Birds are a prominent motif in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 suspense horror film, Psycho. Hitchcock uses these birds to artfully foreshadow events and reveal deeper truths about characters.
Psycho begins with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) stealing $40,000 from her job and then driving to go see her boyfriend, Sam Loomis, in California. On her way she stops at the Bates Motel for a night where she meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), the owner. Later that night, a shadowy figure then brutally murders Marion in her room. Upon discovery of the scene, Norman thinks his mother, Norma, murdered Marion. He then disposes of Marion’s body and car in a swamp. After a week of not hearing from her, Detective Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) investigates her disappearance and the missing $40,000. He eventually ends up at the Bates motel and calls Sam (John Gavin) and Marion’s sister, Lila (Vera Miles), and tells them that Marion definitely stayed at the motel for one night. However, Norma murders Arbogast. Sam and Lila go to the Bates Motel after not hearing back from Arbogast. They eventually figure out that Norma Bates is actually dead and Norman has a psychosis where, at times, he thinks he is his mother. Norman is arrested and admits that ‘his mother’ killed Marion and Arbogast.
Psycho was not the first or last time that Hitchcock associated birds with death. In the Young and Innocent, a montage of seagulls is shown after a dead body is discovered, and Madeline (Kim Novak) wears a Hummingbird pin when she ‘falls’ off of the tower to her death in Vertigo. Additionally, the next film that he made after Psycho was the ultimate deadly avian movie, The Birds. While The Birds presents birds as a more immediate threat, Psycho presents their image in a subtler, but equally terrifying manner.
The bird motif is introduced from the start of the film…literally. The very first shot of the film establishes the location of where we start the story as Phoenix, Arizona. Additionally, because in Greek mythology, a phoenix is a mythical bird that burns into ashes when it dies, but is then reborn from its ashes anew, ‘Phoenix’ if the first of many associations that the film creates between birds and death. Birds are further linked to death through the barren and desolate landscape of Phoenix that is evident in the first shot of the film.
The bulk of the bird imagery in the film occurs at the Bates Motel, and the scene with the most avian imagery is the parlor scene between Norman and Marion. The scene takes place in Norman’s parlor where there are numerous taxidermied birds that Norman has stuffed. Norman explains that taxidermy is his hobby and he was the one who stuffed the birds. This is the first place in the film where the birds’ relationship to death is overt, as the stuffed birds are a self-referential allusion to death.
There is a lot of zoomorphism in the film, exclusively involving birds. The most obvious and important one is Norman’s mother being repeatedly symbolized as the menacing taxedermied owl in Norman’s parlor. When Marion mentions Norman’s mother, Norma, for the first time, the camera suddenly changes angles so that now Norman is seen at a low-angle shot.
This new angle makes the menacing owl on the wall appear right next to his head in the background, almost as if it were swooping in and attacking. Later on, when Marion and Norman are discussing his mother further, he says that, “she’s harmless. She’s as harmless as one of those stuffed birds.” However, while he is saying this he looks up to his right, off screen, exactly where the swooping owl is positioned. This further establishes the connection between his mother and the owl. Moreover, the owl looks very menacing, taxidermied with its wings spread wide, as if diving down on prey, suggesting that his mother is probably not as harmless as Norman says she is.
The suspense in the film is raised further when Norman says that he loves to “stuff birds” during their conversation in the parlor.
Literally he is referring to his taxidermy, but it is actually a double entendre. He compares Marion to a bird earlier in the scene, and ‘bird’ is slang for a desirable woman, and of course, the word ‘stuff’ can be a euphemism for sex. (Peucker) Although we never see Norman enact any sexual violence during the film, he clearly lusts for Marion as we later see him spying on her through a peep hole as she changes her clothing.
Marion’s peril becomes even more evident to the audience when she reveals her surname, Crane (a family of bird that are not predators but are known for their beauty). She is clearly in jeopardy of joining the ranks of the other birds in the room and getting murdered and stuffed by Norman Bates. Norman’s last name, Bates, also suggests at his true character. ‘Bate’ describes when a hawk beats its wings in an attempt to escape from the perch, much like Norman tries to break free from his mother’s clutch on his psyche.
