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'Psycho' and the Anxiety of the Interstate Highway System

The slasher flick is an essay about the greatest infrastructure project in modern times.

This month, CityLab will be rounding up essential scary movies about cities—films that speak to the anxieties of urban life, showcase urban settings to terrifying effect, or forever change the way you see the cities they depict.

Psycho is the indispensable American horror flick. From the creeping pace to the shrieking violins to the sensational twist, the movie set the template for everything that followed. Even the title resonates: psycho, a jarring, slashing gesture of a word that summons a nightmare.

It’s fitting that such a classic pulses with an anxiety that’s essential to the American character—not the Freudian rot of Norman Bates’s mother-love, but a quieter dread. Released in 1960, the movie takes place in the shadow of the highway, in a place that progress left behind, at a time when the country was seized by the urgency of the future.

“Here we have a quiet little hotel,” says Alfred Hitchcock, in what appears to be a trailer for his 1960 movie. “Tucked away off the main highway, and as you see, perfectly harmless looking. When in fact, it has now become known as the scene of a crime.”

In the video short, Hitchcock tours Psycho’s campus (trailers have changed a lot since the ‘60s). “This motel also has, as an adjunct, an old house, which is, if I may say so, a little more sinister looking, less innocent than the hotel itself,” Hitchcock says, leading the viewer to the Victorian manse that has come to be known (mistakenly) as the Bates Motel.

Psycho starts far away from here. The beginning of the film finds Marion, played by Janet Leigh, engaged in a mid-afternoon tryst with her lover, Sam. He wants to be with her, publicly, the way she wants, not hooking up in hotel siestas. But he can’t, he says: Sam can’t marry her because he has too many debts from his father and ex-wife. (“You make respectability sound disrespectful,” Marion tells him.) Dejected, Marion returns to her office, where a client drops off a down payment for a property—$40,000 in cash. Seeing the money as the answer to all her problems, Marion grabs the stuffed envelope and runs, fleeing Phoenix for California, where Sam awaits.

As she drives down the interstate, Marion guesses at all the ways she could get caught. She drives all night, imagining the questions that investigators would be asking about her back in Phoenix. Her mind unravels as the road rolls on. Bleary-eyed, Marion turns off the highway, driving through rain and darkness until she arrives at the remote Bates Motel.

Psycho came out just a few years into the rapid expansion of America’s highways authorized by President Dwight Eisenhower. The Interstate Highway System unleashed the American economy, giving freedom to people who might not otherwise easily travel from, say, Phoenix to Los Angeles, and expanding the market for automobile manufacturers. Interstate highways also transformed the geography of the built environment. The new infrastructure moved markets from Main Street to highway interchanges. According to Interpreting the Interstates: How Highways Changed Rural America's Sense of Place, a documentary project from the University of Vermont, the effects were just as pronounced in the places the highways didn’t go:

Most significantly, the coming of the Interstate Highway dramatically affected older, general-access roads. . . . Traveled at lower speeds and lined by businesses with direct access to the roadway, such roads were characterized by distinct vernacular architecture (think roadside cottage colonies) that connected travelers to the communities through which they passed. The construction of Interstate Highways fundamentally altered this pattern of commercial development as long-distance travelers abandoned those former routes, leaving once-vibrant towns fading into obscurity and busy roadside stores and restaurants struggling to make ends meet.

“We have 12 vacancies,” Norman Bates tells Marion upon her arrival. “Twelve cabins, twelve vacancies. They moved away the highway.”

“I thought I’d gotten off the main road,” Marion says.

“I knew you must have. Nobody ever stops here anymore unless they’ve done that.”

Marion left the main road the moment she stole the money. Or before that, when she became enthralled with a man who had no intention of marrying her. (That’s another slasher-flick trope established by Psycho, the ingénue punished for her moral failings.) In Norman Bates, Marion meets a twisted version of the family values she had herself subverted. The perversion of Psycho reflects an anxiety—social, economic, and spiritual—about the places that were forgotten.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.