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Webmaster's Note: The following essay reveals certain plot elements of Psycho which may otherwise surprise the reader/viewer of the novel/films. If you haven't seen or read Psycho, or viewed the film sequels to Psycho, then you may wish to do so before reading this essay.  

The Many Faces of Psycho's Mrs. Bates

Robert M. Price

The image of the mother has always been a powerful one, full of ambiguous and self-contradictory associations. No doubt this fact stems from our experiences of our moms as dispensers of both comfort and of punishment. The result is a Collective Unconscious that casts up myths of Durga, Kali, Medea, and others who are love objects even as they clutch severed human heads streaming gore. Bound up in all this, too, is the Oedipus complex, which blurs the lines between romantic and maternal love. The most powerful American myth to emerge, dripping blood, from this matrix is undoubtedly Psycho, both the series of novels by Robert Bloch and the series of films, which follow a trajectory different from the original book.

Mrs. Bates appears "on stage" as a character in only a single one of these films, the TV movie Psycho IV (1990). Olivia Hussey had at least as great a challenge living up to the role of the mythic mother here as she had in portraying Mary, the mother of Jesus, in Jesus of Nazareth (1977). She did a good enough job of it, and what complaints we have must be leveled instead at screenwriter Joseph Stefano. We have always been led to picture Norman's mother as an old widow who, in fact, could be imagined as being at home in ornate Victorian surroundings and dressed as a granny. But here is the voluptuous Hussey impersonating her!

The confusion resulted from Stefano's (or Hitchcock's) original decision to take some 20 years off the age of Bloch's middle-aged Norman Bates. Bloch had pictured him as a kind of Cliff Clavin (Cheers' postal worker) pushed over the edge. ("Yeah, I was breast-fed longer than most youngsters...uh...infants....") Once Norman (Anthony Perkins) had to be in his 20s in 1960, Mother's chronology was all akilter, too.

Because Psycho IV implicitly takes place in 1990 (as the call-in-to-the-shrink-show premise implies), we now have to place Mrs. Bates as sexually active in 1960 or so, a member of the wrong generation, and prudish Victorian values will not so easily fit her. What was she doing in that house? She simply cannot be the imagined origin of the pinched, elderly voiced we used to hear snapping "Norman!"

And, strangely, we have already pinpointed the central dynamic of the role of Norman's "murderous" mother throughout the whole Psycho cycle, even including the dreadful TV pilot Bates Motel (1987): Norman's mother is not really a character at all, but precisely a role that is perilous to play. She is dead when the first film begins, though we don't know this right off. Throughout the four movies, what we see is the tragic and macabre spectacle of a series of ill-fated people balefully attracted, as if by the hypnotism of a cobra, to playing the role of Mother. Everyone who dares it comes to a bad end, as if Mother takes a kind of King Tut's revenge -- altogether appropriate, as she is herself a mummy.

In the first instance (1960's Psycho) it is Norman himself who has adopted the persona, played the role of Mother. Once he kills her, he cannot live with the trauma of parricide, and the Oedipal jealousy draws Norman and Mother into the most intimate of embraces: She moves into a corner of his skull, symbolized by the cobwebbed fruit cellar. Whenever the stirring of lust for a living woman wake in Norman, as they do with the arrival of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) at the motel, Mother emerges to put a stop to it, watching out for Norman's interests better than he can be trusted to do himself. In Freudian terms, Mother has become Norman's oppressive superego; in Jungian terms, Mother has become Norman's shadowy feminine side, his anima, alter ego, and superego.

But Norman's psychonecrophiliac union with Mom turns into tragedy, as Mother apparently takes over completely. At the end of the movie, Norman sits immobile in a chair, imagining himself the desiccated corpse in the fruit cellar who couldn't hurt a fly. We see the empty sockets of her skull peeking out from behind his eyes.

In Psycho II (1983), Norman has been cured. Mother has been exorcised, but that just means that her role is available again if anyone else should want it -- and somebody does. The movie can be seen as a contest over who will get to play the coveted role. Lyla and Mary Loomis (Vera Miles and Meg Tilly) share it for a time, working as a tag-team in a match against two opponents: one (Norman) doesn't know what he is fighting for, and another (Miss Spool, played by Claudia Bryar) of whose presence in the contest Lyla and Mary are unaware.

