‘The Judgment of Psycho’ by John Haskell

“Janet Leigh was never completely naked during the filming of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, but she did have breasts. They’re hinted at and alluded to, never revealed exactly, but she did have them, and in a way it’s why she was killed. The movie begins with her, with a long shot of Phoenix, Arizona. The camera pans across the city to a building, to a window in the building, then under the venetian blinds of the window and into the room where Janet Leigh is lying half-naked on a bed. She’s wearing a white bra and a white slip, and the bra, sitting on top of her chest like two white pyramids, looks as if it ought to be enough protection.” 

If ‘The Judgment of Psycho’ had not been published in Haskell’s collection of short stories, it could have been published as a piece of film criticism in some cinema magazine. The story braids together scenes (both real and imagined) from Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark horror film with retellings of the mythology surrounding the Trojan War and descriptions of a figure in the underpainting of a Jan Vermeer. There’s a lot going on here, but the story never feels overburdened, for Haskell’s sleight of hand is masterful. He willfully confuses Psycho’s actors with the characters they play—for example, attributing the desires of Norman Bates to Tony Perkins—which is, of course, exactly what the viewer does while watching a film, losing a sense of the separation between the real and the fantasy. We—like Tony Perkins, like John Haskell—wrestle with ghosts. 

First published in Haskell’s collection I Am Not Jackson Pollock, 2003, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. You can hear an excerpt of it in audio form, read by the author himself, at WNYC’s Studio 360

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