One thing worth noting about the horror genre is that it produces images that resist quick mental erasure. From the statuesque model who turns into a decrepit, decaying old woman in the infamous shower scene of The Shining to the bloody womb hanging limply outside the skin of Nola Carveth in The Brood, horror does nothing if not supply us with grotesque images of often monstrous women. Psycho’s Norma Bates, then, is no exception. In Hitchcock’s original film, Psycho, we see Norma not as a mommy so much as a stereotypical mummy; all that is left of her is a skeletal, eyeless frame and some tousled hair pulled back in a bun. We hear her character, and therefore understand her character, only through Marion Crane’s ears as the delusional Norman voices her from afar in the antiquated Victorian house on the hill outside Bates Motel. But Norma is a famous mummy, and a famous mommy, to be sure, one who lingers in the mind of the viewer long after the theater lights go on, and one who has lingered in the cultural imagination now for sixty-one years and counting. Significantly, Norma Bates didn’t get to speak for herself until 2013, when the hit TV show Bates Motel rescued and re-invented her character through Vera Farmiga’s portrayal of her as Norman’s mildly cooky but vivacious and loving mom. As a woman who navigates an excruciating past, a corrupt, drug-infested city, and a psychotic son with surprising sangfroid, Norma Bates in Bates Motel is who I choose to feature this year for the annual Fiction’s Fearless Females blogathon.
Here’s a quick reminder before I say more about Norma: Three years ago, a few of us bloggers got together and decided to celebrate International Women’s Month in March by writing about our favorite strong female characters in a series we labeled Fiction’s Fearless Females. The writers involved this year are Nancy and Kathleen from Graphic Novelty2, Green Onion from Green Onion Revival Project, Michael from My Comic Relief, Jeff from The Imperial Talker, and myself. I would highly recommend checking out these diverse and incredible blogs, as they all have excellent content on things from Star Wars to comics and graphic novels to pop culture in general. You can also check out my former pieces for the series on my blog, one about Wendy in The Shining, who I still consider the baddest of all the badass characters I’ve written about for the series, and one about Dani from Midsommar. Because I’m writing about both Psycho and Bates Motel in my dissertation, Norma Bates, as she’s depicted in Bates Motel, is my character of choice this year. I’ve loved Vera Farmiga since I saw her in the Conjuring movies, and she’s both captivating, charming, and daring in this series as Norma Bates. Warning: In this piece, spoilers abound.
If Norma Bates’s skeletal mummy in the original Psycho is symbolic of her bare bones portrayal in the film, then her character is much more rounded, much more fully developed in Bates Motel. In the film Psycho, when voiced by Norman, who killed his mother before the narrative begins but imagines both that she’s still alive, and at times that he is her, she sounds like a nagging, cranky hag who’s always complaining—about her son, and about hotel guests, especially if they happen to be pretty young women who look like Janet Leigh and capture her son’s attention. Robert Bloch’s novel—the film’s source material, written only a year before the film came out—doesn’t do much more for Norma’s character. We don’t really know her, except as Norman knows her, and we’re not quite sure we should trust his perception of his mother; after all, despite his suggestive, perhaps ironic name, Norman is far from normal; in the book he’s a lonesome, psychotic alcoholic, and in the film he’s notoriously mad. From a feminist standpoint, then, Norma Bates’s warm heart and welcoming smile in Bates Motel are incredibly refreshing; she moves, as suggested earlier, from mummy to mommy, but she’s not only a mother—she’s a complex, interesting person who simultaneously loves the company of other people and shuts people out of her life because she feels misunderstood, a tendency that reminds us that even the most “fearless” characters often deal with inner conflicts and latent trepidation.
That is, perhaps, the interesting paradox of Norma; she’s alluring and draws people to her frequently, and she loves people deeply – when it comes to Norman, perhaps too deeply – but there are definitely characters who have trouble getting close to her. Have you ever heard someone say, “If you knew the real me, you wouldn’t like me?” While Bates Motel reaches far beyond conversational cliches in the scriptwriting, this sentence seems like an apt tagline for Norma’s character. Norma is presented as a woman with a lot of grit and tenacity but with incredibly bad luck, and it’s a combination of her misfortunes, and sometimes her way of viewing and handling those misfortunes, that often isolates her from other people. At the beginning of the series, we learn that she’s just moved to a new town after the death of her abusive husband. Buying the little hotel off the highway and running it with her son, Norman, is her way of taking control of a life in which she lacked control and starting over again—and she does it successfully, for quite some time. The gesture is bold, which is appropriate, because Norma doesn’t typically shy away from bold gestures. But when a group of seemingly carefree socialites, including a male suitor, try to befriend Norma and get her a seat on city council, she takes the city council seat but veers away from the would-be friends. She laments—indeed, insists—that such “normal” people could never understand her—the abnormal Norma Bates.
But why does Norma push people away and insist on her innate difference? I think that usually when people do things like that, they’re operating off an illusion of deep-seated separation that doesn’t exist. To be fair to Norma, however, she’s had an incredibly difficult past that makes her reticence to engage with other people understandable. That’s one thing, after all, that makes Norma such an apt candidate for this series: she’s overcome major hardships in her past, although such events have left their own scars, despite her valiant effort and ability to move forward in life. Norma was orphaned at a young age, and she and her brother were adopted by malicious, abusive people—physically, emotionally, and sexually. On top of that, Norma’s close relationship with her brother at such a young age proved more a downfall than a benefit; her brother raped her multiple times, a tragedy that eventually resulted in a child—Norman’s older half-brother Dylan, who doesn’t know much about his own origins at the beginning of the story and is resentful and mistrusting of Norma until a series of events ensue and their relationship repairs. Norma’s ability to repair relationships with her oldest son is a marker of her fearlessness, her emotional intelligence, and her genuinely big heart. Despite becoming close to Dylan again, and despite being honest with him about his birth, Norma often locks her past away in a near-impermeable internal vault, and her shame is one of many things in the show that sometimes creates a gulf between her, and those who would be close to her.
