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In preparation for Halloween this October, over the next four weeks I'm listing my favourite maniacs of the silver screen - the psychos, the killers and the monsters.
Last week was Jame Gumb from The Silence of the Lambs. This week's maniac is none other than the "Psycho", Norman Bates.
Norman Bates; Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960)
Psycho has become a pop-culture staple thanks to its famous shower scene where the shadowy silhouette of "mother" stabs Marion Crane to death about a quarter into the movie. It was, and still is, a very shocking scene - the audience were lead to believe that Marion was the main character and that she'd survive to return home and run away with her lover like they planned, living happily ever after. But in a single scene she's brutally murdered and it sets the entire film on a completely new track of finding who the killer was.
The movie is captivating even by today's standards. And at the centre of the story is the titular psycho, Norman Bates. Nowadays it's no secret that Norman was the killer all along and not his mother, but regardless it's still an unsettling tale of a deranged little man in a big empty house in the middle of nowhere, living in fear of a woman who died a long time ago. Norman Bates grew up with his overbearing and emotionally abusive mother Norma. She taught the boy that all women other than herself were evil beings and to stay away from them. Norman lived alone with his mother in the motel they owned becoming dependant on her to the point of creepiness. As the film explains, Norma was his whole world - he had nobody else and had never left the safety of home.
This caused problems when Norma met a man whom she fell in love with. Suddenly Norman was out of the picture. Someone had stolen away his whole world, and he couldn't have that. In an act of jealousy, Norman killed his mother and her lover (making it look like suicide). But when the deed was done Norman stood back and realised what he'd done. It sent him into shock and was the last push that sent him over the edge of insanity. Norman kept his mother's preserved corpse in the fruit cellar beneath the old house, but that wasn't enough. He began to talk to it. It still wasn't enough. So Norman began to talk for it. Eventually he began to believe that his dead mother actually was talking back to him, even though the boy was having a conversation with himself. In order to complete the illusion, Norman would sometimes dress up in his mother's old clothing and a wig and pretend to be her around the big empty house. In Norman's mind, it's as if he never murdered her at all.
All of this developed into a split personality. Norman was both himself and his cruel, abusive mother Norma. He had conversations and arguments with himself for hours on end all alone in the motel (a motel which never had customers due to a major highway being built beside it, diverting all the traffic). The film makes it clear that Norman has some sort of obsession with dead things, as when he invites Marion into his house the first night she arrives, Norman's room is decorated with dozens of dead, stuffed birds. During the conversation he refers to them multiple times, reinforcing the fact that they're stuffed and therefore "harmless", which I suppose alludes to his mother - he can have her but she can no longer hurt him because she's no different to a dead, stuffed bird.
It's not until the shower scene when things become complicated. Marion Crane steps into the shower, unaware that Norman is spying on her. As explained near the end of the film, when Norman begins to have sexual thoughts or feelings towards a woman, it triggers his "mother" personality. Mother is overcome with jealousy that her son is interested in another woman and also relates back how she taught Norman that women were evil beings when he was a child. This prompts Norman (dressed as his mother) to murder Marion Crane. Once she's dead he changes back to his normal state and acts as if his mother killed the girl. That way in Norman's mind he's innocent. After dumping the corpse in a nearby swamp, Norman goes on with his daily split-personality life as though he never dressed up as his dead mother, stabbed a woman repeatedly and hid the body.
The rest of the film goes on to have mother kill Arbogast, the detective who investigates Marion's disappearance, and later attempt to kill Marion's sister and her lover when they come to the house to find her. The audience is led to believe that Norma is alive and has been the one killing throughout the film. Characters listen in on conversations that Norman has with his "mother" in other rooms and mother is seen silhouetted with her knife when she kills the first two victims. But in the end it's revealed that it was Norman all along when Lila Crane is told by the sheriff that Norman's mother died ten years ago. When she goes to the house to investigate, she hides from Norman in the fruit cellar where she finds the preserved corpse of Norma Bates. Turning around, Norman is standing in the doorway dressed as his mother and brandishing a knife, then screams "I'm Norma Bates!" in easily the most disturbing scene in the film. Norman is subdued when Marion's lover Sam Loomis comes up behind him and wrestles him to the ground.
The movie ends with a psychologist telling the police the story of Norman's life and explains exactly what was going on throughout the story. He also says that Norman Bates no longer, per se - his "mother" personality became dominant and now Norman is a prisoner in his own mind. The final scene shows Norman sitting in his cell at the asylum, staring at the camera with a sick smile on his face. We hear his thoughts, spoken in his mother's voice, explaining that he was an evil man all along. No matter how much he tried to deny it and blame his mother for the crimes committed, Norman always knew that it was him killing those girls. Still believing himself to be his own mother when a fly lands on his hand, Norman narrates that he won't even swat it away to show the doctor's that "she wouldn't even hurt a fly". As the screen fades to black you can very subtly see his mother's shrivelled skull appear over his own face.
Norman Bates is a very unsettling character. He's a man who's shy and stammering in conversation as he thinks about how he'll murder you later that night. He's a man who was raised in the shadow of his overbearing and guilt-tripping mother, and never stopped fearing her even after he killed the woman. Norman Bates is exactly as the title describes him - a psycho. And that's the reason why he's gone down in cinema history as the central character of what is perhaps the most famous thriller movie ever made.
Stay tuned for next week where I'll showcase the next mad scientist, murderer or maniac. Who will it be? Here's a hint: Planet schmanet, Janet!