Skip to main content
Skip to main content

Illusory, Latent, and Conflicting: The Resolutions of Psycho and Marnie

About the Author: Haley Brown

Haley Brown is a third-year undergraduate at Brandeis University majoring in American Studies and Film with minors in Legal Studies, English, and Creative Writing. Outside of courses, Haley is the co-General Manager of her university's radio station, a peer academic advisor, and involved with research. While Haley plans to apply to law school in the future, she also intends to work after graduation: hopefully in a job that involves lots of writing!

By Haley Brown | General Essays

“It is only the writer’s ‘ars poetica’ that these otherwise repulsive daydreams are converted into a pleasurable experience for the reader” (Shopper 181).
— Sigmund Freud

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Marnie (1964) both exemplify Hitchcock’s fixation on mental illness derived from childhood and parental experience. It seems more than accidental that both these films would be, either directly or indirectly, named after their title characters – in effect, making them psychological case studies disguised as films. Psycho, one of Hitchcock’s most famous films, is notorious for its creepy motel owner, Norman Bates, a gruesome shower stabbing, and a fixation on “mother.” Marnie, while a lesser-known Hitchcock film, is also brutal: depicting the bloody death of a prostitute’s client, rape, and again, a fixation on “mother.” Both Psycho and Marnie are arguably the filmic manifestations of two psychological concepts: an erotic disruption in the latency stage of psychosexual development, as well as a disruption in the illusionment of parental celibacy. These disruptions, as will be further examined, have life-altering consequences for both characters.

Moreover, Hitchcock presents the psychiatrist figures in both these films (Dr. Fred Richman in Psycho and Mark in Marnie) as explanatory tools rather than curative. Dr. Richman and Mark are not employed to fix the existing mental illnesses of the characters, but to explain the mystery of their origin to the audience. Through the examination of Psycho and Marnie, it becomes evident that Hitchcock’s conclusions are merely meant to cater to the comfort of the viewer but do nothing to free the characters from the cages of mental illness. This discrepancy between the films’ conclusions and the feelings evoked within the viewer illustrates an apparent reality: that the psychological resolution of the viewer exists separately from that of the character.

The most crucial stage of psychosexual development for both Norman and Marnie appears to be the latency period, which is described as lasting from 6 to 12 years of age. One of the most defining characteristics of this period is the developing child’s repressed sexual drive, as well as the displacement of libido onto non-sexual activities (Lantz & Ray). A disruption in the latency stage can cause a future inability to form healthy relationships (Lantz & Ray). On the other hand, the importance of children dissociating their parents from sexuality does not align with one specific stage of psychosexual development, but rather the span of adolescence (which includes the tail end of the latency period). Psychoanalyst Moisy Shopper explains that if “this illusion is disrupted, adolescents encounter difficulty with the dual task of distancing and detaching from oedipal objects and controlling their own sexuality” (179).

Shopper discusses this concept largely through Freud’s “Dora” case study from 1905, in which Freud treated Ida Bauer (under the pseudonym of “Dora”) for hysteria with techniques such as dream analysis. One of Dora’s claims was that her parents’ friend, Herr K, behaved sexually toward her. Freud also believed that Dora was jealous of Herr K’s wife, Frau K, because of her seemingly sexual relationship with Dora’s father (Akavia). While Freud made progress in treating Dora’s symptoms of hysteria, he was disappointed that the treatment ended before he could see his desired results. Using the Dora case study and Shopper’s analysis as a framework, it appears that Psycho’s Norman and Marnie’s Marnie both had experienced parental and circumstantial disruptions during the latency stage of their developments, which led to, albeit different, sexual dysfunctions. These psychosexual dysfunctions are largely portrayed through exhibited behaviors, the recounting of stories, and flashbacks.

