Guest Author: Billy Davis (MFA ‘19)
Marion Crane is going to be murdered in forty-seven minutes. It’s inevitable—a preordained event set in motion long before she accepted the key to a room in a lonesome motel. In her final moments, she will undress and step into the shower. The bathroom door, unnoticed by Marion, will open. A shadow will rise in the background. The shower curtain will be ripped aside, light will flash against a butcher knife’s blade, violins will screech. Marion will scream.
Marion Crane is going to be murdered because of a desperate desire.
If you haven’t seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, forgive me—spoilers are awful. But be fair, the movie was released fifty-nine years ago. You’ve had time.
This scene is one of the most iconic in American cinema, and you should see it as more than a plot point that moves the narrative forward—it’s the culmination of hundreds of steps and emotional movements. It’s iconic, but only because of what comes before. And now, knowing Marion’s fate, you have the freedom to focus on the actions that lead her to it.
Children can’t be trusted, especially in their rhymes. They are horribly inaccurate. Lizzie Borden, as a point of fact, did not give her stepmother and father a combined total of eighty-one whacks. (The trial transcript offers a count of eighteen and eleven, respectively.) But why? Why were Abby and Andrew Borden murdered? We, usually from media of some sort, have an American familiarity with the surface story, but another simmers underneath.
Angela Carter took on the motivations of the killings in “The Fall River Ax Murders.” The story is set the morning of the murders, in the seconds before the maid’s alarm clock rings, before the eponymous ax is taken up. But the title informs us; we know the ultimate end. We read the first sentence already aware of the Bordens’ fate. Carter is miserly with the words spent on the deaths, scattering few references throughout: “On this burning morning, when, after breakfast and the performance of a few household duties, Lizzie Borden will murder her parents…”1
Carter doesn’t tell the typical story, though; hers is one of heat and pressure, constricted lives and suffocation of the soul, and a coffin-thin house on the verge of infamy.
Marion’s story begins in a mirror of its end—in a shabby motel room. She is stretched on the bed, in her slip and stockings. Her boyfriend, Sam, is drying off with a towel. It has the makings of a seedy scene, but gives way to one that is more tender, to a story of unfortunate love. “Sam, let’s go get married,” Marion says with a terrible urgency. “And live with me in a storeroom behind a hardware store in Fairvale. We’ll have a lot of laughs. When I send my ex-wife her money, you can lick the stamps,” Sam says. Marion responds with a deep desperation, “I’ll lick the stamps.”2
This is the beginning of Marion’s end. Every ill-fated step she takes afterward on her path to the Bates Motel is made in the shadow of this desperate want. Over a third of the movie is spent building on it. The theft of $40,000 from a letch of a businessman, the early uncertainty, the tension of a police encounter, the motel, lunch with Norman and his taxidermied birds. All follow that initial desire.
Are we still fascinated with Lizzie Borden? There are fictional accounts, documentaries, mini-series, movies. Typing “Lizzie Borden” in amazon.com’s search bar gives twenty pages of results. The Lizzie Borden Chronicles come up in the Trending Now section of Netflix. There’s still a desire to know—to read or watch. August 4, 1892, is a date that morbid curiosities return us to again and again. An ax falls; what new intrigue can be found? Angela Carter takes us into a mazelike house, into a mazelike life, to show us how much deeper bitterness and animosity can cut.
One story is told in film, the other on paper, and each has a distinct structure. Marion’s follows a linear stream, taking us through lovesickness, larceny, flight, responsibility and remorse, and redemption cut short in a voyeuristic seventy-eight shot shower scene. The other is more complex: a heavy swirl of pressure and heat and bitterness that preludes the murders that we are taken to the threshold of but not shown. These stories seem dissimilar on the surface but beneath there are commonalities. Both go to great lengths to develop the lead up to the ends we know are coming.
New intrigue… Is that what we find in imagining Marion Crane’s cinematic movement from one motel room to another as a story in itself—in gathering up and enjoying the subtleties that her yearning leads to. Is it what we see in Angela Carter’s gothic retelling? Or, is it that every story, even though we know its ultimate end, has the potential to be something more?