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Psycho: A Reflection of the Gaze – Emmanuel Johnson

Ever heard statements like: He has such good outward personae, but his lifestyle is all shades of grey? Or statements like devil in sheep’s clothing…

This reflection looks into the imminent dark personality of every human through the use of Lacan’s function of the gaze as highlighted in the 1982 movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock – Psycho.

What is the Gaze?

Popular Psycho analyst Jacques Lacan explains the gaze through the mirror stage as where a subject (character or personality) is often seen to have mastered the art of seeing themselves as ideal. The subject through the mirror creates a subjective environment that has been fantasised. It is those looks, that nod, that wink, that deep sighed, yet less vocal show of a relived fantasy made by humans we hope to emulate in our lives. From the poor man hoping to be rich, to the girl seeking the ideal man, and in this case, the woman who is surrounded by love, but decides to commit a crime in pursuit of a better life.

However, Lacan’s theory of the gaze seems to constantly have variable meanings, as he further complicates the gaze by adding; the object of our eyes wilfully looks back at us in a rather mysterious way (Lacan in Falluga 2015).  In other words, having the objects of our eyes look back at us, we are reminded of how incapable and powerless we are. Lacan’s theory has been critiqued by various scholars. On one hand, Scott (2015) Argues that the gaze occupies four different positions which correlate with four different readings of Lacan’s object. For the purpose of this reflection, I would highlight three:

  1. The gaze is a lost Object: Like the unconscious self, the gaze shows itself in an askew approach. According to Lacan, there is no coincidence between the eye and a gaze but a beguile.
  2. The gaze is a substituted object: According to Lacan’s gaze, the object is not what the eye lacks but the imagined object that a fantasies gaze turns an object to a subject.
  3. The third version of the gaze postulates that the gaze is a cause of fascination: this gaze creates a construct that magnetises the eyes.

Lacan describes the gaze using three orders: the symbolic, which describes a societal world of communication, the narcissistic, which explains an ideal or real image that is viewed in an imaginary order. As described using a painting from Holbein’s portrait of the Ambassadors – an individual’s first look at the images shows the he or she is in control. However, a further look shows the depth of the image from a side view (Ibid 2015).

Lacan further argues that that there is a deep relationship between the objects coordinating our desires and the gaze which serves as a threat to the desires of the real. It is the consistency in the lack of the desires of our hearts that ensure we continually desire a thing. The objects of our desires are described by Felluga (2015) as a reflection of our narcissistic nature.

The cordial relationship between Cinema and psychoanalysis has spanned for decades and generations. However, the 1900s birth what various forms of art including films interpreted from Freud’s thesis on dreams, where it states that dreams are a form of fulfilling wish that could not have been achieved in the physical (Norton 2015). It is in light of this film directors like Alfred Hitchcock have created masterpieces by creating an environment for active participation for the viewer. Lacan’s psychoanalysis of the gaze changed the way spectators view and connect to films. Lacan describes the gaze as a fantasised mirror that fills up gaps in our individual ideologies, a representation of a world through which the subject finds bearing (McMahon nd).

…Haven’t you?

Psycho is probably the most associated film with Alfred Hitchcock. It is still one of his most successful films and it was produced at the later years of his career (1960). With its unique interpretation of voyeurism and violence, it revolutionises the genre of horror and thriller films. It depicts Norman – a repressed young man who owns a motel Marion chose as her hide out under the thumb of his domineering mother. In a jealous rage, which also is popularly known as the bathroom scene, Marion is seen to be killed by Norman’s  mother. Subsequent investigation showed that it was Norman not his mother who did the killing, using his mother as an alter ego. Which is the base to which my analysis on the gaze is focused on. my argument is based on the premise that the actions we take as individuals are embedded in our inactions.


Psycho has been known by many scholars to be the first thriller ever to come out of psychoanalysis. Sexual fixation of his mother is known to be one of the most of Freudian’s element. There is also a way the three floors in the Bates home (top floor ground floor and basement) mirrors Freud’s three structures of the personality: superego, ego and alter ego respectively. To further speak on the gaze, I would like to throw more light into Freudian’s  (1919) uncanny. As explained by Lacan as a form of gaze, it is the unease we get when we see something familiar as something unfamiliar. For example; visiting a museum or grave site in the dead of the night. Freud was instrested in the uncanny double: that is someone or something that is perturbing like the selfand yet completely separate from it. Uncanny double take the form of mirrors, clones and robots in most thriller films like Psycho. Freud argues that all these creatures are like the self.

