The Real Psycho Behind Norman Bates

The classic 1960 horror film Psycho has chilling origins. The movie was famously directed by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock who earned an Academy Award nomination for his work. As it turns out, the main character of the movie, vicious serial killer Norman Bates, was based on a real serial killer. Robert Bloch created the fictional character in his 1959 novel Psycho, but Alfred Hitchcock brought him to life in the movie.

Freddie Highmore, Anthony Perkins / Alfred Hitchcock / Ed Gein / Freddie Highmore, Vera Farmiga.
Source: Getty Images

Psycho is widely considered one of the first films in the slasher genre. The movie is about Marion Crane, a secretary who comes across Norman Bates after staying in his family’s motel.

First Film in the Slasher Genre

After stealing a lot of money, Marion was in a rush to meet her boyfriend. While staying at the hotel, Marion was stabbed in the shower in one of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history. Norman then cleaned up the crime scene and got rid of Marion’s body as well as any additional evidence.

Vera Miles stars as Lila Crane in a still from the movie Psycho.
Vera Miles. Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images

It was later revealed that the killer was Norman who was suffering from a multiple personality disorder. He kept the corpse of his dead mother and spoke to her as if she were still alive. Norman also pretended to be his mother and claimed that she encouraged him to kill women that he was attracted to.

Real-Life Psycho Ed Gein

Evil, cold-blooded serial killer Ed Gein went on to inspire more than what anyone could have imagined. In 1959, Robert Bloch captivated the world with his book “Psycho.” Yes, the same “Psycho” which Alfred Hitchcock’s famous horror film of the same name is based on. Although Hitchcock was inspired by Bloch’s novel, the author was inspired by the true story of Ed Gein, a psychotic body snatcher, killer, and grave robber who lived a double life.

Ed Gein is escorted from the Wisconsin State Crime Laboratory to the county jail.
Ed Gein. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Norman Bates is the main and fictional character in Hitchcock’s movie, and has eerily similar psychopathic tendencies to Ed Gein. They both had a very complicated and concerning relationship with their possessive and manipulative mothers, although they still love them.

His Mother Was the Villain

By the end of the movie, his smothering mother ends up as a victim of Norman’s loneliness and jealously. But in real life, Gein’s mother was the villain who prevented him from developing meaningful relationships with anyone, especially woman.

Vintage portrait from Ed Gein's mother.
Augusta Wilhelmine Gein. Source: Tumblr

Gein’s mother Augusta was responsible for supporting the family while taking care of her two sons because her husband was an alcoholic. She ran a small grocery store and bought a farm in an isolated part of Wisconsin. The only time the boys left the house was to go to school. Their mother discouraged them from making friends at school, and the isolated farm prevented them from socializing with outsiders.

All Women Are Evil

Augusta, a radical Lutheran, made it a priority to read parts of the Bible to her sons every single day. She taught them that the world was inherently evil, that all women (including herself) were prostitutes, that alcohol was a drink of the devil, and the only time sex was acceptable was for reproduction.

Female hands are holding the Holy Bible.
Photo by Bromberger Hoover Photo/Getty Images

After their mother died, Ed and his brother stayed on the farm. Then, when Ed was 38, he was suspected of killing his brother, but there wasn’t enough evidence. Ed Gein also became an avid reader of strange literature on cannibalism, death-cult magazines, headhunting, and Nazi stories.

A Chilling Sight

In 1957, a local hardware store owner named Bernice Worden disappeared, and all clues led police to Ed Gein’s home. However, when they got to the farm no one was prepared for what they found. Gein’s home was filled with human body parts.

Outside view of Ed Gein’s house / Old portrait of Bernice Worden
Bernice Worden. Photo by Bettmann, Getty Images

He used bones to make kitchen utensils, among other things. There were skulls impaled in his bed posts. Among some of the most disturbing furniture in the world, was a lamp that Gein created himself out of human skin. There was also matching chairs that were stuffed with human skin and a few garments made from the same gruesome “fabric.”