It does not help that poor Norma unknowingly moves into the town that law forgot. Sheriff Romero, the perhaps too stereotypical (but still very likable) alpha male of the town inherited its corruption from his father’s reign as sheriff, and he generally solves disputes according to his own vigilante view of ethics instead of following the letter of the law. For much of the series, the town’s economy is based on growing and selling weed illegally, and Sheriff Romero uses his own, often fallible judgement, and his muscles, to keep people in check; he is far more likely to engage in a skirmish or to shoot someone than he is to take them into custody, in part because he feels he has no choice, based on the state of the town when his dad left it to him. The underlying corruption of the town, however, has its effects on Norma, who often wishes the world and its people were better, more obedient, more caring, seemingly more pure than they are. But despite a little bit of romantic naivete, Norma is no fool, and when she realizes that sheriff Romero operates by his own set of rules and basically runs the town, she forges a relationship with him that protects her and Norman, despite the challenging events that unfold throughout the show. In fact, that trait is another thing to note and admire about Norma: she outwits people rather easily. Because of her past, her formal education may not equal that of some of the town’s other denizens, but in many situations it’s obvious that she’s the smartest one in the room, and on top of that, she’s not afraid to stand up for the rights of herself and her family.
Additionally, Norma displays her fearlessness when dealing with her son, Norman. Toward the beginning of the series, Norman seems like a typical high school kid – though there are some red flags that insinuate he might have vicious, violence tendencies coupled with mental illness. Their relationship is loving, in a way that is often sweet, but that sometimes borders on too close for a mother and son (I mean, they spoon in bed together when he’s in high school…but who am I to judge?) What I like about Norma’s character is that she often sees the world as it is, and she doesn’t delude herself about Norman. I think she understands what her son is capable of long before he commits his crimes, but because of their difficult life and their incredible closeness, she tries to navigate the often flimsy boundary between protecting Norman and protecting the people that might get hurt if Norman gets ahold of them. Indeed, Norman himself is a likable, caring character at the start of the series (though we learn later that he killed his dad, and Norma knows this), but as the show ensues, he seemingly drifts away from us. Indeed, the change is rather abrupt. By about the third season, I no longer felt close to him as a character; what makes him vulnerable and human leaves, and he becomes sassier, less kind, and far more dangerous. When this happens, Norma listens to the advice of others and has Norman institutionalized. Since she refuses to send him to an unsavory place, she, in all her fearlessness, asks Sheriff Romero to marry her so she can use his insurance to send him to a swanky institution. Sheriff Romero agrees, and Norman seems safely institutionalized after a decision that is incredibly hard for his mother, but valiant all the same; she understands that the safety of other people warrants locking her son up.
The truly beautiful part of the story is that while Norma and Sheriff Romero marry for insurance reasons, they find out shortly thereafter that they’re actually in love. In that way, Norma’s fearlessness comes around full circle; after being raped by her brother, raped by an angry town drunk toward the beginning of the series, sexually abused by her adoptive father, and abused by her first husband, Norma somehow manages—quite easily, in fact—to love again, and she dares to get close to someone. This is not surprising; after all, two of Norma’s most endearing traits are her tendency to sit down and play catchy tunes on the piano while singing along and the frequency with which she offers to cook for people. “Sit down, I’ll make you something,” she says over and over again throughout the series (and her food always looks delicious). Dining together is a symbol of unity, of closeness, of friendship, and Norma’s constant willingness to cook for people might display not just her selflessness, but her desire to be close to people despite the fact that she sometimes guards herself. Sheriff Romero is not much different from Norma in this respect, so when they fall in love, it feels harmonious and gratifying to the viewer. But Norman wants to come home from the institution, and when he does come home, he’s irate that his mother has found a lover, and he kills her with poisonous gas while she’s sleeping. The legend that is Psycho, reconfigured and reformulated but ultimately unchanging, unfolds again before our eyes.
If grotesque but memorable mental images are central to the horror genre, then no image symbolizes the whole—and wholly human—characterization of Norma Bates more than her corpse in Bates Motel. That may seem like a bizarre statement, but consider this: Norman’s mother, relegated to the status of a decayed, unrecognizable skeleton in the original Psycho is no longer a mummy. Norman, who doesn’t realize he’s the one who has killed his mother, digs Norma up in a state of grief in Bates Motel and places her dead body on the couch, eyes wide open, surrounded by flowers. While the wide-open eyes and grayish skin of her corpse are still uncomfortable images, the corpse is, recognizably, Norma, an individual who we’ve grown to know and love throughout the series, not an anonymous every-woman who nags, decays, and leaves her skeletal remains behind. And that’s just the thing about Bates Motel; unlike Psycho, a book and movie that have significant sympathy for the mentally ill serial killer, Norman, Bates Motel makes me furious at Norman’s character, because he kills his brave, loving, beautiful mother, just when she’s learned to love again. Norma is deeply human in this series, so we feel her loss; we mourn her. Norma, then, in all her fearlessness, leaves a deep-seated impression not just on those other characters she encounters in the narrative, but on the viewer who’s connected with her, but who, ultimately, must say goodbye to her. She does reappear in Norman’s delusions in the show’s final season, but that’s a story for another day.