which is why they have left the blind half-lowered. Here, for a 13-year-old, was a first small and easily soluble mystery: why are they undressed at this time of day?

Psycho starts post-coitally, and leaves the preliminaries to be scripted by us. In 1961, when the world was still blissfully ignorant, you had to work harder. Hitchcock supplied hints, or brief glimpses. Knowing us only too well, he left us to design our own private storyboards. Later comes a view even more privileged than the mid-air assault on the hotel room. Through a peephole drilled in a wall at the motel, there is a momentary sight - curtailed just in time - of a woman unpeeling her bra.

By the end of the film, worked up into a state of high excitement, we are ready to imagine what Hitchcock does not even bother to show us. In the house on the hill, another explorer picks up a leather-bound book that has no title on its ornately-tooled spine. She opens it, and her eyes imperceptibly widen. We are not allowed to see what she has seen. Robert Bloch, in the novel that Hitchcock adapted, offers no particular help, merely confiding that the illustrations clamped inside the covers are "almost pathologically pornographic". It is a dare. When I became familiar with Hitchcock himself, after watching him eerily editorialising on his television series, I could hear his grave, glutinous voice mutter in a clinical description of the book's contents; but that was later, once my capacity to fantasise had come up to speed. Meanwhile, there beside a rumpled, tormented bed in the same room on the screen, was a collection of obsolete toys: a brutalised doll, a rabbit with a wilted ear - the relics of someone else's lost childhood.

On its long journey across the Pacific to Australia, and then on its second, even more tantalising trip from the mainland to the island state of Tasmania where I was born, Psycho had acquired an unwholesome reputation. We had just completed a decade of satisfied suburban niceness and compulsory normality. Since the prosperity of the 50s seemed too good to be true, no questions were to be asked, for fear that the illusion of affluent content might be revoked. My parents, having lived through a depression and a world war, were grateful for this oblivion. My own generation was bound to challenge it - and Hitchcock offered an early inducement.

How normal was Norman Bates, who, according to the psychiatrist in Robert Bloch's Psycho, enjoys an extra identity as Norma, inhabiting the stuffy persona and musty clothes of his own mother? An officious aunt warned my parents to ban me from seeing the film. "It's too hot for his blood," she said. Westerns were thought appropriate, because the violence in them offered a training in virility. But Psycho dealt with seamier matters, about which the grown-ups went into whispered conclave. The moralistic aunt claimed to know of someone who had already seen it in Sydney. He hadn't been able to sleep for a week afterwards, suffered screaming fits, and finally needed a prescription from the doctor. "And he," she said, "was a naval man!" That, supposedly, should have immunised him.

As it happened, there was no need for a parental embargo. The censors saw to this, branding the film with an "M". That stood for "Mature", which made Psycho all the more enticing. It was, as I soon enough found out, a film about ripening - and also about rotting. I was sure, consulting the physical evidence, that I could pass as mature. But, according to the aunt, you had to prove mental maturity as well, before they'd sell you a ticket; otherwise you risked permanent harm. In advance, Psycho had come to resemble a rite of passage, a visceral, constricted tunnel you had to pass through to get from one age to the next. Ingmar Bergman once imagined the breathless foreboding of those who buy tickets for a film - the audience, collectively tensed, says to itself: "Here I am, seated in the darkness, and, like a woman about to give birth, I want deliverance." Allowing for the transposition of sexes, that was what I required from Psycho. It was to be my blooding; a death from which I might, if I was lucky, recover, since the actual blood would be shed on my behalf by others - a woman whose body is slashed in a shower, a man whose brain is punctured as he climbs a staircase.

