NPR logo

Norman Bates: A Most Terrifying Mama's Boy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/91947125/92106663" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Norman Bates: A Most Terrifying Mama's Boy

Norman Bates: A Most Terrifying Mama's Boy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/91947125/92106663" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Before Freddy Krueger, Jason, or Hannibal Lecter, there was Norman Bates. In the Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 classic film "Psycho," Bates was the boy next door, motel manager/serial killer - with the emphasis there on slash. A quiet guy who mummified his mother.

NPR's Peter Breslow has the latest for our series In Character on what made Norman Bates so terrifying.

PETER BRESLOW: Let's just get this out of the way immediately, shall we?

(Soundbite of movie "Psycho")

Ms. JANET LEIGH (Actress): (As Marion Crane) Oh. Oh, no. Oh. Oh.

BRESLOW: There you have it. The scene that ruined showering for a generation. Norman Bates, dressed as his mother, pulling back the curtains and slashing Marion Crane in room number one at the Bates Motel, just a third of the way into the film. And Dr. Bernard Hermann provided the strings. The sound of the stabbing came courtesy of a knife plunged into a cassava melon.

"Psycho" was made fast and cheap, and it scared the pants off audiences in 1960. The inspiration for Norman Bates was back a few years earlier according to Stephen Rebello. He's the author of "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho." He says that in November, 1957, authorities in rural Plainfield, Wisconsin were looking for a woman who had gone missing. Following a clue, they entered the darkened farm house of a seemingly harmless 51-year-old handyman named Ed Gein.

Mr. STEPHEN REBELLO (Author, "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho"): They found this particular woman unfortunately tortured and dressed out like a steer hanging from her ankles, and she had been gutted. And the house was kind of a charnel house of decomposing body parts, skull heads lined up on shelves.

BRESLOW: Living just 40 miles away was a well-respected suspense writer named Robert Bloch who read about Gein in the newspapers and became fascinated. He decided to fictionalize Gein's story and his novel, "Psycho," was published two years later. It tells the story of a schizophrenic man who, years after his father dies, has murdered his demanding and controlling mother and her lover. And he continues to murder, not as himself, but as his mother.

Hitchcock read a review of the book and was hooked. After he acquired the rights to "Psycho," he eventually turned to a young screenwriter named Joseph Stefano. It didn't hurt the Stefano himself was in Freudian analysis at the time. But there was a problem, the screenwriter didn't like how the novelist had portrayed Norman in his book - a middle-aged, pudgy, mama's boy obsessed with Nazis.

Mr. REBELLO: But Hitchcock floored him. He said, well, don't worry about that, dear boy. How would you feel if Norman were played by Anthony Perkins? Well, that was a whole other world. Perkins was in his late 20s, you know, good looking, elfin, strange. You know, he was groomed as the new James Dean, and that excited Stefano immediately. And he sort of looked at Hitchcock and he said, oh, now we're talking.

BRESLOW: Making the killer appealing is the key to the film, says Rebello, especially after Hitchcock confoundedly kills of his star, Janet Leigh as Marion Crane, so early in the movie. Perkins was a bit of a teen heartthrob at the time, but he also had experience playing intense character, including a baseball player who has a mental breakdown in the film "Fear Strikes Out."

We see this nervous energy early on in Psycho when Norman prepares an awkward dinner at the motel for soon to be dispatched Marion.

(Soundbite of movie "Psycho")

Mr. ANTHONY PERKINS (Actor): (As Norman Bates) You eat like a bird.

Ms. LEIGH: (As Marion Crane) And you'd know, of course.

Mr. PERKINS: (As Norman Bates) No, not really. Anyway, I hear the expression, eats like a bird, it's really a falsity because birds really eat a tremendous lot. But I don't really know anything about birds. My hobby is stuffing things, you know, taxidermy.

BRESLOW: Norman stammers and stutters were Tony Perkins' idea. So was having Norman pop pieces of candy corn in his mouth when he gets nervous. Obviously, Perkins had stepped into the role of his life.

Mr. RONALD BERGAN (Biographer; Author, "Anthony Perkins: A Haunted Life"): It's a weird coincidence that Stefano knew nothing about Tony Perkins' life. And yet, he wrote that Norman Bates had lost his father at 5, had a very domineering mother and that's exactly what happened to Tony Perkins.

BRESLOW: And there was at least one other confluence that made Perkins perfect for the part, says Ronald Bergan, author of "Anthony Perkins: A Haunted Life." Both men had hidden lives they wanted to keep secret - Norman as a serial killer and Perkins as a gay man in the 1950s.

Mr. BERGAN: And I think that fear of being discovered was a terrible fear for Tony Perkins, not only did he think that Norman Bates would destroy his career, but obviously, if he was exposed as a gay man and his life ended with the headlines in the papers saying, Norman Bates dies of AIDS.

BRESLOW: Perkins never did shake Norman. By the time he died in 1992, he had appeared in three, unremarkable sequels to "Psycho." But why can't we shake Norman Bates either?

(Soundbite of movie "Psycho")

Mr. SIMON OAKLAND (Actor): (As Dr. Fred Richmond): I know if anyone gets any answers, it'll be the psychiatrist.

BRESLOW: Dr. Justin Frank has a few notions. He's a psychiatrist who lectures on film. And he wouldn't mind getting Norman Bates on his couch as long as it was in a well-guarded institution.

Dr. JUSTIN FRANK (Psychoanalyst): I would probably work with his hatred of his mother and his rage of being abandoned. And then I would work very intensively with how every single session, at the end of each session he would probably feel like killing me because he can't stand to have anybody turn their back on him.

BRESLOW: The psychiatrist in the movie continues the analysis of Norman's split personality.

(Soundbite of movie "Psycho")

Mr. OAKLAND: (As Dr. Fred Richmond) I got the whole story, but nor for Norman. I got it from his mother. Norman Bates no longer exists, he only half-existed to begin with. And now, the other half has taken over, probably for all time.

Dr. FRANK: He's an interesting guy who essentially substitutes the pain of loss and grieving with becoming the other person. So one way to manage loss is you totally take on the characteristics and the behavior of the person who's dead. But I think that if you got him on an analytic couch, you will begin to see breakthroughs between those two partial people. I don't think he's irretrievably lost the way it was presented.

BRESLOW: Critics point to Norman Bates legacy in brainy, charming, psychotic killers like Hannibal Lecter in "Silence of the Lambs." Someone we'd maybe like to hang out with, except for the killing part. But it's just that killing part, says Justin Frank, that makes us love Norman Bates, at least up there on the movie screen.

Dr. FRANK: People are excited by people who don't just yell, kill the umpire, but actually do kill the umpire.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FRANK: And I think there's something about that that makes him enduring also.

BRESLOW: And for any holdouts in the audience, there's Alfred Hitchcock's final, brilliant scene. Norman, his personality now completely overtaken by his mother, sitting alone locked in a room at the county courthouse.

(Soundbite of movie "Psycho")

Ms. VIRGINIA GREGG (Voice Actress): (As Norma Bates) They're probably watching me. Well, let them. Let them see what kind of a person I am. I'm not even going to swat that fly. I hope they are watching. They'll see. They'll see and they'll know and they'll say, why, she wouldn't even harm a fly.

BRESLOW: Peter Breslow, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Maybe you can watch classic creepy moments from "Psycho" and join the conversation on our In Character blog at npr.org.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.