The Ending of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ Explained

Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 classic has one of the most famous plot twists in film history. Here's what happens and what it says about spectatorship.
Psycho ending Norman Bates

Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. This time, we consider the ending of Psycho. 

When Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) first arrives at the Bates Motel in Psycho, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) invites her up to his house for dinner. In Robert Bloch’s original novel, Marion accepts the invitation and eats in the house’s tiny kitchen with Norman, who spends much of their time together paranoid that Mother will overhear their conversation. But in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film adaptation, Norman runs the idea by Mother, who chastises Norman for even thinking about bringing a young woman into her home. Marion overhears the exchange and instead eats supper with Norman in the parlor attached to the office of the motel, safe from Mother’s ears. The change illustrates one of the core rules of Hitchcockian suspense: don’t show a space until it is dramatically necessary.

Hitchcock waits to bring the camera into the interior of the Bates house until just before Mother murders Marion in the shower of her motel room. After Norman says goodnight to Marion, we journey with him up the nearby hill and into the first floor of the house, where he sits down at the kitchen table dejected and embarrassed by his inability to converse with Marion. The camera follows him there as a misdirect aimed to convince us that Norman played no part in what will soon happen in the motel bathroom. But even then, we only get a glimpse into the house itself. We enter a second time just before Mother’s second murder. She kills the private investigator Arbogast (Martin Balsam), who only gets to the top of the stairs before she knocks him back down with the force of her knife.

The space is not fully explored until the film’s end, when Lila Crane (Vera Miles) enters the house searching for Mrs. Bates, whom she believes may have information that will lead to her sister’s whereabouts. Lila makes her way up the stairs, searches the bedrooms of Mother and Norman, and eventually ventures down to the basement, to the fruit cellar, where she finds Mrs. Bates seated in a chair, facing the wall. Lila taps her on the shoulder, prompting the chair to turn and the truth to be revealed: Mrs. Bates is a mummified corpse, the most grotesque outgrowth of her son’s taxidermy hobby. As Lila screams, the film climaxes, and Norman comes running into the room dressed as Mother, wielding the butcher knife. He is quickly tackled by Sam Loomis (John Gavin), Marion’s fiancée, and the image fades.

It seems odd to offer an explanation of the ending of Psycho because what follows the attempted murder of Lila is as good an explanation as one could hope to find. A psychiatrist, Dr. Richmond (Simon Oakland), lays it all out for Lila and Sam, as well as for us in the audience, in the film’s final six minutes:

When Norman was young, his father died, and he and his mother developed a close, demanding bond and lived, as Richmond describes, “as if there was no one else in the world.” But then, she met another man, who convinced her to buy the motel. The two grew increasingly close, and Norman poisoned them both out of jealousy. The matricide proved to be such a burden on Norman that he had to “erase” the crime from his mind. He dug up and mummified his mother’s corpse and began to imitate her as a way of bringing her back to life. He began to coexist as himself and Mrs. Bates, as mother and son.

But sometimes, he became “only Mother,” and reciprocated the vengeful jealously Norman himself once felt. Whenever Norman became sexually aroused, she grew furious and killed the woman in question. Norman would then resurface and protect Mother by cleaning up what she had done. As the illusion became threatened, Norman began to dress up like her, wear her clothes and make-up. But now, Richmond tells us, there is no more Norman; Mother had fully taken over.

There are, famously, Freudian elements at play throughout Psycho. The most notable example is the notion of the Oedipus complex, the psychoanalytic theory advanced by Sigmund Freud, who argued that while in development a child develops both a sexual desire for the parent of the opposite sex and a rivalry with the parent of the same sex. At one point in the novel, Norman tells his mother that he has been reading psychology books, to which his mother replies that psychology is “filthy.”

“But I was only trying to explain something,” Norman replies. “It’s what they call the Oedipus situation, and I thought if both of us could just look at the problem reasonably and try to understand it, maybe things would change for the better.” Hitchcock is far too good a storyteller to belabor the point in such a way, but it bubbles beneath the surface throughout his film. Like when we learn that Norman, in fact, poisoned his mother and her lover while they were together in bed.

