Do Motives Matter When It Comes to Movie Horror?

Tyler Malone on Psycho, Michael Myers, and Psychologism in Cinematic Horror

Imagine the happenings of the horror genre mapped out on a giant Clue gameboard, one of incalculable dimensions that extends to the edges of the known universe and well beyond into the realms of the imagination. On such an expansive board, there are infinite possible murderers, infinite possible crime scenes, infinite possible weapons. Yes, Colonel Mustard in the billiard room with the candlestick, Miss Scarlett in the conservatory with the rope, but also Michael Myers in the kitchen with the knife, Peter Baker in the cabin with the curling iron, the shark in the waters off Amity Island with his teeth, Irena Dubrovna in her psychiatrist’s office with her panther claws, Freddy Krueger in dreams with his razor-fingered glove…

In a horror film, unlike, say, an Agatha-Christie-style whodunnit, the particulars of a crime—the who, the what, the where, the when, the how—are usually on display for us to see or need just the slightest bit of sleuthing to discover. But knowing these particulars only makes the one thing we’re often missing—the why—all the more prominent in its lack. We want the motive; we need to know the reason, the meaning behind the violence and bloodshed. We imagine it’s the only chance we have of making sense of this parade of horror. You can hear the question in its various iterations, expressed by the genre’s characters throughout the last century—a chorus of collective human longing and desperation: Why are you doing this to us? Why do you eat people? Why her? Why this girl? Why is he after us? Why did you kill my mother?

“I think she wants a motive,” Billy Loomis says of Sidney Prescott towards the end of the film Scream. “Well, I don’t really believe in motives, Sid. I mean, did Norman Bates have a motive?”

It’s an odd question. Stu Macher, his partner-in-crime, responds with an emphatic, “No!”—but the truth is Psycho goes out of its way to offer up Bates’s motive in a famously contentious finale. Still, many viewers forget that long-winded explanation of Bates’s psychosis because it is so overshadowed by the 100 minutes of visual poetry that precedes it (as well as the startling superimposition that succeeds it).

And when the end of Psycho isn’t completely forgotten, it’s too often misunderstood. You’ll remember the scene: Norman Bates has been caught. Journalists assemble outside the county courthouse; police officers crowd the halls. Everyone seems to be waiting for… something. In the office of the chief of police, Deputy Sheriff Al Chambers tells Sam Loomis and Lila Crane (the lover and sister, respectively, of Marion Crane, one of Bates’s victims), “Well, if anyone gets any answers, it’ll be the psychiatrist.”

On cue Dr. Fred Richmond opens the door and enters, after having just seen Bates in an interrogation room. Oh, he has the answers, and he proceeds to tell us in six minutes of didactic exposition what caused Norman Bates not only to murder, but to dress up as his mother during the act. The psychiatrist, magician of the mind that he is, needs no time to work it out. He claims he “got the whole story […] not from Norman […but] from his mother.” Yet his explanation includes numerous aspects it seems unlikely that Norman Bates (and, specifically, Norman Bates as his mother) would have said to the good doctor.

In a way, Halloween is Psycho through a cracked looking-glass. The uncanny alignments and misalignments between the two films are manifold.

Too often the focus of discussion with regards to the ending of Psycho is whether this explanation is necessary rather than whether it is meant to be taken seriously. The smirk on actor Simon Oakland’s face as he relays his character’s analysis is a tell—or should be. Director Alfred Hitchcock wants us to see that Dr. Richmond is enjoying this; he’s loving his role as the giver of answers, the man who knows the unknowable. Oakland’s speech is no straightforward diagnostic explanation, even if his character might believe that it is; rather, it’s an exquisite acting performance—a satirical one—that highlights in hilarious detail the self-certainty of psychologism.

