Robert Bloch: The Man Who Brought Us Psycho (1959)

Categories
Featured Horror Books Horror Mystery and Lore

During his lifetime, Robert Bloch traveled through the horror subgenres in pursuit of any and all things strange, morbid, or macabre. He started his writing career by imitating his mentor H.P. Lovecraft and subsequently becoming Lovecraft’s peer when he began to expand upon the Cthulhu mythos. It’s fair to say that without the influence and encouragement of Lovecraft, Bloch may never have become the successful and prolific author of horror fiction.

The Wildly Successful Novel?

It’s true that “millions of people across the globe know Psycho very well,” (Hood and Szumskyj, 102) but the Pyscho that they know is the Alfred Hitchcock film adaptation—to say that as many of them are familiar with the original novel by Robert Bloch would simply be false. Truth be told, however, without the masterful original inspiration, there would be no Psycho film franchise and massive following that it has had over the years.

All in all, Bloch himself was quite satisfied with how the movie adaptation came out, not to mention the fact that he regularly quoted Hitchcock when he reminded people that, “Psycho all came from Robert Bloch’s book. The scriptwriter, Joseph Stefano, a radio writer, he had been recommended by my agents MCA, contributed dialogue mostly, no ideas.” This apparently tickled Bloch so much that he even repeated it in his own unofficial biography Once Around the Bloch. He wanted everyone to know how much he endorsed the movie as a great representation of his book, this was a change in direction for Hitchcock, who had a history of taking artistic liberties when adapting other novels to the screen—consider, for example, the differences between Hitchcock’s The Birds (19363) and Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds and Other Stories.

Was Psycho (1959) Based on a True Story?

Bloch had a pretty obsessive fascination with psychopaths and serial killers in general, in fact, the inspiration for his masterful novel Psycho (1959) was loosely based on “the infamous real-life Wisconsin serial murderer Ed Gein” (Hood and Szumskyj, 104). In 1985, Bloch gave an interview to Ron Leming where he disclosed the fact that at the time Gein’s crimes were discovered, he had lived only twenty-nine miles away from where Gein had lived in Plainfield, Wisconsin. It was upon this discovery that Bloch became obsessed with the idea of this psychotic murderous person living in plain sight, perhaps even being the seemingly kind neighbor who would fly under the radar. Although Bloch didn’t intend for the novel to read like a biography of Gein’s life, he did take elements from his life as inspiration for his main character, Norman Bates. Ed Gein was, during his early years, a poor loner raised by troubled parents; his father was an alcoholic and his mother a domineering and fanatically religious woman who exerted her monstrously controlling influence upon Ed and his older brother Henry. It’s not terribly surprising that Henry ended up dying in a fire under suspicious circumstances in their family home.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Film Adaptation: Psycho (1960)

When Alfred Hitchcock purchased the rights of Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho (1959) for a meager $9,500 he did so anonymously—it wasn’t until closer to the release of the film that he came to find out. Hitchcock’s screenwriter Joseph Stefano remained incredibly true to the original story, altering the screenplay only minimally to fit the infamous director’s vision.


Hitchcock’s wildly successful film continues to dominate the public consciousness and, indeed, its dreams and nightmares: the stark, indelible black-and-white images, the characters, the suspense and horror of the storyline, the infamous shower scene, Norman Bates as masterfully portrayed by the unnerving Anthony Perkins, the ultimate unveiling of “Mrs. Bates,” the unforgettably desolate setting of the little neglected dark motel off the road far from the main highway and the house behind it—all this has, by the present day, become such a part and parcel of our culture that for many, Psycho is just one of Hitchcock’s most popular and shocking films, now as then upon its release in 1960.

Scott D. Briggs, “The Keys to the Bates Motel: Robert Bloch’s Psycho Trilogy” in The Man Who Collected Psychos (2009)

Psycho Movie Poster (1960)
Psycho (1960)

Trickery in the Theater

Hitchcock was possibly at the height of his showmanship when the 1960s thriller Psycho came out. Now, when we look back at how he maximized the attention of this legendary film’s release, we can see how blatant of a publicity stunt it really was.

Kudos to Hitchcock though, because he committed to it to such a degree that he made it abundantly clear that, in no uncertain terms, no one was allowed into the theater once the feature had begun.

