Mommy Dearest

On the spectatorship of Psycho and Santa Sangre, and queer people’s relationship to horror

Santa Sangre | art by Dani Manning
Santa Sangre (1989) | artwork courtesy of Dani Manning

“Why do you watch these movies?” my mother asked me over breakfast one day.

We’d spent that morning talking about true crime, which evolved into a conversation about The Staircase, which evolved into a conversation about Toni Collette, which evolved into a conversation about Hereditary, which she refuses to watch.

“Why would you put yourself through such discomfort?”

It wasn’t the first time someone had asked me this, so I already had an answer. Horror—more often than not—provides a welcome distraction from reality. Even when grounded in realism, the scenarios in these films are often implausible. They’re rollercoaster rides that, like any piece of fantasy or science-fiction media, provide thrilling escapism and entertainment. And although the best horror movies have a tendency to stick with us long after they end, never have I feared the Candyman or the Babadook the way I fear heights, or the deep sea, or global warming. At least that’s always been my rationale.

I poke fun at my mom for being a true crime junkie, especially as the genre continues to garner a bad rap thanks to the exploitative nature of more than a few recent documentaries, and the supposed desensitizing effect that these have on audiences. But the truth is, maybe my own viewing habits aren’t all that different. The experience of watching films is a voyeuristic one by definition; it consists of looking. Is taking pleasure in viewing a perverse act that much different from engaging in the act itself? 

Alfred Hitchcock understood this basic principle of movie watching. Many of his films deal with voyeurism not only as an abstraction but also as a commentary on cinema itself, drawing explicit parallels between their characters and their audiences. To experience Rear Window is to watch someone through a glass screen watch people through an open window. In a humorous bit of intertextuality, Rope takes this irony a step further through a dialogue exchange in which some elderly socialites decry murder before praising Notorious (another Hitchcock thriller), seemingly unaware of the irony. But while the ethos of much of Hitchcock’s work hinges on the fact that everyone takes some pleasure in engaging with the macabre, the critique in Psycho—his most seminal film—is a lot sneakier. By making us complicit in the slasher’s crimes through our vicarious spectatorship, Psycho provides a sense of discomfort that makes us question the very act of looking.

You don’t have to have seen Psycho to know the story: Marion Crane, a woman on the run, winds up in an isolated motel belonging to the mysterious Norman Bates—a socially awkward, sexually-repressed young man—and Norma, his difficult mother who’s only ever heard when they’re both offscreen. After their lodger gets mysteriously murdered and Norman disposes of the body, we follow Norman’s attempt to cover up the crime as a detective and the victim’s loved ones search for her. At the end of the film, it’s revealed that Norma—presumed to be the killer—has been dead for years, and that Norman has developed a split personality as a result of her torment and abuse. 

Although most people associate Psycho with the big reveal at the end, I’ve always argued that the first half of the film is the most interesting, thanks in part to the depth that Hitchcock and actress Janet Leigh lend Marion as a character.

Much of the film’s early exposition is weaved expertly into a tense sequence that establishes Norman’s inner conflict through Marion’s—and our—eavesdropping on an argument between him and his mother. Through this conversation, it becomes clear that Norman’s socially and sexually repressed nature are the result of Norma’s lifelong dominance over him—trauma that we later learn could not be shaken by her death. When Norman asks Norma if Marion could join them for supper, she responds with envy and belittlement. 

“By candlelight, I suppose, in the cheap, erotic fashion of young men with cheap, erotic minds,” she scorns. “Go tell her she’ll not be appeasing her ugly appetite with my food or my son! Or do I have to tell her ‘cause you don’t have the guts?” 

