Playing the Viewer like an Organ: Norman Bates as the Protagonist of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho

Alfred Hitchcock’s films often portray protagonists who are ordinary people thrust into criminal situations and the opening of Psycho (1960) suggests that it too will follow this successful formula. The first third of the film suggests that the ostensible protagonist is an ordinary woman, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), who becomes involved in the robbery of forty thousand dollars. Of course, the difference between Marion and Hitchcock’s other protagonists is that she actually did steal the money, and is not an innocent person charged with a crime she did not commit.

This first deviation from convention goes almost unnoticed, and the opening third of the film highlighting Marion’s escape from Phoenix, pursuit by a bothersome police officer, and visit to the sleepy Bates Motel off the old interstate highway, plays much like other Hitchcock films.

However, while at the Bates Motel, Marion meets the owner, the young, endearing, boyish Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), and it is here that the film radically breaks from previous convention. Marion’s unexpected murder in the now-famous shower scene reveals that the true protagonist of Psycho is not Marion Crane, nor her sister, Lila Crane (Vera Miles), nor her boyfriend, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), but rather the young motel owner, murderer, victim of multiple-personality disorder, and villain, Norman Bates.

His psychological affliction and responsibility for the murder is not revealed until the end of the film, but the viewer’s ultimate knowledge of it does not diminish Hitchcock’s intention: to make the viewer complicit in the murder and ultimately sympathize with Norman Bates. In his book-length interview with Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut states that in Psycho “there isn’t a single character with whom a viewer might identify,” but he is incorrect (264). We identify with Norman Bates, not because we are given special insight into his mind and motivations, but because Hitchcock manipulates us into identifying with him — a radical move considering he is the film’s villain.

Through his relationship with the other characters of the film, primarily Marion Crane, Norman Bates becomes the film’s protagonist. Through his relationship with his mother, he is made pitiful and human: an object of the viewer’s sympathy and affection. By Hitchcock’s careful manipulation of the audience through film and narrative techniques, the viewer is made to identify with Norman, whether the viewer wishes to or not.

In his classic horror film, Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock transforms Norman Bates, the film’s villain, into the protagonist by exploring Norman’s relationship with Marion Crane and his mother, and by manipulating the viewer through psychological and narrative techniques.

For the first third of Psycho, Marion Crane is set up as the protagonist because the viewer has not yet met, nor is ready for, Norman Bates. While she is ultimately not the film’s main focus, she does the necessary job of establishing the amorality of the film’s real protagonist; Hitchcock is not interested in the morality of individuals here, and although some could interpret Marion’s murder as justice for her thievery, Hitchcock intends no such thing.

Unlike the pure heroines in other films of the period, Marion is not a moral individual. She is pursuing an affair with Sam Loomis and, more importantly, she steals the forty thousand dollars from Cassidy (Frank Albertson). However, Hitchcock never explicitly condemns either moral crime. Sam is shown in a sympathetic light and Marion’s affair with him is seen as the only means of their being together while Sam is still paying alimony to his ex-wife. Cassidy is an irritating blowhard who boasts about his fortune — “I never carry more than I can afford to lose” — and shamelessly flirts with Marion while discussing his daughter’s wedding. Hitchcock is deliberate in how he sets up Marion’s story and is just as deliberate in crafting her meeting with Norman. When Marion meets Norman, the narrative focus on her begins to subtly shift to Norman, as does the viewer’s sympathy.

Marion’s encounter with Norman is perhaps the most interesting part of Psycho. As Roger Ebert explains, the “setup of the Marion Crane story, and the relationship between Marion and Norman…work because Hitchcock devotes his full attention and skill to treating them as if they will be developed for the entire picture.” When Marion first meets Norman, he is extremely likable. His first words to Marion — “Gee, sorry. I didn’t hear ya in all this rain” — display a simple country gentleness lacking in all the film’s other characters.

