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Psycho: Identifying with a Killer

In order to care about characters in a film, we have to identify with them. But sometimes, filmmakers and storytellers are able to concoct scenarios where we identify with very troubled characters or people who are downright evil. In Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film Reception (J. Staiger, 2000), Staiger uses The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), one of the earliest ‘slashers’ and an example of Carol Clover's Final Girl theory, to not only demonstrate perverse identification on the part of the audience but also to defend her own positioning with the cannibalistic family in the film.

They are, after all, worthy of our respect. They have responded ingeniously to their culture and environment. They speak for the value of traditional crafts and the sanctity of private property. They have not gone on welfare. They have decorated their home in a way that reflects their personality (grandmother and the family dog have been dried and put on display, their armchairs are armchairs). Besides, anyone who expresses himself with a chainsaw can’t be all bad (Staiger 2000: 182).

As a literary device, identification ‘simplifies the relationship between audience and story’ (Dancyger and Rush 2006: 117). Screenwriting analysts Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush suggest that audiences identify with characters ‘who are in difficult situations’ (Dancyger and Rush 2006: 117).  The choices and actions a character makes throughout a narrative can play a significant role in encouraging an audience to identify with them. While this is not the only method by which an audience can identify with a character, it is a conducive method for screenwriters seeking to use identification studies as a literary device - after all, screenwriting is built on the idea of character action and decision making. Carol Clover’s Final Girl, explored in her 1987 work ‘Her body, himself: Gender in the slasher film’, is a ‘slasher’ horror film trope that suitably encapsulates the theory of identification through character decision. The Final Girl is the ‘androgynous female character who suffers the monster’s tortures throughout the film, but who ultimately defeats him and survives’ (Briefel 2005: 17). The Final Girl theory is not one generally applied in the construction of a film; rather it is the result of genre analysis and a deconstruction of the completed film. Nevertheless, it is a framework that can be reverse-engineered to help in the writer’s goal to manipulate the audience’s engagement with a character. After all, the Final Girl survives because of the wise actions and decisions she makes throughout her journey, and this can facilitate audience and reader engagement, if only because of the many times we have found ourselves captivated by the dramatic irony of the scene, shouting at the screen for the protagonist not to go down the dark corridor alone.

The theory of the Final Girl is also a theory of cross-identification, because it suggests that audiences shift their identification from one character to another. Klaus Rieser argues that male audiences do not immediately identify with the Final Girl (2001: 384), and that their initial identification is instead placed with the monster or the killer. From a structural perspective this can be explained by the fact that the identity of the Final Girl is elusive early in the story. Think about Ridley Scott's Alien and how, particularly in the early stages of the film, it is unclear who the survivor will be. Remember, Sigourney Weaver wasn't a star at that point so it wasn't that obvious just from the casting or from the way she was used in that first act.

When the identity of the Final Girl is revealed, we shift our positioning, and with it our identification onto her, as Clover explains:

We are linked, in this way, with the killer in the early part of the film, usually before we have seen him directly and before we have come to know the Final Girl in any detail. Our closeness to him wanes as our closeness to the Final Girl waxes – a shift underwritten by storyline as well as camera position. (1987: 208)

Certainly it is the case that not every ‘slasher’ film asks audiences to position themselves with the killer. A common argument for our attraction to these films is that we are engrossed in the thrill of escaping the killer, much like a horror videogame. However, it is not unreasonable to think that audiences would feel wholly unsatisfied if they were viewing a ‘slasher’ film that did not contain any ‘slashing’. 

Psycho (1960) facilitates the kind of perverse spectatorship that Staiger speaks of. The film, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, demonstrates cross-identification early in the story, as the audience is initially positioned with Marion Crane. However, their attachment soon shifts to Norman, as Leo Braudy explains:

We follow Norman into the next room and watch as he moves aside a picture to reveal a peephole into Marion's cabin. He watches her undress and, in some important way, we feel the temptress is more guilty than the Peeping Tom. (Braudy 1968: 25)

The viewer is complicit in this moment and this complicity continues with Crane’s murder soon after. ‘Finally at peace with herself, she is killed by Norman Bates and we are left in a position of voyeur, and so are implicated in her death’ (Dancyger and Rush 2006: 179). It can be argued that it is not just the objectification of Marion that shifts the audience’s position from one character to the other, but it is also the character’s traits that shift our identification. 

Though Bates is an unlikely candidate for audiences to identify with, his admirable qualities make it possible. Though it is difficult to separate Norman Bates from the murders, remember that audiences were under the assumption that it was Mrs Bates, Norman's ailing mother, who was responsible. Norman was just caring and protecting his mother, whom we believe to still be alive in the family home at that point in the story. He also works tirelessly to maintain the family business. It is not difficult for audiences, who are constantly projecting their own value systems onto the characters, to align themselves with Bates, given that we already acknowledge Marion Crane to be a thief. 

