Damning Eroticism in Psycho and Turn of the Screw

Eroticism and the politics of sexuality haunt the Gothic style. Analyse the narrative function of sexuality and the erotic in your chosen texts.

Damning Eroticism in Psycho and Turn of the Screw
Morgan Pinder

When the gothic meets the erotic the audience finds themselves in uncomfortable grey areas that subvert sexual norms and create a sense of deviance and madness. This technique of deploying deviant sexual behaviour to demonstrate the fragility of the human psyche and what separates the socially accepted human from the psychologically damaged, animalistic criminal can be found in both Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho and Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, texts which examine the nature of sexuality

and eroticism and how they link in to violence and madness. Sexual desire, real or imagined, is catalyst for the down fall of both predator and prey. In both texts the problematic nature of dealing with sexual deviance and madness is explored in particular in relation to when the child/carer relationship is exposed to the problematic nature of desire.
It is moral outrage and repression in the governess and Norman Bates that is the driving force for them to kill the object of that desire. Whilst Norma Bates is a figment of Norman’s imagination, the idea of his mother and her values, as Norman perceives them, have taken on a separate split personality that allows Norman to kill as his mother rather than taking responsibility himself. When confronted by their own sexuality Norman conjures up his mother, the governess conjures up the grounds keeper, Quint and her disgraced predecessor Miss Jessel both of whom died in the course of their employment.
A common theme in gothic fiction is the loss of innocence, in particular the loss of innocence in children and maidens. These themes tie in strongly with sexuality as sexual transgressions are particularly potent ways to demonstrate madness or immorality. Both the movie Psycho and the short story Turn of the Screw features young, single professional women succumbing to temptation. The governess in Turn of the Screw is so taken with her new employer that she compromises her safety and the safety of the children by maintaining a state of isolation as per his request, whereas Marion of Psycho, in addition to being tempted into an affair with a married man commits theft in order to assist him with his financial woes and secure their future relationship. Both women, by succumbing to temptation, set in motion a disastrous series of events that will result in death. Marion’s move from a state of relative innocence to criminality is signified by a change of wardrobe, from white clothes to black. The governess begins to hallucinate or see ghosts as the consequences of her desire begin to drive her to madness, (Renner, 179) seeing in addition to the corrupting groundskeeper, his partner, the disgraced former governess, who could be read as a projection of what could happen to the governess should she give in to her most transgressive desires:
“Another person – this time; but a figure of quite as unmistakable horror and evil: a woman in black, pale and dreadful – with such an air also, and such a face! – on the other side of the lake. I was there with the child – quiet for the hour; and in the midst of it she came.” (James, 35)
This passage, when read with the governess’s potential madness in mind perhaps begins to point at a much more devastating desire, that the fallen woman appears when she is alone with the child could perhaps be indicative of paedophilic desires, for in this moment the uncle and master of the house is nowhere to be seen. These desires could be symptomatic of her psychotic break or the catalyst for it.
In the child as a sexual being is one of the more confronting devices deployed in gothic and crime fiction and is used as both the symptom of paranormal phenomenon and in the post Freudian Gothic canon as pathological disturbance. It can be read both ways in James’ Turn of the Screw (Miall, 307). It is possible that the governess is seeing the ghosts of the people who abused her young charges Miles and Flora, meaning that the evil nature of their deeds caused them to be damned to haunt the home, or alternately that Miles, in particular is conjuring the ghosts into being because he has been exposed to sexual deviance  and evil by the Quint the groundskeeper and Miss Jessel. From a less paranormal or spiritual perspective the governess is quite clearly having a psychotic break and is herself engulfed by inappropriate desire for his uncle or even Miles himself, as evidenced by her obsession with the virtues of the young boy:
[Miles] made the whole charge absurd. My conclusion bloomed there with the real rose-flush of his innocence: he was only too fine and fair for the little horrid unclean school-world, and he had paid a price for it. (James, 22)