“Did he kill my sister?” Lila Crane asks the doctor. “Yes,” Richmond replies, and then, after reveling in a pregnant pause, he adds slyly: “…and no.” He goes on to explain, “When he met your sister, he was touched by her, aroused by her. He wanted her. That set off the ‘jealous mother’ and mother killed the girl! Now after the murder, Norman returned as if from a deep sleep, and like a dutiful son, covered up all traces of the crime he was convinced his mother had committed.”

There’s a strange glee with which Dr. Richmond pins it all on Bates’s innate sexual desire, but as viewers of the film, we are the only ones to have witnessed the private interactions of Norman Bates and Marion Crane. In the moments leading up to the murder, Bates seems as triggered by Crane’s suggestion that he leave the motel and put his mother in an institution as he is by any sexual arousal. This is not to say that there is no sexual component to the murder. Of course there is! He not only accuses himself (in his mother’s voice) of desiring Crane, but also leers at her from a peephole as she undresses. But the doctor’s focus solely on the sexual component—which of course is the thing a Freudian would hone in on—leaves out a more convoluted, complex, and uncertain web of motivation.

That after one interrogation Dr. Richmond can definitively say that “Norman Bates no longer exists—he only half-existed to begin with—and now, the other half has taken over, probably for all time” seems like a potentially inaccurate and unprofessional assumption for any doctor to make after such little time with a patient. Richmond’s seemingly unethical practice is not all that unique in the genre.

Though psychiatry and psychoanalysis had sometimes been shown in a positive light in films that predate Psycho, where an absurdly simplistic interpretation of dreams could allow doctors to solve crimes (Spellbound and Strange Illusion) or a truly kind doctor might genuinely care for his patient and improve their mental health (The Snake Pit), there are plenty of films of the period that include shrinks with varying degrees of dubious ethics (including Dr. Caligari from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Dr. Mabuse from Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, Dr. Vitus Werdegast from The Black Cat, Dr. Louis Judd from Cat People and The Seventh Victim, Dr. Murchison from Spellbound, Master George Sims from Bedlam, Dr. Scott Elliott from The Dark Mirror, Dr. Clifford Porter from Behind Locked Doors, and Dr. Clive Esmond from The Sleeping Tiger).

Motives are not meaning; they are ancillary and inadequate.

Psycho’s satirical finale feels like one final subversive act from Hitchcock in a film full of subversive acts. I need not remind you that killing off your leading lady in the first half of your picture was genuinely shocking at the time of the film’s release. It has since become less shocking solely because so many films have cribbed this bold choice. Think: Drew Barrymore in Scream or Ryan Gosling in The Place Beyond the Pines.

The studio had wanted this ending, an informative epilogue that would clearly explain the motives of Norman Bates. The film’s writer Joseph Stefano admitted that “the psychiatrist speech at the end was something that Hitch had some qualms about.” The director was afraid that the audience would lose interest. According to Stefano, “He called it a hat-grabber.” In other words, Hitchcock worried that theatergoers would grab their hats and leave before the credits began to role (missing the haunting final images).

While on the surface Hitchcock gave the studio suits exactly what they wanted, what he really did was poke fun at this hackneyed cinematic convention: exposition that ties everything up with a tidy little bow. If this kind of exposition is generally meant to give the audience a reason to rest easy, Hitchcock’s simplified psychologism mocks the superficial babble of psychoanalysis and the self-satisfaction of the psychiatrist. Everything’s not resolved. Everything’s not okay. The occulted world remains as un-understandable as ever before. You can pull the victim’s car out of the swamp, but the whys and wherefores aren’t surfaced so easily.

Halloween—Psycho’s spiritual successor—does not follow the formula of its forebear and end with a scene of psychiatric evaluation. Instead, Halloween’s decayed psychologism is woven through the film itself. Dr. Richmond, entering as he does in the final minutes of Psycho, feels external to that film’s central narrative, whereas the psychiatrist in Halloween is internal to—and an integral part of—the movie’s plot machinations.

