Lore Report: “Close By” (Episode 159)

Over the centuries, humans have learned to use the underground like a tool, hiding away more than just treasure. From bodies to bunkers, we’ve been putting reminders of our own failures and mistakes into the ground, hoping that out of sight can truly be out of mind. Sometimes these things are hidden far away from prying eyes and never see the light of day again. Every now and then, though, someone with a  shovel digs in just the right place, and forgotten history is uncovered, exposing a story to the world that paints a tragic and sinister picture. And of all the locations with a buried past, few can hold a candle to the dark history of one city in particular: Scotland’s very own Edinburgh.

 

The latest episode of the Lore podcast does not offer some sunny tour of Edinburgh; host Aaron Mahnke unsurprisingly highlights the underground and the otherworldly. Mahnke ventures first into the sordid, squalid underworld that arose within the stone vaults beneath the city’s bridges. He also explores Mary King’s Close, a hidden urban warren where plague victims were walled in during the mid-1640’s (in the public interest of containing contagion). Such locales–dismal in nature and marked with dark history–easily accrue a haunted reputation, and the Edinburgh underground sports no shortage of ghostly tales (Mahnke recounts one unnerving narrative that features the best who’s-hand-was-she-holding moment this side of The Haunting). Rich in interesting detail (e.g. the purpose of the plague doctor’s beaked mask) and strong in Gothic impulse (“No matter how deep we try to bury it,” Mahnke reminds listeners, “the past will always try to find a way to return”) “Close By” is an episode that Lore-lovers are sure to hold near and dear.

 

The Legend of Creepy Psycho

In my recent essay “Eerie Rider: The Headless Horseman’s Forays into Pop Culture” (included in my e-book The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition), I traced various post-“Legend” career moments of Washington Irving’s galloping Hessian. Here’s one more (surprising) example of a text that I would argue falls under the shadow of Sleepy Hollow: Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel Psycho.

The surname that Bloch gives to his (seeming) female lead, Mary Crane, echoes that of Irving’s famous character Ichabod Crane. Such connection might seem facile at first, but grows more intriguing when one considers Mary’s death at the hands of Norman Bates (in a scene that plays out quite differently from Hitchcock’s film adaptation):

Then she did see it there–just a face, peering through the curtains, hanging in midair like a mask. A head-scarf 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.

Just as Ichabod is primed for Brom Bones’s ostensible prank by the dark tales told earlier that evening at the Van Tassel party, Mary Crane’s mistaken perception of her murderer as a crazy old woman is influenced by her previous discussion with Norman of his mentally ill mother. The apparently floating head in the shower steam recalls the Hessian’s disembodied noggin that Ichabod spies. Mary’s sudden beheading (vs. the multiple stab wounds to the torso suffered by her filmic counterpart Marion) forms a more graphic version of the hapless fate of the brained Ichabod in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The felling of the schoolteacher comes at a great surprise to Ichabod (and the reader), since he believes he has survived the Horseman’s midnight chase by crossing the church bridge. In Bloch’s novel, Mary ironically believes that she has Norman to thank for her “safety” and “future security” (her conversation with him convinces her to return the money she has stolen). Her path for moral redemption mapped out, Mary promptly decides to “take a nice, long hot shower. Get the dirt off her hide, just as she was going to get the dirt cleaned out of her insides.” Alas, Mary never gets the chance to “come clean”: before she can shampoo with some Head & Shoulders (as it were), the cross-dressing Norman removes her head from her shoulders.

So by employing the surname Crane, Bloch embeds a clue that in hindsight foreshadows a climactic act of terrible head trauma. I imagine that Irving’s masterful melding of the comic and the macabre in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” naturally appealed to Bloch, perhaps the genre’s most notable figure when it comes to the mixing of humor and horror. A hint of Bloch’s wicked wit can be detected, for example, earlier in this chapter that concludes with Mary’s beheading. When first shown her motel room, Mary notices “the shower stall in the bathroom beyond. Actually, she would have preferred a tub, but this would do.” And it does just fine, at least in terms of the blood bath it soon encompasses.