Zizek further explains uncanny through the movie Psycho as ‘Marion’s world is a reflection of typical everyday life while Norman’s life is a dark reverse. The relationship between these two worlds is that of the two surfaces of a strip, further progress on one end of the surface, all of a sudden; we find ourselves at it reverses (Zizek 1992:227).

In Psycho we get to see Norman’s uncanny double as the mother which also is his alter ego. Marion and Norman are seen to be uncanny doubles of each other. It is ironic that their name also share common letters. Hitchcock shows us through the use of mirrors that they are both a reflection of each other. They have complimentary and cyclical stories of each other – like day and night.

As stated by Gabbard (2001), this movie like Hitcock’s Vertiligo activates its power through audience involvement in the decision Marion the main Character has to journey through.

Though all characters are fictional, the audience is put in a place to experience the passion, fears, anticipation and the emotions of death that leave us somewhat detached from the main character – as death in itself does, creating a world where ‘the limitations of our physical universe no longer hold’ (Mcgowan 2007). Macgowan further explains that the gaze is the individual’s yard stick to our visibility. Though misused (or in some cases not recognised), the gaze projects a part of our reality we cannot find anywhere in our reality.

The gaze is thoroughly activated when placing visual images of both Marion and Norman. Marion’s subject tive experience of how she perceives the world is seen through the thoughts that run through her mind on her verge of disappearing with her boss’ stolen money. It is further reenforced by changes with cinematography, by moving the depth of fields from day to night. Hitchcock in a stylistic sense moves the audience from an objective reality to a subjective and internal reality. A replayed action made by Norman as he spoke about his mother with deep sympathy, shame and anger, to looking straight to the audience with a smile and show satisfaction. Sartre is of the opinion that the gaze and the eye are mutually exclusive. “If I apprehend the look, I cease to perceive the eyes; they are there, they remain in the field of my perception as pure presentations, but I do not make any use of them; they are neutralized, put out of play; they are no longer the object of a thesis but remain in that state of ‘disconnection’…The Other’s look hides his eyes; he seems to go in front of them.” (Sartre 1993:257-58). A thesis Sartre has in common with Lacan who believes the gaze is in the eye (Lacan).

Furthermore, Sartre unravels the gaze using three contributions. First, the gaze is imperative to every human experience whereby the object always looks at an individual as if it is being seen by the individual. Second, he further explainsa that what is an issue in the gaze superceedsthe literal view of the other’s eyes. Third, it is only when we gaze at the other, we gain self consciousness. The very moment of becoming self conscious, Satrek opines we as humans are all reduced to the object of the other. Boothby (1987) reitaretes by adding: the theory of the gaze is grounded on the master-to-slave dialetics of Hegel further explaining that the relationship between the self and the other is parallel.

In relation to psycho, we see the gaze as parellell with Marion becoming the mirror of Norman and vice versa which could be argued as the cause of the alter ego to trigger a defense mechanism. The gaze in psycho can further be explained through Satrek (1981)  ‘it structures our experience, providing not only the words we use to describe ourselves and our world, but also the very identities we take up as our own.’ the 45 minutes conversation between Marion and Norman which would probably be regarded as baseless and a long stretch of play, is a clear representation of this statement. Both actors shared their daunting experiences  which describes their lives but also explains in depth personalities. for example, Marion the love is in this case represented with the identity of a thief.
Lacan thesis ‘the gaze must be an object of the scopic drive, producing not merely anxiety but also pleasure (Lacan 1981: 181–183).

Through their voices, Hitchcock seems to give us a glimpse of their individual anxieties. Norman imagines mother talking acussingly of him, ‘if i put him away now as i should have years ago, he was always bad’, and Marion imagines Cassidy the millionaire whom she stole the $40,000 from, acussing her of flirting and conniving to steal his money. What we hear is the imaginary internalised voices of authority; parental authority. Cassidy’s interaction with Marion at the beginning of the film is sexual and also disconcertingly – paternal which is also in line with Norman’s ancestorous relationship with his mother. As a voice of authority, Cassidy is Vulgar, but he is protected by the veneer of acceptability given to him by marriage and money – the two things Marion attempts to steal for herself. When she moves to the other which as explained by Freud is a moebius strip, into a suppossed saftey and santity of familiar respectability, she finds that the voice which reigns there is every form of demanding and obscene.