The sexual psychopathologies present in Psycho and Marnie are threads in a larger quilt of entrapment that blankets these films. Marnie’s entrapment is represented socially, as she is stuck between jail and a rape-consummated marriage, while Norman’s entrapment is physically solidified at the end of the film through his detainment by the police. Such entrapments are the visual embodiments of Hitchcock’s portrayal of mental illness. Along with this theme of inescapable captivity, Hitchcock uses specific narrative and visual techniques – including breaking the fourth wall and allusions to voyeurism – to acknowledge the existence of the audience. Hitchcock’s acknowledgment of the audience, in conjunction with the theme of mental illness, seems also to create a commentary on the idea that the field of psychology (particularly psychoanalysis) is not meant for the patient, but for everybody else. 

As Marnie discovers through the flashback at the end of Marnie, when she was a child not older than seven, she experienced a sexually-charged trauma. Marnie’s mother, Bernice, was a prostitute who practiced her profession at home; she would remove Marnie from her bedroom so that she could use it for her clients. When Marnie cried out one night from a thunderstorm-induced fright, Bernice’s client (in a white sailor uniform) went to comfort her. His attempt to comfort turned into perceived sexual advances, including touching and kissing, during which Bernice violently intervened to protect Marnie. Child sexual abuse (CSA) has been clinically defined as “any acts upon a child… which include the acts of… touching, grabbing, kissing… and having a child witness a sexual act” (Hunt & Kraus), aligning quite well with Marnie’s experience (at least from her and Bernice’s perspectives). The sailor eventually fell on Bernice, who injured her leg, and Marnie struck him in the head in order to protect her mother. One of her blows was fatal, resulting in the sailor’s white suit becoming soaked in blood. There are hints throughout the film as to what happened, including Marnie’s aversion to the colors red and white (as well as a crippling fear of thunderstorms), although the memories are repressed enough to create a perplexed feeling in the viewer as to what was the cause of such reactions. The most predominant reaction to the trauma is Marnie’s aversion to sex. This aversion would be typical of such trauma, as research has shown that women who experience child sexual abuse are “more likely to report having problems with sexual desire, arousal, and orgasm disorders” (Hunt & Kraus).

Bernice’s profession is emblematic of another distinct disruption in the psychosexual stages of development — the exposure to parental promiscuity. Shopper explains that the illusion of parental celibacy is integral in allowing the developing child to successfully pass through the psychosexual stages. In the case of Marnie, the only barrier between Marnie and her mother’s sexuality is a thinly constructed wall. Marnie is physically removed from what would be her own private space, separate from her mother, and she is removed for the purpose of her mother’s sexual endeavors. The three taps that plague Marnie’s dreams could just as easily be a traumatic reminder of the existence of her mother’s sexuality as it is a reminder of the traumatic event with the sailor.

In an effort to compensate for exposing Marnie to parental sexuality, Bernice becomes obsessed with Marnie’s own celibacy. This obsession, however, is an overcompensation which produces the same kind of effect as the former erotic exposure. This idea can be more wholly represented by Freud’s “Dora” case study. According to Shopper, commentators have entertained the idea that Freud’s own “technical interventions” in “asking about sexually intimate matters… were sexually overstimulating intrusions” (179). Thus, Bernice’s repeated intrusions into Marnie’s sex life, — most evidently in Bernice’s frequent assertion that “[d]ecent woman don’t have need for any man” (Hitchcock 1964, 00:14:33) — while meant to dissuade Marnie from sex, actually bombard Marnie with an overstimulation of the topic. The fact that this overstimulation comes from Marnie’s mother further solidifies an image of parental sexuality for Marnie, and thus makes the illusion of parental celibacy that much harder to maintain.

Bernice is not the only character to have an apparent obsession with Marnie’s sex life. Mark, as Marnie’s pseudo-therapist, pseudo-father, and husband (by means of blackmail), is very interested in figuring out why Marnie has such an aversion to sex. His ego and curiosity become enmeshed in this complete preoccupation with “fixing” Marnie. At one moment in the film, Marnie rhetorically asks Mark, “You Freud, Me Jane?” (Hitchcock 1964, 01:34:03). A more apt question might have been, “You Freud, Me Dora?” Mark’s tendencies are not only Freud-like, but they specifically fit within the nuance and failures of Freud’s work with Dora. And, conversely, Marnie’s familial history and dysfunctions feel eerily reminiscent of Dora’s. These various comparisons have the strongest resonances in two instances: the rape scene and the dream analysis scene.

