The 60-Year Evolution of Psycho's Norman Bates

Wouldn’t even hurt a fly.
Wouldn’t even hurt a fly.
Screenshot: Paramount Pictures

When most people think of Psycho, they think of Alfred Hitchcock’s direction, Bernard Herrman’s shrieking score, and Anthony Perkins’ vulnerable yet terrifying performance as Norman Bates. They probably don’t immediately think “horror franchise,” but Psycho did turn into one over the years.

This year marks the 35th anniversary of Psycho III, which happens to be the entry directed by Perkins himself. So in honor of the horror classic and the somewhat diminishing rewards of its sequels, we’re taking a look back at the iconic character who’s been making movie lovers afraid to take a shower since 1960—and who certainly evolved a quite bit over the years.

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Psycho (1960)

Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel came first, but Norman Bates (Perkins) made his biggest and most lasting impression in Alfred Hitchcock’s acclaimed adaptation—still as suspenseful and shocking today as it was over 60 years ago. Norman enters the movie near the end of act one, his aw-shucks demeanor offering a deceptively calming mood shift for the frantic Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), who checks into the Bates Motel mid-flight after impulsively stealing $40,000 from her employer. Little does she know the young man who makes her a sandwich and rambles on just a little awkwardly about his controlling mother and his taxidermy hobby will end up sealing her doom.

Perkins’ boyish appearance—that’s candy corn Norman’s snacking on throughout—fakes out the audience too, although since we know Hitchcock is pulling the strings, we have a good idea early on that the little old lady sitting in the window of the Bates house isn’t quite what she seems. That last scene with the buzzing fly, when Norman has completely given himself over to “Mother,” yields one of the most chilling facial expressions cinema has ever captured.

Psycho II (1983)

Directed by Richard Franklin (Cloak & Dagger), Psycho II opens with a replay of Psycho’s most famous scene, as if anyone watching had forgotten about Marion’s fatal shower. Then we flash-forward to the present day to see Norman (a returning Perkins) being released from the institution where he’s been held the past two decades. His freedom goes against the strenuous objections of Marion’s sister (again Vera Miles), who identifies herself as “Lila Loomis” in a little bit of scriptwriting that fills in a big blank: clearly, Lila married the late Marion’s boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin in Psycho) sometime between the two films.

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You’d think sending Norman back to live in the house behind the Bates Motel (now under sleazy new management, courtesy of Dennis Franz) would be seen as an exceptionally bad idea, given all the traumatizing stuff that happened there. Norman and his doctor (Robert Loggia) both have misgivings—with good reason, as it turns out, because the past quickly comes back to haunt Norman when “Mother” starts reaching out from beyond the grave. Or does she? And if it’s not her—what kind of an asshole would try to turn a reformed Norman Bates psycho again?

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Written by horror regular Tom Holland (Child’s Play, Fright Night), Psycho II’s lively script is sprinkled with references and winks to the first film (anytime Norman gets near a knife, there might as well be a neon sign illuminated on screen making sure we notice). The supporting characters—including Meg Tilly as Mary, a down-on-her-luck young waitress at the diner where Norman starts working—are pretty one-note, even as Mary and Lila reveal a hidden agenda that Norman doesn’t pick up on until it’s too late.

Perkins, who brings layers of nervous yet deeply weary energy to his most famous role, is obviously the main attraction here. When he finally does the thing you’ve been waiting for him to do the entire movie (with a shovel this time, braining his homicidal aunt—who claims to be Norman’s real mother), he’s somehow still incredibly sympathetic.

Psycho III (1986)

Perkins himself directed this entry in the series, which opens with a woman screaming “THERE IS NO GOD” and never really pauses to take a breath after that. The story picks up in the aftermath of Psycho II, and we find Norman’s been coasting on the goodwill of the locals, who believe he’s owed a second chance after being targeted by Lila and Mary’s mindfuckery in the previous film. Little do the good people of dusty Fairvale, California know: the breakdown that Norman started having at the end of Psycho II is about to rise to a crescendo.

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“The past is never really past...it stays with me all the time,” Norman tells Tracy (Roberta Maxwell), a pushy journalist who’s taken an interest in his life story, and that observation becomes quite relevant when Maureen (Diana Scarwid), an ex-nun living with her own towering regrets, blows into town and immediately triggers Norman due to her resemblance to Marion Crane. Norman and Maureen spark a romance after he...rescues her from a suicide attempt in her Bates Motel room bathtub (cabin one, natch)...after creeping into her room dressed as Mother intent on stabbing her to death just like he did Marion.

