Norman Bates and the Infinitesimal Uncanny

There’s something endlessly captivating about Anthony Perkins’ performance as Norman Bates, cinema’s seminal psychopath. His boyish goofiness is part of it. His tragic schism from the reality of his mother’s death is another. But I don’t think it’s completely out of left field (nor, I imagine, was it completely out of Robert Bloch’s mind when he created the character) to purport that the most darkly fascinating thing about Norman Bates is his ostensible normalcy. When detective Arbogast firsts encounters Norman, in the scene on which I’d like to focus, he is relaxedly reading on a porch chair, munching from a bag of candy. He is soft-spoken but friendly, conversational but uncontroversial, open-faced but un-foolish. Even his name, one letter away from being the word itself, is blandly normal.

And yet, something is off about him. I’ve always thought that Psycho has another film inside it, a more haunting and enigmatic one. In my own imaginary cut, we never get to see inside the Bates house. We never get the closure of discovering the full monstrosity and insanity of Norman’s life. All we get is the hints. This is because I have always believed that even forgetting the twist in the tail for a moment, Psycho paints a pretty grisly picture indeed. We suppose the dreadfulness that we are eventually allowed to see long before we see it. It is written all over Norman’s face.

Perkins’ characterization of Norman Bates, and indeed Hitchcock’s own treatment of him, bears the profound uneasiness of a picture hung slightly askew; the distinct mark of Freud’s definition of The Uncanny. He is not the outright ‘Other’ of Robin Wood’s horror theology… in fact he strives to be quite the opposite, one of us. But there’s a vague trace of ‘the Other’ in him, throughout all the film. Even if it is something as inconsequential as a stutter, we agree with Arbogast when he says, “this isn’t gelling.”

Hitchcock notices the uncanniness of Norman in this scene too: as Arbogast checks the registration book for Marion’s alias, the camera stays squarely on Norman, while he chews nervously. When the detective claims to have found it, Norman leans over to stage left, as if with curious interest, his neck craning at an odd angle to read the off-screen registration log. The camera faces him on more-or-less eye-level, but he is looking to the side and has tipped his head so far away from us that we are looking at the underside of his chin, as though from the ground. The angle of the camera in relation to Perkins’ face in this shot (2:33 in the video above) is quietly unsettling, and not one I’ve ever seen in any other film. There’s something, quite simply, wrong about it. The audience feels that.

Not that we need such big visual hints to feel it; there is so much infinitesimally uncanny about Norman Bates that we never really escape from it. His psychological trepidations, precursors to a disturbed mind, have already been established in his talk with Marion. In that scene, we are shown his stumbling over the word ‘falsity’, his downright inability to say the word ‘bathroom’ and his sinister, bitter reaction to Marion’s suggestions regarding his mother. Here, in his talk with the detective, we see yet another to add to the list, the fixation on changing the motel’s linen, fuelled by his hatred of the smell of dampness; “It’s such a… I don’t know, creepy smell.”

Possibly, Norman’s aversion to dampness belongs to the same sick school of pathology that has him unable to leave his mother: “She’d be all alone,” he has told Marion by this point. “The fire would go out. It would be damp and cold, like a grave.” So perhaps it comes down simply to his refusal to acknowledge his mother’s death, and the threat to that refusal brought on by things which remind him of death, like dampness, or bathrooms (the bathroom being not only the scene of Marion’s murder, but of his mother’s own).

But if this is the case, it is certainly of equal note and curiosity that Norman integrates all these complex and disturbed factors into his day-to-day life. He is able, despite all of it, to casually mention to Arbogast (a complete stranger) his dislike of dampness, and treat it with his routine of changing the linen; he lets his pyschopathy become a part of his normalcy. Serendipitously, I was considering how best to convey the sense of perverted normality shown in Psycho when I inadvertently stumbled upon it, perfectly articulated, in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre. Through the myth of the Werewolf, or the Beast Within the Man, King has this to say about Norman Bates:

To the observing world (or the small part of it that would care to observe the proprietor of a gone-to-seed backwater motel), Norman is as normal as they come… [c]ertainly Janet Leigh sees no reason to fear him in the closing moments of her life.

But Norman is the Werewolf…Psycho is effective because it brings the Werewolf myth home. It is not outside evil, predestination; the fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves. We know that Norman is only outwardly the Werewolf when he’s wearing Mom’s duds and speaking in Mom’s voice; but we have the uneasy suspicion that inside he’s the Werewolf all the time. (King 96)

I think it is this that captivates me the most about Norman Bates, Robert Bloch’s conception of him, Anthony Perkins’ portrayal of him and Alfred Hitchcock’s observations of him. He is the ultimate subversion of cultural ‘normality’, the sad madman who brought the whole ship of clean-shaven, well-spoken, nineteen-fifties-made American decency down. Is it wrong to suspect Norman of being, as King puts it, ‘the Werewolf’ when he offers Arbogast some candy on arrival? When he prepares dinner and shelter for Marion? When he abruptly supposes to Arbogast that he has “one of those faces you can’t help believing”, a foppish grin overrunning said face, pathetic in its lack of guile? Not at all – Norman Bates is never so scary as when you just can’t articulate what it is about him that’s so wrong.

Works Cited

  • King, Stephen . “Tales of the Tarot.” Danse Macabre. Warner Books: London. 1993. 65-100.
  • Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh. Shamley Productions, 1960. Universal Studios, 2003.
  • Wood, Robin. “The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s.” Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. Columbia University Press: New York. 1986. 70-94.

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~ by baileysmith on October 4, 2008.

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