The character of Norman was originally created by author Robert Bloch for his 1959 novel, Psycho. Bloch's main inspiration for Norman Bates was Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein who was arrested in 1957 and charged with the murder of two local women.
Norman Bates was ranked #2 in the American Film Institute's "100 Heroes and Villains" list published in June 2003.
Some sources claim Norman has a middle name beginning with "F", but this is erroneous speculation based on the appearance of a car license plate "NFB" in the film. In reality, according to Richard Franklin, the license plate belonged to assistant director Hilton A. Green and was used to avoid the unnecessary expense of purchasing a custom plate for use in the film.
As a child, Bates suffered severe emotional abuse at the hands of his mother, Norma, who taught him that all aspects of sex were sinful and that other women were whores. When Norma took in a lover, the teenage Norman killed them both with strychnine in a fit of jealousy and forged a suicide note to make it appear that the pair had killed themselves in a suicide pact.
Norman inherited the motel and, after a brief hospitalisation for shock, he disintered his mother's corpse and used his taxidermy skills to preserve the body. With few visitors to the motel, Norman lives out a humdrum existence, sometimes holding two-way conversations with himself and his "mother" and occasionally lapsing into her personality whenever his sexual urges awaken.
On the evening of Saturday December 12th, 1959, Norman's routine is disturbed by the arrival of Marion Crane, who signs into the motel under a false name — Marie Samuels. Feeling attracted to her, Norman books her into the cabin adjacent to his office, which will allow him to spy on her through a peep hole in the adjoining wall. Whilst struggling to repress Norma's personality, he invites Marion to join him for supper in his office.
Following the supper, during which Marion questions him about his mother, who she earlier heard him talking to, Norman spies on Marion undressing in her cabin. Aroused and unable to repress Norma's personality, he returns to the house, dresses up as his mother and — in a state of fugue — enters Marion's cabin, killing her with a kitchen knife as she takes a shower. "Norma" then returns to the house and removes the blood-stained clothes.
Norman finds the clothes and, seemingly unaware of what happened, rushes down to the cabin where he discovers Marion's corpse slumped over in the bathtub. Desperate to protect the identity of his mother, Norman places Marion's corpse, along with her possessions, in the trunk of her car and sinks it in a nearby swamp. Returning to the cabin, he thoroughly cleans the bathroom and then returns to the house where he burns Norma's bloodied clothes.
When Milton Arbogast, a private detective trying to trace Marion and the $40,000 she stole from her employer, visits the motel a few days later, a nervous Norman admits to Marion staying at the motel but claims she left the following day. Suspicious of Norman's story, Arbogast telephones Marion's lover (Sam Loomis) to update him with the news before returning to the motel, where he sneaks into the house hoping to talk to Norman's mother. With "Norma" threatened, Norman again dresses up as his mother and kills Arbogast with a kitchen knife.
Concerned that Arbogast has failed to contact them again, Sam and Lila Crane (Marion's sister) visit the local sheriff, telling him that Arbogast had visited the Bates Motel and was planning to speak to Norman's mother. After telephoning Norman, who tells him Arbogast never returned to the motel, the sheriff explains that Norman lives alone and that his mother committed suicide ten years ago. Back at the motel, Norman is increasingly concerned that "Norma"'s crimes might be exposed and he conceals her corpse in the cellar of the house.
The following day, Sam and Lila visit the motel and pretend to be a married couple, hoping to find out what happened to both Marion and Arbogast. The pair sneak into the cabin Marion was murdered in, where they find a scrap of paper with Marion's handwriting in the cabin bathroom. Now convinced that the nervous and evasive Norman, or the woman apparently masquerading as his mother in the Bates house, have vital information about the disappearances, Sam distracts Norman in the motel office whilst Lila sneaks into the house.