It’s degrading not just for him but also for Marion, who overhears the conversation while unpacking her suitcase, isolated in her motel room. Her face reflects both annoyance and familiarity at Norma’s demoralizing assessment of her—much like we saw during an earlier conversation with a patronizing cop, and an even earlier one with her sexist boss. It’s a jarring sequence—Marion going about her room nonchalantly over the soundtrack of Norma openly mocking her—but it also lends her an interiority not typically granted to most slasher victims. It’s why the average viewer might feel discomfort rather than titillation while bearing witness to the intimate act of her slipping into the shower moments later. Hitchcock then takes this a step further, forcing us to witness her murder in cold blood through the killer’s first-person POV. With Marion killed off 45 minutes in, the film’s focus then shifts to Norman, whom we follow in extended observational sequences right up until the big reveal in Act 3.

In a genre full of Margaret Whites and Pamela Vorheeses, no mother figure has ever felt as sinister and powerful as Norma Bates, whose omnipresence is essential to Psycho’s atmosphere despite never once appearing onscreen. The film has developed a massive legacy, lending itself to many references and interpretations over the years—one of the most unique being Alejandro Jodorowsky’s audacious and vivid Santa Sangre (1989), which tells a similar story with different implications. While Santa Sangre also deals with trauma and childhood abuse, the cruelty of Jodorowsky’s film is diametrically opposed to Hitchcock’s. In Psycho, Norman’s secrets lead to his institutionalization, and Marion’s indirectly lead to her demise at Bates Motel. In Santa Sangre, however, characters are punished not through the trauma that comes from hiding, but from witnessing

Much like Psycho, Santa Sangre deals with the story of a man whose caustic relationship with his parents drives him to madness. In the film’s first act, our protagonist, Fenix, watches his father chop his mother’s arms off and slit his own throat after she catches him cheating with another woman. The traumatized boy is then placed into an asylum—which he escapes as an adult, rejoining his mother in an elaborate circus routine by performing as her arms. It gets complicated when she starts to disapprove of each and every one of Fenix’s romantic conquests, sending him on a murder spree with his hands acting as hers. In the end, it’s revealed that she’s been dead all along and that Fenix merely donned her abrasive personality as an alter ego. He’s driven to madness by the traumatic image of his family’s destruction, while “she” is compelled by a cosmic vendetta against the woman she saw her husband with.

The same way that Norma torments Norman in Psycho, Concha’s constant emasculation of Fenix even after her death keeps her son submissive and prone to psychosis. The screeching belittlement with which she nags him culminates in anger when he finally decides to leave. 

“You will never take my son away from me,” she screams at one of his many love interests. “I order my hands to kill her!” 

After Fenix attacks Concha instead, he yells, “Now get out of my life! Disappear,” to which she replies, “You will never be free of me! I’m inside of you.” 

This exchange, along with the interiority metaphor, is reminiscent of the conversation Norman and Marion have shortly after the argument scene in Psycho: “We’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out,” Norman says. “I was born in mine. I don’t mind it anymore.”

The parallels to Hitchcock’s film are obvious, as Jodorowsky chose to highlight the threat that another woman would represent to the fictional Concha, whose son was bound by her reliance on him. More than that, however, both Hitchcock and Jodorowsky force associations between queerness, emasculation, and the Oedipal paradigm on their audiences through extended observational sequences. 

There are several reasons why these themes often go together in media depictions of gay men. For decades now, many of the misconceptions surrounding gayness (and sexual repression in general) have been rooted in the fallacy that these are the result of emasculation caused by maternal abuse. In our heteronormaive society, queerness is also associated with evil because it deviates from tradition. These stigmas, of course, result in the stereotyping of gays, with cross-gender characteristics being the most common among them. Queer and trans people are also often viewed as promiscuous, insecure, and depraved.

In a world where queerness is considered transgressive by default, visible queerness causes people to stare regardless of any social biases; seeing even a small deviation from what we’re used to makes it difficult for the average person to scan and forget. This isn’t always intentional. Sometimes, staring helps people learn and empathize. Other times, it comes from a place of bigotry. Regardless of intention, the result is often discomfort for the target of the staring, both because it insinuates that the target is strange, and because, depending on the context, excessive ogling can be considered a violation of privacy.