His Furniture Was… One-of-a-Kind

Police also found dismembered body parts lying around the house, including fingernails, four noses, and the genitals of nine different women. Just like Norman Bates, Ed Gein kept a sealed-off room as a shrine to his dear old mom and enjoyed wearing his mother’s clothing.

A policeman examines the junk-littered kitchen in Ed Gein's farmhouse.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

If that wasn’t disturbing enough, he also told police that his main motive was to create a “woman suit” so that he could essentially become his mother and crawl into her skin. But unlike Norman Bates, Gein wasn’t considered nor convicted as a serial killer.

But Norman Bates Was a Killer

Norman Bates killed about 20 victims; Gein only confessed to two murders and was only found guilty of those two, including Bernice Worden who was found decapitated. He also confessed to exhuming dozens of bodies from several different graveyards and landed the nickname “The Mad Bitcher of Plainfield.”

Anthony Perkins' silhouette holds a knife in a still from the movie Psycho.
Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images

So, Gene was ultimately charged with desecration of graves, defiling corpses, and body snatching. In 1968, 11 years after Gein was apprehended, he was found not guilty due to legal insanity and was sent to psychiatric institutions. In 1984, he died at the Mendota Mental Health Institute at age 77.

Mommy Dearest

In the movie Psycho, Norma Bates is dead. However, there is no doubt about her influence on Normal when we see him put on his mother’s clothes and adopt her personality. Without Norma, Norman wouldn’t have turned out the way he did in Psycho.

Norma and Norman are dressed in matching robes, looking at their reflection in the mirror.
Vera Farmiga, Freddie Highmore. Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Universal Pictures

Through Vera Farmiga’s incredible performance, motherly love is portrayed as compassionate, overprotective, obsessive, neurotic, and a little sexual all at the same time. In the show, Bates Motel, we see a determined woman, willing to do anything to help her son: from signing him up for a musical to helping him cover up a murder.

Built Up Secrets and Guilt

As we know from the Season Two finale, Norman did indeed kill Ms. Watson. Norma on the hand seems intent on keeping these events repressed and having Norman ignore them until they go away. She told her traumatized son to just “eat your pot roast, honey,” acting as if nothing happened.

Bates Motel publicity still featuring Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore talking behind a couch.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Universal Pictures

From what we know about horror, suspense, and storytelling in general, keeping your secrets buried inside your subconscious never ends well. The series often hints at their relationship reaching concerning, incestuous levels, particularly evidenced in their mutual jealously of the other’s romantic pursuits.

Toxic Jealousy

Norma sees Bradley Martin, her son’s first crush, as a threat, while expressing her disapproval of Cody Brennan from Season Two. But it goes both ways. Norman didn’t like the men his mother dates like Deputy Zach Shelby (which is understandable given his penchant for sex slaves) and former lawyer George Heldens.

Norma is going on a date while Norman wears a disapproving expression on his face in a still from the show.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Universal Pictures

Since this is a prequel, by the time of the film, Norman would have murdered his mother and her lover after trying to replace him. The series was content to have Norman hide his contempt for his mother and her romantic interests with a smile.

Their Relationship Is Uncomfortable

Meanwhile, the writers weren’t scared to tackle their unsettling sexual tension. The two share a sweet but borderline creepy dance together, where they gaze into each other’s eyes lovingly. They even locked lips in the Season Two finale. But the show did a good job depicting it.

Norman and Norma are standing close as they gaze through the window.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Universal Pictures

It seems as though Norma kisses her son out of pure motherly affection, but the mouth-to-mouth lingered a little too long. As for taking on Norma’s personality, Bates Motel also dropped hints about Norman’s attachment to his mother and how invested he is in her life. It’s clear when she tells him that her brother Caleb sexually abused her.

Mommy’s Always Here

Although she is pretty set on keeping her son sheltered from the dangers of the world, she starts confiding in him like a mutual partner. This all culminates in a chilling episode called “Check Out.” When Norman confronts Caleb in a motel room, his voice changes and his eyes go dark as he slips into his “mother” persona, scolding his uncle for “raping me, your younger sister.”