The scene in which Mark disrobes and rapes Marnie, for all its disturbing content, does not have the traditional aura of misinterpreted passion or the exhibition of sheer male dominance. If anything, it appears more as a passionless act on a paralyzed, passive body. This leads to more of a twisted psychoanalytic conclusion – that Mark raped Marnie for her own sake as his patient. In the Dora case study, Freud “attributed Dora’s premature termination of her treatment to his failure to master the transference” (Shopper 179), transference in psychoanalysis being a phenomenon in which the patient transfers their feelings for or about somebody else onto the therapist. Mark likely perceives Marnie’s aversion to sex as a fear of sex, rooted in some trauma he has not yet discovered. Therefore, if Mark rapes Marnie, and thus produces the same fear she had as a child, she will transfer that fear onto him – the first step in working toward a psychological resolution.

The dream analysis scene, which follows the rape scene, is yet another glimpse into Mark’s non-consensual treatment of Marnie’s mental illness. Having awoken from a nightmare, Marnie is confronted with Mark’s bombardment of psychological questioning – his goal, seemingly, to use the dream to reveal repressed truths. Although he does not learn the story of her trauma, his questioning and word association tactics lead him to a greater assurance that she had lived through a deeply traumatic sexual experience. Freud used dream analysis to try to reveal some of Dora’s deepest truths as well. In discussion of Dora’s first dream (of her mother trying to save a jewel case), psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas understands it to be “a projection of Dora’s wish ‘that the mother preserve her virginity in the face of the contaminating effects of sexuality, a sexuality that brings disease and madness into the safety of the home’” (Shopper 181). In the case of Marnie, parental sexuality – one specifically tied to prostitution – contaminates the safety of the home, bringing chaos that leads to murder, and madness that lingers in Marnie. And when understanding Dora’s second dream, Bollas recognizes the idea that the “father – who embodies sexuality – must be killed… if the child is to return to the immaculate maternal care” (Shopper 181). This “immaculate maternal care” is what Marnie yearns for throughout the film, and it explains why she is so envious of the way her mother cares for the young neighbor girl, Jessie. And although Marnie does not know her father, each of her mother’s clients fills the role of the father, as their sexuality impairs this ideal of immaculate maternal care. Thus, Marnie must kill the sailor not just for her mother’s safety, but to eradicate the figure which impedes the healthy mother-daughter relationship.

In Psycho, Norman suffers a different kind of psychosexual disruption than Marnie, which produces a different kind of sexual aversion. As Norman explains to Marion, he was only five years old when his father died (Hitchcock 1960, 00:38:54), which would have been close to the end of the phallic stage of his psychosexual development. During the phallic stage, the child develops the Oedipus complex (Lantz & Ray) – a fixation on the opposite-sex parent while envying the same-sex parent – and this tension is resolved by the end of the phallic stage through identification with the same-sex parent. Norman, however, did not have the opportunity to identify with his father, as his father died during the height of his oedipal development (likely at the peak of Norman’s maternal attraction). This oedipal disruption was then arguably compounded by the circumstances that infringed on the latency stage of his development. Although it is unclear exactly when his mother started seeing her lover, it seems likely to have occurred during Norman’s latency period, for that would explain some of Norman’s exhibited behaviors, as well as fit within the timeline of Norman’s upbringing outlined by the psychiatrist.

