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Hitchcock Annual (1994) - Mother Knows Best: The Voices of Mrs. Bates in Psycho




Among the many pleasures that Psycho offers its viewers, perhaps the most impressive from a narratological point of view is the sinuous way that Hitchcock manipulates the process of audience identification with his characters. As Raymond Bellour has shown in "Psychosis, Neurosis, Perversion," the spectator of Psycho is initially engaged by the narrative of Marion Crane — through the probing, voyeuristic camera that insinuates itself into her private life with Sam Loomis in a Phoenix hotel, as well as through Hitchcock's intense visual focus on her compulsive movement away from home and toward her fateful encounter with Norman Bates.1 Beginning, however, with their eerie conversation in the parlor behind his motel office, and continuing most emphatically in his meticulous cleaningup after the attack on Marion, the audience is persuaded to become engaged by Norman's narrative and, for the rest of the film, to identify not with Marion but with this unfortunate, dominated son of an apparent madwoman.

Yet this mechanism of identification that clicks so neatly into place in Psycho, shifting the audience's allegiance from Marion to Norman, also serves to make both marginal and horrific the one character in the film who cannot speak for herself and whose authentic voice will, therefore, forever remain a mystery. Consequently, few viewers have ever felt compassion, or even pity, for Mrs. Bates: to identify with her in any way is virtually unimaginable, given the absence of her body and the stridency of her voice in the diegesis. Indeed, critics have tended to view her as powerful and central to the plot only in the sense that she is the source of Norman's illness: Mrs. Bates is "the murderous dead," "the stronger being"2 who precipitates this twisted family romance, and she represents the prime thematic instance of "the victimization of children and their desperate, though futile attempts at fleeing parental constraints."3 In the context, then, of this disposition against Norman's mother, I will offer here a reading of Psycho which attempts to resuscitate her tainted reputation through an assessment of her role in the film's strategies of surprise and suspense, and through a comparison between her representation in the film itself and in Hitchcock's literary source, Robert Bloch's 1959 novel.

Psycho is as suggestive and rewarding a film text as we have in American cinema, in large part because, as Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut in their famous interview, he consciously designed it to be "a film that belongs to film-mak...

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Tom Bauso teaches English and film at Saint Mary's in Raleigh, North Carolina.


  1. Raymond Bellour, "Psychosis, Neurosis, Perversion," in A Hitchcock Reader, ed. Marshall Deutelbaum and Leland Poague (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1986), 313‑15.
  2. Michel Chion, "The Impossible Embodiment," in Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock), ed. Slavoj Zizek (London: Verso, 1993), 203, 205.
  3. Johann N. Schmidt, "Literary adaptation as pure cinema: Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho," in Filme (Band 36), ed. Jens P. Becker (Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitatsverlag, 1988), 19.
  4. Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock, rev. ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), 283.
  5. Truffaut, 283.
  6. Truffaut, 282.
  7. Sigmund Freud, "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality," in The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay (New York: Norton, 1989), 252‑53.
  8. Truffaut, 269. Yet, following Jung, I am arguing that a more coherent understanding of Mrs. Bates's personality emerges from viewing her as Norman's projection of his anima onto a powerful female fantasy figure.
  9. Donald Spoto, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures (New York: Doubleday Dolphin, 1976), 370.
  10. William Rothman, Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), 328.
  11. Rothman, 333.
  12. Rothman, 334.
  13. Raymond Durgnat, "Inside Norman Bates," in Focus on Hitchcock, ed. Albert J. LaValley (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. : Prentice‑Hall, 1972), 134.
  14. Quoted in Stephen Rebello, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (New York: Dembner Books, 1990), 9.
  15. Carl G. Jung, "Aion: Phenomenology of the Self," in The Portable Jung, ed. Joseph Campbell (New York: Penguin Books, 1971), 146.
  16. Jung, 147.
  17. Robert Bloch, Psycho (New York: Tor Horror, 1989), 213.
  18. Bloeh, 116.
  19. Bloch, 115.
  20. Bloch, 14.
  21. Bloch, 42.
  22. Bloch, 44.
  23. Bloch, 57.
  24. Bloch, 76‑77.
  25. Bloch, 117.
  26. Bloch, 217.
  27. Bloch, 217.
  28. The second instance of Mother's voice, heard while Norman is preparing to transport her body to the fruit cellar, largely reinforces this initial impression. Michel Chion points out that in this landing scene "her voice is still offensive, but closer, less shrill, duller and without any reverberation" (198).
  29. Rebello, 133.