Psycho Path: Tracing Norman Bates' Twisted Trail Through Page and Screen Part 2
Welcome to the second installment of Psycho Path, a look at fictional madman Norman Bates from the Psycho franchise. Today we explore second chances.
Intended to run in five parts, Psycho Path will focus on each of Norman’s adventures – in novels, films, and television series – while examining each incarnation of the character and the differences amongst them.
Be sure to check out the first installment, First Impressions, here.
Part II: Second Chances
When we last left Norman Bates, on both the printed page and silver screen, he had just been locked away by the authorities – safe, but dominated by his “Mother” personality and well on his way to years of therapy in a state institution. Cut to over two decades later: Norman would once again find himself free, with the possibility of redemption for his past crimes. However, the choices made by each Norman (both literary and cinematic) would define and differentiate them more thoroughly than their previous outings.
”He knew now that he was Norman Bates, not his mother. He wasn’t crazy anymore.”
Years after the success of his novel (and especially the film version of that novel), Robert Bloch would revisit his most famous creation for Psycho II, an intense (if flawed) book that follows an escaped Norman Bates and the shrink who chases after him. It’s an interesting work, one that seems as unfilmable as the original novel must have before its adaptation. More surprising still is that Bloch makes Norman even more grotesque and unsympathetic in this novel than in the original, which is quite a bold approach considering that mainstream audiences would still have Anthony Perkins’ far more likable psychopath in mind due to Hitchcock’s incredibly popular film.
Over twenty years after the events of the original novel, Psycho II finds Norman Bates still in an institution, being cared for by concerned doctors - including one Doctor Adam Claiborne, Norman’s own personal psychiatrist. Norman has long since exorcised “Mother” from his mind, and is a model patient who acts as the asylum’s librarian. He still has his problems, of course, as his thoughts are typically scattershot and more than a little strange at times. And, deep down, there is still the instinct to kill and be free – an instinct which is acted upon during Psycho II’s first act.
When two visiting nuns arrive at the asylum on a charity mission, Norman sees his chance: After speaking at length to young, well-meaning Sister Barbara, a series of events leaves the two alone together for only a moment. And, sadly, a moment is all Norman needs. He murders the poor nun, then strips her and conceals himself beneath her habit (cross-dressing yet again). He manages to slip away with the older, quite unwitting Sister Cupertine and then murders her as well once they’re off the asylum’s grounds. And then… Norman has sex with the elderly nun’s corpse.
…you read that right. Bloch’s Norman murders a nun, then has sex with her corpse. Not only does the author seem to be disagreeing with the more sympathetic portrayal of Norman that Perkins, Stefano, and Hitchcock gave us, he seems to be attempting to destroy it outright with this novel. It’s a shocking moment, even for those familiar with the more disturbing Norman from the previous book, and one that reveals Bloch’s opinion for his creation: He is a madman, pure and simple. A dangerous psychopath. He is not to be liked or sympathized with.
After Norman escapes in the nuns’ van, the story shifts to Doctor Claiborne, who goes on the hunt for Norman out of a sense of duty and obligation to his patient and those he might hurt. He follows Norman’s trail to Fairvale (site of the original novel’s events), where he finds the freshly-murdered corpses of Sam and Lila Loomis (revenge killings to account for Norman’s incarceration years ago). It is at this murder scene that Claiborne discovers his next clue as to where Norman might be headed: a newspaper article reporting that a film is to be made about Norman’s exploits (titled, crassly enough, Crazy Lady). Claiborne heads to Hollywood, stays on Norman’s trail (and even catches the occasional glimpse of him), and becomes embroiled in the lives of those making Crazy Lady, including the sleazy producer who, for some bizarre reason, looks exactly like Norman.
It all eventually winds down to yet another twist ending (this is a Psycho tale, after all), with Claiborne revealed as SPOILER ALERT the true killer in Psycho II. As it turns out, Norman actually died in the van when he attempted to pick up a hitchhiker he couldn’t overpower, leading to a struggle that left Norman dead. Claiborne discovered this, and – his mind having been so closely linked with Norman’s for so long – he adopts Norman’s personality into his own mind. As Norman, Claiborne murdered Sam and Lila and attempted to shut down the production of Crazy Lady even as he was seeking Norman out, essentially chasing after himself. Claiborne is eventually committed to his own asylum, preserving Norman’s personality inside of himself much as Norman had preserved his own mother. Even the book’s final line manages to be an echo of the previous novel’s ending remark: Norman Bates will never die…
A shame that Bloch’s Norman wound up this way, considering that the novel’s setup allowed for a possible redemption for our favorite psychopath. With Mother gone, and Norman having experienced a catharsis of sorts, there was the possibility that Norman might have lived out his days peacefully in the asylum, working as a librarian and taking part in the occasional theatrical production put on by the patients and staff. Instead, at the first possibility of escape, Norman murders two nuns and attempts to murder a hitchhiker. Bloch’s Norman was never seeking redemption, only a release from his bonds. Mother or not, this Norman – the Norman of the page - was always meant to be evil.
