Navigating Norman: The Serial Killer Monster as Meaning Machine

W. Scott Poole quotes Judith Halberstam, who calls the monster a “meaning machine.”  This observation seems to suggest that the monster is always overdetermined – that the monstrous body in a particular work can mean a variety of things in any given time and place.  Poole agrees with Halberstam when he argues: “The subject of monsters contains too much meaning” and goes on to observe that “the very messiness of the monster makes it a perfect entry into understanding the messiness of American history” (xv).  In Monster Theory, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen lays out the seven theses of the monster, and his first theses is that “the monster body is a cultural body” (4).  Cohen also believes that we can read the monster, but the monster’s meaning always has a basis in the culture that surrounds it.  While Poole asserts that monsters are indisputably real—created by material circumstances and producing material consequences – Calafell, who bases her readings heavily on Poole and Cohen, find the monster a useful metaphor for describing problematic identity relations in the United States; she seems to embrace both a metaphorical reading of the monster and the contention that monsters can be very real, at times.

                With this brief theoretical lens in mind, I want to take some time to analyze Norman Bates in Robert Bloch’s text Psycho.  I finished reading the novel awhile ago, but I’ve delayed this task because it seems daunting.  As I prepare for the dreaded comp exam, I’m trying to get in the habit of integrating my research into my writing, but after a semester of focusing predominantly on teaching, I’m a little rusty.  In any case, I’d like to examine how Norman Bates aligns or deviates from typical views of the monster, what his monstrous body represents, and what he tells us about depictions of madness as a monstrosity.  Like Calafell, I currently rest most heavily on Cohen’s contention that the monster is “pure culture” (4) along with Poole’s strategy of reading the monster by situating it in a socio-historical context and examining what events and sentiments in America, at a given time period, led to the construction of any given (American) monster.  Notably, most of the research I have on Psycho is on the movie, so I’ll have to make distinctions between the movie and the book when relevant.  In some ways, I think the book Norman is very like the film Norman; in other ways, he’s quite different.

                Poole, like most other commentators on the movie Psycho—which was produced only a year after the book was published – saw the film as cinematically groundbreaking, despite its controversy at the time of release (142).  To Poole, Norman Bates helped move America into a new era of monstrosity: the era of the serial killer.  Poole observes: “Norman Bates became a representation of a new American monster.  The end of the 20th century belonged to the murdering maniac, a creature not born from the supernatural shadows or cobbled together in a lab, but coming to deadly life in the midst of American family structures” (142).  To Poole, the murdering maniac, or the serial killer, is its own brand of monstrosity, and one that signals various anxieties.  Poole describes books about the serial killer that came later, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and notes that the books “often portrayed the serial killer as a monster who threatened not only the lives, but also the values, of middle-class Americans” (149). 

                Norman is undoubtedly a “murdering maniac” – in the book he is ultimately blamed for the death of his mother and her lover, along with Marion Crane and the detective who stays at the Bates Motel to investigate the case.  His purported, Freudian, Oedipal fixation with his mother and his decision to poison her and her lover seems to exhibit cultural anxieties about the stability and wholesomeness of the then-modern American family.  As divorces became more prevalent and families split, Americans, who were a generally anxious lot at this time (Poole says Americans took more than one billion tranquilizers annually in the 1950s) became more anxious about the stability of the family unit.  Couple this with Freud’s read on the family at the beginning of the century, a perception that was still popular in the mid 1950’s, and you have a sort of suspicious, convoluted notion of the American family.

 Worland, after all, notes that Psycho contains an “image of monstrosity gestating in the nuclear family” (21). I would contend that Norman is a monster that both represents and threatens; he represents latent American anxieties that family bonds are not as “normative” or stable as they should be, while simultaneously threatening those very bonds by existing on the borders of society, living a grotesquely unusual life with his dead mother in a Victorian mansion, waiting to slash those who dare to exit the realm of the normal, the realm of the mainstream.  After Sam and Lila begin to suspect Norman, the text tells us: “Looking at this man, listening to him, Sam was beginning to feel slightly ashamed.  He sounded so—so damned ordinary.  It was hard to imagine him mixed up in something like this” (147).  We fear Norman more because he is a serial killer hiding in the body of an ordinary man; he is a hidden threat who can unleash himself and destroy the young and beautiful members of mainstream America if they just so happen to wander down the wrong path.  But if monsters are overdetermined “meaning machines,” then Norman means more than one thing.  I will go on to argue, furthermore, that Norman is more than one kind of monster.    

                In The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction, Nick Groom suggests that “the Bates Motel is the locus classicus of the American Haunted House: A brooding hilltop residence in a style Hitchcock dubbed “California Gingerbread” (135).  Of course, every good haunted mansion has its ghosts, and the Bates Motel is no exception.  In The Horror Film: An Introduction, Rick Worland partially borrows from other monster theory when he states that “the monster is often a liminal figure, an uncertain amalgam or transitional form between the living and the dead; human and animal; male and female.  The most potent character in the genre, the paradox of the monster is that it incites our fears, compels our attention, and quite often courts our empathy and fascination, even though it remains the most remote from any real possibility” (9).  Norman Bates is a hybrid, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s “harbinger of a category crisis” (6), an amalgam of many things: male and female, old and young, mother and son, alive and dead.  Norman is simultaneously himself, a man and his forties, and his aging mother, both a serial killer and a ghost – the ghost of his mother who signals – as Derrida tells us in Specters of Marx – some greater form of injustice.