At work in Psycho is also Freud’s notion of the uncanny, which Laura Mulvey outlines in her book Death 24x a Second. For Freud, the uncanny was rooted in two meanings of the German word heimlich. The first definition had to do with “the homely, the familiar,” while the other had to do with “the secret, something that must be concealed and kept out of public sight.” Mulvey notes how these definitions manifest in Psycho: the home is the Bates house and the secret is Marion’s murder. Freud also identified the body of the mother as one’s first home, which was once familiar but becomes less so with the passage of time. Freud, Mulvey notes, wrote of the uncanny nature of corpses, of which the “mummified” Mrs. Bates is one. “There seems to be almost a touch of parody in Hitchcock’s manipulation of these themes,” Mulvey writes.

The film ends with the famous shot of Norman (or Mother), a blanket wrapped around his (her) shoulders. The voice of Mother tells us that she had to take over because Norman was trying to blame her for the murders. A fly lands on Norman’s hand, and Mother tells us she is not going to swat it away. “I hope they’re watching. They’ll see and they’ll know,” she says. “And they’ll say, ‘Well she wouldn’t even hurt a fly.’” The image begins to fade and one sees the shadow of Mother appear in Norman’s face.  While Norman may have entered the world by way of Mother’s body, Mother has now entered Norman’s body and taken over.

It is intimidating to write about Psycho — a film I love deeply — because there has been more writing about it than one could ever read in a year or two, let alone in preparation for writing an article in a week. For the longest time, I have felt that Psycho is a flawless film except for its ending, or, more specifically, for the psychiatrist’s monologue.

The brilliance of Psycho is its minimal use of dialogue. Or, as Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut, it is “the kind of picture in which the camera takes over.” I always thought, if I may be so bold, that Hitchcock should have ended the film in the fruit cellar, similar to how Vertigo (released two years earlier, in 1958) closes with Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) standing on the ledge of the church staring down at the ground after Judy Barton (Kim Novak) plummets to her death. But writing this essay has changed my mind.

The psychiatrist’s monologue sets up to that final, crucial shot, an explanation for how one can identify as — and temporarily, and sometimes permanently believe they are — someone else. This issue of identification is so crucial to Psycho and acts as a kind of metaphor for spectatorship itself.

Part of the horror of Marion’s murder comes from the fact that up until that point we have so closely identified with her; her desire to pay off her fiancée’s debts and be with him, to start over, to be happy. It’s why, in part, her murder comes as such a horrific shock. “Never,” writes the critic Robin Wood in the book Hitchcock Films Revisited, “has identification been broken off so brutally.” And yet, not long after Marion’s murder, we, horrifyingly enough, identify with Norman, and at times, against our better judgment, root for him to succeed.

After he kills Marion, Norman places her body in the trunk of her car and sinks the vehicle in a nearby swamp. There’s a suspenseful moment when the car lingers at the surface of the water and we, the spectators, to our surprise, finds ourselves rooting for Norman to succeed. Hitchcock called this inclination a “natural instinct,” and noted that audiences experienced a fleeting sense of relief when the car finally sinks.

Issues of identity, of course, run throughout Hitchcock. Many of his films, like North By Northwest (1959) and The Wrong Man (1956), follow a similar plot structure: authorities accuse the wrong man of a crime, the man either flees or turns himself in, to the authorities, and then must prove his innocence. In Psycho, though, the identity crisis extends to us in the audience. For Wood, that final shot of Norman Bates allows us “to see the dark potentialities within all of us.”

Hitchcock said that in creating Psycho, he aimed to play the audience “like an organ.” While watching Psycho, Hitchcock takes over the audience just as Mother takes over Norman, and invites us into the world that he has created and shows us precisely the images that he wants us to see. As we look at that final shot, we are invited to reflect on the implications of our own spectatorship, our shared desire as moviegoers to simultaneously be ourselves and someone else, just like Norman and Mother.

Will DiGravio: Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.