'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.

Joe Lederer/A&E/AP
'Bates Motel,' starring Freddie Highmore (l.) and Vera Farmiga (r.), will return for a second series on A&E.

More than 50 years after Alfred Hitchcock transformed Norman Bates into a cultural touchstone for violence, madness, and obsession, Hollywood's most infamous mama's boy has been reborn.

In "Bates Motel," a new A&E cable series that airs its season finale tonight, Norman is a teenager who lives with his mother. They're quite close, actually. And why not? As someone once said, "a boy's best friend is his mother."

Viewers like what they see, and "Bates Motel" will return for a second season, extending the legacy of a brilliant novelist named Robert Bloch. He created Norman Bates in 1959's "Psycho," the novel that inspired the original movie, the sequels, the remake, and more.

Carl H. Sederholm, an associate professor of literature at Brigham Young University, has devoted much of his career to exploring the horror fiction of authors like Bloch, Stephen King, and H. P. Lovecraft. I asked Sederholm to consider the meaning and influence of "Psycho," which introduced the world to a shy, awkward, and murderous maniac.
Q: How does the novel "Psycho" fit into its era and the history of horror fiction?
A: Robert Bloch holds a significant place in the development of modern American horror because of the way he took H. P. Lovecraft’s style and expanded it to include a deeper investigation of human psychology.

Other writers were taken with mental illness, but Bloch took things further by showing readers that monsters didn’t need to have fangs or green skin. He was fascinated by the notion that anybody, even the person next door, could be monstrous.

Another important thing, particularly as we turn to "Psycho," is that Bloch began to explore more deeply the role of abnormal psychology in human action. In this sense, Bloch was like another of his key predecessors, Edgar Allan Poe, an author who was never afraid to investigate the darker impulses of the human heart.
Q: How did Bloch blend the real-life story of the deeply disturbed serial killer Ed Gein with his imagination?
A: The connection between Ed Gein and "Psycho" is one of those things that everyone takes for granted. Gein is regularly cited as a key influence not only on Bloch’s development of Norman Bates but also on other major horror characters such as Jame Gumb from "The Silence of the Lambs" and Leatherface from "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

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.

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.

Part of the reason was because the term represented an easy way of explaining people like Norman Bates. Instead of having to master a large body of complex psychology, people could just say that some people are psychos.

It also helped reinforce the idea that anybody could be a psycho, especially people that seem so nice and ordinary on the surface. As Norman so memorably reminds people, “we all go a little crazy sometimes,” even imaginary stuffed tigers like Hobbes.
Q: What do you make of the book "Psycho" from a modern perspective? Do you think it's literature?
A: Horror novels sometimes have a bad rap with critics who limit their understanding of literature to canonical texts. That’s unfortunate. Horror is often a terrific source for reflecting on American fears and anxieties. In my own teaching and writing, I like to point out that cultures may be studied through their monsters.
Q: How influential was "Psycho" as a book?
A: One of the most important things to remember about Robert Bloch was that he was widely influential outside of "Psycho." He would probably be held in high esteem even if he hadn’t written "Psycho."

Because of Hitchcock’s film, though, Bloch was forever labeled as the author of "Psycho." For better or worse, he grew tired of being known for only that one book. He had a long career and wrote lots of books, short stories, and television and movie screenplays.
Q: He even wrote for the original "Star Trek" series, right?
A: Bloch was something of an expert on Jack the Ripper and wrote a famous story called “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” that was modified and retold in many other settings, including the episode “Wolf in the Fold” from "Star Trek."

Some readers may be interested to know that Bloch also wrote the teleplays for “What are Little Girls Made of?” and “Catspaw,” both from the first season of the original "Star Trek" series.

He was a known commodity. He may not have been read as widely as someone like Stephen King, but he was very successful and highly respected by the major horror writers of his generation.
Q: Any other thoughts?
A: "Psycho" was a crowning achievement because it epitomized Bloch’s belief that horror is more about human psychology than monsters and that fear ultimately comes from within. Bloch taught readers that anyone could be a monster.

Another reason for Bloch’s influence was that he was a genuinely nice guy with a funny sense of humor. He supported other writers, just like his mentor H. P. Lovecraft supported him.

When Bloch was asked why he wrote horror stories, he would often respond that he had the heart of a child – one that he kept in a jar on his desk. He was a funny man who didn’t take himself too seriously.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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