The week before Psycho arrived in town, I began to plan my strategy. The censor's certificate precluded a children's matinee on Saturday, and I was not allowed out of the house at night. What choice did I have? Playing truant from school, I intended to see it on a weekday afternoon. I would break the law, and tell lies to cover my trail. It was a life-changing decision. I was already behaving, if I had only known it, like the heroine of the film, who - after her own sweaty matinee in the hotel bedroom - asks her boss's permission to go home early. She then drives briskly out of town with the $40,000 he has given her to deposit at the bank. She feigns a headache: a feminine ailment, inappropriate for adolescent boys. Toothache was the excuse I chose, and I dramatised its onset when I bit into a lunchtime sandwich. Excused from school for the rest of the day, I wondered whether I might not have strayed into perilous territory. If acts had immediate consequences, as we were always being told by those who dosed us with the Bible, wasn't I goading one of my own teeth to ache? It might have made a neatly retributive plot for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but in fact my teeth behaved themselves throughout the afternoon. The episode counted as one of my earliest and most valuable moral experiments, investigating how much it was possible to get away with.

I stuffed my school cap and blazer into the satchel that contained my books, and left it in the town library. The few blocks between there and the cinema had their dangers, like a snipers' alley. Ours was a small town, and I might have run into the invigilating aunt. Janet Leigh, after all, is spotted by her boss when she pauses at the traffic lights on her way out of Phoenix. To be 13 and at large so soon after lunch was itself an admission of guilt, like being an able-bodied civilian in wartime. Head down, I made it.

The cinema was called the Avalon; its name evoked chivalry and medieval enchantments, bravely defying the trams that clattered past and the odour of meat pies and pungent tomato sauce from the shop next door. A grim brick chapel stood opposite it, frowning. The lobby, to my surprise, was not barricaded against me. Shouldn't there have been barbed wire, or officials demanding the presentation of documents? In America, they had apparently hired guards to marshal the queues of ticket-holders, and played tapes of Hitchcock explaining why no one was allowed to enter the theatre after a screening of Psycho had begun. I almost expected an improvised infirmary for those who allegedly staggered out at the end, their nerves shredded. But, so far as I could see, no ambulance was standing by.

I cannot remember the rest of the experience without turning it into an anthology of Hitchcock clips, abbreviated excerpts from films I had not yet seen. The lobby elongated as I walked across it: an expressionistic camera trick, like the swooning zoom that opens a crevasse beneath James Stewart in Vertigo. Then there was the box office where a suspicious attendant behind the grille might call the police, which happens when Cary Grant - on the lam, like me - tries to buy a train ticket at Grand Central station in North by Northwest. Instead, a bored teenage girl glanced idly at me. Did I dry up, like Gregory Peck when he faces the ticket clerk at Pennsylvania station in Spellbound?

All he can blurt out is an absurd request for a ticket to Rome. What I said, I suppose, is: "One, please." Determined to cast off childhood, I did not ask for a child's discount. I got my ticket without trouble - but, as Joan Fontaine discovers in Rebecca when she bypasses the rusty, overgrown gate of Manderley, dreamers have an agility denied to those who remain awake, and can vault over obstacles. I was soon inside, in the darkness where the revelation, lit by a lunar beam from the projector, was due to occur.

Psycho did not disappoint me. I may not have understood all I saw, but I knew that taboos were being breached. What I didn't know was that Hitchcock omitted a few of the scabrous sights and thoughts with which Bloch's novel regales us. In the book, Norman tells himself not to make mental pictures of certain bodily parts, even though in erasing the images he admits the imagining he has already done. "Mother's thighs were dirty. Mustn't look," he says. Likewise he pointedly "never thought about Mother's breasts". When he transports his querulous parent to the fruit cellar, he reminds her that there's a pot for her use. "Norman," she croaks, "must you talk that way?" Despite these repressions, the film gave me plenty to think about.

After that first glimpse of avid tussling in a cheap hotel came the examination of a bathroom. For the first time in a film, someone flushed a toilet (though an incriminating scrap of paper, stained with a sum, remained behind in the bowl). There were confrontations, when I managed to unclench my eyes and look, with what ought to have remained invisible. Here was the featureless mask of an avenging deity: the traffic cop, inscrutable behind his dark glasses, or the shadowed figure with the slicing knife. At last I saw the face of death, leathery-skinned and laughing, with cavities where the eyes once were. I had been handed a psychological agenda for maturity, supplied with a lifetime's worth of bad dreams. I was definitely no longer innocent.

