Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Janet Leigh, Martin Balsam
Rank, American Film Institute: No. 14
Hey, everybody loves their mother. Or, at least, almost everybody. But sometimes that love can make you a little crazy.
Take poor ol’ Norman Bates of Psycho. He and his mother were, shall we say, inseparable. As Psycho comes to a close, we learn from the narrating psychologist that, even before things got really out of hand up there in that creepy old house, the two of ‘em were as close as a pair of balled-up socks. But then one day, Norman’s mother (who had been widowed years earlier) meets a nice guy who just might be the next Mr. Bates (so to speak) and Norman’s new dad. But Norman’s grown so comfy with just he and his mom that the last thing he wants is another guy horning it. He kills both Mom and beau, keeping dear old Mother around for the next several years. And to fill in the natural lulls in conversation that comes from having a corpse as a housemate, Norman takes on her persona, too.
“He began to think and speak for her, give her half his time, so to speak,” the shrink in Psycho says. “At times he could be both personalities, carry on conversations. At other times, the mother half took over completely.”
And, just like Norman, his “mother” grows insanely jealous if Norman shows any interest in another woman. Hence, Janet Leigh meets Norman’s mother—and her untimely demise—in the shower.
Now, the murderous jealousy we see in Psycho doesn’t seem like it’d be a great spiritual teaching tool, but I still think we can learn something from this Hitchcock classic.
Some of Christianity’s critics imagine our faith as being something like the relationship between Norman and his mom: We’re like Norman (they’d say)—desperately holding onto this idea of God, even though the concept is as shriveled as that body in the fruit cellar. Our imaginary “mother”—God—berates and chastises us from the folds of our own brain, demanding unreasonable, sickening devotion. If these critics know their Bible at all, they might point to the Ten Commandments for backup: “Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” (Exodus 34:14)
And thanks to Hitchcock, we know how unhealthy jealousy can be.
But there’s an important distinction to draw between the unhinged jealousy of Psycho and our jealous God. And it springs from the two emotional bedrocks of jealousy: love and fear.
Back when Wendy, my wife-to-be, and I were first dating, I was a pretty jealous boyfriend. She had broken up with someone not too long before, and (being an insecure dweeb) I was pretty sure that one of these days, she’d realize I was a big geek and go back to her ex. Thankfully, he lived a good 300 miles away, so I wasn’t worried about them kissing in the biology building … but my insecurities bled into other areas. I saw threats in other guys. I moped if she wanted to spend an evening with friends. I pined for her when she was in class. I was completely unreasonable, of course, and I knew it: But I couldn’t rein my jealousy in.
Now, I wasn’t about to go all Norman Bates on anyone, but it was horribly unhealthy. I was miserable. I made my girlfriend miserable. I made most of our friends miserable. For a few months, I carried my jealousy like Typhoid Mary and spread misery wherever I went.
Thankfully, Wendy was patient with me (more patient than I had a right to expect) and I eventually got over my insane jealousy. Now, 24 years later, I don’t worry about Wendy leaving me for someone else: For one, it’d be too much of a pain, separating out all of our books. But for another, I’m secure in the fact that she loves me.
When I was dating my wife-to-be, my jealousy was based not in love, really, but in fear: Fear of losing someone precious to me, fear of not being “enough.” And when we listen to Norman’s conversations with his “mother,” we realize that that’s entirely what his jealousy consists of: fear. Any real love vanished long ago.
But God’s jealousy can’t be based on fear—not if what we understand of God is true. It’s not like He’d be insecure—that we might realize that creating the universe and all isn’t that big of a deal. There is literally nothing in this world that could frighten Him.
No, He’s jealous because He loves us that much. He loves us as if we were made for Him—which, I guess, we were.
It’s pretty stunning, when you think about it in those terms: Imagine the folks we love most in this world—our spouses, our parents, our children—and that barely tickles the affection that God feels for us: Not us collectively (which I can get my head around a bit easier), but us individually. He wants to listen to our boring stories and tolerates our poor taste in music—listening patiently to our Neil Diamond even though His angels sound waaaay better. If He had us over for dinner, we’d be the guests of honor and the rest of creation would have to sit at the kids’ table.
When you listen to Norman’s “mother” talk to him, you can hear the jealousy and selfishness in the voice: “I won't have you bringing some young girl in for supper!” She rails. “Go on, go tell her she'll not be appeasing her ugly appetite with my food, or my son! Or do I have tell her because you don't have the guts!” For Mother, it’s all about her—there is room for no one else.
But in God’s generous jealousy, there is room for all of creation. We’re encouraged to appreciate this world of ours and love the people in it. In a way, the more we love others, the more we love Him. He just asks us to not forget where it all came from—to understand the source of love itself.