From “Psycho” to “Bates Motel”: The Evolution of an Iconic Murderer
“Oh, I’m beginning to understand this now. It’s all about the journey, isn’t it?” – Rupert Giles, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Restless”
In the “Becoming” episodes of Buffy, we see how Liam, a drunken womanizer becomes notorious vampire Angelus and eventually a hero seeking redemption named Angel. In Arrow’s flashbacks to the island of Lian Yu, we witness the events that shape billionaire playboy Oliver Queen into a capable vigilante seeking justice for his city. In X-Men: First Class, we follow the friendship between Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr as the two transform into the mighty Professor X and Magneto, respectively. There’s something to be said about origin stories and the journey that shapes our favorite characters into the dynamic forces they are. Prequels like the currently airing Hannibal and the upcoming Better Call Saul grant us insight into iconic characters and their rich histories. So where do we begin with the most popular case of mommy issues in cinematic history?
How about in his teen years through a little series known as Bates Motel? The character of Norman Bates began in Robert Bloch’s Psycho and was partially influenced by Wisconsin murderer and bodysnatcher Ed Gein (who also inspired the creation of other horror icons like Buffalo Bill and Leatherface). Norman was popularized by the legendary performance of Anthony Perkins in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 hit Psycho, a film which turned the tables by killing off the protagonist halfway through the story. Character development and various plotlines take an interesting turn in Bates Motel because we know how it all ended fifty years ago – a deceased Norma, a game-changing shower scene, and a deranged motel owner with a penchant for stuffing birds and cross-dressing.
Spoilers for Bates Motel ahead.
At the same time, creators Carlton Cuse of Lost fame and Kerry Ehrin, a writer on Friday Night Lights, did not necessarily feel limited by their predecessor. In an interview with Collider, Cuse states that Hitchcock inspired the two showrunners “but the key is that we were inspired. One of the first things that we both latched onto was that we didn’t want to do an homage and we didn’t want to feel bound by the particular facts of what had come before us, and that was really liberating. The world did not need another Gus Van Sant version of redoing Psycho. That just allowed us to take these characters and this relationship and spin out our own story, which was really fun.”
Cuse and Ehrin have certainly taken creative liberties in their adaptation of Norman Bates’ story, setting the narrative in present day White Pine Bay, Oregon instead of 1960’s Fairvale, California. Psycho purists and those keen to cry “retcon” might be jarred by the image of a teenage Norman Bates wearing iPod earbuds, but these developments only take a few seconds to process. Bates Motel eases us into its modern setting by retaining the old-timey aesthetic of its predecessor – Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) drives a vintage Mercedes Benz and has the dress sense of a 60’s era housewife. The modern Norman (Freddie Highmore) shares the same “Mother-dresses-me” wardrobe as his Hitchcock counterpart and can frequently be found watching black and white films. The surface inconsistencies that do appear between the two narratives aren’t important – like many adaptations and prequels, Bates Motel seeks to carve out its own identity and find its own voice, much like how Norman attempts to do despite the smothering grasp of his mother. If we are to view Psycho as a glimpse into the future of Bates Motel, the vital objective for the writers is and always will be honoring the emotional and psychological journey of Norman Bates. What transforms an ordinary teen with a dark past into a split-personality killer who accepts that “we all go a little mad sometimes”? With two seasons complete, here are the ways the series sets up the pieces:
Although Norma Bates is revealed to be deceased in the events of Psycho, there is little doubt about her influence on Norman when we see him don his mother’s clothing and adopt her personality. Without Norma, Norman would certainly not be the way he is in Psycho. Through Vera Farmiga’s stunning performance, motherly love is rendered compassionate, overprotective, obsessive, neurotic, and just a tad sexual all at once. In Bates Motel, we find a woman determined to do anything for her son, whether it’s covering up the details of his murder victims or signing him up for a musical. As of the Season 2 finale and Norman’s revelation that he did in fact kill Ms. Watson, Norma seems intent on repressing these events and having her son ignore them until they go away. “Eat your pot roast, honey,” she says to a traumatized Norman. From what we know about horror, suspense, and basic storytelling, leaving your secrets buried deep in your subconscious never works out.
The series constantly hints at their relationship reaching squicky incestuous levels, notably in their mutual jealousy of the other’s romantic pursuits. Norma views her son’s initial crush, popular girl Bradley Martin, as a threat while visibly expressing her disapproval of Season 2’s Cody Brennan. Norman also takes a disliking to the men his mother dates, like Deputy Zach Shelby (justifiably so, considering his penchant for sex slaves) and former lawyer, George Heldens. By the time of the film, Norman will have murdered his mother and her lover for attempting to replace him. For now, the series is content to have Norman mask his contempt for his mother’s romantic interests with a polite smile. In the meantime, the writers are unafraid to tackle their sexual tension – they have a creepy but sweet dance together, they gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes, and by the Season 2 finale, they’ve even locked lips. Norma seemingly kisses her son out of motherly affection and concern but the mouth-to-mouth contact lingers a tad too long.