 

Psycho After Six Decades

In preparation for my last post on horror noir, I recently re-watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Since 2020 marks the 60th(!) anniversary of the film’s release, I also couldn’t help but consider how the film holds up after all these years. Some thoughts:

A particular scene that has not aged gracefully is the one in which Marion overhears Norman’s mother berating him for wanting to invite the motel guest up to the house for dinner. Marion is listening through a closed motel window during a rainstorm, yet the conversation (which is riddled with stilted dialogue) inside the house up the hill sounds as if it is right in the next room. Hearing Norman’s mother speak is necessary for the misdirection the film deliberately creates, yet the execution of this scene is jarring in its lack of realism.

The famous shower scene has burned its way into public consciousness, but the subsequent scene (Norman’s cleanup of the gruesome murder) arguably has not garnered the appreciation it deserves. It forms a brilliant study in contrast: the shower scene (with its screeching string music and rapid cuts) plays loud and shocking, but the aftermath is muted and methodical. All that relative quiet is disquieting, as Norman (for nearly eight minutes) washes away the blood spill and diligently covers up the crime. As startling as Marion’s fatal knifing was, her postmortem fate presents more protracted horror to the viewer. Marion’s entire existence is erased as she’s wrapped in a shower-curtain shroud, set in a car-trunk coffin, and given an ignominious burial-at-swamp.

In another sense, though, the cleanup scene is clearly dated. Watching it from a current perspective, it’s hard not to consider the shoddiness of Norman’s efforts: his use of simple mop and running water to remove evidence of the murder would never pass the test of modern forensics. But it’s not just from a far distance that Norman’s negligence can be critiqued; a glaring lack of shrewdness is evident within the narrative of the film. A week and a half after the murder, Norman somehow has still failed to replace the shower curtain. Worse, he has not noticed the scrap of paper still floating unflushed in the bowl of the toilet (why the paper has not disintegrated long before Lila Crane discovers it there is another head-scratcher).

The private detective Arbogast certainly accentuates the film’s noir qualities (his echo of hard-boiled lingo is terrific: “You see,” he tells Norman,  “if it doesn’t jell, it isn’t aspic, and this ain’t jelling.”). Nevertheless, his sleuthing proves curious: if Arbogast is presumably employed by Tom Cassidy to track down the $40,000 that was stolen from him, why would the detective feel obliged to call up Lila and fill her in on what he has learned about her sister? His ready updating of the case seems a mere plot contrivance, a means of leading Lila and Sam to investigate the Bates Motel themselves.

Suspension of disbelief is further challenged in the scene when Arbogast gets killed. The bloody slash running down his face makes for a wonderfully grim touch, but his backwards glide all the way down the staircase is too stylized–and, ultimately, silly (Arbogast acts as if the steps were a sequence of banana peels). An ungainly tumble down the staircase (assuming such a stunt could be pulled off in 1960) not only would have been more believable, but it also would have helped to preserve the film’s big mystery. Based on the way the death scene is filmed, the viewer has to wonder how Norman’s old invalid Mother could have flown so quickly down the flight of steps after the falling Arbogast.

In hindsight, Norman’s stuffed birds (and preserved Mother) are not the only disconcerting pieces of his collection. Viewers in 1960 might easily have overlooked them, but a more modern horror audience is more attuned to the presence of creepy dolls. A pair of them can be seen lying in the background as Lila explores Norman’s bedroom, and their unsettling nature extends beyond the question of what they are doing in a grown man’s bedroom in the first place.

Psycho might not have been a perfect film, and certain of its aspects do not hold up well in six-decade retrospect, but it remains an indisputable classic. The marketing of the film at the time of its release was also ingenious: Hitchcock’s insistence that late arrivals would not be admitted to theaters, and his efforts to keep the film’s surprises from being spoiled (which worked to lure moviegoers with the promise of thrilling mystery). No doubt the film would face a much tougher task if it premiered in the present day, when social media is such a dominant factor. Then again, it’s intriguing to imagine the tactics that a master like Hitchcock might have been able to employ if he had all the tools of the 2020 mediascape at his disposal.