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Psycho and the legacy of Robert Bloch

In the convention program book for the 1983 World Fantasy Convention, Stephen King wrote: “What [Robert] Bloch did with such novels as The DeadbeatThe ScarfFirebugPsycho, and The Couch was to rediscover the suspense novel and reinvent the antihero as first discovered by James Cain.” A screenwriter and novelist of German Jewish descent from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Bloch was the youngest member of The Lovecraft Circle, or the writers who followed H. P. Lovecraft and published their short fiction in Weird Tales, a pulp horror outlet that circulated through the Great Depression. But Bloch is probably best remembered for his novel Psycho that served as the basis for one of the most iconic horror films of the 1960s. While Bloch was hardly the first to lend a psychological perspective to the horror novel (a feat that many initially attribute to Edgar Allan Poe, but can also arguably be found in Gothic and speculative literature since its inception), his unique true-crime slant to storytelling set the tone for both speculative fiction and psychological horror for the latter half of the twentieth century. 

The first edition cover of Psycho
Buy Robert Bloch’s Psycho

Bloch was born in Chicago in 1917 and grew up in the Great Depression, delighting in the Golden Age of horror films that played in the picturehouses (he was struck particularly by Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera) and the magazine Weird Tales, which he saved up for each month from his allowance. When he was seventeen years old, he wrote to H. P. Lovecraft as an admirer of his short stories. He preferred Lovecraft’s “cosmic horror” to suffering through Oliver Wendell Holmes and Henry Wordsworth Longfellow in his high school English classes. Lovecraft wrote back, sending him copies of earlier stories and asking him if he himself wrote any weird fiction. Bloch was then admitted into the Lovecraft Circle and began writing among the first of his many short stories for Weird Tales along with Unusual Stories and Marvel Tales. When Lovecraft died in 1937, Bloch was deeply saddened by the loss of his mentor. 

Bloch produced over thirty novels and hundreds of short stories spanning his lengthy career (he died in 1994 at the age of seventy-seven). The Scarf (1947) was his first published novel and contained traces of both his later pulp fiction style and his involvement with the Lovecraft circle. The story is a first-person narrative about a writer named Daniel Morely who murders women with a red scarf he has kept since childhood, modelling his characters after his victims. Lovecraft’s short story “Pickman’s Model,” a childhood favourite of Bloch’s, was also a first-person narrative about an artist whose disturbing creations lead to his disappearance. Bloch’s early short stories also run in a similar vein, taking place within the “Cthulhu Mythos,” Lovecraft’s fictional universe. But as he started hanging out with the Milwaukee Fictioneers, a pulp fiction writers’ group, he developed his own style that deviated from Lovecraft’s.

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Every horror writer has a certain kind of lore that inspires them, whether it’s local legends or fabled monsters from history, and Bloch was no exception. He favoured famous serial murderers Jack the Ripper, Marquis de Sade, and Lizzie Borden, writing several stories that drew from their legacies, including “A Toy for Juliette” and “Lizzie Borden Took an Ax….” In November 1957, Ed Gein was arrested in his Plainsfield, Wisconsin home for the murders of two women. When authorities searched the premises, they discovered that Gein had been digging up the corpses of local women and turning their remains into furniture, silverware, and clothing that he wore, purportedly, so he could pretend to be his mother. Bloch lived about thirty-five miles away from where Gein was arrested at the time, even though he claimed to know nothing of the case. He was, nonetheless, obsessed with “the notion that the man next door may be a monster unsuspected even in the gossip-ridden microcosm of small-town life.” Later, however, Bloch attributed the Gein case as one of the major inspirations for Norman Bates. The other was Castle of Frankenstein’s publisher Calvin Thomas Beck. 

The Ed Gein story was also the inspiration behind The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, particularly the use of human remains for furniture and clothing, such as Leatherface’s mask of human skin. The story was sensational by itself, but the psychological underpinnings were what made Psycho an instant classic: the sensitive mama’s boy corrupted by a domineering mother. The 1960s were the heyday of psychoanalysis and the Oedipus Complex, as well as a crisis within contemporary American masculinity following the women’s movement. The fact Norman psychologically “becomes” his mother at the end of the novel is Freudian horror pushed to its logical extreme (even if the mother is revealed to be the normal one!). It’s no wonder that a story that anticipated the backlash of toxic masculinity resonated so well with popular audiences. Furthermore, Norman Bates’ psychosis stems from a natural cause (split personality disorder in which he assumes the persona of his mother) as well as hinting at a supernatural cause (Norman’s obsession with the occult and Satanism, through the books found in his bedroom). You can see hints of inspiration from Lovecraft, particularly with the occult mentions, but instead of the cause being rooted in cosmic horror, Bloch almost entirely splits from the supernatural horror tale, anticipating the dawn of a new genre: the true-crime slasher. 

Like Matheson and The Twilight Zone, Robert Bloch’s imagination was well adapted to screenwriting, having penned several unforgettable films and episodes of classic American television. The original Star Trek episodes “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”, “Wolf in the Fold,” and “Catspaw” were all written by Bloch. He wrote two psychological horror films for director William Castle, Strait-Jacket (1964) starring Joan Crawford, and The Night Walker (1964) starring Barbara Stanwyck. He also wrote several scripts for British horror studio Amicus Productions, including one called The Skull (1965), starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, based on his short story “The Skull of Marquis de Sade.” Between 1966 and 1972, Bloch wrote five horror anthology movies for Amicus containing shorts based on some of his stories, such as Torture Garden and The House that Dripped Blood. 

Though we tend to think of Pyscho as the pinnacle of 1960s horror, it’s important to situate it in what was happening within speculative fiction at that time: undergoing a transition from supernatural “cosmic” style horror that dominated the 1930s thanks to the influence of Lovecraft and classic monster films, to the “realistic” crime thriller or slasher style films that were about to boom in the 1970s through the 1990s. We can attribute this to many things: the postwar boom and Cold War paranoia, the social movements of the turbulent 1960s, and the turn from foreign external threats to those in our own backyard. Whether Bloch simply was a product of his time or influenced the next generation of horror writers is a matter left for debate.  

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4 replies on “Psycho and the legacy of Robert Bloch”

I’ve often argued that PSYCHO is to some extent a riff on “The Thing on the Doorstep” – a man obsessed with the occult is possessed by the essence of a female corpse in the cellar.

I think you’re right, there seems to be a lot of paralells between the two.

When you speak of Bloch and television horror, how could you omit the classic anthology series THRILLER? Bloch wrote some of the best episodes the show had to offer, both supernatural and non (THE GRIM REAPER, A GOOD IMAGINATION, THE CHEATERS, THE DEVIL’s TICKET among others), and in his teleplay for his own story THE WEIRD TAILOR he presented the first Cthulhu Mythos paraphernalia on TV (Clark Ashton Smith’s Tsathoggua is referenced in the spell heard at the beginning of the episode — taken from Bloch’s early SHAMBLER FROM THE STARS — and the nameless book of the printed story becomes the dread De Vermis Mysteriis in the teleplay).

Hello! Yes I realized that was an oversight on my part, but it was informed by the fact that I couldn’t possibly discuss all of Bloch’s work in the length of the article, so I had to pick and choose examples that people generally unfamiliar with his work might recognize. But you’re absolutely right, he did write a number of brilliant episodes for the series.

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