What Bates Motel Revealed About Psycho

Ten years after it premiered, Bates Motel remains a surprisingly useful entry into the Psycho canon.

Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga in Bates Motel
Photo: Universal Television

Norman Bates is haunted by many demons, but the one which tortures him the most is not loneliness or fear or even his questionable past. That demon is his mother.

Norma Bates (at least what remains of her) is glimpsed in the shadows of Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic Psycho, and later heard through Norman’s own mouth. Her backstory remained a mystery until Bates Motel first aired in 2013. It reveals Norman couldn’t have possibly become Hitchcock’s iconic killer without being twisted by his mother. Now, a decade later, Norma, played to chilling perfection by Vera Farmiga, is as controlling as ever—dead or alive.

As Norman (Freddie Highmore) fumbles through adolescence, climbing out his window to meet girls and at least attempting to date, his mother does everything in her power to keep him from going through puberty. She wants to preserve him in the formaldehyde of childhood forever and ever without allowing the inevitable to happen. Norman is 17 when he and Norma first arrive in White Pine Bay. It is almost too obvious she has already been trying to keep him in a time capsule, supposedly for his own protection, long before he ever sets foot in a new high school. 

In a scene that betrays her deathgrip on Norman early on, Norma lights up the new Bates Motel sign after dark and, in an eerie haze of neon, tells him she decided on blue because it’s his favorite color. Norma, it’s your favorite color. Like most teenage boys, Norman seems to throw on whatever is clean unless it’s his mother’s robe, but she is usually in something blue, except, ironically, for her sham wedding to Sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell) and a few other random occasions. Maybe all the blue and skeletons in her closet were in the wash on those days.

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In this A&E series, which premiered in 2013, Norma takes being her son’s overlord to the extreme. Even when Norman is in the house, she needs to know where he is and what he’s doing, though he can usually be found making taxidermy out of roadkill in the basement. Never mind the creepy Oedipal overtones of Norman creeping into her bed far too often. She insists she is trying to “protect” him. Sure, Jocasta. The epic kiss that ended Season 2 says otherwise. As the entire town starts to realize something is off, Norma waves away suspicions by insisting her son is so fragile that he constantly needs her protection. Sounds more like he needs to be protected from her. 

Norma manages to brainwash Norman into thinking what she wants is what he wants. She is horrified whenever he shows the slightest sign of autonomy, such as when his English teacher Miss Watson suggests he try out for the track team. Norma is apoplectic when he breaks this to her over dinner. She refuses to sign the forms and then convinces Norman he is better off not joining the team because his grades will suffer. In a reversal of this scenario, Norman has no desire to audition for the local production of South Pacific. He reluctantly obliges because “Mother” keeps insisting how much he loves singing, when she is actually the one who loves singing, and that it would be a positive experience for their relationship, meaning a convenient way to keep him under her control.  

Also, can we talk about how creepy it is whenever Norman says “Mother”? it comes off as almost robotic and just seems inherently wrong.

It gets worse. Norma also has Norman trained to put her above anything  or anyone else. As he turns down more and more invites because of “Mother” this and “Mother” that, Norma becomes his reason for existing. This might be true in the sense that she birthed him, but anything beyond that is disturbing. He will even kill for this woman.

You could argue Miss Watson (Keegan Connor Tracy) is murdered by the hand of Norma in the form of her son. After she seduces him, he sees a vengeful Norma, who never wants her son to grow up or replace her with another woman, during one of the psychotic breaks he calls “blackouts”. His mother later takes advantage of the memory lapse that always ensues after one. When news of the murder hits the papers, she insists on his innocence, even as flashbacks of a bloody knife have him questioning what happened. He literally gets away with murder because he can only see one answer to the question of who murdered Blaire Watson. Norma.

Miss Watson is hardly Norman (and Norma’s) last victim. The same thing happens with former high school crush Bradley Martin (Nicola Peltz) as she and Norman get ready to take off together. The problem is that “Mother” will not be replaced or tolerate Norman escaping her perfectly manicured fingernails, so she orders him to kill Bradley in another psychotic break. He manhandles the girl and bashes her head against a rock. Even after Norma herself has been dead for a while, she becomes an accessory to murder when she tells him exactly how to clean up the blood after he slashes Sam Loomis’ (Austin Nichols) throat in one of the motel bathrooms.

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Norman soon becomes Norma. It starts in what seem like moments of forgetfulness when he speaks as if he is his mother, but then you see him murdering Bradley as his mother, testifying as his mother, actually being his mother until it becomes a full-blown transformation after her death. He wears her robes and a blond wig around the house. The more Norma seeps into him, the more brazen he gets. During a psychotic break when he identifies as Norma, he drives to a local bar and drunkenly has sex with someone who has the wrong idea about who “Norma” really is. He remembers nothing.

In the guise of “protecting” Norman, Norma dictates what she wants him to remember and what she doesn’t after a psychotic break. Guess who that backfires on when he attempts a murder-suricide by turning up the gas heater way too high so they can die in each other’s arms by morning. Except he survives, and she lives on in his hallucinations. However, the attachment is so hardwired that he digs her body out after the funeral and sits her on a chair in the house while he lives in a state of constant psychosis and sees her everywhere. If he commits a murder, she is really the one behind it. The only thing that speaks louder than Norma is evidence. 

Perhaps Norma’s worst sin is one of omission. She has known about his psychotic breaks at least since she was attacked by her abusive husband, which triggered Norman to punch him in the head with such ferocity that he accidentally killed him. The memory lapse that follows makes it easy for Norma to drag the body under a tool shelf and convince Norman his father died from an accident. Norma could have reported it as an accident and used the insurance money to start her son on a treatment program instead of indulging her dream of owning a motel. She should have also checked herself into therapy while she was at it.

Would Norman have still had a body count beyond his father if Norma decided not to “protect” him as she repeats ad nauseam but started treatment after the incident? Nobody knows. It is doubtful even Hitchcock or Robert Bloch, the author of the book that inspired the original movie, could answer this.

While not everyone who vanishes in White Pine Bay is Norman’s prey, and Alex Romero also has corpses to answer for, there would have probably been a better chance of Norman improving if he started therapy as a teen. It is too late by the time Norma, at Romero’s insistence, begs Norman to sign papers admitting himself to a facility. He is no longer a minor who can be admitted involuntarily. He is also older and far more clever, trying to escape and later lying about a drastic improvement so he can, as a legal adult, sign himself out. He even flushes his meds down the toilet after her death so his psychosis can keep bringing her back to life. 

Normal Louise Bates dominates her younger son’s mind whether she is corporeal or incorporeal. Maybe that explains why he doesn’t fight his older brother after charging at him with a knife and ending up fatally shot in self-defense. He knows he is going exactly where he wants to be, in the grave right next to his mother’s.

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