The Trouble with Norman Bates – Hitchcock’s Psycho

Psycho

Works of fiction have a way of disassociating from reality and creating their own worlds. There is a distance between real world and make-believe and that is perhaps the entire charm to fiction. Another aspect of fictional works is that they are often created from the point of view of an individual, rather than showing a group/multiple perspective(s). It is felt of as a need to make the audience relate to a particular character and then provide them with comfort (such as a love interest, a friend who is a comic relief etc.) and distress (a villain, a demanding quest). While creators have played with this trope (and made changes to it, to suit their needs) since eternity, the general expectation/assumption is that the ‘Hero’ trumps it all and emerges victorious.

When a work of fiction is made in an audio-visual format, its audience reach is beyond those who are privileged enough to read and write. It invites wider societal scrutiny, this being usually in some form of censor/rating/restrictions in the format. The above make it tough for the creators to show certain truths without tweaking them to broaden their mass appeal.

The need of extravagant villains which sit within societal boundaries was also borne out of the above basics.

Thus, we see a sort of ‘distancing’ between the villain we see on the screen and the ones we witness in the real world. The worst of humans such as Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy committed gruesome crimes with no limitation until they were caught. To create the same terror on screen while showing the crimes in a similar fashion, is nearly impossible unless executed in a manner which avoids tripping on the societal attitudes. For instance, in real world a lot of evil individuals commit unspeakable offences against minors, to show the same in a movie villain in all its rawness would make it tough for the audience to digest. In fact, this might take them away from the point of story and defeat the very purpose of creating art.

In 1950s and 60s when there were greater restrictions in place than today, a select list of film-makers were able to create psychological thrillers which left an indelible impact on the mind of viewers while only hinting or leaving clues as to the evil actions of the antagonists. It saw creation of fear not through gruesome acts (such as Michael Myers running through a bus-load of teenagers) but in a subtle fashion, by creating an image of horror. The Night of the Hunter, Cape Fear, The Innocents are a few instances where the antagonists were not merely the ‘villains’ but became fear itself. Psycho and Norman Bates are among the best examples from this period.

Psycho
Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1622408a) Psycho (On Set)

In the American Film institute’s 100 years…100 Heroes & Villains, Norman Bates sits at number two, sandwiched between Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader. A cold-minded serial killer with a desire for human flesh on one end and a brutal enforcer of a totalitarian regime on the other.

But evil is not seen only though prism of actual actions. It is also the perception that the director seeks to create. Darth Vader creates awe and fear, Hannibal Lecter can get into anyone’s brain, Freddy Krueger (at number 40) is death personified while Alex DeLarge (at number 12) is an incorrigible ruffian who likes to dish out his ‘ultra-violence’ on unsuspecting innocents.

Norman Bates on the other hand, is introduced as a ‘hermit’ living a secluded life on his ‘private island’. Seeing his loneliness, one can’t help but feel sorry for him.

He is introduced as a helpful, if slightly eccentric motel manager, whose business has been down of late. (“No one ever stops here.”) Marion Crane speaks with him after the Phoenix business and an unintended consequence of that conversation is that Marion decides to let herself out of her ‘personal trap’ and right the wrong she had done. He is gentle, offers her food and a safe haven.

It is what follows that gives Norman Bates the second rank in the aforementioned list.

The entry of Mr. Bates is an interesting moment in the movie, which almost starts off like an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The plot is reminiscent of a crime thriller with familiar tropes such as a Premediated crime, an absconding accused and a hefty sum present in the first twenty-six minutes of the feature.

Psycho

Hitchcock always the master of suspense adds a layer of mystery with the Bates motel and its owners. The first set of interactions between Norman and Marion exude an image of a shy, soft-spoken and hesitant young man. He’s cheerful (“Twelve Cabins, Twelve vacancies”), boyish (“stationary with Bates motel printed on it in case you want to make your friends back home envious”) and clearly smitten (“You’re not going to go out again and drive up to that diner, are you?”) even inviting her to have dinner with him.

Yet there is something off about him. He intentionally assigns her the first cabin (After initially going towards the third cabin key), invites her to have dinner with him and yet when they sit down to have dinner, he refuses to eat. He’s also perceptive, later he notices that she’s slipped up regarding her place when she tells him trustingly that she’s going back to Phoenix to let herself free of a private trap, he responds with a simplistic “Oh, Really?” when in fact it has set a different line of questioning in his head. This is what makes him ask her last name. When she responds with ‘Crane’, he has begun doubting her, going back to the register and checking for the name she’s put in. After his suspicions have been confirmed, he lets out an almost evil half-smile.