It’s because of this that, by forcing his audience to pay close attention to the subtleties in Anthony Perkins’ performance, Hitchcock for better or worse relies on negative stereotypes associated with queerness to discomfort spectators. As we see Norman go about his chores, his queerness is implied through brief mannerisms—a flamboyant gait and slight bending of wrist—feminine traits that are disquieting not because the film’s language is necessarily homophobic but because they come suddenly and in brief spurts, like a repressed alter ego longing to escape. Psycho’s very didactic ending also serves as further insight into Norman’s motifs and reasoning, hinting that his lifelong desire for motherly approval resulted in an Oedipal complex and a deadly fear of intimacy. 

“Because he was so pathologically jealous of her, he assumed that she was as jealous of him,” Dr. Richman explains to Marion’s loved ones. “Therefore, if he felt a strong attraction to any other woman, the mother side of him would go wild.” 

In Santa Sangre, the Oedipal symbolism is much more evident, from the uncomfortable sexual tension between Concha and Fenix that’s present from their first dance scene, to the way that they’re shown sleeping in the same bed, and the manner in which he embraces her for comfort during his nightmares. The same way that Norman’s infatuation with his mother leads to his killing of Marion, Fenix’s belief that Concha is envious of his attraction towards other women results in another killing spree. It’s never explicitly stated that Fenix feels a sexual attraction to his mother; it’s just heavily implied as part of his longing for a family. 

Queer coding was a running trend in Hitchcock’s work, especially when it came to his antagonists, with Rope, Rebecca, and Strangers on a Train all leaning into gay subtext—although it’s worth noting that Perkins himself was queer, and John Dall, Farley Granger, and Judith Anderson were rumored to have been so, too. In fact, it’s partially thanks to the director’s use of queer actors in these roles, and his friendships and collaborations with other queer artists, that I can’t help but engage with his films in good faith, even if they reinforced negative stereotypes for eerie effect upon release. Some critics have even read Norman Bates himself as transgender, as the film’s horror seemingly benefits from the misconception that trans women are dangerous, mentally ill cross-dressers—a concept that’s long been used to instill fear against trans people. 

“A man who dresses in women’s clothing in order to achieve a sexual change or satisfaction is a transvestite, but in Norman’s case, he was simply doing everything possible to keep alive the illusion of his mother being alive,” Dr. Richman very concisely explains in the film, which—it’s safe to say—was made at a time when transgenderism was often conflated with cross-dressing. But despite the explicit disclaimer, the jump scares of Norman in women’s clothing are shocking precisely because of the negative connotation instilled behind such images.

Queerness is even more visibly pronounced in Santa Sangre, from the way that Fenix adopts feminine mannerisms when he begins living with his mother, to his physical appearance; his feathery, androgynous-looking stage costumes match her gowns, and his red acrylic fingernails are made to look like Concha’s hands. Unlike Norman’s feminine qualities, however, these mannerisms are used less as a tool to develop Fenix’s antagonism and more as a maneuver to create pathos. The audience feels for the character as he’s quite literally taken over by his abrasive mother.

Current events have taught us that, although bigots love characterizing queer and trans folks as perverts—voyeurs and Peeping Toms—no one participates in this voyeurism and spectatorship more than the bigots themselves. 

The aforementioned true-crime docuseries The Staircase serves as an excellent case study of the degree to which sexual politics and stigmas regarding the LGBTQ+ community can play a role in the shaping of a public enemy. The courtroom drama from 2004 takes us through the outing and subsequent guilty sentencing of Michael Peterson, an author and self-proclaimed family man on trial for the alleged murder of his wife, Kathleen. Throughout the series, prosecutors are shown repeatedly leaning into the taboos around his bisexuality and extramarital affairs as part of their strategy to convince the jury of his guilt, resulting in a media circus that helped contrast the narrative his defendants tried to spin.

As a part-time journalist whose reporting has been affected by the passing of state laws that seek to stigmatize our identities and exacerbate homophobia and transphobia across the country, many more instances concerning less privileged individuals come to mind. But perhaps most notable is the case of Alexa Negrón Luciano, a homeless trans woman who was found dead on the side of a road in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico on February 24, 2020, after suffering multiple fatal gunshot wounds. 

