Analysing narrative codes in Hitchcock's Psycho

Analysing narrative codes in Hitchcock's Psycho

This article was first published in a magazine called Inside the Story back in 2013. The quarterly digital magazine focused on the art of storytelling and is no longer available to view. I found my final draft during a recent inbox sort out and so as the topic is relevant to Fourth Wall Content, I'm republishing here without any updates or edits.

Alfred Hitchcock was a master storyteller. He knew what it took to snare an audience and leave them wanting more. He said it himself, ‘always make the audience suffer as much as possible.’ He also said that ‘there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.’

It’s no surprise that Hitchcock earned the moniker as the master of suspense. He always had his fourth wall in mind, the audience. Everything on screen was considered in relation to how it would affect the audience. This extended to the experience off-screen too. Psycho was the first film to demand theatrical showtimes.

Here's a newspaper advert emphasising the need for impeccable timekeeping from anyone who wanted to see Psycho in the theatre. No exceptions.

Newspaper advert showing an image of Alfred Hitchcock pointing to his watch with text stating anyone wanting to see Psycho in the theatre must be on time or else they won't be admitted.

Hitchcock's movies have made an indelible impression on cinema and although his stories were fiction, they are great case studies in relation to media codes that anyone involved in fictional or factual storytelling can learn from.

Fairytale storytelling principles, with more 'thriller'

My favourite of Hitchcock’s work is Psycho, released in 1960. It’s a media student’s dream film to analyse and it was often used throughout my studies, dissecting the shower scene, discussing how the music was as much a character as anyone else, and spotting the codes throughout the film. Plus there are some fun facts about the film such as the three-minute shower scene featuring 77 different camera angles and taking seven days to shoot.

Psycho relies on traditional storytelling principles that were founded in relation to fairytales, but have stood the test of time.

One theory that can be applied is that of Roland Barthes who suggested that narrative works with five different codes which activate the reader to make sense of it. Note how Barthes was referring to readers but in the case of this article we’ll be talking about viewers, either way, the audience.

For Barthes narrative was complex, a weave of questions and possible routes that could be accessed at several points and was ripe for analysis. Texts like this were open. If a text had only one obvious thread then it was closed.

A spider diagram showing Barthes five narrative codes. Each one is written in a circle and linked by a line to an image from Psycho showing an example of the codes.

Barthes five narrative codes

Barthes identifies five different kinds of semiotic elements that are common to all texts:

  1. hermeneutic or enigma code
  2. semic code
  3. cultural or referential code
  4. proairetic or action code
  5. symbolic code

The enigma code poses questions and brings mystery to the narrative. Will John Doe escape from the burning building. These codes ask questions that the story will answer later on. If they remain unanswered then audiences can be left frustrated.

In Psycho we learn early on that the protagonist Marion Crane didn’t deposit the $40,000 she was asked to. What will she do with the money? This money ends up in a swamp, largely forgotten by the audience, but that’s because Hitchcock liked to turn things on its head. The key purpose of any enigma code is that it leaves the audience wanting to know more.

Semic codes rely on connotations for the audience to derive additional meaning from the story. Despite being black and white, Hitchcock was able to use these two tones to bring additional meaning to Psycho. Before Marion Crane steals the money she is seen in a hotel room wearing white underwear. White has connotations of purity and innocence. Once the money has been stolen Marion is later seen wearing black underwear. Black has connotations of evil, darkness and villainous behaviours. This is well documented as being a conscious decision by Hitchcock who used the audiences pre-existing knowledge of colour and connotations to his advantage.

The associations between white and black and their respective meanings is something that has been shared through media texts time and time again. The meaning is learned by audiences and then reinforced. This happens so frequently that audiences are able to draw meanings from texts and fill in the gaps without realising it. This is true of all media codes and it’s one of the reasons why they are so effective for storytellers to communicate.

Marion packing a suitcase is a proairetic code. The dialogue doesn’t need to literally state that she is going somewhere. The very action of someone putting clothes into a case tells the audience that she is going somewhere. The packed suitcase on the hotel bed is also an enigma code in that case as it asks the question, where is Marion going but there is nothing else in the scene such as brochures or tickets to offer an answer.

Todorov's five narrative stages

Traditionally we think of stories of having a beginning, middle and an end. Tzvetan Todorov suggested that narratives consist of five stages. They are:

  1. a state of equilibrium
  2. a disruption to that equilibrium
  3. a recognition of that disruption
  4. an attempt to repair the disruption
  5. a resolution and reinstatement of equilibrium

Defining your narrative gives structure to your story and when you think of the above five stages in relation to some of your favourite films, fiction or otherwise, it is easy to see how Todorov’s theory is still practiced.

Psycho starts in a hotel room where we see Marion and her lover who want to marry but can’t afford to. The disruption occurs when Marion steals $40,000. The next step would be recognition of that disruption and whilst it is realised that Marion stole the money, Hitchcock had his protagonist killed part way through the film. This was shocking because Janet Leigh who played Marion Crane was a star and stars never get killed off, usually. It also means that Hitchcock introduces a second equilibrium to the audience once the murder has taken place.

Hitchcock has broken the theory and that makes it all the more visible because the audience is shocked by the pattern of events. There is nothing wrong with breaking the rules and some of the most exciting films in recent decades have done just that by shunning linear narratives for something less traditional. Inception and Memento are two examples. The key is to consider your narrative and decide how that narrative will frame your story. Will you start with once upon a time and finish happily ever after? Perhaps Todorov’s structure is best? Or maybe you’ll do a Hitchcock and keep audiences guessing.

Using codes to satisfy the audience

Having codes within media texts is well practiced. It isn’t about tricking or deceiving audiences, in fact quite the opposite. Codes add different layers to the text, They can reveal little details in the story, they can allude to a character’s past and they can provide enjoyment when an audience member spots a code and is satisfied they have been privy to a little something extra.

Ethics needn’t be a concern here. As Hitchcock himself knew, the details count and having codes can help build the tension or act as red herrings so they are storytelling devices that can be used to enhance the audience’s experience. They mustn’t be the focus though, if someone doesn’t know the codes or spot them, they shouldn’t be left with gaps in the story or confused by the narrative. The codes are extras.

There’s no secret formula to an audience spotting codes. People interpret media texts in their own way so they can be very subjective. A lot of the meanings derived from films is learned through exposure and repetition.

Constructing stories with the fourth wall in mind

Having a knowledge of media codes can help you construct a media text that is intelligent, targeted and able to offer the best experience for your audience. Whether you seek to thrill, move, inform or with any other motivation as a storyteller, we can apply theories from times gone by to make our modern day stories better.

Lead the audience expectedly through a linear narrative with familiar characters if your brief requires. Or don’t. Take them one way and then thrust them another, make them believe something and then completely reverse that. As storytellers we have the power to decide all these things. Using codes, deciding on character roles and being knowledgeable about narrative is a great gift that will help us create stories that people will want to come back to time and time again.

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