I retrieved my disguise as a schoolboy from the library cloakroom and went home by bus. I looked out of the back window in case a visored cop on a motorcycle should happen to be closing in, ready to arrest me for truancy or for knowing too much. Guilt, I discovered, is like a back-projection in a film: a nocturne in broad, indifferent daylight, cast on a blank screen. You can see it, because you are inside the trauma. Who else can? The sun still blandly shone, and objects beside the road were healthily flushed with colour, despite Psycho's bleached ceramic tiles and its muddy, heaving swamp. At home, our bathroom had only ordinary tales to tell: a comb with snagged teeth, the razor I would one day (as the maturing proceeded) have to scrape across my face, a Plimsoll line of soap scum around the tub.

But when I used the shower next morning, I found that it too had lost its innocence. The plastic curtain squealed in alarm when tugged on its metal rod. Hot icicles of water felt like needles, or dental drills. And the plughole, although the water swirled in a different direction in our hemisphere, announced that your life was leaking away even as you got yourself ready for another day at school.

Hitchcock took particular pleasure, I later learned, in estranging people from their bathrooms, which before Psycho were resorts of impregnable privacy, closets or cloisters where puritans purged themselves. He once claimed to have received a letter from a mother and father who blamed him for their daughter's insanitary state. Ever since seeing Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les Diaboliques, where the murderers drown their victim in a tub, she had refused to take a bath. Now, having been to Psycho, she flinched from the shower too. Hitchcock suggested that they should send her out to be dry-cleaned. It was an old joke, freshly adapted to America, where your clothes at least could be cleansed without immersion in water.

In Blackmail, the first of Hitchcock's British talking pictures, a London gossip - a woman whose stale face powder and flustered perspiration you can almost smell - prattles on in a shop about a local stabbing, unaware that the heroine has committed the crime. The case reminds her, she says, of a recent murder where the man was drowned in his tub. For a month, she was too frightened to have a bath; then for weeks after that she wouldn't go beyond a rinse-down. Listening, you tighten your nostrils in sympathy with the other customers in the shop.

Psycho infected me - and how many others? - with a mistrust of motels, which institutionalise our transitoriness. Even in hotels, I tread carefully in case I step on the nail-clippings of former occupants, embedded in the carpet piles, and try not to notice stray hairs in the bathtub. Surely the maids protest too much when they place those paper seals on the toilet seat, pretending that you have had no predecessors. The terrors are not confined to the bathroom. In Hitchcock's films, the most innocuous object can rear up threateningly. What could possibly be sinister about the record of Beethoven's Eroica, which Vera Miles finds on a gramophone turntable during her investigation of the Bates house? At the age of 13, I had no idea - though I felt an unmistakable chill when the camera peered into the gaping box to read the label of the silent disc. Now I think I know the answer.

The symphony summarises one abiding undercurrent of Hitchcock's work. It is about Napoleon, a man who - like many of Hitchcock's psychopaths - set himself up as a god, and it includes a funeral march for the toppled idol. It first rejoices in the hero's freedom from moral inhibitions, then recoils in dismay. Truffaut, detecting unease beneath the joviality of The Trouble with Harry, suggested that Hitchcock's films were afflicted by the mood Blaise Pascal analysed - "the sadness of a world deprived of God".

Gradually I came to understand Hitchcock's surreal genius: he knew how to rescind reality, and to make you afraid. "I brought you nightmares," whispers Joseph Cotten as the wicked uncle in Shadow of a Doubt, pleased to have upset a soporific town not unlike the one I lived in. Other founding fathers had higher-minded hopes for the new art of film. DW Griffith set out to make heaven visible from the lowly earth, and Chaplin's tramp mutely appealed to the brotherhood of man. Hitchcock, however, was no evangelist. He wanted to frighten us. Those who consider themselves invulnerable call this trivial or childish; to me, fear is the most rational response to existence, and the most reverent tribute to its irrationality.