                If we are to read the monster as “pure culture” the way that Cohen does, or as the historical force Poole contends he is, then we must lay aside Freudian analysis of what Norman may represent to the individual psyche.  We can start, notably, by suggesting that as the ghost of his mother, embodied in his body, he both haunts and kills.  As Groom argues, after all, the hilltop house next to the Bates Motel is very much a haunted house, one associated with all things past and bearing the physical marks of someone or something who at least represents Norman’s mother.  When Lila explores the Bates’ residence, she notes that the only time she’d seen something like it was in a museum (156).  Mother’s room is particularly antiquated.  The narrator explains: “Lila wasn’t quite prepared to step bodily into another era.  And yet she found herself there, back in the world as it had been long before she was born” (158).  The Bates house, and especially Mother’s bedroom, represents that which was before  – a way of life that the characters in Psycho see as outdated, as those living in 1959 likely would have.  With the flight to the suburbs and enhanced technology, Psycho reflects an obsession with modernity, even as it critiques the benefits of such modernity.  It is a film that wants to flee from the past, a bloody past that contained WWII, only a decade and a half earlier, culminating in the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

                That the ghost of Norman’s mother is present in the text is evident, first, because Norman embodies his mother, and second because even Lila has to convince herself that it’s not there.  Lila thinks to herself as she steps inside the room of Norman’s mother, “There are no ghosts” (159).  And yet, she acquiesces to the fact that she’s denying what really exists.  The narrator tells us, “and yet here, in this room, she could feel a living presence” (159).  When she examines the bed, she finds an “unmistakable indentation made by a recent occupant” (159).  While technically either Norman, or his mother’s mummified corpse, has likely been in that bed, the indents simultaneously physically manifest his Mother’s “living presence,” embodied in him.  Like Worland’s amalgam, or Cohen’s hybrid, Norman’s mother is both alive and dead, ghost and person at once.  Norman is, simultaneously, that hybrid ghost and himself.  In Psycho, we might even say that we have two monsters – Norman and his mother.

                If Norman’s mother is her own monster, she is contained in an antiquated house that represents the past. While discussing Gothic novels, Worland observes that “placing characters within the walls of a medieval edifice signifies a clash between the presence and the dark secrets of the past” (28). Of course, Worland is analyzing texts written in the late 18th century in this passage. But the analysis holds true for Psycho: we can see a clash between past and present, a clash in which both options compete by neither seem sufficient, when we imagine Norman’s mother in the old Victorian house, or when we see Lila explore it the way a Gothic heroine would explore a haunted medieval castle in a Gothic novel.

  Indeed, Norman goes down to the hotel when he wants to drink so that mother won’t see him drinking.  Mother is usually contained in the house, and the more modern but unceremonious 1950’s hotel is his refuge, his space to be Norman, and not his mother.  If the past is looked upon with disdain by most of the text’s characters, the present, as embodied by the simple hotel that is the site of a murder, doesn’t fare much better.  It is a place where Norman lives in isolation (especially now that the new modern highway has been built), drinking himself into oblivion until he lapses into his mother – until he loses himself and his mother takes over. 

                The present, or modernity, is highly suspect in Psycho; not only is the hotel which represents modernity a dingy, isolated space, but the power structures that Marion observes at the beginning of the novel continue to make America a sexist, classist wasteland of inequality.  None of the characters are financially well off or notably happy; Lila lived with Marion, and Sam is digging his dead father slowly out of debt by living in the back of a grocery store, a reality that has prevented him from marrying Marion.  Marion’s entire crime was ignited by an inability to live the lifestyle she coveted in a modern society with relentless power structures — a life with Sam in it.  And yet, yet, the characters still fear the past returning.  There is the illusion of progress, the illusion of a solace in that which is contemporary, the illusion that the past is a mummified old woman with a knife, coming to mar the body of a beautiful, young, modern girl taking a shower.

                Space in Psycho is demarcated.  The house contains the ghost of Norman’s mother and represents everything out of another generation; it represents a past that perhaps goes back even further than WWII and its horrendous technology, back to a supposedly dreadful pre-suburban, pre-microwave, pre-television time period that seems at vicious odds with modernity, a time period indeed that takes over and thrusts Norman – hardly a happy model of modernity himself – aside as it gobbles up its victims.  Norman’s mother may represent America’s horrific and violent past, but she definitely represents a pre-modern time, and a fear of returning to an imagined space, a space imagined dreadful, a pre-modern location, even as modernity proves dull and isolated and best, brutal at worst. 

                I have analyzed, in a previous post, that Norman also embodies a crisis in masculinity and contestation over gender roles in contemporary culture.  I think, as an overdetermined “meaning machine,” this is also true.  Norman the serial killer might ultimately be read as a very different monster than the partial ghost of Norman’s mother who takes over completely at the end.  In any case, this book, like I am Legend written a little bit before it, otherwise a very different book, provokes some sympathy for the so-called monster.  In Monstrosity, Performativity, and Race in Contemporary Culture Calafell argues that she often sympathizes with the monster.  When we read Norman’s mothers thoughts and imagine Norman, trapped in a cell by the end of the movie, we are likely to feel a similar degree of sympathy for an individual who, as we view the book retrospectively, dealt with his own ghosts and demons, his own brooding, unforgiving madness.  I have probably just scratched the surface, as the Norman-Mother “monster” likely embodies many things, but I think looking at a disappointing present alongside the fear of losing this unfulfilling modernity is one possibility to consider.  

Navigating Norman: The Serial Killer Monster as Meaning Machine

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