The best that is revealed of Norman Bates is in the parlour scene with Marion. Right before this interaction, Norman has been reprimanded by mother for even suggesting that Marion may have dinner in the house. Despite this he decides to bring sandwiches and milk for Marion. He invites her into the office, but looking at the state of the place, makes up an excuse (“eating in a office is just too officious”) and takes her to the parlour.

The stuffed birds are a normal occurrence to Norman, but they perplex Marion and the audience. Interestingly it is Norman who starts a conversation around them by remarking “You eat like a bird” to Marion. Yet when she points out that he’d ‘know’ (given the number of birds stuffed inside the parlour) he states that it is not true, he likes to stuff birds i.e. taxidermy. He further goes on about birds, as to how he would never stuff beasts but birds fit the bill because they are so passive to begin with. He believes that the innate nature of birds is to be passive and their natural inclination makes them easy to capture and to be displayed in one’s home.

Psycho

I’ll state that ‘Norman’ believes similar things about women. Their innate nature is to be in a particular fashion i.e. passive, stuffed in a corner so that they can act as a source of desire and purity at the same time. He ‘knows’ nothing about them. The ‘stuffing’ was perhaps also a reference to Ed Gein’s notorious crimes on which the book and movie were based.

A movie that I was reminded of during this sequence was The Collector where the lead is a socially awkward man who has a hobby for collecting butterflies and ends up kidnapping a woman.

The discussion in the parlour scene slowly moves to the subject of loneliness. (“Is your time so empty?”) Marion asks whether Norman goes out with his friends, to which he responds “A boy’s best friend is his mother.”

He then continues to pry out information from Marion, learns that she has been troubled and is running away from something. When she gets suspicious of his line of questioning, he changes the topic “People never run away from anything.
He continues with

“You know what I think? I think we’re
all in our private traps, clamped in
them, and none of us can ever get
out. We scratch and claw… but only
at the air, only at each other, and
for all of it, we never budge an
inch.”

Norman Bates

Marion responds to it with her own take, referring to what she did in Phoenix stating that sometimes we step on to these traps ourselves. Norman who claims that he was ‘born in his’ and he doesn’t mind it anymore is referring to his own condition. The ‘traps’ that are being referred to are self-evident by the fact that both these characters are unaware of what the other is suffering from.

Psycho

There is an element of loneliness in these ‘traps’, for they belong to the person alone and irrespective of what anyone else does, it is impossible for the other to have the same experience as this person. We end up trying to escape them through mundane activities perhaps working or keeping ourselves satisfied but that doesn’t change our mental situation. Even when we are fighting with others over something, it is more likely that our mental state plays a role in the way we react and behave, rather than what was actually done by the other party.

The next to be discussed is the mother. We’ve already seen how Norman becomes obedient and subservient when talking to her or referring to her. (“do little chores for mother… the ones she allows I might be capable of doing”) Perhaps an aspect of his harmlessness to Marion as well as audience is his relationship with her. He seems like a man going through a number of issues, but has no qualm in taking care of her since she took care of him. He even scoffs off at Marion’s suggestion that he might leave her, even though he understands her illness. (“I hate what she’s become, I hate the illness.”) Even defying her in itself is an act he can’t make himself come to do. He uses ‘cold and damp like a grave’, ‘fire would go out’ with respect to what would happen if he leaves mother. This reflects his internal state even imagining the context of separation with mother.

In fact, if one were to remember the famous explanation sequence, Dr. Richmond described how Norman was jealous of his mother’s lover, and he felt that mother was also jealous of his conduct. His interactions or actions with respect to mother are a window into his state of mind, certain acts like interacting with a woman might invite her scorn, and he cannot help himself but give in to her (“Oh, I do but I say I don’t”). Thus, when he discusses her illness, hating the fact what she has become, he tells Marion that he hates a certain part of him that keeps him trapped and makes him do things.

It is this that makes him flip out at the suggestion of ‘someplace’. Deep inside, as he suggests later, he knows that the only solution is ‘someplace’. But he knows this someplace. He tells Marion

“Have you seen the inside of one of those places? The laughing and the tears, the cruel eyes studying you.”