As for the assumption of his mother’s personality, Bates Motel has slowly dropped hints about Norman’s attachment to his mother and his investment in her life, as evident when she confides in him that her brother Caleb sexually abused her. Although she is keen on shielding her son from the dangers of the world, she is also willing to confide in him as a mutual partner. This culminates in one of the show’s most chilling moments in the aptly-named episode, “Check-Out.” When Norman confronts Caleb in a motel room, his eyes go dark and his voice changes as he slips into his “mother” persona, reprimanding his uncle for “raping me, your younger sister.” By the episode “Box,” the writers drop a big anvil about Norma taking over Norman’s personality. Trapped in a box, he hallucinates about Norma telling him, “I’m always with you. Everybody’s mother lives inside them. If you’re ever worried about something, just hear my voice saying it’s gonna be okay.” In the finale, “The Immutable Truth,” their unbreakable bond is solidified. “I will die if you leave. I will, I’ll die, Norman,” says Norma, “We’re like the same person.” Once we reach the suspenseful polygraph test scene, Norman is able to dissociate himself from the crime of killing Blaire Watson as the mother persona in his mind assures him that it was she who did it. Meanwhile, the series slips in more subtle bits of foreshadowing about the Norma-Norman merger. In “Presumed Innocent,” someone in the Bates household is making eggs in a flowery apron – we assume this is Norma, only for the camera to pan up and reveal Norman at the stovetop.
At the same time, Bates Motel adds nuance and conflict to Norma and Norman’s relationship to sustain its lengthened television run. Like the titular character of Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, the characters are doomed to a fate we know is coming. (One could also draw an obvious parallel between the mother-son duos in both stories.) This, however, does not diminish our investment in their journeys. Norma tries in vain to shield her son from the truth behind his black-outs, withholding valuable information from him. At the same time, Norman begins to recognize his mother’s manipulative behavior, saying at one point, “Oh, I see. The anger didn’t work. Now the tears.” While theirs is an oddly intimate relationship, it is certainly not a match made in bliss. The trials and tribulations Norman and Norma face make for the show’s most fascinating material.
The Other Son
The revelation that Norman has a half-brother named Dylan Massett might appear to be a superfluous addition to the Norma-Norman dynamic. However, it’s exactly this reason that makes Dylan’s existence on the show so compelling. Dylan is unable to breach or understand the extremely close ties between Norman and Norma. He’s an outsider despite being Norma’s first son – a product of her brother raping her. He’s also a threat to their so-called picture perfect relationship. Through the conflict he brings, we can better understand how protective Norman is of his mother, as when Norman attacks Dylan for referring to Norma as a whore.
Dylan brings with him a drug storyline that oftentimes feels irrelevant, despite the creators’ best efforts to expand the universe of the town, a la Twin Peaks. At his best, however, he serves as a foil to Norman. Dylan is not without his own mommy issues caused by Norma, but they stem from neglect rather than overprotection. In spite of these issues, Dylan seems to be the more well-adjusted of the two brothers – he’s levelheaded, loyal, and presents Norman with an escape from Norma in Season 1, asking his brother to move in with him. Dylan loves and protects Norman in a different way than Norma does and it’s much less psychologically damaging. In a conversation that marks the temporary return of sanity to Norman’s universe, Dylan says, “Can I give you some advice? You gotta cut that shit out. ‘Mother?’ It’s just weird…What she’s doing to you, it’s not healthy. She’s smothering you. There’s a whole world out there. You need some perspective.” Dramatic irony runs high throughout Bates Motel since we know the destination of Norman’s turbulent journey. Regardless, Dylan serves as an example of the independent man Norman could be if not for Norma. Although Dylan is not perfect by any means, reluctantly becoming the head of a drug empire by the Season 2 finale, he adds an alternative perspective to Norma’s suffocating views. Furthermore, he brings further complexity to the character of Norman Bates. Norman has listened to Dylan, considered his words, and still chosen his mother at the end of the day.
Nature Versus Nurture
Although the extent of Norman’s dissociative identity disorder requires quite a bit of suspension of disbelief, the show does a strong job laying out the events that could potentially create a psycho. The “nature vs. nurture” debate enters gray areas in the series, as Norman begins the series somewhat broken, having blacked out and murdered his father. Whereas Psycho was intent to place the blame on the mother, Vera Farmiga’s portrayal generates a great amount of sympathy. She’s not the utterly domineering mean woman the film makes her out to be – at least not yet. Norma certainly has an unhealthy grasp on her son but she also recognizes the warning signs of a killer and tries (albeit unsuccessfully) to prevent them, much like the protagonist of We Need to Talk About Kevin. In a way, the show is about Norma’s journey as well.