Norma holds Norman as they stare at their reflections.
Source: Instagram /@_batesmotel_

By the episode “Box” the writers throw in a twist about Norman taking over Norma’s personality. While he is trapped in a box, he dreams about his mother telling him, “I’m always with you. Everybody’s mother lives inside them. If you’re ever worried about something, just hear my voice saying it’s gonna be okay.”

Solidifying Their Unbreakable Bond

In the finale, “The Immutable Truth,” their unbreakable bond is evident. “I will die if you leave. I will, I’ll die, Norman,” Norma tells her son. “We’re like the same person.” Once we reach the part with the suspenseful polygraph test, Norman manages to dissociate himself from the crime of killing Blaire Watson, while he was in the mother persona. His mind reassures him that she was the one who did it.

Norma holds her son's arm as he sits in a polygraph test.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Universal Pictures

In the meantime, the show adds a little foreshadowing about the Norma-Norman merger. In the episode “Presumed Innocent,” someone in the Bates home is making eggs wearing a flower print apron. We assume it’s Norma until the camera pans up and shows us that it’s Norman.

Motherly Love?

At the same time, the series adds an element of conflict to Norma and Norman’s relationship, in order to sustain its long television run. In this story, the characters are doomed to a fate we all know is coming. However, it doesn’t diminish our investment in the journey.

Norman is sitting close to his mother in a room at Bates' motel.
Source: Instagram /@batesmotelofficial

Norma tries to protect her son from the truth about his blackouts by keeping significant information from him. During that time, Norman also begins to understand his mother’s manipulative behavior, even saying, “Oh, I see. The anger didn’t work. Now the tears.” Although there is a component of a strange intimate relationship, the obstacles the mother and son go through make for a fascinating television series.

The Other Son

Finding out that Norman has a half-brother named Dylan Masset seemed like a random addition to the Norma-Norman dynamic. But that’s the exact reason Dylan was such a compelling character on the show. Dylan cannot understand the creepily close relationship between Norma and Norman.

Freddie Highmore and Max Thrieriot are standing on the set of Bates Motel.
Source: Instagram /@batesmotel

Although he is Norma’s first son, Dylan feels like an outsider as the product of his mom’s brother raping her. He is also a threat to their seemingly picture-perfect relationship. We can actually understand how protective Norman is of his mother through the conflict that Dylan brings. For example, when Dylan referred to Norma as a wh*re, Norman attacks him.

Mommy Issues

Dylan comes with a drug storyline that seems irrelevant at times. However, it serves as a foil for Norman. Dylan certainly has mommy issues of his own thanks to Norma, but unlike Norman’s, they stem from neglect rather than overprotection. Two completely opposite extremes.

Still Max Thrieriot in an outdoors still of the television series.
Source: Instagram /@batesmotel

In spite of his own issues, Dylan appears as the more well-adjusted brother. He seems levelheaded, loyal, and even tries to help Norman escape Norma in Season One, asking his little brother to move in with him. He just wanted to make sure Norman was safe.

Brotherly Bond

As we can see, Dylan loves and protects Norman in a much different way than Norma does and a lot less psychologically damaging. In a conversation that marks the temporary return of sanity in Norman’s world, Dylan says, “Can I give you some advice? You gotta cut that shit out. ‘Mother?’ It’s just weird… what she’s doing to you, it’s not healthy. She’s smothering you. There’s a whole world out there. You need some perspective.”

The two brothers are sitting and laughing on the couch.
Source: Instagram /@batesmotel

Drama and irony run through the entirety of Bates Motel since Norman’s fate is sealed; we already know where his turbulent journey ends.

Too Smothering

However, that doesn’t mean Dylan is perfect by any means. Don’t forget that he reluctantly became the head of a drug empire by the end of Season Two, which adds another perspective to Norma’s suffocating presence.