Eventually realising that Lila has gone to the house and might discover "Norma", Norman overpowers Sam and rushes back to the house. In the meantime, Lila has failed to find the woman and goes down into the cellar to hide when she hears Norman returning to the house. In the cellar, she discovers the mummified corpse of Norma before being attacked by Norman who screams "I AM NORMA BATES!". Before Norman can kill Lila, Sam overpowers him and they call the police.
Declared insane, Norman is committed to an asylum. The dominant Norma personality has now taken over completely and she blames the crimes — which apparently include previous murders of other women at the motel — entirely on her son, declaring that she "wouldn't even harm a fly".
In Bloch's source novel, Norman is a short-sighted, overweight and balding man in his 40s, prone to heavy drinking, who becomes Norma whilst drunk and blacked-out. Screenwriter Joseph Stefano recalled of Bloch's Norman:
I thought he was incredibly unsympathetic. I didn't like him. So when Marion gets killed, I am then expected to switch my empathy toward this man? I couldn't do it with the character as he was written. I perceived a young man, vulnerable, good looking, kind of sad, makes you feel sorry for him. Hitchcock said, "What would you think of Tony Perkins?" Of course, that was practically what I had described.
For Perkins, who had gained a sizeable teenage fan-base in the 1950s — including top-30 success with the single "Moon-Light Swim" in 1957 — the role was a risky one that might make or break his acting career. He later said, "[Hitchcock] agreed that it was a gamble. He had no idea of the real possible success of the picture, but he suggested I give it a try anyway."
Biographer Ronald Bergan, author of Anthony Perkins: A Haunted Life, has spoken that the actor was born to play the role of Norman:
It's a weird coincidence that Joseph Stefano, the screenwriter, knew nothing about Tony Perkins' life, and yet he wrote that Norman Bates had lost his father at 5, had a very domineering mother, and that's exactly what happened to Tony Perkins [...] And I think that fear of being discovered [that he was homosexual] was a terrible fear for Tony Perkins. Not only did he think Norman Bates would destroy his career. But, obviously, if he was exposed as a gay man.
Although Hitchcock often worked with the costume designer to select the clothes worn by the cast, Helen Colvig recalled: "Tony asked Hitch if he might wear clothes of his choice, like the shift and certain cut of the sweater that holds [the shirt] there, because he has a long neck. Hitch approved the look because it worked for Bates, not just for Tony [...] Tony was so serious about his role. I believe that impressed Mr. Hitchcock and even touched him."
Despite the fact that Perkins had only met Hitchcock once before production began, he found that the director was receptive to his ideas about how he thought Norman should be portrayed:
I was very apprehensive about making any statements about what I thought, what I felt about the character and about the different scenes. I got to relaxing more with him and making more and more suggestions and ideas. About four weeks in we were getting along very well but I was still hesitant about bringing him a page of dialogue which was as blackly worked over as this one was. He was in his dressing room reading his air-mailed copy of the London Times — which he often does between shots. And I said, "Mr. Hitchcock, about my speech in tomorrow's scene." He said, "Uh, huh" (he's still reading), and I said, "I've had a few ideas that I thought maybe you might like to listen to." I was kind of stuttering around. He said, "All right." And I started telling him what they were. He said, "Oh, they're all right." And I said, "But, but, but, you might not like them." He said, "I'm sure they're all right." He put the paper down. He said, "Have you given it a lot of thought? I mean have you really thought it out? Do you really like these changes you've made?" I said, "Yes, I think they're right." He said, "All right, that's the way we'll do it." I think I worked on it twice as hard that evening and, sure enough, as we went in, he didn't even glance at the original pages. It all sounded right to him.
Perkins also came up with the idea that Norman should stammer whenever he was nervous and that he should chew candy corn throughout the film.
Another change made to the Norman of Bloch's novel was to narrow his hobby of stuffing animals to just the taxidermy of birds, which built on the existing avian metaphors already in the film, such as Marion Crane who lives in Phoenix.