Her desire and her natural revulsion of such a desire are in constant conflict with each other leading to her externalising these impulses leading to the hallucinations of the corrupting ghosts. Her affection for the child grows worrying and increasingly inappropriate with James creating ambiguity as to who instigates the inappropriate affections, but on rereading we find that it is the governesses reflections that betray her true preoccupations. These reflections can appear innocent in isolation, but cumulatively the implications for a psychological reading of the text reveal a portrait of a woman obsessed with a child though the implications remain ambiguous:
We continued silent while the maid was with us – as silent, it whimsically occurred to me, as some young couple who, on their wedding journey, at the inn, feel shy in the presence of the waiter. He turned round only when the waiter had left us. “Well – so we’re alone!”(James, 91)
Norman Bates sexually subversive nature is somewhat more politically problematic, tying into the contemporarily accepted transphobia and homophobia. Whilst today transgender is somewhat less controversial than it was in the 1960s when Psycho was made it is important to acknowledge the view of transgender and transsexuality as  deviant sexual behaviour in the contemporary society of the film and its initial audiences. The film was made in the wake of the apprehension of serial killer Ed Gein, whose use of corpses to make macabre artefacts created awareness of product killers (those who kill for purpose of having the corpse at the end) in the zeitgeist (Sullivan,1). With the supposed transgender killer as the inspiration for first the book Psycho and then its cinematic adaption, the allure of Freudian psychoanalytical explanations of the overbearing mother and her effeminate murderous son prove irresistible. His complex oedipal relationship with his mother and desire to be a woman, or recreate a particular woman, would be seen as the driving force behind his crimes and informed the relationship between Norman Bates and his mother as explained by the psychologist:
RICHMAN:  A man who dresses in women’s clothing in order to achieve a sexual change…or satisfaction…is a transvestite. But in Norman’s case, he was simply doing everything possible to keep alive the illusion of his mother being alive. (Psycho, 1960)
The dangers of repressed desire are explicitly expressed in the film Psycho. While the psychologist Richman has some unusual points to his theory on Norman’s psychology, we have to take his opinion as expert in the Psycho universe. His speculation on Norman’s motive is very clear, it is Norman’s revulsion and suppression on his own sexuality that leads to the death of Marion and any previous victims, including his mother, for whom he has an unhealthy desire towards.
Rejection of his own sexuality is being expressed by the Norma Bates side of his personality through which he is able to express his own disgust with himself and to take action to stop himself from succumbing to desire. The state of gender distress exacerbates Norman’s fragile mind in its state of arrested development and pushes him into a psychotic, homicidal rage, thus rendering him more monstrous in the eyes of the audience (Sullivan,1). In hindsight “Norma’s” outrage is a direct outline of the perception of transgenderism as in direct conflict with his “natural” adult sexual attraction for Marion (Palmer, 12) when he tries to invite her for dinner:
NORMAN: [voiceover as his mother] I won’t have you bringing some young girl in for supper! By candlelight, I suppose, in the cheap, erotic fashion of young men with cheap, erotic minds! … “Mother, she’s just a stranger!” As if men don’t desire strangers! (Psycho,1960)
Contemporary views of masculinity directly effect the use of sexuality in both Psycho and Turn of the Screw. The masculinity of the uncle is not in question despite the fact that his neglect of his niece and nephew is borderline criminal. This neglect does not detract from his appeal to the young governess, whereas the implied crimes of the grounds keeper make him a menacing masculine force. Distance from the home front does not impact on the masculinity of the lord of the house whatsoever, but the only adult masculine figure in the recent history of the domestic life of Bly House comes immediately under suspicion. Miles then, as an emerging masculine force also comes under suspicion despite being still a child. This suspicion of the masculine role in the domestic environment plays a part in the governess’s gradually changing perception of the boy, who she begins to see as irredeemably corrupted and therefore corrupting. This loss of innocence robs Miles of his rights to safety as a child in the eyes of the governess as he becomes akin to the ghosts who haunt her.