At length Mary turns against Lyla; the two compete as surrogate mothers until both are dead, one the victim of the vigilant Miss Spool ("When I saw what they were trying to do to my poor baby...."); the other, in full costume, knife aloft, shot down by police.

This bizarre turn of events leaves the victorious team to turn on each other. Miss Spool reveals herself to Norman, who believes her claim of being his "real Mother." No sooner does she announce her victory to Norman than she loses it to him.

To be sure, Norman is glad to see her, but in order to welcome her home, he must conduct her back to where she belongs, her special place in the rocker in his head. Thus, he kills Mother (again) in order to reapotheosize her. Yes, its good to have her home after the doctors took her away, and now Norman can play the role of Mother again. "The mother and child reunion is only a moment away."

There is an interesting difference between the film and Bloch's novel Psycho II. In the book, everyone seems to identify with Norman Bates; in the movie, it is Mother with whom everyone identifies.

In Psycho III (1986), we see Norman in full form again, oblivious to his own "true" identity, still blithely imagining that his mother is alive and that she "just goes a little crazy sometimes." Like Charon, he dutifully dispenses with the messy results. In one conversation with Mother, Norman lets slip a significant remark: "But you came back" from the dead. Miss Spool and the original Mother are the same to him. Whereas Emma Spool sought to explain in Psycho II that she, not Norma Bates, had been his biological mother, Norman seems to have forgotten it. In Psycho III, as far as He is concerned, she has risen from the dead. That was her in the coffin, all right, when they exhumed her to convince him that she was dead in Psycho II, but when Miss Spool knocked on the kitchen door, she was back.

But we learn better. A snooping reporter (Roberta Maxwell) in the third film discovers that poor Emma Spool merely harbored delusions of being Norman's Mother-wanna-be, and she paid for it with her life.

In Psycho III, Norman has become willing to kill people -- specifically, the drifter Duke (Jeff Fahey) -- in his own right, not as Mrs. Bates, all in order to protect Mother, but at the last minute, he turns on the stuffed effigy of Mother and slashes it to ribbons. He seems to have admitted his love for a living woman (the ex-nun, played by Diana Scarwid as a "reincarnation" of the Janet Leigh character); this decision has again exorcised Mother from his mind and driven her back into the dried up husk in the rocking chair.

When he slashes her, Norman is undergoing abreactive psychodrama, reliving and embracing the pain of the original matricide, and so looking his guilt in the face at last. In a strange way the score is evened; Young Norman had killed Mother and her lover because he was jealous of them. Now (he imagines) she has killed the woman he admits he loves, and with the score one for one, Norman can admit and "own" his hatred for her. The two can part ways at last. Norman finally renounces the role of Mother, and there is no one else to take it.

In the wretched Bates Motel, which does not fit into the canonical sequence, we do have another would-be Mother, but this one is nothing more than a greedy real estate developer who poses as the ghost of Mrs. Bates in order to scare away the owners of the reopened motel. He, too, comes to a bad, though mundane, end; his scheme (right out of a TV sitcom or a "Weird Menace" pulp) comes to naught and he is nabbed by the cops. Too bad: This scene, as poor as it is, is the only piece of the movie even reminiscent of Psycho. (The TV movie was itself recapitulating the doomed attempts to impersonate Mother, or in this case to impersonate the Psycho movies.)

The real fourth installment, another TV movie, Psycho IV (1990), continues the same theme, albeit more subtly. Here, Norman, still sane, is nonetheless planning to kill again. Wife Connie (Donna Mitchell) is pregnant, and he is terrified that the baby will one day become another Norman with all of his quirks. He cannot chance unleashing another Norman on the world.

The subtext of the film is more clever than the plot, because Norman has already unleashed a new, young Norman Bates to kill again as he recounts the long flashback in which Henry Thomas plays the adolescent Norman. (In effect, he has already begotten the monstrous "Son of Norman Bates" he fears!)

On the literal level, he means to kill his wife to forestall the unholy birth, but what he is really doing is preventing his wife from becoming another Mother! If Norman Junior should become another monster, replaying the same scenario, he would need his own corresponding Mother, and that would be Norman Senior's wife. Hence Norman lifts the knife to deny her the deadly role.