"Oh, Norman. You're mad, don't you know that? You're as mad as a hatter."
Like his counterpart in print, the cinematic version of Norman Bates was kept in an institution for two decades as well - twenty-two years, to be precise. Unlike the Norman of the novels, Perkins’ version is released at the very beginning of director Richard Franklin’s Psycho II film (which shares a title with Bloch’s novel and nothing else). Having been found “restored to sanity” by his institution and the courts, Norman is freed and sent back to his old stomping grounds.
Jittery, easily frightened, but always well-meaning, this version of Norman never fails to elicit sympathy from viewers, as he attempts to simply live out the rest of his life in peace. Of course, this is an impossibility. Norman finds trouble wherever he goes, whether it be from the sleazy, belligerent manager running Norman’s motel in his absence, or with Lila Loomis (formerly Crane) hounding her sister’s murderer since the moment of his release. And of course, new murders begin to occur, carried out by a silhouette that looks quite like “Mother”.
Meanwhile, Norman manages to find a friend in Mary Samuels (a very good Meg Tilly), a young waitress Norman befriends and allows to stay in his home. The two strike up a curious friendship, with Mary aware of Norman’s past but being strangely forgiving of it. When Norman comes under suspicion for a couple of recent disappearances, Mary defends Norman and attempts to keep him calm, even as the tension begins to erode Norman’s tenuous grasp on his newfound sanity. This relationship leads to this writer’s favorite scene of the film, with Mary cradling Norman in her bedroom as he tells her about the toasted cheese sandwiches his mother used to make for him when he was ill, which was the only good memory of her not taken away by the psychiatrists who treated him. It’s in this scene that we realize that Norma Bates was perhaps not completely bad (at least not all the time) and that Norman desperately wants to retain his sanity even as it begins to drift away.
The film, one of the best sequels a horror film ever had, stays intense and engaging throughout, all the way until its inevitable ending: Norman, quite mad again, discovers that Mary was in fact Lila Loomis’ daughter. The two had been working together to destroy Norman’s sanity, until Mary began to genuinely care about him. Mary attempts to reach Norman even as he spirals out of control, until she discovers Lila’s body in his cellar (another of Mother’s victims) and attempts to kill Norman in retaliation. A police officer with impeccable timing arrives and guns Mary down, leaving the authorities and public at large to believe that Mary had committed the recent killings along with her mother.
The film winds up at a police station during its final moments, much like the original film, with the sheriff taking on the Doctor Richmond role from the previous film in trying to explain all of the events that had led to the bloodshed in Norman’s cellar (that Norman is free in this case, and that the sheriff gets everything wrong, are two distinct differences between the two denouements). And just when we think the film has reached its conclusion, a late night visitor appears to Norman at his home: a Mrs. Spool, Norman’s co-worker during his brief stint as a short order cook at a local diner when he was first released from the asylum. Mrs. Spool informs Norman that she is, in fact, his true mother. It seems as though she’d been committed to an asylum herself not long after his birth, with her sister Norma taking him in and raising him before he was even a year old. She’d attempted to make contact with him once he was free, only to discover the various people who were trying to unsettle and harm him. It was she who had murdered the various victims throughout Psycho II’s running time, all in an effort to protect “her little boy”.
Norman smiles, serves her tea as he listens to her tale, and – in one of the most shocking sequences in the entire franchise - clubs Mrs. Spool over the head with his trusty shovel (seriously, I think the filmmakers may have actually murdered the actress for this shot, the effect is so realistic). He picks up her corpse, then begins speaking in Mother’s voice as he places her in that familiar rocking chair in the window. The final shot is superb – Norman, restored to insanity, standing in near-silhouette with his looming mansion against the night sky.
And there we are: Bloch’s Norman is dead and gone, the victim of his own madness and murderous impulses, while the Perkins version of Norman is left alone to haunt his hill again, “mad as a hatter” even for all of his effort to be a good man and live a peaceful life. Redemption comes to neither man, though there is the feeling that it might still be possible for the cinematic Norman to one day atone and live free of all his demons. Just not any time soon…
And so ends this installment of Psycho Path. Join us next time for a look at Psycho III, featuring a still unhinged, yet oddly charming version of our favorite murderer, along with a brief glimpse at the failed 80s television pilot "Bates Motel."
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