To make matters worse for Marion, when she says her surname, she is standing in front of a stuffed crow that is mounted on the wall and whose beak appears to be aimed right at her neck, its sharp beak evocative of Norma’s knife that will soon penetrate Marion. The crow appearing in the same frame as Marion bodes ill for her, as crows are historically associated with bad omens and death.
After Marion leaves, Norman goes to his peephole and there is a shot where a stuffed pheasant is in the foreground and the menacing owl/Norma is in the background with Norman in the middle. These two birds comprise Norman’s zoomorphism. Like the pheasant, he appears to be a fairly normal bird, perhaps a little goofy, but unassuming. However, he also has the dangerous owl/ Norma hidden away in the depths of his psyche.
We see the dichotomy of his psyche play out in this scene. At first, Norman is framed between the two very different birds. He appears unsure of what to do. However, he gives in to his desires and spies on Marion as she changes her clothing. After he has finished peeping, the composition of the shot has changed; he is now framed with only the menacing owl behind him. Norman has become the owl; the predator ready to kill its unassuming prey.
Marion has several zoomorphisms. One is a small songbird. During Marion and Norman’s conversation, Marion nibbles away at a single piece of bread. Accordingly, Norman says that she, “eats like a bird.”
This nibbling of bread makes one think of a small, docile bird, and there are in fact, small taxidermied songbirds next to where she sits in the parlor, and a swallow painted on a bowl can be seen in the foreground of some of the shots showing Marion in the parlor. Hitchcock conveys the danger that Marion is in through this zoomorphism; Marion Crane is not in a good situation when she is in the same room with the man who killed the small songbirds that she is associated with.
Another zoomorphism of Marion is a duck. There are the two paintings of the ducks in Marion’s room, and one of these duck paintings is right over the desk where Marion sits after talking to Norman in his parlor. She is a sitting duck (quite possible that Hitchcock intended this pun considering his documented attention to detail).
In the famous shower scene, Norman stabs Marion to death and leaves her in the bathtub to bleed out. Here, Norman drains her blood like draining the blood from a dead bird before taking it to the butcher.
Additionally, Marion falls out of the bathtub after she us stabbed and ends up half on the floor, making it look like her neck might be broken. Again, this is similar to how one kills poultry by wringing their necks.
To complete the suggestion that Marion is an animal, Norma comes back and wraps up Marion’s body in the shower curtain, like meat being wrapped up in wax paper at a butcher’s shop. Hitchcock includes a close-up of Marion’s eyes in this sequence; her eyes are dead, glossed over, and unseeing. Now she is just like another one of Norman’s many taxidermied birds.
When cleaning up Marion’s hotel room, Norman knocks a picture off the wall of a small bird, exactly as he just “knocked off” Marion.
Marion was previously associated with this bird photo when Norman was spying on Marion through the peephole and all that he could see was Marion changing and the picture of this bird. However, next to the photo that Norman knocks over, there is a second, almost identical picture of a bird. This suggests that there will be a second ‘bird’ that is practically identical to Marion; a second bird that revealed in the very next scene when Marion’s sister, Lila, is introduced.
Even the cars in this movie don’t escape avian symbolism. Marion’s original 1956 Ford Mainline’s hood ornament is a flying jet, and her 1957 Ford Custom 300 has prominent tailfins that resemble bird wings. These avian references serve as small bits of foreshadowing for the deeper bird associations later in the movie.
The main car/bird correlation comes in the form of Detective Arbogast’s car, a 1958 Mercury. In Roman mythology, Mercury is the messenger god, has winged sandals and a winged hat. Fittingly, the Detective is able to pass along the information to Lila that Marion was definitely at the Bates Hotel, but ultimately he meets the same fate as Marion and is killed by Norma.
These numerous references to birds in Psycho function to both foreshadow events as well as illuminate the depths of its characters. Hitchcock masterful paints Norman as a man torn between two identities and Marion as an unwitting and ultimately doomed character through the film’s bird motif — an eloquent and ingenious motif that makes an exceptional film even better.
Leeming, David Adams. “’Crows and Ravens’ The Oxford Companion to World Mythology.” Oxford University Press. (2005). 86. Print.
Peucker, Brigitte “The Material Image: Art And the Real in Film.” Stanford University Press. (2007). 167. Print.