Poignant Psychosis in the Psycho Prequel

I wrote on this topic, complete with a series summary, on my newly revived LiveJournal account, if you’d like to be friends there. The post is long and rambling, but it’s more thorough than this one.

SPOILERS: Bates Motel
TW: sexual and domestic violence, suicide, murder, mental illness

Today is Day 50 of Quarantine for me. It’s been a long 6 weeks, and things are getting to me. I’m lucky I get to still work, as I normally work remotely, so I don’t have it nearly as bad as so many. The entire pandemic, especially around our disturbing political situation, is taking a toll. I’m stress eating and gaining weight. My body hurts from sitting so much, although I do go out for a walk a few times a week and have the Nintendo Ring Fit at my house. I’m also not alone, as I live with my partner, Brian, and 4 cats. Life it pretty good, considering.

Still, I’ve been binge-watching a lot of Netflix, and when I start a series, I obsessively watch until the end. Last week, I watched all 5 seasons of Bates Motel in 10 days. It was an intense and remarkable series. I’m shocked it didn’t win any Emmys because it deserved all of them, especially Best Actor for Freddie Highmore and Best Actress for Vera Farmiga, not to mention Best Supporting Actor, Cinematography, Script, and Directing… and Best Dramatic Series.

All of it.

If you haven’t seen it and can tolerate a lot of sexual and domestic violence, existential darkness, and psychological horror, it’s a must-see and available in full on Netflix. If you can’t stomach those things (not gratuitous, but for good reason), then this is definitely not a series for you.

Although I have loads of spoilers in my LiveJournal post (apparently there is a revival!), I’ll try to limit them here. I won’t go into the plot summary, as I did in the LJ post while processing all of my emotions and thoughts, but stick to my reactions on the psychiatric state of the characters, namely Norma (mother) and Norman Bates. (I’ve also written a second post on the similarities and differences between Bates Motel and Psycho in the iconic shower scene and more on LiveJournal.)

For anyone who’s seen the classic film Psycho, you will be familiar with Norman Bates and the big reveal at the end. It was horrifying in 1960 to see a graphic (by 1960s standards) murder scene, and millions were afraid to take a shower for quite some time.

Norman (Psycho) is a sweet, polite young man who runs a motel, but he has a disorder now called Dissociative Identity Disorder, formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder and often confused with Schizophrenia. While he’s sweet, his alternate personality “Mother” is a vicious serial killer who, in the film (and possibly book, as I haven’t read the source novel), kill beautiful women out of jealousy.

In Bates Motel, Norman has the same sweet personality, although we meet him at 17, not ~27 as in Psycho. We also meet his mother, the still very much alive Norma Bates. Their closeness is quickly established and is often uncomfortable to watch, bordering on creepily romantic but never crossing that line.

While this young Norman also develops a separate personality as “Mother,” she doesn’t kill out of jealousy of pretty girls (most of the time). She kills bad people in order to protect Norman in a Dexter-like fashion. After all, he created this personality to protect him as a little boy living in a situation where he had to watch his mother be brutally beaten and raped for years by his abusive, alcoholic father. Through their disturbing history, I developed a deep concern and care for both characters watching what they had endured and continue to endure throughout the series.

It’s no wonder they have such deep psychiatric injuries and the often-resulting mental illnesses and personality disorders. Psychiatry as a field is finally beginning to understand the role abuse, especially sustained, plays in establishing psychiatric injuries that in turn cause both physical and mental illness.

Due to their survival together, as they only had each other for support, they are incredibly close. Pathologically close, as only two people who have experienced such horror together can be. They’ve developed their separate coping mechanisms/personality disorders to survive.

Norma—whose abuse also started in her childhood with an abusive, alcoholic father, absent mentally ill mother (usually drugged with sedatives), and a brother who was her savior for many years until he started raping her—has developed textbook Borderline Personality Disorder, common for women (mostly) who have survived sexual (and/or other) abuse as children, as well as a comorbidity of Complex PTSD. Not surprisingly for people who have grown up in abusive environments who aren’t able to tell the difference between love and abuse, since they both come from the same caregivers, she marries another abusive man. Two, in fact. The first to coverup the fact she was impregnated by her brother’s incestual rape at 16/17 and the second who became Norman’s father about 4 years later.

She has since learned that her body and sexuality are what defines her in this dysfunctional society, makes her worthy, and gets her what she wants. By offering herself to men in times of danger, she can bargain her way out of yet another violent rape, all while protecting Norman. By offering herself to men when she wants something, she can manipulate them through their own toxic sexuality, regaining the power so often has been raped from her. We see both of these manifestations multiple times throughout Bates Motel.

Norman’s survival also created Complex PTSD, as is repeatedly illustrated through his episodes of dissociation and depersonalization, but he has also developed a more insidious disorder: Dissociative Identity Disorder, as previously mentioned. This severe psychiatric disorder stems from intense childhood abuse and trauma where the child is unable to handle the pain and terror, so another personality steps in to protect the first. This is explored beautifully in the 1992 film Raising Cain, starring John Lithgow (also on Netflix). Norman’s psychotic manifestations also include visual/auditory/tactile hallucinations in addition to the fully-formed separate personality of “Mother.”

Norman and Norma’s new life, embarked upon after Norman’s father unexpectedly died and funded by the insurance money, is horrifically tainted in the first few days there. In the pilot episode, Norma is brutally raped in her new kitchen for punishment by the disgusting sex-trafficking yahoo who lost the family home to the bank. Norman walks in during the assault and knocks the rapist over the head. Of course, Norma can bear to remain in that same kitchen throughout the series because she has long since learned how to cope with rape and keep going. Plus, she exacted quick justice on the raping bastard by viciously murdering him, also in front of Norman.

Trauma is cumulative, so this violence, both the rape and justified murder, serve to deepen both of their collective traumatic disorders, as does every subsequent attack, injustice, and traumatic event (and there are many) they face and endure throughout the series.

The audience understands and empathizes with Norman and Norma, despite their (sometimes explosive) dysfunction, because we see what horrors caused it. Anyone would be this broken if they had experienced what Norma and Norman had, even if it would manifest in different ways.

Bates Motel — “The Cord” — Cate Cameron/A&E Networks LLC — © 2017 A&E Networks, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Four seasons later, Norman has a complete psychotic breakdown and kills his mother in a botched murder/suicide, which doesn’t come as a shock because of the original Psycho film as well as our witness to Norman’s steady descent into madness. It’s no surprise he keeps her corpse around and continues to talk to her as if she was really there, because in his fractured mind, she is still real, still alive. Surprisingly (or not?), our empathy continues even through this utterly horrific situation. We continue to see the small, traumatized boy who still needs his mother, who cannot face the reality that has always been so very cruel and painful, especially since now he was the cause of it. The scene in which he almost is forced to accept that she’s dead is profoundly heartbreaking, but his version of “Mother” protects him once again from the harsh truth that he murdered her.

The series ends much differently (after the 5th season) than the film, but it is the perfect, poignant ending to a darkly tragic tale about a mother and son trying to survive.

Again, this series is a must-see if you can stomach the violence and darkness.

Utterly brilliant. Bravo.

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