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1960 - The Year of Cinematic Voyeurism

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

Do you ever sit alone at night, content in the knowledge that you are simply ticking down the seconds of time, minding your own business doing whatever it is you happen to be doing, and suddenly stop for a brief moment? Your muscles unceremoniously tighten and the hairs on your arms and neck stand on end. You suspect for some insanely unknown reason that someone, somewhere is watching you.

That is horror.

“Imagine someone coming towards you who wants to kill you. Regardless of the consequences…”
“A madman?”
PEEPING TOM (1960 dir. Michael Powell)

The best horror at its core, for us anyway, is the anticipation that something terrible is about to happen. The tension before the inciting incident is usually where the real scare is. This plays perfectly into the very sinister art of voyeurism in horror films because for the most part voyeurs only want an experience from afar. More often than not the excitement is in the journey to the inciting incident not the actual incident itself. Obviously when it comes to horror films voyeurism is taken to the next level. It’s not only about being a stalker from a distance anymore or being privy to something forbidden but involving oneself in either an act of sexual gratification or more commonly an act of violence. When this happens we, the avid viewers, become the voyeur.

We’ve seen this in horror cinema with films like 'John Carpenter’s Halloween' from 1978 and the 2012 remake of 'Maniac' starring Elijah Wood (which is 99% from the killer’s POV). It generally pops up in a lot of slasher films like the 'Friday the 13th' franchise and some Giallo favourites but it’s also evident in some monster or demon flicks like 'Wolfen' (shoutout to 'Predator' also for borrowing the body-heat detection scenes) and even Sam Raimi’s iconic 'The Evil Dead'.

Voyeurism has been rife in the horror genre for many decades and one of the first films to really explore this devious fetish was 'Peeping Tom'. Released in May 1960 and directed by British treasure Michael Powell, 'Peeping Tom' follows focus puller Mark Lewis (a hauntingly suave performance from Karlheinz Böhm) who stalks and murders women with a highly customised film camera and in the process catches their dying expressions. It’s both grotesque and gorgeous but did little for audiences back in the day. Michael Powell was ridiculed heavily upon its release. Powell, along with directing partner Emeric Pressburger, had been the darlings of British cinema bringing us classics like 'The Red Shoes' (Martin Scorsese’s favourite film of all time), 'A Matter of Life and Death' (1946) and 'Black Narcissus' (1947). His films were a cornerstone of cinema during the 40s and 50s. However his involvement in 'Peeping Tom' baffled critics and cinemagoers and his career started to dwindle dramatically in the aftermath.

Outside of the obvious reasons why, British audiences were disgusted by it because it was perceived to be too close to home for them and critics felt disdain towards it because it was Powell’s allegory for cinema itself. It may seem tame by today’s gory standards but 'Peeping Tom' is an incredibly unsettling deep dive into the human, psychological machine and how many of our adult tendencies can be attributed to how little love we received during our childhood. Powell attempts to explain Mark’s sociopathic behaviour through flashbacks that reveal his dominating father torturing him as a boy with physical and mental experiments. Hilariously Powell plays the father in these flashbacks.

Less than six months later another film would be released that would overshadow Powell’s sly masterpiece in voyeurism and help to heighten the parental issue element of 'Peeping Tom'. But this time the British press embraced the cinematic oddity rather than turning an ageing lion into an exiled pariah. By September 1960 Alfred Hitchcock was already standing (almost unrivalled) on the thrilling, suspenseful cinematic plateau and with the release of 'Psycho' firmly cemented his legacy in the annals of filmmaking. 'Psycho' has not only become a horror classic but it is simply one of the most important films ever made. Period.