The circumstances of Norman’s adolescence violated some of the necessary conditions for producing the illusion of parental celibacy. As Shopper explains, the “illusion of parental celibacy can be disrupted by: a parent’s extramarital affair... post-divorce dating, and the like” (192). By exposing Norman to her post-marital sexuality, Norman’s mother created an environment in which there could be no possibility of producing the illusion of her celibacy. And similar to Bernice in Marnie, Norman’s mother – or at least the mother part of Norman’s mind – is also obsessed with his celibacy. Before Norman brings her dinner, Marion can hear Norman’s voice and Norman’s mother’s voice quarreling over the idea of Norman eating dinner with Marion. Norman’s mother’s voice interrogates Norman for his wanting to eat with Marion, implying that it could lead to a sexual encounter (Hitchcock 1960, 00:32:14). These disillusionments, compounded by his strong oedipal attraction to his mother (which was never resolved during the phallic stage), resulted in an untenable relationship between mother and son.

Norman’s environment during adolescence was also a major contributor to his mental illness. In discussion of the Dora case study, Shopper explains that Dora’s complete enmeshment with adults was a key factor in her resulting mental illness. Shopper notes that the “use of peer groups to escape, avoid, and/or dilute parental and adult enmeshments was either unavailable to Dora or her enmeshment was so complete as to preclude peer relationships” (178). Norman seems to have had a similar upbringing to Dora’s. After Marion asks if he goes out with friends, Norman replies that “a boy's best friend is his mother” (Hitchcock 1960, 00:36:46). This secluded social life is confirmed when the psychiatrist explains that for years, Norman and his mother “lived as if there was no one else in the world” (Hitchcock 1960, 01:43:24). These crucial non-familial relationships would have been able to help mitigate Norman’s oedipal attractions and displace them onto non-incestuous outlets. These relationships, however, were (whether emotionally or circumstantially) unavailable to Norman, and thus he could not resolve these compounded disruptions of the phallic and latency stages.

What distinctly binds Norman’s psychosexual dysfunction with being stuck in the latency stage of development is his obsession with taxidermy – particularly with stuffing birds. As mentioned, the displacement of sexuality into non-sexual activities is a defining factor of the latency stage, and hobbies are prime examples of what adolescents may channel their sexual energy into during that period. Norman puts it quite bluntly when he tells Marion that his “hobby is stuffing things” (Hitchcock 1960, 00:35:37). Norman’s body, as a vessel that houses two personalities, is unable to resolve erotic arousal through sex, for one of his divided personalities is a dominating mother figure who prevents and represses his libidinal feelings for any other woman. This particular hobby, taxidermy, has a special kind of innate sexual energy. “To stuff” is a verb with masculine connotations; in taxidermy, it means to take what is outside and place it inside another being, displacing what would have been guts, or private internal space, with that which belongs to Norman externally.

Norman himself makes this hobby rather explicitly gendered. He explains that he prefers stuffing birds because he doesn’t like the “look of beasts when they’re stuffed,” but birds are rather “passive to begin with” (Hitchcock 1960, 00:35:41). Passivity is generally associated with femininity, particularly in film, and thus by using this passive (and ergo feminine) being as his object to stuff, it appears as if it is a safe outlet for Norman to express his sexuality. However, Norman’s repeated exposure to parental promiscuity has caused him to lose complete control over his sexuality. Norman admits that taxidermy is “more than a hobby... a hobby is supposed to pass the time, not fill it” (Hitchcock 1960, 00:36:19). No matter how much effort he puts into stuffing those passive birds, they consume him equally – like how his mother, who is “as harmless as one of those stuffed birds” (Hitchcock 1960, 00:41:11), is all-consuming. Norman is honest in his assertion about his mother when he claims, “She needs me” (Hitchcock 1960, 00:41:47). She needs him as a parasite needs a host, for he will do anything to “keep alive the illusion of his mother being alive” (Hitchcock 1960, 01:45:42), an illusion that still cannot repair the broken illusion of her celibacy.