In a way, Halloween is Psycho through a cracked looking-glass. The uncanny alignments and misalignments between the two films are manifold. Most famously, the lead actress in the latter film (Jamie Lee Curtis) is the real-life daughter of the lead actress in the former (Janet Leigh). But perhaps the most important allusion Halloween makes to Psycho is in its borrowing of the name of Marion Crane’s lover, Sam Loomis, and giving it to Michael Myers’s psychiatrist: Dr. Samuel Loomis. In other words, the man who receives the psychologism in Psycho shares his name with the man who offers the psychologism in Halloween. It brings it full-circle—yet simultaneously fractures the circle.

Additional fracturing happens in Dr. Loomis’s relationship with his patient, Michael Myers, which betrays an unethical strain in his medical practice that far exceeds anything we see from Dr. Richmond in Psycho. If final girl Laurie Strode is the conventional hero of Halloween, Loomis is the film’s anti-hero. Aside from some good intentions (he wants to save the people of Haddonfield from, depending on your reading of Myers, a sociopathic murderer or a mythological force of evil), he doesn’t have many heroic attributes. When we first meet him on October 30th, 1978, in a car with a nurse on his way to pick up Myers from Smith’s Grove Sanitarium, he repeatedly refers to his patient as “it.” When nurse Marion Chambers corrects the doctor, “Don’t you mean ‘him’?” he can only muster a condescending “If you say so.”

Though he says he tried to reach Myers for eight years, Loomis has clearly failed to make a connection with the boy. The only choice for an ethical psychiatrist at that point would be to recommend him to another psychiatrist. Instead, Loomis admits that in the last seven years, he’s stopped attempting to treat Myers altogether, that instead he plans to drug him before his upcoming hearing to assure that he is kept locked away forever. If you believe Michael Myers is not really a man but evil in “the shape” of a man, then this makes sense and is possibly justified, but from the point of view of the Hippocratic Oath and the Medical Code of Ethics, Loomis’s description of his patient as subhuman and the ways he plans to unlawfully block Myers from exercising his legal rights constitute textbook medical malpractice—and possibly something much worse.

Psychologism is, of course, not the only structure for explaining motives in horror movies. Mythological and religious explanations are not at all uncommon.

Not only is Loomis unethical in his treatment of his patient, but his explanation of Myers is not—at least not consistently—a psychological one. He seems to admit the breakdown of psychologism as an explanatory form by the way he so easily slides into other systems of understanding, particularly the mythological and religious modes (calling him the “boogeyman,” saying he has “the devil’s eyes,” describing him as “purely and simply evil”).

Psychologism is, of course, not the only structure for explaining motives in horror movies. Mythological and religious explanations are not at all uncommon. Preachers, nuns, rabbis, religious scholars, and professors of mythology all appear in horror films deciphering the whys and wherefores, much like psychologists and doctors. One of the reasons authority figures that offer exposition on the evil forces in a horror film are so ubiquitous in the genre is that the villains, these emissaries of the occulted world, so rarely explain themselves. They’re not usually like the baddies in a James Bond film who get the hero in a compromising position and then proceed to tell them their dreams, their desires, their plans, their histories. Horror is, as a genre, much more about incommunicability. This is why so many horror villains are mute, silent, taciturn, or terse—and the few verbose villains there are often talk in riddles and jokes which confuse rather than clarify. Thus, in terms of the machinations of these movies, the explainers become crucial in breaking up the screams and the silence, which would otherwise be too much to bear.

We all want some explanation, want to cling to some thread of understanding—and that’s precisely what these explainers offer to both the characters within the film and the viewers on the outside looking in. But while we desire an answer to the question of why, we also recognize—unconsciously if not consciously—that the answers given will never satisfy, for the occulted world is by definition un-understandable, a gap of infinite depth and infinite breadth, impossible to fill, impossible to convincingly paper over no matter how hard we try.

