With each viewing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, I always pick up on a different characteristic of a motif that I had never noticed. Hitchcock uses several different motifs to subconsciously create suspense for the film viewer. Throughout this viewing I tried to pay attention to the mostly visual bird motif. This motif, while subtle, creates a sense of tension in Alfred Hitchcock’s suspenseful masterpiece, Psycho.
From the beginning of the movie until the end, Psycho uses the bird motif in several ways. In a typical Hitchcock opening shot, the film begins with a bird’s eye view over a city until it slowly zooms in on a half open window. It is also important to mention that the city is Phoenix, Arizona. In the room, is what some consider to be our protagonist Marion, who’s last name is Crane.
While these are more understated references, more obvious Bird references emerge with the appearance of Norman Bates. Room one of the Bates Motel is decorated with several pictures of simple birds. As we follow Norman into the parlor, we are again greeted by more bird references. Norman’s bizarre and somewhat disturbing hobby of taxidermy continues to play with this motif. When we enter the Parlor we are given a point of view shot of a stuffed crow and a stuffed owl, each dominating the wall with their intimidating glance and long shadows. Behind Marion are several song birds, and to the left of Norman is a bird that appears to be a turkey. Norman says that Marion “eats like a bird,” and that he likes stuffing birds because they are “curious” and “passive.” As Norman talks his hand rests on a bird that looks like a turkey. Although mostly timid throughout the interaction, we see glimpses of the devils that lurk inside Norman. When he talks about his relationship with his mother, we see a low angle shot of the stuffed owl above Normans head. As Marion leaves the crow is visible above her head, as she tries to fix her secret of the stolen money.
In this parlor scene, we understand the meaning behind the bird motif. The birds are representative of each characters personality. The different species of birds represent the different elements of Norman and Marion’s personalities. Besides her last name being that of a bird, Marion draws several comparisons to birds in this scene. By saying she eats like a bird and having her surrounded by little finch like birds, we see her as vulnerable thus increasing the suspense for the viewer. As for the crow that is above her, that could represent her guilt for stealing the money, or provide foreshadow for her eventual demise. Norman is represented by two different set of birds as well; the large yet timid birds, and great owl above his head. The shy and socially awkward side of Norman and the murderous mother personality represent those birds respectively. When he is calm the bird in site is the turkey, which is far from intimidating. When his personality switches, we see the looming predator owl above his head. The aggression in his tone is matched by the owl, which is threatening to the viewer in its size and opened winged pose. Before Norman looks into the peep hole, we see both types of birds used to represent his personality, indicating a split in his personality. The metaphor of birds is represented of the different personalities of the characters and the danger associated with these traits.
Birds are used again after the shower scene and at the very end of the film. When Norman sees the murder that happened in the bathroom, he looks in horror and knocks one of the photos of the birds off the wall. The photo hints that Norman is actually the killer in the film because of the previous representation of Marion as a little bird. During the very end of the film, the mother personality of Norman says, “I am just as harmless as one of those stuffed birds.” This further relates the personalities of the characters to birds.
This is just one of the many motifs that Hitchcock uses to create suspense. For his next major film, The Birds, Hitchcock certainly expand upon using this motif in a suspenseful way. Throughout Psycho the creepy and odd looking birds create suspense and provide a symbol for the different personalities of the characters.