On the other hand, Marnie’s animal-related hobby is rather antithetical to Norman’s. This hobby, horseback riding, is predicated on the animal being alive. This means that the horse must be an active figure, connoting intrinsic masculinity. Marnie, as the rider, may try to control that masculinity, but there would be no action on the part of the rider without the action of the horse. And in the context of Marnie, even taking charge of the horse via the reins produces merely an illusory sense of control. During a conversation with Mark’s father, Mr. Rutland expresses the peculiar sentiment to Marnie that the best “thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse” (Hitchcock 1964, 00:42:32). In an inverted comparison to Norman’s hobby of stuffing, Mr. Rutland’s quite sexual assertion implies that it is the horse which stuffs man – the exteriority of the horse filling the (whether emotional or physical) interiority of man or woman. Marnie cannot use horseback riding as her latent sexual outlet, for if she relies on the outside of a horse for her own interior pleasure, then she lacks the autonomy necessary to control her own sexuality. Moreover, Mark uses the knowledge of Marnie’s hobby to track and trap her after she tries to escape (Hitchcock 1964, 00:59:05). The scene in which Marnie kills her beloved horse, Forio, can thus be read as a resignation to the idea that she does not have any outlet through which she can control her sexuality. The latency stage is not resolved, per se, as she does not seem to gain the ability to be sexually aroused, and thus she has not passed to the genital stage (Lantz & Ray), but she has merely succumbed to her lack of control.

While Marnie may lack personal agency and control over her sexuality, she also plays a key role in exposing the viewer to their own inability to affect the outcome of the film. In Marnie, it is mainly Mark who serves as the surrogate viewer, as his eagerness to solve the mystery of Marnie’s trauma resembles that same eagerness in the viewer. However, in true Hitchcock fashion, the viewer’s path to resolution is inextricably tied with forced introspection. During the dream analysis scene in which Mark interrogates Marnie with unsolicited psychological questioning, Marnie snaps and exclaims, “You’re so hot to play mental health week, what about you?” (Hitchcock 1964, 01:35:08). In essence, what kind of pathology does Mark have that makes him so interested in her? But even greater than that, what kind of pathology does the viewer have that would allow them to consume such psychological tumult as entertainment? We both condemn Mark and we need him. Without Mark, we would not be able to solve the mystery of Marnie’s trauma that we dedicate over two hours to trying to solve. Thus, when we watch the rape scene, the blackmail, the entrapment, the panic-inducing questioning – we watch it all with a perverted pleasure, disregarding the fact that our psychological comfort comes at the cost of Marnie’s. Marnie’s meek “There, there now” (Hitchcock 1964, 02:03:25), which she utters after working through the recovered memory of her trauma, is not indicative of any personal psychological resolution, but rather that of the viewer. It is a helplessness – a “there, now you have it” instead of a “here, I’ve had it all along.” We’ve gained what Hitchcock seems to suggest Marnie can never gain: resolution.
While Marnie uses relatively subtle techniques to acknowledge the viewer, Psycho is more overt. One of Hitchcock’s most blatant depictions of voyeurism is a close-up of Norman’s eye looking through a peephole to Marion’s room in which she undresses (Hitchcock 1960, 00:44:22). We condemn Norman as we watch him watch – all while completely relying on him. If we watch him watch, we cannot feel resolved until we watch that which he watches, thus implicating us in the very behavior we condemn. And when Norman describes his objection to the inside of a “madhouse,” he points to the “laughing and the tears and the cruel eyes studying you” (Hitchcock 1960, 00:40:57). If the madhouse is a metaphor for the movie theater, Hitchcock again tests us under strict scrutiny. We are those cruel eyes which benefit at the expense of those trapped on screen. And by the end of the film, Norman breaks the fourth wall and looks at us with those same cruel eyes from which we ourselves try to be morally detached. This forced introspection does not preclude our psychological resolution. Throughout Psycho, there seem to be subtle references to the emotion of the viewer, including when Detective Arbogast admits, “Well I’ll tell ya, I don’t feel entirely satisfied” (Hitchcock 1960, 01:13:09), after questioning Norman without receiving many answers. But it is not until the end of the film when we receive the resolution for which we yearn.