Norma is talking to Norman as Dylan stands behind, staring.
Source: Instagram /@batesmotel

Furthermore, Dylan brings more complexity to Norman Bates. Norman listened to Dylan and values his advice; unfortunately, he still chose his mother at the end of the day. Similarly, Ed Gein may have turned out differently if it weren’t for his mother.

Nature vs. Nurture

Although, the extent of Norman’s dissociative identity disorder requires a sense of disbelief, the series does a beautiful job presenting the events that could potentially create a psycho. But the “nature vs. nurture” debates get into some gray areas as the show begins with a somewhat broken Norman since he, you know, blacked out and murdered his father.

Norman hides his face with his hand.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Universal Pictures

The movie Psycho seems to put blame on the mother, but Vera Farmiga’s portrayal in Bates Motel generates a great amount of sympathy. She’s not the mean, domineering woman the film makes her out to be. Don’t get me wrong, Norma certainly has an unhealthy grasp on her son, but she also recognizes the warning signs of a killer and tries to stop them but is unsuccessful.

Psycho Blamed the Mom

Although he has killed before, Norman isn’t completely a product of his environment. However, one cannot deny the influence of the town on a pubescent teenager who is already mentally ill. Norman is surrounded by death and corruption in a place where drug cartels and sex trades run rampant.

Norman drinks tea dressed in Norma's clothes.
Freddie Highmore. Source: Instagram /@thebatesmotel

He witnessed his mother kill her would-be rapist and helped her hide the body, he killed her teacher, killed an abusive father by pushing him down the stairs, and was kidnapped and trapped in a box by drug lords. That’s so traumatizing! That’s one way to mess a person up.

Traumatized Child

But that’s just the tip of the Freudian iceberg. We know television has a surprisingly high tolerance for traumatic events, Bates Motel depicts the aftermath and psychological consequences. It’s no coincidence that Norman finds a level of comfort in death. This is strongly indicated with his taxidermy hobby.

Norman is hypnotized by a dead dog.
Source: Instagram /@thebatesmotel

When the stray dog Norman finds gets run over by a car, Norman is heartbroken and turns to his morbid project of stuffing its body as a coping mechanism. The show does a brilliant job integrating this aspect on Norman’s character into the storyline.

Possible Serial Killer Tendencies?

Norma expressed concern about her son’s unconventional recreational activities. So, what does she suggest instead? A mother-son musical. However, Norman upsets Norma by moving his stuffed birds into the living room.

Norma's reflection in the mirror has a worried expression on her face.
Vera Farmiga. Source: Instagram /@thebatesmotel

By the time we reach the events of Psycho, the same owls and sparrows would get worn out and dusty. As the series continues, certain psychological developments will likewise become permanent features. What do you think about the age old “nature vs. nurture” debate? Do you think that Norman’s murderous behaviors could have been prevented with a different upbringing? Or was he born this way?

Freddie Highmore’s Performance

Without Freddie Highmore, Bates Motel wouldn’t be the show we all know and love. We can’t picture anyone else playing the role. The English actor had trouble perfecting his American accent in earlier episodes, but by Season Two he stepped up his game and sounded like a true American.

Portrait of Freddie Highmore as Norman in a publicity shot.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Universal Television

Freddie Highmore channels many aspects from Anthony Perkins’s performance, taking on his strange mannerisms, stiffness, and disturbing stare. Like Perkin’s rendition, Norman has that kind sincerity making you want to root for him – if you could get past the murdering, of course.

Becoming the Character

Most of the time, Norman is harmless, though a little standoffish. A similar phenomenon can be found in the main character of Hannibal – another serial killer prequel. Although we are well aware that Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter is a killer, showrunner Bryan Fuller depicts the character as empathetic, charming, affectionate and intelligent early on.

Original Norman stands pressed up to the wall/ Modern Norman against the wall.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com, Copyright: Universal Pictures / Moviestilssdb.com, Copyright: Universal Television

During an interview with The Independent, Freddie Highmore said, “There was never any attempt to mimic Anthony Perkins’s performance, but you take things from his quirks and traits and try to use them.”