Stationed outside each box office where the film was being featured was a five-foot-tall cardboard standee of Hitchcock himself, holding a sign that warned theater attendees of the following:

WE WON’T ALLOW YOU to cheat yourself! You must see PSYCHO from beginning to end to enjoy it fully.

Therefore, do not expect to be admitted into the theatre after the start of each performance of the picture. We say no one – and we mean no one – not even the manager’s brother, the President of the United States, or the Queen of England (God bless her)!

– Alfred Hitchcock

Now, if you have seen this classic thriller, you’ll know exactly why Hitchcock didn’t want people to walk in late and spoil the movie for themselves, but if you don’t know why—consider the following:

The synopsis of the movie is that “a Phoenix secretary embezzles $40,000 from her employer’s client, goes on the run, and checks into a remote motel run by a young man under the domination of his mother.” To go along with this, the theatrical trailer for the movie shows the star of the film as Janet Leigh—Leigh’s part in the movie, while substantial to the story, is tragic and short-lived. This was incredibly controversial and shocking to audience members who, having watched the trailer, expected her to be in the entire movie. Classic Hitchcock.

The Remake—Psycho (1998)

While the remake from 1998 didn’t add any content or context that enriched the movie from the original Bloch creation, it did come across as a reverential and faithful scene-by-scene retelling of the original movie. Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche play our main characters and do these classic scenes a decent amount of justice. Other than being a modernized version of the original film, there isn’t much that this movie brings to the table—I still personally enjoy watching it occasionally.

Work Cited

Bloch, Robert. Psycho. Blackstone Audio, Inc., 1959.

Hood, Robert, and Szumskyj, Benjamin. The Man Who Collected Psychos: Critical Essays on Robert Bloch. McFarland, 2009.

Sorene, Paul. “Alfred Hitchcock’s Rules for Watching Psycho And Behind The Scenes Photos (1960).” Flashbak, 30 Oct. 2017, flashbak.com/alfred-hitchcocks-rules-watching-psycho-behind-scenes-photos-1960-389260/.

The Tormented and Tortured, Troublemaker—Shirley Jackson

Categories
Featured Horror Books Women in Horror

Early Life

Born December 14, 1916, in San Francisco, California–Shirley spent most of her childhood in North Burlingame, California. Shirley’s maternal grandmother, a Christian Science faith healer lived with the Jacksons during Shirley’s childhood—later she would bitterly recall a time when her little brother broke his arm and instead of taking him to the hospital, her grandmother only prayed over his broken arm. It wasn’t until her senior year in high school when her family was uprooted, due to an abrupt transfer of her father’s job to Rochester, New York. Initially, she cited hating the Northeast and missing the avocados and pomegranates (two for a nickel, according to her recollection) that were so readily available in California. Despite her fond memories of growing up in California, she only wrote one novel set within California, which drew upon the memories of her childhood in Burlingame, The Road Through The Wall (1948).

Education & Young Adulthood

Despite growing up in California, Jackson is more often associated with New England writers—Nathaniel Hawthorne being one of them, who is considered her American Gothic predecessor. Shirley attended the University of Rochester, but she was kicked out after her sophomore year, having spent more time hanging out in cafes with her best friend at the time—a French exchange student—instead of studying. There is evidence that she suffered from severe depression and ultimately took a year off before she finished her education in 1940 at Syracuse University, where she would meet her future husband. During her time at Syracuse University, she acted as the fiction editor of the humor magazine on campus–which could be considered where she began her career within the literary community.

Along with the beginning of her creative endeavors, Shirley married the American literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. Unfortunately, neither Shirley nor Stanley’s parents attended their wedding. For Stanley’s part, despite declaring himself a “militant atheist,” as a teenager, was actually brought up in a very traditional Jewish household and his family did not approve of interfaith marriage. In Shirley’s case, she simply didn’t tell her parents until after they were wed, knowing that they were more than a little anti-Semitic and would never accept him as their son-in-law. Despite all of this, they had settled in North Bennington, Vermont by 1945. She remained there for most of her adult life; many speculate that she even used it as the setting for her most famous story, The Lottery (1948).

Her Work & Career

After graduating from university, Jackson moved her entire life to New York City and began to write professionally. Her work began to appear in publications such as The New Yorker, Redbook, The Saturday Evening Post, and The Ladies’ Home Journal. It wasn’t until 1948 when she finally was able to publish her first novel entitled The Road Through The Wall. During the same year, Jackson’s most famous work, by far, was published in The New Yorker and it was a short story by the name of The Lottery (1948).