While the island made international headlines for its crime wave against trans people shortly thereafter (a trend not unique to the US colony), Alexa’s case attracted the coverage it did because of its cruel irony: the day before her killing, she had become the subject of mockery on social media thanks to a run-in with the police, in which she was wrongfully accused of using a mirror to spy on strangers from beneath the stalls of a public bathroom. It was later reported that Alexa had carried the mirror not to peek from below the stalls, but to look over her shoulder in case of a violent threat. 

After her murder, a video surfaced showing a group of men approaching Alexa in a vehicle. In this video, the men shout obscenities and threaten to kill her before loading a gun and firing 10 rounds. The men were later questioned by the police, only to be released when one of them claimed that it was an air gun merely meant to scare Alexa. More than two years later, the case has yet to be solved. After being publicly humiliated and framed as a Peeping Tom, Alexa was killed while her aggressors and the spectators who engaged in her online harassment suffered none of the consequences.

I know the consequences of negative media depictions that do nothing but reaffirm people’s bigoted beliefs. I’ve seen the true crime shows, caught up with the news, and, in some cases, even written the headlines myself. So why do I watch “these movies”? Why would I put myself through such discomfort, as my mother so earnestly asked during breakfast the morning after we’d finished The Staircase?

Much has already been written about queer people’s love for horror, and how the genre has allowed for the exploration of LGBTQ+ themes through allegorical stories about freaks since its inception. There’s also a conversation to be had about reclaiming media aimed at oneself and not for oneself. You can like movies and acknowledge the negative intent behind them. But I think there’s still more to it—at least in the case of Psycho and Santa Sangre, which humanize their antagonists and merely hint at their sexuality.

Psycho may rely on some negative allusions to instill fear, even while making the disclaimer that its queer-coded villain is not queer. But it also denounces sadistic voyeurism altogether. Its infamous shower sequence makes us feel icky for staring before the murder even happens. And by making a compelling character study out of Norman, it also lets viewers sympathize with him in a way that’s rare for slashers. Arguably an updated, fantastical take on Psycho, Santa Sangre could even be described as progressive, framing Fenix’s relationship to the other circus freaks as a poignant story of found family, and being affirmative in its inclusion of a trans woman as one of Fenix’s victims whose womanhood is never questioned. 

Of course, no woman aspires to see herself as a recurring victim in fictional media. Quite the opposite: we yearn for a day in which films like these won’t have to reflect such real-life horrors. But after Puerto Rico’s governor announced a state of emergency related to gender violence last year, Alexa was listed in media reports as being one of at least 60 women murdered on the island in 2020—a step up from local outlets initially misgendering her. In order to protect the most vulnerable members of our communities, we need to understand and acknowledge the social and political disadvantages that people with intersecting identities have. A society will never be tolerant so long as it stigmatizes its most vulnerable members. 

Humans are innately curious creatures, and film exists as a medium because of that. It’s in our nature to take pleasure in watching things unfold, just as it’s in the nature of artists to create. That’s why Hitchcock was so fascinated by queerness, and why Jodorowsky still is. It’s also why Anthony Perkins continued to star in these films despite his well-documented case of internalized homophobia. The actor famously underwent voluntary conversion therapy, and during a press tour for Psycho II (1983), he attributed his own queerness to the same outdated philosophy the psychiatrist uses to explain Norman’s motives in the first film.

“He wanted to be a movie star more than anything,” his lover and fellow actor Tab Hunter revealed in 2018, 26 years after Perkins died of HIV.

Although Perkins’ passion for the craft and his memorable performance add to the list of reasons we still watch and enjoy Psycho today, I sometimes wonder if the actor would have felt comfortable living as his authentic self in another era. After all, our greater acceptance of alternative lifestyles during the 21st century can largely be attributed to the increase of onscreen diversity—and, by this thread, the humanizing of otherwise marginalized identities—that’s taken place in the decades since Psycho. That’s because observing can be a good thing in moderation, and when boundaries are respected. And there’s no better window for radical observation than film.