In a rather theatrical explanation of Norman’s condition and the mystery of Marion’s murder, Dr. Fred Richman scoffs that the “psychiatrist doesn’t lay the groundwork, he merely tries to explain it” (Hitchcock 1960, 01:42:22). In effect, he touts his ability to analyze and offer an interpretation of a situation above all else. He stands before his seated audience of officers and Marion’s loved ones who, like the very audience in the theater, eagerly await an explanation. Even when Lila, Marion’s sister, asks if Marion is dead, there is little reaction when the answer is “yes.” There seems to be an overwhelming urge to learn the mystery of Norman’s condition, dulling all other sensations such as horror and grief – a twisted curiosity. And in Marnie, we champion Mark’s unethical insistence to recover Marnie’s repressed memory, for that will lead to our psychological resolution in the form of an answer.

Yet, there is no resolution for the title characters of Marnie and Psycho. After recovering her memory and having a heartfelt discussion with her mother, Marnie lays her head on her mother’s lap, to which Bernice says, “Get up Marnie, you’re achin’ my leg” (Hitchcock 1964, 02:07:48). This rejection is a reversion back to the beginning of the film when, after putting her head on her mother’s lap, Bernice says, “Marnie, mind my leg” (Hitchcock 1964, 00:12:52). Marnie choosing Mark over jail is not psychological resolution, it is resignation. As for the ending of Psycho, Norman is trapped in his separate holding room, still acknowledging those cruel eyes that watch him – “They’re probably watching me” – but this time, with resignation: “Let them. Let them see what kind of a person I am” (Hitchcock 1960, 01:47:49). Both Marnie and Norman make repeated references to being trapped throughout their respective films. Norman expressed his belief that “we're all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out” (Hitchcock 1960, 00:37:31), his confinement at the end merely being the physical manifestation of what he had felt all along. And Marnie, like the “kind of animal” Mark believed he had “trapped” (Hitchcock 1964, 01:02:50), returns to his arms which clamp her.

The psychiatrist roles in these films, therefore, are not meant to resolve the psychopathologies of the title characters; they are used to comfort us, the viewers. This lack of character resolution and perpetual entrapment seem to suggest a kind of irrevocability of childhood trauma. For all the speculation over why Dora terminated Freud’s sessions, could the most terrifyingly pessimistic answer simply be her own internal resignation? If it wasn’t Freud’s inability to master transference, or his overlooking of the illusion of parental celibacy, could Dora’s termination simply have been a recognition that Freud’s explanations were not meant to treat her, but were instead meant to add to his existing literature – literature which merely resolved everybody’s else’s, including his own, curiosity? Like leafing through a collection of Freud’s case studies, we watch Psycho and Marnie to excite and resolve our own curiosity: a form of entertainment which disregards the lack of resolution for those on screen. We recognize our resolution as the only resolution, making the film’s resolution, in essence, illusory.



Akavia, Naamah. "Hysteria, Identification, and the Family: A Rereading of Freud's Dora Case." American Imago, vol. 62 no. 2, 2005, p. 193-216. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/aim.2005.0021.

Marnie. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, performances by Tippi Hedren, Sean Connery, Martin Gabel, Diane Baker, Bruce Dern, and Louise Latham. Universal Pictures, 1964.

Psycho. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, performances by Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Janet Leigh, Martin Balsam, John McIntire, Simon Oakland. Paramount Pictures, 1960.

Hunt, Sallie A., and Shane W. Kraus. “Exploring the Relationship between Erotic Disruption during the Latency Period and the Use of Sexually Explicit Material, Online Sexual Behaviors, and Sexual Dysfunctions in Young Adulthood.” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, vol. 16, no. 1, Jan. 2009, pp. 79–100. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/10720160902724228.

Lantz, Sarah E., and Sagarika Ray. Freud Developmental Theory. StatPearls Publishing, 2020. NCBI Bookshelf.

Shopper, Moisy (2002) “The Illusion of Parental Celibacy,” The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 57:1, 177-200, doi:10.1080/00797308.2002.11800691.