During her early career, Jackson actually struggled to get published, for every successful publication, she had suffered through several rejections. Even though The New Yorker published eight of her stories between 1943 and 1944, they rejected everything until her 1948 submission of The Lottery. This wasn’t incredibly unheard of, J.D. Salinger’s early submissions were also all rejected by The New Yorker. Each rejection, however, caused Shirley to suffer another bout of depression, her husband Stanley requested that her agent only tell her when her work was accepted—leading to Stanley having to occasionally break the news to her that she had been otherwise rejected.

The Lottery

Among one of her earlier published works, The Lottery (1948), a tale that despite its overwhelming popularity was highly controversial for its time. The story starts off as seemingly benign, a banal festival where children gleefully galavant around the town square until all of the adults of the small three-hundred-person community have convened to take part in an annual ritual. While no one outwardly states their objections to such a ritual, it is clear half-way through her story that every person in attendance is silently anxious. Her story, published within The New Yorker, garnered the most attention and mail correspondence in the history of the magazine. Shirley received several hundred letters from subscribers to the magazine, which she said all consisted primarily of “bewilderment, speculation, and plain old-fashioned abuse.” An alarming amount of the letters wanted to know where such ritual lotteries were still held and if they would be able to watch such a ritual. These days it might seem strange that so many readers believed that the story was true, but at that time the magazine didn’t label articles as fact or fiction. Despite the controversy stirred by a simple, yet disturbing story, it has remained one of the most significant sort stories of its time.

It’s funny how many myths surround her writing The Lottery, but what is even better is knowing that Shirley actually spread a lot of them herself. In a lecture she gave about her creation of the story, she said that The New Yorker had asked her to change the date on which the lottery was held and that as a result, the magazine published the story just a few weeks after she submitted it—these were both untrue. One well-known rumor that has been said to have truth to it, was that Shirley was out getting groceries one day when she got the idea for the story, she went home and wrote the entire thing that morning while her two-year-old daughter kept busy in her playpen, she finished just in time for her son to come home from kindergarten for lunch.

Later Works and Movies

Shirley’s later works included novels such as The Haunting of Hill House (1959), We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), as well as Life Among the Savages (1953), the latter of which was an embellished memoir about her experiences as a housewife and mother. Her 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House was turned into a Netflix original series in 2018, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle was adapted to film in 2018. Most of her work relied on supernatural themes and provocative topics that metaphorically explored how people dealt with differences.

Here’s how not to be taken seriously as a woman writer: Use demons and ghosts and other gothic paraphernalia in your fiction. Describe yourself publicly as “a practicing amateur witch” and boast about the hexes you have placed on prominent publishers. Contribute comic essays to women’s magazines about your hectic life as a housewife and mother.

The Haunted Mind of Shirley Jackson by Zoë Heller in The New Yorker October 10, 2016

The Role of Witchcraft

In her earliest years of college, Shirley became interested in witchcraft, her assertion of Christian Scientist as her religion notwithstanding. She continued to study the craft for the rest of her life which aided to her historical perspective and references within many of her books, including Life Among the Savages, which cited historical witchcraft grimoires. She amassed an enormous library of books on the topic, read Tarot cards for friends and family, and was described as “… the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch.” While that might not still be the case today, it’s interesting to see her having joked about her skill in witchcraft. She even spread the rumor that she had cursed Alfred A. Knopf—a publisher who was involved in a contract dispute with her husband—causing him to break his leg while skiing in Vermont. Surprisingly, considering her interest in witchcraft and the occult, Shirley reported having never experienced anything supernatural. Her most famous ghost story The Haunting of Hill House was based on the accounts of haunted houses that others had experienced, as well as the pictures she collected of haunted locations.

Death

It was fairly well-known that Shirley suffered from severe agoraphobia in her later years, so severe that she was often unable to even leave her house. She had made a full recovery and had just completed a reading tour of several college campuses, where she would read from two separate works that were in progress, the first was a novel called Come Along with Me and a children’s fantasy called The Fair Land of Far. Shirley tragically passed away before either of them were finished, at the height of her creative career, and just before her forty-ninth birthday, on August 8, 1965 in North Bennington, Vermont. The cause was said to be heart failure. As to her direct legacy, her two children, Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman Dewitt became the editors of her unpublished works, Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings, which was released in August 2015 to help mark the fiftieth anniversary of her death.

Index of Sources