What it was most impossible to get rid of was the cruel idea that, whatever I had seen, Miles and Flora saw more – things terrible and unguessable and that sprang from dreadful passages of intercourse in the past. (James, 59)
The horrifying eroticism of the ghosts as a projection of the subconscious of the governess (Miall, 325) and her desire to go against her sheltered upbringing by lusting after the uncle has the effect of transferring her transgressive impulses on to not just the ghosts themselves but by extension Miles and his young sister, Flora, robbing them of their innocence with no further proof than the testimony of her own unreliable narration. Her comments when referring to the young boy in particular become increasingly paranoid and accusatory: “He couldn’t play any longer at innocence; so how the deuce would he get out of it?” (James, 52)
In Psycho the viewer is confronted with an image of Marian Crane as an erotic figure, frequently depicted in her underwear, who ultimately meets her end naked, in the shower and at the mercy of a man, albeit a man dressing as a woman. She is the object of desire throughout the film, with very few male characters failing to objectify her in one manner or another. This erotic portrayal of Marion invites audience judgement, opening the door to viewing Marion as a woman of limited morality who is in conflict with the conventional, patriarchal social contract (Palmer, 12). Her affair with Sam, who unlike Norman is the perfect picture of 1960s masculinity, therefore he is allowed to indulge his desires, allows the audience to suspend disbelief that a nice girl could commit theft against people who trust her. The film therefore has the need to paint her as a vixen, rather than a maiden in distress. This invoking of the Madonna/whore dichotomy provides a method of objectifying Marion, allowing the film to carry on without her after her death, because while she is a relative innocent she is also the object that allows the story of Norman Bates to be told (Palmer, 15). She is an object of desire, and as such is bound to be doomed as in much preceding gothic fiction. Notable doomed objects of desire that set such a precedent include:  Lucy Westerna of Dracula (Stoker, 1897), Isobella Thorpe of Northanger Abbey (Austen, 1817), Lucy Audley (Braddon, 1862), Dorian Gray (Wilde, 1890) and Elizabeth the bride of Doctor Frankenstein (Shelley, 1818). Whilst not all of these characters deliberately position themselves as erotic or desirable, once they have been deemed as such within a gothic story their fate is essentially sealed.
The death of an innocent, or an innocent corrupted is perhaps the most striking similarity between the two texts, and many other gothic texts preceding it. Whether the viewer or reader subscribes to Marion as an innocent who is undeserving of her fate, and similarly accepts Miles as an innocent undeserving of his fate determines whether the parallel can be found between the death of Marion at the hands of Norman Bates and the possible death of Miles at the hands of his governess. Both the governess and Norman are in positions of power and their victims are very much at the mercy of their tortured and insane whims. Norman’s position as predator is strongly implied in the discourse over dinner, where both the camera angles and setting leave the viewer in no doubt that Marion is in some kind of danger. Not only does the camera angle put Norman in a domineering position by shooting from below him but he has birds of prey positioned behind him, whilst Marion has little birds, the prey of the predators, positioned around her;
The sexuality in these gothic texts is depicted as perilous and corrupting, with Marion and Miles being the ultimate victims of sexually linked psychosis. There are no clear victors in these texts, and the morality and sexuality of the audience is called into question with Hitchcock and James creating a confronting portrait of madness and dysfunctional psychoanalytically inspired eroticism, most poignantly during childhood developmental stages, gone disastrously, horrifically wrong.

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Renner, S. (1988). Sexual Hysteria, Physiognomical Bogeymen, and the “Ghosts” in The Turn of the Screw. Nineteenth-Century Literature, 43(2), 175-194. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/3045173
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Stoker, B. & Luckhurst, R. (2011). Dracula. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sullivan, K. (2016). Ed Gein and the figure of the transgendered serial killer by K.E. Sullivan. Ejumpcut.org. Retrieved 11 June 2016, from http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC43folder/EdGein.html
Wilde, O. (2009). Dorian Gray. London: Penguin.

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