In his writing, Lacan argues that the gaze often disturbs us because it represents some of our hidden desires, which is to say the gaze is not the unfamiliar turned familiar, but a fantasy turned monstrous, as a child who wishes his or her toys would come to life. If Marion is Norman’s gaze and vice versa, then he must represent her amputated fantasy likewise.

Lacan states  ‘the gaze must be an object of the scopic drive, producing not merely anxiety but also pleasure (Lacan 1981: 181–183).

Another aspect of the gaze less talked about is voyeurism. A concept explained by Laura Mulvey (1975) as:  a narcissistic libido with a relative outcome of one’s universal fascination to the beautiful and idealised image in the mirror to which the other appears. Mulvey further presents Freud’s argument as the male castration of anxiety. Voyeurism, according to Mulvey is related to sadism: where pleasure is found in ascertaining guilt and control as seen when Marion looks at the audience and Norman, and subjects the guilty through punishment (or as seen in psycho-murder) or forgiveness (Mulvey 2006: 12-13).

There is indeed a unique situation in the act of watching cinema where audiences gratify their desires through identification. As Lacan has said, there is a likelihood for human beings to be fascinated with images of fetishism and voyeurism (Krips 2010). Certain things about what members of the audience enjoy watching – in the example of Psycho the audience enjoy watching the main actor’s behaviour around the behaviour towards the woman who took the money.

How does he behave?

He seems physically attracted, he acts awkward around her, she does not seem attracted to him, initial introduction to the character is in this way – we haven’t seen the psycho killer instead we see him acting awkwardly around a woman he finds attractive.

Some members of the audience relate, from being in his shoes or her’s – it is a scene that we are all somehow familiar with. The scene evokes a basic human empathy. His awkwardness is used as a semiotic representation of something pure and genuine. This makes me connect to his supposed struggle of uneasiness around the person he has feelings for. Nevertheless, Hitchcock’s narrative takes a different turn when we get to know his other side.

This represents the innate desire of evil within every human being. Hitchcock uses the gaze as a medium of posing this question, which places me in a ‘Fourth Look moment’ and makes me rethink my most genuine feelings and identify other agencies within them.




Felluga, D. (2015) ‘Modules on Lacan: On the Gaze: Introductory Guide to Critical Theory’. Available from <http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/psychoanalysis/lacangaze.html> [8th May 2017].

Krips, H (2010) ‘The Politics of the Gaze: Foucault, Lacan and Žižek’. Available from <http://www.cultureunbound.ep.liu.se/article.asp?doi=10.3384/cu.2000.1525.102691> [8th May 2017].

Lacan, J. (2004)  The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytical Experience. London: Norton & Company

Ma, Y. (2015) ‘Lacan on Gaze’ International Journal of Humanities and Social Science. Available from <http://www.ijhssnet.com/journals/Vol_5_No_10_1_October_2015/15.pdf> [9th May 2017].

McGowan, T. (2007) The Real Gaze: Film Theory After Lacan. New York: State University of New York.

McMahon, K. (nd) ‘A Summary of Lacanian Ideas for those who need it’. Available from <http://kmcmahon.faculty.ku.edu/unpublished-writings.shtml> [9th May 2017].

Mulvey, L. (1975) ‘Visual Pleasure And Narrative Cinema’. Oxford Journals [online] 16 (3), 9-17. Available from < http://screen.oxfordjournals.org/content/16/3/6.full.pdf+html?hwshib2=authn%3A1481764205%3A20161213%253Abd1429f9-e36d-412a-91f3-cd6cd1ce42b9%3A0%3A0%3A0%3AOIVvyRUX5oAWd9ywXxUVZg%3D%3D> [9th May 2017].

Newman, B (1990) ‘The Situation of the Looker-On: Gender, Narration, and Gaze in Withering Heights’. Available from <http://www.jstor.org/stable/462732?seq=2#page_scan_tab_contents> [8th May 2017].




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