The denial, of course, is as deadly as the role would have been. His wife talks him out of it -- yet, at the film's end, do we not hear the whispers of Mother's voice lingering in the flaming pile of the Bates house? If so, the role is deadly for the house, for it burns like the witch who haunts it.

The most striking aspect of Psycho IV in terms of our question of "Who will get to be Mother?" concerns the murder of Norman's flesh-and-blood mother and her boyfriend (Warren Frost). Though it is never stated as such, it is clear that Norman murders Norma because, by virtue of her inconsistent, positively sexual behavior, she has forfeited the role of "Mother," now rigidly defined by the superego "Mother" who has been firmly installed in Norman's head.

It is not the murder that causes the transference of Mother into Norman's head; rather, it's the latter that causes the former! (What we should have heard, as Norman prepared the poison, was the bitter whisper of the familiar elderly voice: "Kill that slut!") Norma makes the fatal error of renouncing the role of Mother and becoming one of the "whores" -- i.e., real live women. Every other woman in the Psycho movies dies when she dares adopt the role of Mother. Mother herself dies when she stops playing that role, which is hers by right.

Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss pioneered the method of structuralist analysis. Levi-Strauss said that one finds out what a myth is really about, what conflict deep inside its hearers and tellers it seeks to resolve, by disregarding narrative sequence and breaking the myth down into its most fundamental events, character types, and turns of plot, and then grouping the similar features together.

One would find them repeated. In different outward circumstances and wearing different character names, the same "mythemes," the same basic elements of the myth, would be repeated again and again. It doesn't even matter, Levi-Strauss said, whether you are using an early or a later version of the myth: Its inner logic will continue to work like DNA to keep the myth, in all its ever-new forms, engaged with the same deep questions. Psycho is a modern myth; as such, it is susceptive to structuralist analysis.

It is worth noting that the movies have only the most superficial element of temporal sequence. Psycho IV seems to be intended as a direct sequel to the original Psycho, with no reference to Psycho II or III. Norman may have been healed and released from his first confinement, not from the confinement that takes place at the end of Psycho III.

Psycho IV also drifts back and forth from flashback to present reality, as if the flashback, not a genuine memory or even a genuine past, were as much a part of the new narrative as the frame sequence. Both the frame story and the flashback story are being told for the first time. It is as if we were simply cutting between two scenes of simultaneous action. (Indeed, we are doing just that.)

It is essentially the same as an episode of the old Time Tunnel television program: Even though the characters go back into the past, the adventures they have are new because of their presence. The supposed past events in Psycho IV are really only events in the present narrative, nothing else, as if Norman were making it up as he went along.

Likewise, in Psycho III, despite references to the previous film, we really seem to be seeing episodes before the first film. We are getting an answer to the questions lingering from Psycho: What the hell must have been going on in that house with that dreadfully twisted young man and that, ahem, corpse?

It seems that all the different Psychos drift into and out of one another. There is no real sequence. All are variant versions of the same myth. The deep conflict being rehearsed and resolved in these movies is that of the Oedipal complex and which pole of it will triumph to dominate one's life: Will a man so identify with his mother, whether tyrannical or nurturing, that all women are stand-ins for her? ("I want a girl just like the girl who married dear old Dad.") Or will he identify with his mother even more strongly, so that no other woman is able to substitute for her?

If the former is the case, the man may find a mate who will either suffer from the comparison or be blamed for the problems in the man created by his mother. Or there may be a good match, and he will never be able to draw the line between the wife as a lover and as second mother, and it will not matter. If the latter is the case, the man will remain without female companionship and live a lonely (and nerdish) life. In this case, Norman Bates does stand for the Cliff Clavins of the world.

The Psycho films depict the trials of a man trying to move from the second scenario to the first, as he goes back and forth between falling in love with Marion Crane or Mary Loomis and hearing Mother order him to "Get rid of that slut!" The female victims of Mother, as well as various women who try unsuccessfully to assume the role of Mother, all symbolize the women who seek to relate romantically to such men. The odds are against them, even if they seem to win.

This essay was originally published in Scarlet Street #14 (Spring 1994), and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.