by ZJ Czupor
Check in. Relax. Take a Shower.
One of the most iconic and terrifying murder scenes in film history takes place in a shower, at the Bates Motel. The scene I’m referring to, of course, is from the film, Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock with screenplay by Joseph Stefano (1960).
The film is based on the 1959 novel of the same name by award-winning author Robert Bloch (1917-1994).
A prolific writer, Bloch authored more than fifty novels, fifty screenplays and more than four hundred short stories. He used eight different pen names while writing mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. His peers regarded him as one of the great writers of modern psychological horror. In his writings, he believed the implied knife or ax blow was more effective than the graphic details.
He was also fond of comedy and, especially, puns in his titles, i.e. Tales in a Jugular Vein; Atoms and Evil; Fear Today, Gone Tomorrow; and Out of the Mouths of Graves.He wrote his autobiography and called it “unauthorized,” with the pun-laced title, Once Around the Bloch (1993).
His best-known novel, Psycho, (Simon & Schuster) was his ninth. But it was his first use of modern urban horror relying on psychology. He said, “…the real horror is not in the shadows, but in that twisted little world inside our own skulls.”
Bloch said he based the story loosely on Wisconsin murderer and grave robber Ed Gein. Gein was known as “The Butcher of Plainfield,” or “The Plainfield Ghoul.” Like the film’s protagonist, Norman Bates, the murderer Gein had a domineering mother. He had sealed off a room in their home as a shrine to his deceased mother, and he dressed in women’s clothes.
When Hitchcock’s assistant read a positive review of Bloch’s novel by Anthony Boucher, Hitchcock ordered her to buy the rights. Bloch’s agent received a “blind bid” of $7,500 for screen rights to the novel. The bid escalated and Hitchcock eventually won the bid at $9,500. He immediately purchased all copies of the novel to preserve the novel’s surprises.
Unfortunately, Bloch’s contract with Simon & Schuster did not include a bonus for a film sale. After the publisher took 15 percent and the agent ten percent, Bloch ended up with $6,750 before taxes, or about $59,000 in today’s dollars. The film was an enormous success earning $32 million (in 1960 dollars) from worldwide box office sales. Bloch did not receive another penny.
Hitchcock said, “Psycho all came from Robert Bloch’s book.”
The screenplay and film are relatively true to the novel with some significant changes:
- In the novel, unlike Anthony Perkins’ portrayal of the character Bates, he is middle-aged, overweight, and a heavy drinker.
- In the novel, Bates is interested in spiritualism, the occult, and pornography, things only hinted at in the film.
- In the novel, the woman killed in the shower is named Mary Crane, a secretary from Phoenix. Her name was changed to Marion Crane in the film because a real “Mary Crane” existed in Phoenix, where the story opens.
- The novel is more violent than the film. For example, in the novel, Mary is beheaded in the shower as opposed to being stabbed to death.
Bloch wrote that famous scene like this:
Then she did see it there – just a face, peering through the curtains, hanging in midair like a mask. A headscarf concealed the hair and the glassy eyes stared inhumanly, but it wasn’t a mask, it couldn’t be. The skin had been powdered dead-white and two hectic spots of rouge centered on the cheekbones. It wasn’t a mask. It was the face of a crazy old woman. Mary started to scream, and then the curtains parted further and a hand appeared, holding a butcher’s knife. It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream.
And her head.
Although the film catapulted his literary career, Bloch was haunted for being known as “the author of Psycho.” Even so, he wrote two other Psycho novels that were unrelated to the film sequels.
Bloch was born to poor Jewish parents of German descent. At a young age, his mother encouraged him to read. He later discovered horror magazines and at the age of 15 wrote a “fan letter” to the classic horror author H. P. Lovecraft who took a liking to Bloch and even lent him copies of his books from his private library. In the 1930s, Bloch started writing fantastic tales during his last year in high school and submitted stories to various magazines.
He also wrote for radio shows and several television shows including Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, Night Gallery, I Spy, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., and Star Trek.
In 1961, Mystery Writers of America awarded him an Edgar for “Best Motion Picture Screenplay.” In 1970, Bloch served as president of MWA. He won numerous awards for his science fiction and horror writing including a Lifetime Achievement Award at the first World Fantasy Convention (1975). He won two Hugo Awards, two World Fantasy Awards, five Bram Stoker Awards (for horror works), and was honored as the Grand Master at the World Horror Convention in 1991.
Stephen King said, “What Bloch did with such novels as The Deadbeat, The Scarf, Firebug, Psycho, and The Couch was to re-discover the suspense novel and reinvent the antihero as first discovered by James Cain.”
Bloch was respected and loved by his peers and fans, and he enjoyed a great reputation for kindness. He was also well known for outrageously corny jokes. Reputedly, he’d invite visitors to his office and assured them that while he wrote horror fiction, he “had the heart of a little boy.” And “If they wanted, he would even let them pick it up and hold it.”
Robert Albert Bloch was born in Chicago and died in Los Angeles, at 77, after a long battle with cancer.
And that’s your Mystery Minute.
# # #
The hardcover version of Psycho is only 183 pages and includes an Afterword by Ray Bradbury. The book is for sale on Amazon at $253.96.
H.P. Lovecraft said his writing style and construction was largely influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, whom he called his “God of Fiction.” In turn, Lovecraft influenced Robert Bloch, Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King.