Having killed before, Norman is not completely a product of his environment, White Pine Bay. However, one cannot deny the influence of the town on a burgeoning teenager who is already mentally ill. Norman is surrounded by death and corruption in a place where drug cartels and sex trades run rampant. He’s seen his mother kill her would-be rapist (and subsequently helped hide the body), killed his teacher, killed an abusive father by pushing him down a flight of stairs, and been kidnapped and trapped in a box by drug lords. This is only the tip of the Freudian iceberg. Although television characters have a surprisingly high tolerance for traumatic events, Bates Motel revels in the aftermath and the psychological consequences.
It’s no coincidence that Norman ends up finding some level of comfort in death. This is strongly evident in his budding taxidermy hobby, an interest we learn is encouraged by White Pine Bay resident Will Decody. After the stray dog Norman finds gets struck by a vehicle, he’s devastated and turns to the morbid task of stuffing its body in order to cope. The show phenomenally integrates this aspect of Norman’s character into the plot, having Norma express concern towards her son about his unconventional recreational activities. (Her alternative? A mother-son musical.) Meanwhile, Norman defies Norma by moving his stuffed birds into the living room. By the time we reach the events of Psycho,these same owls and sparrows will turn worn and dusty. As the series progresses, certain psychological developments will likewise become permanent fixtures.
Freddie Highmore’s Performance
Without Freddie Highmore, there could also be no Norman Bates – at least not the one of Bates Motel. In earlier episodes, the English actor had some trouble perfecting his American accent. By the second season, in the midst of such high stakes, both Highmore and Farmiga have stepped up their acting game. Highmore channels several aspects Anthony Perkins’s performance, taking on his neat mannerisms, stiffness, and unsettling stare. Like Perkins’s rendition, Highmore’s Norman has the kindness and sincerity of someone you want to root for – if you could just get past the murdering. Most of the time, he is harmless, albeit a tad standoffish. We can find a similar phenomenon in the titular character of NBC’s Hannibal, another serial killer prequel. While we’re aware that Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter is a killer, showrunner Bryan Fuller establishes the character early on as empathetic, charming, affectionate and intelligent – you want him to have you for dinner (so long as his invitation isn’t a play on words).
In an interview with The Independent, Highmore states, “There was never any attempt to mimic Anthony Perkins’s performance but you take things from his quirks and traits and try and use them.” As for Perkins’s iconic stare at the end of Psycho, the actor comments, “Lots of people have mentioned that stare to me… I guess you come up with ideas and practice. There’s a danger of doing too much too soon though. It’s tempting when you have a story about Norman and his mother to have him dressing up in her clothes in the first episode, but it’s more delicious to see that take place subtly and over time.” Truly both the creators and writers are committed to the journey – it’s not immediate but it certainly is moving forward. After all of Norman’s ordeals, the haunting final shot of “The Immutable Truth” feels earned.
Highmore’s performance fantastically conveys Norman’s instability, even in understated moments. After a concerned Emma Decody informs Norma about her son’s blackouts, Norman’s reaction to her apology is the perfect mix of passive-aggressive and unsettling. With a deadpan smile, he says, “Yeah, I mean I can’t ever trust you again. But I’m not mad.” The dread behind knowing Norman could snap at any moment is one of the show’s highlights and Highmore captures the shaky verge between sanity and insanity to a tee. As a result, kitchen fights and staircase confrontations between Norman and Norma are intensely enthralling and each utterance of the word “Mother” renders shudders. Since Bates Motel focuses on Norman’s teenage years, Highmore injects his performance with the added instability of adolescence. Norman slamming the door and rolling his eyes at his mother might be typical rebellious teen fare until we factor in his increasing body count.
Yet Norman remains sympathetic. The discovery that he has killed Miss Watson is a world-shattering realization to Norman, exacerbated by the fact that he’s been locked up in a tiny box for days. “There’s something wrong with me. I’m bad,” he cries to his mother in “The Immutable Truth.” The list of reparations Norman plans to make before his suicide is heartbreaking and Highmore succeeds in portraying Norman as a kid truly attempting to make amends. In the polygraph test, he’s wracked with guilt for his crimes. With each answer he makes in the affirmative, his upper lip curls into a sneer mixed with anger, sadness, and fear. Having to play someone with dissociative identity disorder, the actor is adept at conveying a wide spectrum of emotions.
Before the premiere of Bates Motel, many viewers questioned its necessity. Under the colossal shadow of Hitchcock’s Psycho, the series seemed to be handicapped by what Harold Bloom calls the anxiety of influence – a fear that the artistic predecessor will limit its successor. However, now with two seasons under its belt, the show’s purpose is exceedingly clear. Where its predecessor enticed viewers with what happened, Bates Motel manages to create suspense and thrills with the how. We go on roller coasters for the ups and downs and groan when the ride is over. We seek out fanfiction to expand the histories of our favorite characters long after a series ends. Some are quick to rush to the end but for others, the journey has always been inherently alluring. The journey that created the iconic Norman Bates is no exception.
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