Psychologism is one of the more common ways horror films attempt to paper over this abyss in part because psychology offers a system of meaning that exists somewhere between the more faith-based systems of meaning (the mythological, the religious, the magical, etc.) and the more fact-based systems of meaning (the logical, the empirical, the scientific, the historical, etc.). So the structures of psychology offer a mode of explanation that isn’t supernatural but isn’t exactly natural either. Because it is interested in the mind rather than the natural world or the supernatural “other-world,” it dwells in the uncertainty of subjective experience while trying to posit this experience in certain, objective terminology. In other words, the psychological system is full of incongruities, riddled with fissures, and these tiny cracks are synecdoches for the deeper voids of the occulted world.

The horror genre seems, on the whole, to have a love-hate relationship with psychoanalysis: it appreciates and utilizes psychoanalysis as poetry while mocking and undermining it as science. Characters within a film can take psychologism—or any mode of explanation—seriously, but when the film itself clings too tightly to an explanation as incontestable truth, plugging up too neatly the deep existential terror that shrieks out of every chasm, it diminishes its own horrifying potential.

In Halloween II, though mythical explanations persist (see: “Samhain”), there is an unfortunate return to a much more simplistic psychologism. Laurie Strode, through Rube-Goldberg-ian plot devises, becomes Michael Myers’s sister. Myers is driven to finish what he started: killing off his family. This is why he is never able to scare us as much as he once did. If all this mayhem boils down to a mere family squabble, it loses its dramatic power. What makes 2018’s Halloween the best sequel in the franchise (aside from perhaps Halloween III, which foregoes Myers altogether) is that it undoes the psychologism of the previous seven films and two Rob Zombie remakes; Myers is no longer related to Laurie Strode and no longer solely obsessed with his bloodline. In fact, in Halloween Kills, when Laurie Strode is sure he is coming to the hospital to kill her, someone tells her, “It’s not about you.” Whatever flaws these recent Halloween films have, they at least understand what made Myers so scary in the original film: they return him to the providence of the un-understandable.

If we can unoccult the world, then we can feel confident in our ability to control it and survive it.

In Black Christmas, another of Halloween’s forebears, we know even less about the killer than we do about Michael Myers. We’re not even sure his name is Billy. All we know of him is that he makes obscene phone calls. The content of these calls—mostly moans, obscenities, and threats—stimulate our desire to know and feed it but also deny it.

This desire to explain—and, worse, to over-explain—is an all-too-human one. But as Gabriel says in The Prophecy, “The only thing you can count on in your existence is never understanding why.” Don’t be fooled though. Horror films are not merely scary because they leave things unknown—that would be as simplistic an explanation as those given by dime-store psychologists. Though there is undoubtedly a terror in the unknown, the spell that the genre casts over us is as much a product of an unresolved and unresolvable conflict in our human desires: the want to know and the want to not know (or the recognition that it may be unknowable, and the desire to acclimate yourself to that disappointment). The razor’s edge between these conflicting desires—to know and to not know, to see and to not see, to understand and to not understand—is the real locus of the horror film.

We want to know because if we can understand evil, if we can comprehend the dark, if we can unoccult the world, then we can feel confident in our ability to control it and survive it. But there is no controlling and there is no surviving. We’ll all end up in one of those rooms on the infinite Clue board of life, a white chalk outline that someone is trying to determine the particulars of. It may not be murder; it may be something as innocuous as… old age in the hospital with a common cold.

The meaning behind a killer—even if his motives are given full expression, made completely comprehensible, with a seeming certainty—is as illegible as the meaning behind the common cold. Motives are not meaning; they are ancillary and inadequate. We imagine the why as the Holy Grail but it’s as insufficient as the who, the what, the where, the when, and the how.

Randy Meeks, in the first Scream, says, “It’s the millennium; motives are incidental.” But the truth is he doesn’t even need the first three words of his explanation: they’ve always been incidental.

Tyler Malone
Tyler Malone
Tyler Malone is a writer based in Southern California. He is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Scofield as well as a Contributing Editor at Literary Hub. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Lapham’s Quarterly, the LA Review of Books, and elsewhere.





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