Psycho III gets melodramatic (and somehow makes the riddle of just who, exactly, Norman’s birth mother really was even more confusing), but Norman almost gets a girlfriend out of it, and the weirder the story gets, Perkins’ performance gets exponentially more unhinged but also full of surprises. The scene where the sheriff almost discovers a body stashed in the Bates Motel ice cooler while Norman looks on with giddy horror is pitch-black comedy gold.

Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990)

This made-for-TV sequel, directed by horror veteran Mick Garris and written by Joseph Stefano (who also penned the original adaptation), is really more of a prequel as the title suggests, though we do get Perkins as part of the frame story. Psycho IV follows along as an increasingly jittery Norman calls into a talk radio show (hosted by a chain-smoking CCH Pounder) to weigh in on the subject of matricide. Through his storytelling we see his formative years play out in flashback, with Henry Thomas (eight years post-E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) playing teen Norman and Olivia Hussey as his cruel and abusive (yet also inappropriately seductive at times) mother—and we get a glimpse of Norman’s increasingly dangerous present mindset.

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He’s actually been living a relatively normal life with his wife—a doctor he met during his hospital stay—but is edging closer to the old Norman on the occasion of his birthday and his mounting fear that his pregnant wife will give birth to a Bates who carries on the stab-happy family tradition. It’s an interesting enough approach to the story, but it suffers from the fact that the flashback structure (and the fact that we know Norman’s life story pretty well already) robs the film of any tension whatsoever. Perkins is fine but most of his performance is literally phoned in, which is hardly the most thrilling way to spend time with him.


Bates Without Perkins

The way they were...
The way they were...
Screenshot: Warner Bros. Television Distribution
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Bates Motel (1987)

Psycho IV: The Beginning wasn’t actually the first time Norman Bates was played by an actor other than Perkins. That honor goes to Bates Motel—not the TV series, which we’ll talk about in a moment, but a surprisingly sentimental 1987 made-for-TV movie apparently intended to kick off a series that never materialized. It steps outside of the continuity of the two Psycho sequels that preceded it (and retcons a thing or two from the 1960 original), imagining that while institutionalized after the events of the first film, Norman (played by Kurt Paul in flashbacks and still photographs) befriended a fellow patient named Alex, a scared little kid who’d killed his own abusive father.

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As we’re told in a sappy voice-over by one of the facility’s doctors, Norman became a father figure to Alex—forming “an extraordinary relationship” that lasted over 27 years, until Norman’s death. After we sit through Norman’s funeral, we find out he left the motel to Alex (played by Bud Cort as an adult), who’s about to be released into a world (clutching an urn holding Norman’s ashes!) he’s not really prepared to face. While Norman’s troubled legacy inevitably filters into Alex’s story once he starts running the Bates Motel—there’s a Scooby Doo plot, plus some actual ghosts for good measure—Psycho’s redeemed killer looms over everything with a benevolent spirit unseen in any other portrayal of the character so far.

Psycho (1998)

Hey, remember when Gus Van Sant did a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho? On paper, an interesting experiment. Once committed to film...it felt like a novelty until the whole “Ok, this is entirely excessive and unnecessary” vibe started taking over. Vince Vaughn plays Norman; he’s more physically imposing than Perkins but the rest of the performance (like the movie itself) is basically an elaborate homage sprinkled with a few awkward little additions.

Bates Motel (2013-2017)

Bates Motel ran for five seasons on A&E, styled as a prequel to the original movie but set in a Twin Peaks-y coastal Oregon town, circa the present day. The series cleverly put its own spin on the source material, boasting an outstanding cast—especially Freddy Highmore as the quietly spiraling young Norman and The Conjurings Vera Farmiga as his fierce mother, Norma. Altogether, it helped the show come into its own (including fashioning an entirely new ending to the Psycho storyline, which arrived in season five) while always staying respectful to the original material. Psycho II has its charms, but if you hunger for a fresh, nuanced take on Norman after watching the original film, it’s hard to beat Bates Motel’s creative approach to the never-boring Bates family.

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Where will we meet Norman next? Though no new Psycho projects appear to be in the works currently, it seems like only a matter of time before some intrepid creator comes up with a new way to fire up that neon sign above the Bates Motel. And presumably, if the events of Psycho IV are to be believed, there’s a new generation of Bates offspring running around out there...

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DISCUSSION

I always thought that the scene when Norman pushes the car into the swamp was sublime - I believe it’s the point in the movie where Hitchcock knew he had you because you were concerned about Norman Bates.