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The Secret Jewish History of Psycho

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Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was released 60 years ago last month, and it has a secret Jewish history.  

The film was based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch who was a Jewish author. Bloch based his story around the real-life serial killer, Ed Gein, who himself was influenced by Nazi atrocities. He had fashioned household items from the remains of his victims.  

In adapting the novel for the big screen, Jewish composer, Bernard Hermann, created the much-copied all-strings score. Saul Bass did the title design and storyboarding of the now infamous shower scene. Its publicity was organised by Joe Gould, a Jewish army officer who recruited anti-Nazi Germans to inflitrate behind eneny lines during the war.

As Anthony Perkins plays him in the film, Norman Bates is a nebbish middle aged bachelor, still living at home with his domineering mother. He is an emasculated and infantilized mother’s boy (does this ring any bells?). When Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) asks him if he ever goes out with friends, he says, ‘A boy’s best friend is his mother.’ 

Norman takes on his mother’s characteristics. An early clue to this transformation is when he tells Marion, ‘You-you eat like a bird.’ Here, the inner baalebusteh in Norman comes out and we can hear an echo of Ess, ess, mein kind. 

Norman is just the sort of old English name that immigrant Jews to America named their kids so they wouldn’t stand out as too Jewish (think Norman Mailer or Norman Podhoretz). It’s the type of bland moniker that Clark Kent used to disguise his own true self.   

Bates is also an old English surname, derived from Bartholomew which, of course, is a biblical name. Bates also sounds like the Hebrew term for ‘egg’. And Norman is certainly a bad egg. 

Most appropriately, in Yiddish, beyz (pronounced ‘Bates’) means bad, evil, wicked, malicous, vicious, angry, unkind, unfriendly, sinister, ominous and unholy. The clue really is in the name.

In the movie, Norman is apprehended by Milton Arbogast, played by the Jewish actor Martin Balsam (Stanley Kubrick later considered him for the voice of the murderous computer HAL in his 2001: A Space Odyssey). And Milton is another one of those old English names preferred by Jews of a certain generation.

Norman is presented a relatively normal human being in that he is not possessed by demons. Nor is he a vampire. Neither has he been bitten by a wolf. If then, as the movie implies, Norman is an everyman, it was saying that the killer is inside all of us. In suggesting this, Hitchcock was saying that evil was banal, preempting Hannah Arendt’s famous observation following the Eichmann trial, one year later, in 1961.  

Indeed, Pyscho and its notion of everyday evil kick-started the New Horror genre. It became a much-copied template and one can see references to it in such films as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973) and The Shining (1980) directed by Roman Polanski, William Friedkin and Kubrick respectively in which evil became disembodied, ordinary, even banal.  

Perhaps, it is no surprise that Pyscho would have an underlying connection to the Holocaust given that it was made only 15 years after the conclusion of World War II. For Hitchcock, though, there was a personal connection. He had worked on the documentary of Nazi atrocities called Memory of the Camps

That the pivotal sequence in Psycho takes places in the shower is surely no coincidence. And Hitchcock had a specially constructed set made for the film so he could capture the various different angles. As a result, several scholars have suggested that the aesthetic of the scene evokes that of the victims of the gas chambers. It also influenced the similar sequence in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.   

Finally, Psycho is also indebted to the pre-Nazi world of middle Europe that Hitler tried to destroy. It can be interpreted as Kafkaesque in that the horror takes place in a clean, modern well-lit bathroom (rather than in the much creepier house on the hill) and Norman certainly undergoes a transformation or metamorphosis.  

It is also the most Freudian of Hitchcock’s films and hence the one most indebted to psychoanalysis which, obviously, is very Jewish. 

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I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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Catherine Davidson
Catherine Davidson
3 months ago

Great piece, thank you. I appreciate finding these hidden contrails of Jewish culture. One of my relatives, Michael Galchinsky, is a Lit/Culture scholar who I saw give a lecture once on the Jewish iconography of Superman. Years later I saw the link echoed in Kavalier & Clay. Also – he talked about the Nazi sex doll origins of Barbie! I knew I never liked her…

Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams
Reply to  Catherine Davidson
3 months ago

‘the Nazi sex doll origins of Barbie’: now that sounds like a great pitch for a piece!

Last edited 3 months ago by editor
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