I caught sight of Hitchcock once, while he was filming Frenzy in London's Covent Garden market during the summer of 1970. A crowd of technicians and anachronistic cockney porters surged around the buttoned-up blob in the sagging canvas chair. This unmoved mover hardly seemed to be directing; he just lumpily sat there and watched other people do things - mostly carting bags of vegetables, one of which might have contained a dead body. By then he did not need to bestir himself. He had succeeded in deliciously terrorising the world; and all of us, whether within the camera's range or not, were acting in the nightmare he had devised.

Having once been let out to play, the demons refuse to retire indoors. They prefer to take part in murderous charades, quoting Psycho with triumphant bravado. In 1998, the BBC paid OJ Simpson for a television interview. He indignantly insisted that he had not slaughtered his wife and her friend, then addressed a sideways smirk to the camera. Parting from the interviewer, Ruby Wax, he said he had a surprise for her, and promised to deliver it later. When the bell rang, she opened the door of her hotel room. There loomed OJ, his arm raised, emitting a series of staccato shrieks: he was tunelessly winging Bernard Herrmann's score for the shower scene in Psycho, with its fraught strings, while he lowered his arm to stab her. His weapon? Not Mrs Bates's knife, but a banana purloined from one of the hotel's hospitality baskets.

I had already performed my own version of this scene on a return visit to my parents in Australia. The episode did not quite follow Hitchcock's storyboard. I was in the shower one morning when I heard a fumbling at the bathroom door. Surely, I thought, the sound of running water safeguarded my privacy; but the door opened, and a shape positioned itself on the other side of the translucent curtain. A hand reached up, the curtain squeaked, and so (I am ashamed to say) did I. It was my father who stood there, neatly reversing roles for both of us. He held not a knife but a pair of over-sized carrots that he had dug up in his vegetable garden. Their tips were jagged, and he kept a strangling grip on their green top knots. They might have been a brace of downed game birds.

He blinked, even more startled than I was. "I thought it was your mother," he said; it seems he wanted to show her his carrots. At the time I remember wondering why that couldn't wait. The disinterred vegetables hadn't even shaken off their shroud of dirt. Now the incident seems touchingly matrimonial, proof of the intimacy my parents enjoyed with one another but not with me. I tugged the curtain back into place, and I suppose he took his carrots to the bedroom.

No blood was spilled, but I'm not sure that there was a happy ending. My father, who never saw Psycho, died soon afterwards. Those few seconds in the shower were as frank a conversation as we ever had. I still shudder when I think of it, and the chill is supernatural, like the fear that Hitchcock induces. For the ancient Greeks, the symptoms - prickling skin, an involuntary shock - warned that you were in the vicinity of a god. My parents explained such sensations according to their own more or less pagan theology. Someone, they used to say, is walking over your grave. And where, I always asked myself, might that resting place be? Psycho offered a choice: the white tub, so easy to scrub clean, or the black, gluttonous bog that gobbled cars and the bodies buried in them. Or, if you preferred, the cellar in which the fruit matured.

At the Universal studios theme parks in Los Angeles and Orlando, a facsimile of the Psycho set is a place of pilgrimage. The queues for admission to the traumatic bathroom are always long. Visitors line up to borrow Mrs Bates's smock and her hairnet, which come in all sizes. Suitably attired, you are then issued with a rubber knife and directed to slash a Universal studios intern, who modestly showers in a body stocking.

The duplication on opposite coasts recognises a ravenous public demand. Everyone, it seems, has spent some time at the Bates motel - or would like to do so. On arrival, a film we know by heart assigns us our moves. After depositing our worldly goods in a cabin, we go for a stroll. There is only one route to take, since the set ends just out of the viewfinder's range. Inevitably, we climb the path towards the family home on the hill. Of course it has a different use nowadays. That ghoulish house, with the silhouetted body in the window like a figure at a magic-lantern show, is a cinema. Inside it, we are licensed to dream.

Peter Conrad