In the early 1980s, Bloch began writing a sequel novel which satirised the increasing number of violent slasher movies being produced in Hollywood. As Universal owned the film rights on the franchise, Bloch sent a copy of the developing manuscript to the studio. The author later recalled, "They loathed it. The mere idea of criticizing their bloodbath tactics was abhorrent to them, and I was told they had no intention of doing a sequel to Psycho, let alone my story."
However, the interest surrounding Bloch's novel Psycho II persuaded Universal that it would be worthwhile creating their own independent film sequel. The studio hired Australian director Richard Franklin, who had known Hitchcock, and he worked with screenwriter Tom Holland to develop a sequel in which Norman Bates is released back into society. An initially reluctant Perkins eventually agreed to reprise the role and provided input to the script. Actress Vera Miles also reprised her role as Lila and Hilton A. Green, assistant director on the original film, produced Psycho II, which was released in the summer of 1983. Perkins' own son, Oz Perkins, played the role of a young 12-year-old Norman in the film. 
In 1986, Perkin reprised the role again in Psycho III, which he directed himself with Hilton A. Green again producing. In an interview with the Boston Globe newspaper to promote the film, Perkins spoke about Norman's conflict:
Perkins' final screen appearance as Norman was in the film Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990), made for the Showtime cable television network. With a screenplay by Joseph Stefano, the film explores Norman's troubled childhood with his mother (played by Olivia Hussey), borrowing details from Bloch's original novel. The young Norman was played by 18-year-old Henry Thomas.
Anthony Perkins died from AIDS-related pneumonia in September 1992. Speaking a few years later, Stefano recalled:
We had a lot of laughs together [during "Psycho"]. We also had a lot of serious conversations. I told him early on about having seen him in Look Homeward, Angel and how he impressed me in that. I had used the image of him on stage for Norman Bates. He was pleased with that. He knew exactly what scene I was talking about in Look Homeward, Angel. Then I told him that I felt that Norman Bates, if he were a painting, would be painted by Hopper, and he agreed. So we had kind of that discussion, writer and actor, about the character. He had an incredible grasp on Norman Bates and the situation that he was in. I think Tony Perkins must have known what it was like to be trapped. In some way, somehow, he knew what trapped meant, just as I did. And, while we didn't talk about that aspect of it, it was clear to me early on that he was becoming Norman Bates. As a matter of fact, I think he had a hard time shedding Norman Bates after Psycho.
Prior to Psycho IV: The Beginning, Universal attempted their own television off-spin of Psycho with the filming of a feature length pilot episode titled Bates Motel, which starred actor Bud Cort as a man who befriends Norman Bates during his years at the mental asylum and is gifted the motel in Norman's will. The negative reception to the pilot when it aired in July 1987 meant the planned series was dropped. Perkins had refused to be involved with the project and the character of Norman in the film is played by Kurt Paul, who had been Perkins' stunt double in Psycho II and Psycho III.
In 2013, Universal revisited the idea of a television series based on the Psycho franchise, with the contemporary prequel Bates Motel, starring Freddie Highmore as a young Norman Bates and Vera Farmiga as his mother.
Notes & References
- Wikipedia: Ed Gein
- Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (1990) by Stephen Rebello, chapters 1 & 2
- Over the years, claims have been made that the "F" could stand for "Ford" (due to the number of Ford cars seen in the film) or even "Francis" (after the patron saint of birds, St. Francis). However, technically, St. Gall and St. Milburga are the patron saints of birds, and screenwriter Joseph Stefano is on record stating the license plates in the film have no deeper meaning.
- Wikipedia: Dissociative identity disorder
- The Making of Psycho (1997) - transcript
- Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (1990) by Stephen Rebello, page 60
- NPR (01/Jul/2008) - Norman Bates: A Most Terrifying Mama's Boy
- Interview with Bloch, published in Fangoria (Nov 1985)
- Retro Slashers: Psycho II
- Boston Globe (29/Jun/1986) - He's Norman again and always will be