The central character of Peeping Tom is Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), a shy, reclusive young cameraman who works as a member of a film crew and aspires to be a filmmaker himself. He works part time photographing erotic pictures of women and lives in his fathers house, leasing part of it, but posing as a tenant. The secret life of this mentally disturbed young voyeur and fetishist is quite horrific. He films the faces of his female victims with the sole intention of capturing their fear at the moment before they are killed. He later relives their murders in the darkness and loneliness of his apartment room, which he has transformed into a personal cinema. When their bodies are eventually discovered, he likes to be there to film that too.
Following a misguided childhood relationship with his father, who relentlessly studied his reactions to various stimuli for psychological experiments about fear and the nervous system, Mark becomes obsessed with turning his camera onto others. He repeatedly films not only his victims, but also the people that he interacts with daily on the set. This story of voyeuristic perversion is set within the film industry and the cinema itself, foregrounding its mechanisms of looking, and the gender divide that separates the secret observer (male) from the object of his gaze (female). From Laura Mulvey, "looking, itself, is a source of pleasure, just as there is pleasure in being looked at." In Peeping Tom, it is revealed that the look has a much darker side. The cinema spectator's own voyeurism is boldly made obvious, and the spectator is even forced to identify with the perverted protagonist. We are involuntarily forced to confront the relationship between watching and participating. In 1960, this was a confronting realisation.
This fact is especially evident in the now-famous opening sequence, which is captured exclusively through Mark's covertly hidden camera. We identify with a killer, watching a murder through his eyes. The crosshairs, which mark the prostitute for death as soon as she enters the frame, also indicates that there is a lens separating us from the action and acts as a reminder that we are indeed watching a film. Peeping Tom critiques the 'pleasure of viewing' in the scene where Mark shows Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), the sweet-natured girl from the floor below who befriends him, his father's footage taken of him as a child. Helen occupies the position of the audience, and though her initial viewing pleasure turns to displeasure, her attention is unbroken and her curiosity ("I like to understand what I am seeing") remains. Essentially, Mark films real-life horror/snuff films and watches it with the same fascination as an audience would watch a horror film in the cinema. We sit in the dark and watch other people's lives projected onto the screen. As much as the film is about voyeuristic sadism, it is also about filmmaking. We come to learn so much about Mark by his strange fetishes with the camera, and what he chooses to capture. We can draw similar knowledge about an auteur from examining their films.
Perhaps we feel a relief that these events are not happening to us. Do we feel safer about our existence and the unlikelihood of these events occurring to us if we witness a fictional atrocity, such as Mark's murder of the film extra, and dismiss it as merely that...fiction? Why do many of us feel compelled to allow ourselves to be receptive to the violence presented in extremely unsettling films like Irreversible or Antichrist? For what reason do we find a voyeuristic pleasure in watching people experience pain, or be the victims of violence and objectification?