Movie Music: 1960’s Psycho

Sam Jacobsen, Junior Editor

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“People always mean well!  

They cluck their thick tongues, and shake their heads and suggest, oh, so very delicately!  

Of course, I’ve suggested it myself.  But I hate to even think about it.  She needs me.  

It-it’s not as if shes were a maniac–a raving thing.   

She goes a little mad sometimes.  

We all go a little mad sometimes.  

Haven’t you?”

-Norman Bates, Psycho 1960

 

The pulse rates are high as the embezzling Marion Crane drives away from the site of her theft.  She’s nervous–we can tell from the stellar acting of Janet Leigh.  Or, is it the acting?  Perhaps it is something else?  The eerie atmosphere?  The music?  Yes, it must be the music; that hard, bouncy, tense music.  Music can make or break a film, and in the case of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho it made the film.  The movie, already with eerie visuals and a spooky story, would not have been nearly as stressful if it hadn’t had Bernard Herrmann’s demented score woven into it.  The perfect blend between deep smoothes, and high, frightening screeches.  It is what makes that famous shower scene so famous, and what creates a constant sense of dread throughout a very slow movie.

I, myself, am a huge fan of Hitchcock’s work, especially Psycho.  And, since I love Psycho with such fervour, I decided one day that it may be a good idea to listen to the soundtrack as I worked.  Rarely have I had such a stressful work day.  I felt twitchy, on edge, and worried that someone was watching me.  I felt like I was Marion Crane; like I was driving down the highway, desperately trying to avoid the gaze of a pesky police officer.  Rarely has music had such an effect on me.  And if the music alone of Psycho has had such a profound effect on me, I can only imagine how it felt to be in a dark theater with countless other strangers as the movie played.

It is this mix of two art forms made to deliver the same dreadful feeling that makes Psycho one of the most influential horror flicks on the market.  Music is an art form directed to the ears, film to the eyes, and when these two mediums work well together it creates masterpieces.  Would anyone root for Indiana Jones in The Raiders of the Lost Ark if his heroic ballad wasn’t playing in the background?  Would anyone have cried for Maximus Decimus Meridius at the end of Gladiator if not for the enchanting vocals of Lisa Gerrard?  Would anyone think Psycho was as good without its terrifying score?

A film’s score is always an important aspect of how well-done it is, and this is especially true in the horror genre.  Since music can cause such powerful emotions (and a good horror movie is all about emotion) if a horror flick has a bad score it won’t be a powerful movie like Psycho–no matter how good the story.  And what makes some of the best horror scores is the balance of enchanting music and suffocating silence.  Take, for example, the 1967 film Wait Until Dark.  The climax of the late 60s thriller is beyond intense, and one of the things that makes it so intense is its score–complete silence except the hum of Susy Hendrix’s jammed refrigerator.  Even the twangy, awkward music of the 1992 Braindead instills a sense of uncomfortable dread.

There are many great works of film music out there, but Psycho!  Its sickening lows, its unnerving highs work together in demented harmony to bring the terrifying vision of Alfred Hitchcock to an entirely different level of scary.            

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