The Iconic Psycho Stare

The actor was asked about the iconic stare at the end of Psycho and explained, “Lots of people have mentioned that stare to me… I guess you come up with ideas and practice. There’s a danger of doing too much too soon though. It’s tempting when you have a story about Norman and his mother to have him dressing up in her clothes in the first episode, but it’s more delicious to see that take place subtly and over time.”

Anthony Perkins impersonates the iconic psycho stare sitting on a chair.
Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild/Getty Images

Honestly, the creators and writers were all committed to the journey. After everything Norman has done and gone through, the eerie, final shot of “The Immutable Truth” feels earned.

The Line Between Sanity and Insanity

Highmore’s performance conveys Norman’s instability beautifully, even in understated moments. After Emma Decody gets worried and informs Norma about her son’s blackouts, Norman’s reaction to her apology is an eerie mix of passive-aggressive and disturbing. With a blank smile, he says, “Yeah, I mean I can’t ever trust you again. But I’m not mad.”

Freddie Highmore / Anthony Parkins
Source: Instagram /@thebatesmotel

Knowing that Norman could snap at any moment is something the show emphasizes, and Highmore captures the instable verge between sanity and insanity brilliantly. As a result, kitchen fights and staircase confrontations between Norma and Norman are intensely captivating and each utterance of the word “Mother” gives you the chills.

Just Acting Like a Teenager

Since Bates Motel tells Norman’s story from his teenage years. Highmore fuels his performance with the instability of adolescence. When Norman slams the door and rolls his eyes at his mother, it looks like he’s your average rebellious teenager… until you factor in all the people he has killed.

Norman is scared, locked inside a box.
Source: Moviestilldb.com/ Copyright: Universal Television

Still, Norman remains sympathetic. Finding out that he killed Miss Watson was a world-shattering moment for Norman, intensified by the fact that he was locked up in a tiny box for days. He cries to his mother, “There’s something wrong with me. I’m bad.”

A Guilty Conscience

All the reparations Norman plans to make before his suicide is devastating, but Freddie Highmore succeeds in portraying Norman as a kid who really wants to make amends. In the polygraph test, he is consumed with guilt for his crimes.

Norman sits wrapped in a blanket staring with an iconic psychotic look.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Universal Television

With each one of his answers, his upper lip curls into a smirk mixed with anger, fear, and sadness. Playing a person with dissociative identity disorder is no easy feat but Highmore made it look effortless. He is skilled at conveying a wide spectrum of emotions. We can see his skills continue as he portrays a surgical resident with autism in The Good Doctor.

Why He Is Psycho

Before the Bates Motel premiere, many Psycho fans questioned its necessity. I mean, the legendary Alfred Hitchcock directed Psycho and the series seemed to be struggling with what Harold Bloom calls the anxiety of influence – a fear that the artistic processor will limit its successor. But after watching the first season, the purpose of the show becomes exceedingly clear.

Portrait of Harold Bloom.
Photo by Mark Mainz/Getty Images

While Psycho intrigued viewers with what happened, Bates Motel creates suspense and thrills with the how and why. The prequel takes us through a roller coaster into his psyche to try to understand why Norman is the way he is.

Alfred Hitchcock Financed Psycho

In order to get the film rights to Robert Bloch’s book, Alfred Hitchcock paid $9,000. He purchased it solely because he read a positive review about it in The New York Times. He also made the bid anonymously because he wanted to keep the project on the downlow for as long as possible.

Alfred Hitchcock is holding up a clapperboard on the movie set.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Paramount had all sorts of doubts when it came to the project, so Hitchcock paid for the film out of his own pocket and waive his director’s fee (which was a lot), as he got 60 percent ownership of the movie. The uncommon arrangement ended up making Hitchcock a hefty salary. Plus, Psycho doesn’t even belong to Paramount anymore. Universal has owned it since 1986. (Rooky mistake Paramount!)

