BY IRENE KARRAS
Role in the Horror Community: Evil Matriarch, original Smother-Mother, and deadly alternate personality
Claim to fame: In the original Psycho, Norma is mummy to her off-kilter son Norman, who murdered her in a fit of jealous rage and preserved her body. Whenever Norman starts feeling a little something-something for a petty lady, he becomes Norma, dressing like her, speaking to himself in her voice, assuming her personality and eventually murdering the unsuspecting young female with a kitchen knife.
Over the course of the film, we learn that after Norma’s husband died, she power-tripped a bit on Norman, raising him to believe that sex is evil and every other woman is a whore. Norma is the Jewish-mother stereotype on speed–jealous and manipulative, actively creating a monstrous little Oedipus. She and Norman have murdered their way through four films in the original series, one remake and a couple of TV incarnations.
Weapon of choice: Guilt, shame, psychological manipulation–in other words, all the weapons in the mommy arsenal. Oh, and a kitchen knife.
Why she’s bloody brilliant: Though it’s hard to defend this bad a parent, Norma is slightly redeemed by the back-story in her current incarnation on the prequel-TV show Bates Motel. We learn that she is protecting Norman from remembering that he murdered his own father because he beat Norma. Oh, Norma and Norman also kill Norma’s rapist and cover it up. They’re a weird team against stereotypical male violence, but Norma genuinely seems to be trying her best to take care of her odd little boy.
The original Norma is the repository of sexist fears of maternal emasculation of men. In 1960, when Psycho came out, Norman’s assuming female dress and characteristics would have been far more metaphorical and uncomfortable for viewers than it would be today. Maternal influence was also the most popular–and often only–explanation for deviant behavior. We experience Norma only through Norman, not as an individual with her own motivations. The original film defends misogyny and homophobia–or at least disdain for any male assumption of traditionally feminine qualities–as the only sure route to sanity. Gender identities are fixed and defended. Mess with them and you get, well, a psycho.
The Norma of the current Bates Hotel is more fully-fleshed out, since she’s still alive, and the viewer experiences her as pretty screwed-up, still laying the guilt on thickly, but in some ways as influenced by Norman as he is by her. She is strong, capable of getting herself out of complex situations and more than willing to carve her own path. Norman is a more active agent in his own mommy-melodrama. The responsibility for their twisted relationship is shared, not quite so one-sided. She’s still not going to win any mother-of-the-year awards, but there’s a little more room in the born-or-made discussion. Gender identities are not quite as fixed, and it’s less fear of female power that seems to be driving this Norman than just the way his brain happens to work.
And Vera Farmiga is awesome, making Norma complicated and interesting, not just the Bad Mother caricature we’ve come to expect.
Irene Karras is a Calgary-based communications consultant and freelance writer with a fondness for 1950s Greek melodramas, 1980s coming of age movies, weird Canadian films, and, by necessity, PG movies. She blogs at misplacedmysassy.wordpress.com and tweets @irene_karras.