The 13th Floor

From BATES MOTEL To PSYCHO: The Sad Existence Of Norman Bates

Although considered a disappointment upon its initial release, both critically and commercially, I look back on 1986’s PSYCHO III in retrospect as the linchpin of the entire franchise. Helmed by Norman Bates himself Anthony Perkins, the sequel picked up immediately following the events in PSYCHO II, but did something that the franchise hadn’t really ever attempted before or since; it gave us the original PSYCHO from the perspective of Norman Bates.

Granted, Robert Bloch’s original novel from which Alfred Hitchcock adapted his 1960 feature is technically from the point of view of Norman, but the book version of Norman is drastically different from his cinematic counterpart. And really, what PSYCHO III did is show us the beats of PSYCHO, but with the knowledge of the twist in advance. We know Norman and Mother are one and the same. And so, this time around, we see what Norman’s interactions are like with his deceased “Mother.” He sees her sitting up in bed, and pointing at impending danger. She scolds him and tells him to wipe his snotty little nose. When he turns off the television, we can still hear the tortured moans and voices all within his head. And there was one word that stuck out for me back when I was interviewing my Icons Of Fright co-creator Michael Cucinotta for THE PSYCHO LEGACY documentary regarding his take on the picture. Seeing what Norman Bates has to go through on a daily basis, the real Norman Bates; getting to see it all from his perspective and what his life is like… it’s sad.

I’m paraphrasing Mike here, but basically he said it’s both sad, “and it must be terrifying to be Norman Bates.” After all, I think the one thing that has always set Norman apart from his fellow “movie maniacs” is that we feel a great deal of sympathy for him. His tragedy is almost Shakespearean. He is forever doomed in this cycle of his own doing. And I started thinking about all this again, because of the recent premiere of BATES MOTEL’s fifth and final season.

(Mild spoilers regarding the BATES MOTEL series on A&E follow.)

In the show version, we’ve now gotten to spend a few years with Freddie Highmore’s modern version of Norman Bates and his Mother Norma played brilliantly by Vera Farmiga. In the film franchise, the filmmakers always flirted with the idea of “nature versus nurture.” Was Norman this way because of the awkward way his Mother raised him? Or was this madness something inherent for him since he was born? Was he a bad seed, always destined to go down this dark path? Or did his incestuous and domineering relationship with his Mother drive him to be one of cinema’s most infamous serial killers?

The TV series pretty early on made it clear that Norman is mentally ill, has delusions and black-outs; sees his Mother telling him to do things when she’s not actually there. At least it’s his perception of his overly jealous Mother, as opposed to the real Norma Bates. I think it’s somewhere in Season 2 where we realize Norman dark path is inevitable. There’s no stopping what he’s going to become, and that’s the downfall of Norma Bates. She cares so deeply and loves her son so much, that she refuses to accept what might happen, and instead, she does whatever she can to cover up her son’s mental illness. And then when she does try to get him help, the harsh realities of insurance coverage intervene, hence her initially staged marriage to Sheriff Romero. It’s a great take for the show, and part of what’s made me, as a life-long PSYCHO fan, completely embrace this alternate version of one of my all time favorite characters.

As the first few minutes of BATES MOTEL, Season 5, Episode 1 played, I kept going back to that thing Mike said, originally in reference to PSYCHO III. “It must be so sad and terrifying to be Norman Bates.” And now, with a little over 4 years of context and backstory leading up to the events as we know them in PSYCHO, that was the main thing I felt watching the first episode of this final season. Sad. Sad for Norman. I think this trailer, cut to the Radiohead song “Exit Music (For A Film)” is just perfect in encapsulating that.

And now there’s this tease of what’s ahead for this season.

I knew when the series started that we’d eventually get here and it wouldn’t end well for anyone. But now that the time is upon us, I’m feeling both a tremendous amount of dread, sprinkled with excitement as each new episode approaches every Monday night.

Norman interacts with his imaginary version of Mother through out the whole episode, but then there’s the sad moments in between that hit hard. For example, the sunny morning over breakfast. He’s accompanied down the stairs by his dog, all in his mind and he was one of the first things he taxidermied. Norman sits down at the kitchen table, all smiles, while an old tune is playing in the background and talks to his Mother over a morning meal before starting his work day. After he walks out of the house, the camera pans back to show the darkly lit kitchen in complete disarray. It’s a mess. It’s gross. It looks like a crazy person lives there.

In another scene, Norman is in bed with Mother and can’t sleep. He’s tossing and turning. And finally, he rises, heads downstairs to the basement to where Norma’s corpse is being preserved, and lays his head on her lap, letting out a sigh, and says, “oh, Mother.” In the 5 years and 5 seasons of this show, with all the crazy stuff we’ve seen and been through, this could be the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.

So, yeah, while I can’t predict quite yet the direction that the writers will take this alternate version of PSYCHO, it’s already obvious that it’s going to be quite a ride, and that the point once illustrated (and sadly missed) in PSYCHO III that Anthony Perkins tried to emulate is going to be very apparent in this final season of BATES MOTEL.

It’s tremendously sad and terrifying to be Norman Bates.