Spoiler Alert

Hitchcock was so set on keeping the details a secret that he didn’t tell anyone anything, other than the actors, of course. But on the first day of filming, the director made the entire cast hold up their right hand and swear that they would not leak any information about the film to a single soul. But that doesn’t mean he told them everything. Hitchcock didn’t tell them how the movie ends until it was time to film the ending.

Alfred Hitchcock is making a silent sign.
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Although Hitchcock went to great lengths to keep the project a secret, both Variety and The Hollywood Reporter published very thorough spoilers about Psycho months before the movie was released.

Hitchcock Wouldn’t Screen Psycho Before Its Release

The aforementioned media beach made Hitchcock go to extreme measures to guard the film’s plot and, more importantly, the ending. He wouldn’t release any stills from the movie’s main scenes and refused to let critics see the movie ahead of time – that might explain some of the film’s less-than-stellar reviews in its opening weekend. But now it’s safe to say, Hitchcock got the last laugh.

Alfred Hitchcock frames a shot with his hands in the dark.
Photo by Tony Evans/Timelapse Library Ltd./Getty Images

As we know, Psycho has become a phenomenon and a classic horror film that introduced Norman Bates to the big screen and inspired the future of the horror genre.

Late Moviegoers Weren’t Allowed In

At the beginning of the movie, the audience is informed that the film opens on December 11, which is only because some of the second unit shots contain visible Christmas decorations. You’ll notice them in the scene where Marion hightails it out of Phoenix.

Alfred Hitchcock is standing before a poster of him.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

As we mentioned several times, Hitchcock was intent on keeping Psycho under wraps until the last possible moment. He also told theaters not to allow anyone to walk into the theater if they showed up late, and they complied.

The First Movie to Show a Toilet

Believe it or not, back in the day bathrooms were considered inappropriate to show in screen, but Hitchcock broke all boundaries. Not only was Psycho the first American film to feature a toilet on screen, it’s also the first time we hear a toilet being flushed in a movie.

Janet Leigh in a movie still at the shower.
Janet Leigh. Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images

Fun fact: Even when The Brady Bunch aired, the toilet in the family friendly show is never seen. It’s interesting because they do feature a bathroom, but we never see a toilet. Goes to show how repressed Americans were in the 1950s.

Hitchcock Makes a Cameo

Norma Bates’s dialogue was recorded by no less than three actresses. Then, their recordings were mixed together until Hitchcock found the perfect tone of voice for each particular scene.

Alfred Hitchcock is directing Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho.
Alfred Hitchcock, Janet Leigh. Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images

The Master of Suspense was famous for making a cameo in each of his movies and Psycho was certainly no exception. A little over six minutes into the film, you’ll notice a gentleman standing outside the office building. Yep, that’s Alfred Hitchcock in the cowboy hat! It’s always fun trying to find the director in each of his films. It’s like playing Where’s Waldo.

Rated R!

In 1984, years after Psycho was released, the film was given an R rating by MPAA. Yes, a movie that came out in the 1960s now is now rated R, despite the fact that the MPAA rating system didn’t even exist until 1968. But they do like to re-rate older films once in a while.

Vera Miles, John Gavin, and Janet Leigh are cowering beneath the shadow of a rocking chair.
Vera Miles, John Gavin, Janet Leigh. Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images

Not only did the talented title artist Saul Bass create the opening credits sequence for the film, but he also helped the storyboard department – most notably, for the legendary shower sequence. It’s safe to say his fingerprints are all over Psycho and truly helped make the film what it is now.

Hitchcock’s Last Oscar Nomination Was for Psycho

Financially speaking, Psycho was Alfred Hitchcock’s most successful film. It earned a whopping $32 million at the North American box office during its first theatrical release with a production budget of $807,000.

Alfred Hitchcock waves to the crowds upon his arrival at the Academy Awards.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Psycho also marked the fifth and last time Alfred Hitchcock landed an Oscar nomination for Best Director. (In 1968, the Academy gave him the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award). So, basically, the most legendary movie director never won an Oscar for directing! I’ll give you a minute to let that sink in.