Some have called it the first ever modern slasher but people often forget about 'Peeping Tom' preceding it. Some have also called it the first film that depicts voyeurism in all of it’s malevolent forms, but people often forget that Mark Lewis foreshadowed Norman Bates. 'Peeping Tom' and 'Psycho' share many things of course, with a malignant perversion to spying and an appetite for woman’s bloodshed the key components, but Hitchcock goes beyond Powell’s scope of madness into places that audiences truly never had set foot before. 'Psycho' begins with Hitchcock allowing the audience to become the voyeur by sneaking in through the window of a secret room fitting for a secret lunchtime rendezvous between Marion Crane and her boyfriend Sam Loomis. The camera literally squeezes in through a blinded opened window, slow and purposefully, as we catch an unauthorised peep at the lovers in an everyday apartment. This isn’t the first time Hitchcock plays with voyeurism. Six years prior the fetish was celebrated in the James Stewart classic 'Rear Window' but here the director is specifically inviting the audience to join the act. Unwittingly to us it sets up the tone of the film before anything horrific actually happens and the power of 'Psycho' lies in the fact that the audience remains the voyeurs for the first half of the film. We’ve stumbled into this impulsive crime as we follow Marion on her getaway drive to freedom.

Like Mark Lewis before him, Norman Bates is a handsome, demure, almost helpless being. In a way these characteristics are a metaphor for voyeurism itself. Both Lewis and Bates keep their true, carnal traits hidden away from everyone only to be revealed at the most unsuspecting moment. This particular premise has been stolen, borrowed and adapted endless times through the history of cinema but few have managed to capture the shock and awe as both splendid and morbid. Perhaps Norman Bates could be seen as the more devious and psychotic of the two. While Lewis languishes behind the camera, using the guise of a documentary to get close to his victims, Bates straight up has to look through secret peep holes into the neighbouring hotel bedroom. It’s almost impossible to think that two films with zero connection in production but that share such similar prominent fetishes could be released so close to each other. With both having audiences who were repelled by their allure. It took a long time for 'Peeping Tom' to justifiably receive the acknowledgement it deserved however 'Psycho' struck a chord sooner, helped by the astute marketing ploy of Hitchcock.

1960 was a very different time. During the 50s Britain was still very much in post war recovery mode with basic rationing set in place on many household staples but it was also a transition period as American culture began to creep into everyday life. By the end of the decade television was influencing over fifty percent of the population and the younger generation was beginning to find their voice. The conservative outlook on life would never go away but the shackles were being loosened a little as the 50s came to an end. The 60s were going to be an unforgettable era. A decade that would definitively change the world forever. A decade that would do things it’s own way.

Instrumental. Innovative. Shocking.

Even though 'Psycho' has been heralded as ushering in the “killer next door” trope, there was still a disconnect to reality that many audiences up and down Britain experienced, as supposed to 'Peeping Tom' which had many scenes filmed on location in the streets of London. It probably didn’t help that the main antagonist spoke with a German accent and unlike Norman Bates, was not only acting under his own cognisance but was invigorated by it. Despite the original trailer asking us to "fear him but pity him also" Mark Lewis was a cold blooded killer who devised his own weapon of choice.

"Don't let him see the fear in your eyes. For this is what he seeks...and this is why he kills."

Hitchcock deals with his killer in a slightly more ambiguous manner with the genuine meandering of mental health addressed in its analysis for many years after its release. There is an argument that his blasé approach to why Norman commits these heinous crimes are deeply apathetic but it was a different time before illnesses like this were intently dissected. Hitch even teases this deduction in Norman's retort when Marion questions him about putting his mother into a "madhouse".

"What do you know about caring. Have you ever seen the inside of one of those places. The laughing and the tears...and the cruel eyes studying you."
- Norman Bates, PSYCHO (1960)

Is this Hitch actually communicating to the audience here? Is he echoing Michael Powell's 'Peeping Tom' analogy. Are we the cruel eyes? The question surrounding whether voyeurism is actually a mental health issue or not is rife for interpretation and cinema is surely not going to shy away from that discussion anytime soon but the subject remains an addictive barometer for all audiences, I mean voyeurs, to devour.

- Gavin Logan

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