Norman Bates

He describes what she isn’t “It’s not like she’s like a maniac, a raving thing. It’s just that she goes a little mad sometimes, we all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?

The interaction helps us develop an outline of Norman Bates and it is easier to understand who he is and what he does, once we look back at his actions. He is a young man with serious troubles, which he seeks to hide away like his motel is hidden away from the world.

Psycho
Still Photo by Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock (5886156bo)

He is not a super-killer like Hannibal Lecter, who savagely murders guards holding him up in Silence of the Lambs, neither is he a super-human entity like Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger. He is fairly perturbed by Arbogast’s appearance and questioning, easily making himself a suspect by his conduct (slipping up a number of times giving contradictory information, which lead to Arbogast quipping “You didn’t spend the night with her, did you?”) and is no stronger than Sam Loomis when they end up in a fight.

He is a human being with human crimes and frankly, that is what makes him scarier. If one were to look from Lila Crane’s side: her sister went missing, she’s the one pushing everyone (even Sam, who sounds reluctant with the whole investigation aspect) to look into the matter. She comes to know of the fact that her sister spent a night at the motel and there is something shifty about it. Imagine now the revelation that she gets after going into the cellar and what Dr. Richmond explains when he says “Yes and No.” regarding whether Norman killed Marion.

Norman is never introduced as a deceitful, malicious character. Perhaps a pervert, with some child-like tendencies but he looks like he couldn’t hurt a fly. But when mother takes over, he is no longer himself. He has secrets to hide, for what acts have been committed by ‘mother’ side of him.

Alfred Hitchcock lets the suspense build and revelation strike us in a manner that we don’t see a single on-screen murder by Norman Bates. We are thus shocked to see him dressed as ‘Norma’ (imagine the shock it had in the 50s, where even showing the toilet was considered an issue) in the final sequence. Till then, at best, he is shown to be an accomplice who acts as a dutiful son to clean up after what his mother has done.

In fact, rather than introducing him as a negative character, Hitchcock switches main character with entry of Norman Bates and the movie becomes as much about him as to the mystery of Marion Crane. He uses him and the scenery around him to build suspense and tension. An example of the same is Arbogast’s line of questioning which unnerves Norman, shown beautifully by some close shots featuring their faces from below.

While the music of shower sequence is lauded for the effect it had on audience, one must not forget the music that follows while Norman is involved in the clean-up. While initially it builds up suspense, later when Norman starts the car towards the swamp it resembles like background score for a man on mission. The tension built up in this sequence including when newspaper with money is missed by Norman and when the car doesn’t sink immediately, are from Norman’s end. It is his narrative now.

Why is Norman Bates considered one of the greatest villains ever in Movies?

Perhaps because we know what he has done and can still feel for him. Most of the great villains have a character arc, which shows their human side and reasons for their fall. However, often like Darth Vader in Star Wars series, they are introduced as epitome of pure evil and there is a gradual development of the ‘human’ arc.

In Psycho, it is the other way around. Norman Bates is introduced with all feelings and emotions. His persona is peeled away act by act, every single emotion is laid bare before the viewer. The audience identify with him yet there is a distance which remains given his actions.

We realize that the evil shown here can’t be defined in black and white. It can’t simply be killed or wished away, so that things end with a ‘Happily ever after’. Like Hans Beckert in M, we understand that Norman Bates can’t help what he does. One feels the terror of his crimes but also ends up understanding that there are no easy answers to these actions.

Simply institutionalizing a person might seem like an easy way out for a third party, but when one coldly hears Norman describe these places and what one goes through when they are held in their ‘private traps’, we actually feel the pain of Norman and those in a similar situation to him. At the same time, the movie ends with Norman paying up for his crimes.

It is a wonderful situation where the ‘distance’ between audience and the character has been shortened. It makes them relate to someone they didn’t intend to initially (both in the sense that the story was told from Marion’s perspective and he’s not your run-of-the-mill Hero) and now they don’t want to part with him easily. It not only gives them the ‘villain’s’ perspective but makes them live through it. Therein lies the success of Psycho and the enduring appeal of Norman Bates.

mm

Divy Tripathi

Divy Tripathi is a law graduate from India. Loves to watch Spaghetti Westerns, Psychological thrillers and Test Match Cricket (especially if it’s from the 90s).

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