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'Bates Motel': it all goes back to a brilliant novelist named Robert Bloch

'Bates Motel,' which airs its season finale May 20, owes its origins to the novel "Psycho" by horror writer Robert Bloch.

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Bloch was definitely familiar with the [Gein] case. He lived in Wisconsin at the time Gein was caught and knew some of the details of the horrific crime scene police discovered in Gein’s home. In 1960, Bloch wrote an essay called “The Shambles of Ed Gein” that recounts the details of the case and comments on why figures like Gein fascinate Americans.

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For "Psycho," though, the connections between Gein and Bates are slightly more coincidental than direct. Gein was interesting to Bloch because he was one of those people who could simply [seem to be] the guy next door. People who knew Gein didn’t know what he was doing.

These days, when serial killers or kidnappers or other criminals like that are caught, it’s common for neighbors and friends to tell the media that they didn’t know their friend was so bad, that he or she just seemed so nice and normal. Bloch was fascinated by the notion that killers could live in communities undetected, that they could seem like ordinary people while committing horrific crimes.
Q: What do you think makes the character of Norman Bates so immortal?
A: One of the most memorable aspects of Psycho, especially the film, is that audiences don’t want Norman to get caught, at least not until they understand why he does what he does.

One of the most gripping moments in the film is when Norman is trying to sink Marion Crane’s car and it just won’t go under water fast enough. In that moment, audiences come to identify with Norman, as if they believe him to be an ordinary guy caught in an extraordinary situation. Just like Bloch’s own interest in the Gein case, audiences struggle to understand murderers who seem like everyday folks.

Another other aspect of Norman’s popularity is that he represents the difficulty of understanding criminal motives.

Everybody knows that Norman kills because he’s haunted by the looming figure of his mother, but what exactly does that mean? Is it enough for society to understand killing solely in terms of psychology, especially when it’s so explicitly Oedipal?

Bloch and Hitchcock both try to explain Norman’s actions using psychology but neither of them gets it quite right. I wonder if Norman Bates himself could explain the reasons behind his actions.
Q: Do you think the book and movie affected our views of mental illness? Of serial killers and violence?
A: The film was especially important because it opened the way for a new wave of horror films based around crazed killers with strange motives. Films like "Halloween, "Friday the 13th," and all their sequels and knockoffs took the idea of the psycho and made it part of the American film canon. I’ve reached the point with film that I see every butcher knife as a direct reference to "Psycho."
Q: Do you have any idea if the book popularized the word "psycho," which is so prevalent? There's even a compilation of Calvin & Hobbes cartoons called "Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat."
A: The book and the film definitely made the word “psycho” more common in everyday speech.


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