Given the nature of the story, it is also equally possible that this perverse identification is intentional. Hitchcock, as director/storyteller, has frequently exploited our desire to identify with morally 'good' characters. ‘He plays malevolently on the audience assumption that the character we sympathise with most, whose point of view we share, is the same character who is morally right in the story the movie tells’ (Braudy 1968: 24). The thrill of the film, after the death of one of the protagonists, Marion, now comes in the form of the audience’s shared fears and anxieties with Norman, as he tries to cover up the murder. Grodal’s analysis of Psycho from a character identification perspective gives weight to this notion of ‘unnatural sympathy’ (1997: 95). Grodal uses the scene of Bates trying to dispose of Crane’s car in the swamp as an example of the audience’s identification with Bates. The car slowly begins to sink into the swamp, but then it stops momentarily.

The viewer worries during the short halt in the sinking and experiences a feeling of relief when the car starts to sink again. The viewer has cognitively identified himself with the young man over a longer period of time, and has, during this period, been ‘forced’ to ‘actualize’ the emotions which are presupposed in order to give coherence and meaning to his acts (‘I must wash off the smear of blood’, ‘I must dispose of the body and the car’, and so forth) (Grodal 1997: 95).

The success of Psycho as a thriller, and as a case study for audience identification, is in large part because of how it is structured in the screenplay. The first act builds up a troubled character in the form of Marion Crane, and a strange yet helpful and trustful Norman. Her death at the end of the first act forces audiences to position themselves with the only other character in the story, Norman. By the time Crane's sister ramps up her investigation, we are welded to Norman Bates as he covers up one murder after another, until we learn that he is the killer. Some viewers might shift their positioning again to Lila Crane and Sam Loomis as they try to outsmart Norman, but it isn't unlikely to think that we are still sympathetic to Norman's cause even then. The final shot of Psycho is a punctuation of sorts for this whole psychological double cross. Norman stares at the camera grinning, as if to say 'fooled you' to an audience, who, in 1960, must have been disgusted by Norman, a victim of childhood abuse, sexual abuse as well no doubt, and who practices transvestism. One would think we would be more forgiving of a person who is a victim in their own right, but I think audiences back then would have felt horrified by the fact that they allowed themselves to be fooled by such a character.

On a final note, historical insights into Hitchcock’s collaborations with his screenwriters (see Raubicheck 2011) reveal how highly he considered the screenplay above all other modes of film production. This further highlights how instrumental the screenplay can be in directing an audience’s responses in the movie theatre. when so often we credit camera, sound and directing style.

(Image copyright: Paramount Pictures) 


Briefel, A. (2005) ‘Monster Pains: Masochism, Menstruation, and Identification in the Horror Film’, Film Quarterly, 58(3), pp. 16–27. doi: 10.1525/fq.2005.58.3.16.

Braudy, L., 1968. Hitchcock, Truffaut, and the Irresponsible Audience. Film Quarterly 21, 21–27. doi:10.2307/1210598

Cattrysse, P. (2010) ‘The protagonist’s dramatic goals, wants and needs’, Journal of Screenwriting, 1(1), pp. 83–97. doi: 10.1386/josc.1.1.83/1.

Clover, C. J. (1987) ‘Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film’, Representations, (20), pp. 187–228. doi: 10.2307/2928507.

Dancyger, K. and Rush, J. (2006) Alternative Scriptwriting: Successfully Breaking the Rules. 4 edition. Focal Press.

Grodal, T.K., 1997. Moving pictures: a new theory of film genres, feelings, and cognition. Clarendon Press ; Oxford UniversityPress, Oxford : New York.

Harvey, R. (1991) ‘Sartre/Cinema: Spectator/Art That Is Not One’, Cinema Journal, 30(3), pp. 43–59. doi: 10.2307/1224929.

Hitchcock, A. (1958) Vertigo.

Hooper, T. (1974) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Kagan, J. (1958) ‘The concept of identification’, Psychological Review, 65(5), pp. 296–305. doi: 10.1037/h0041313.

Metz, C. (1975) ‘The Imaginary Signifier’, Screen, 16(2), pp. 14–76. doi: 10.1093/screen/16.2.14.

Mulvey, L. (1975) ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Screen, 16(3), pp. 6–18. doi: 10.1093/screen/16.3.6.

Raubicheck, W. (2011) Scripting Hitchcock: Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie. University of Illinois Press.

Rieser, K. (2001) ‘Masculinity and monstrosity: Characterization and identification in the slasher film.’, Men and Masculinities. Available at: (Accessed: 23 May 2014).

Schmid, W. (2013) Implied Reader, the living handbook of narratology. Available at:

Scott, R. (2000) Gladiator.

Staiger, J. (2000) Perverse spectators: the practices of film reception. New York: New York University Press.


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