We quickly learn that Norman is a lonely man. He lives in the Californian Gothic mansion overlooking his small strip motel near the old interstate highway, supposedly with his ill mother. He chooses to put Marion in Room One because it is right next to the office and offers her easier contact with him. He is attracted to Marion as is evident from his inviting Marion to eat supper with him: “Would you do me a favour? Would you have dinner with me?” Marion accepts the invitation warily, but during the dinner, she begins to warm to Norman. She seems amused with him, and Norman inspires her to reconsider her actions and decide to return to Phoenix with the stolen money.

The interaction between Norman and Marion reveals Norman’s debilitating mother issues, but Hitchcock does not linger on this, rather emphasizing the commonality between these two individuals and their connection. The lonely young motel owner convinces the pretty young thief to reconsider her actions, and in return, she gives him her sympathy. Marion helps the viewer to sympathize with Norman, in addition to preparing the viewer to accept a criminal protagonist. She has acted criminally in the opening third of the film and, thus, when the narrative focus switches to Norman, the viewer has been unconsciously cued to accept the criminality of his actions. Although Marion Crane begins as the film’s protagonist, she acts primarily as a stepping-stone, which Hitchcock uses to prepare the viewer to identify with Norman Bates.

One of the primary ways in which the viewer identifies with Norman Bates is through his relationship with his mother. Although the viewer is never privy to an onscreen confrontation between mother and son — she has been dead ten years and is now no more than a psychological projection of Norman’s — the viewer is granted a vast amount of insight into Norman’s relationship with her and her influence over his actions. Although Fritz Lang’s M (1931) is the prototype for the humanized villain, and other films, such as Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (released a month before Psycho in the United Kingdom and in 1962 in the States) elaborated upon making the audience identify with the villain of a film, no mainstream Hollywood release was as radical in its psychological, humanized depiction of a villain as Psycho.

Part of this is accomplished by keeping the viewer in the dark. Hitchcock manipulates the viewer into believing that Norman’s mother is alive and controlling his actions with a steel grip. When Marion first arrives at the Bates Motel, she catches a glimpse of Mother pacing in the window. It is only after the film’s final reveal that we realize it was Norman dressed up as Mother. After, when Marion overhears Norman’s arguing with Mother about inviting Marion to supper, we begin to understand the frightening control Mother has over him. As an audience, we sympathize with the individual under the sway of a domineering parent — Hitchcock often uses such characters in his films, particularly domineering mothers — and the child’s bond to him or her through filial obligation.

When Norman says those famous words to Marion, “Well, a boy’s best friend is his mother,” the viewer understands his attachment to her while also sensing the abnormality of his relationship. At this point in the film, the viewer thinks Norman is a repressed child, nothing more. But he is a likable child. He wears clothes that are slightly too large for him, making him appear smaller and underdeveloped — even his bedroom resembles a child’s. Roger Ebert points out that “Perkins shows us there is something fundamentally wrong with Norman, and yet he has a young man’s likability, jamming his hands into his jeans pockets, skipping onto the porch, grinning,” demonstrating how Norman’s apparent innocence ingratiates him to the audience. It is only later that we learn just how childish and repressed Norman’s identity actually is.

Although Norman is mentally ill, he is not consciously aware of his psychological disorder, and, thus, is able to offer revealing insight into mental illness and the obligations of family. He says, “We’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other. And for all of it we never budge an inch.” Just as Marion seeks to escape her life in Phoenix and create a new one with Sam — with the help of forty thousand dollars — Norman seeks freedom from his mother, from his hotel, and from the confining existence he has lived his entire life.

However, unlike Marion, he is a defeated individual. His mother has broken him. He conveys his acceptance of his trapped life when he says, “I was born in mine. I don’t mind it anymore.” We want him to break free, but we know he cannot. We understand that his anger at his mother is justified — he is essentially her slave, whether she is dead or not — but we also understand how his sympathy, loyalty, and obligation towards his mother can be justified. When Marion suggests Norman put Mother in a home, we understand his indignation when he says to her, “If you love someone, you don’t do that to them, even if you hate them. Do understand: I don’t hate her. I hate what she’s become. I hate the illness.”

We feel already, in this short exchange with Marion, that we have been let into the mind of Norman Bates. We understand his motives — at least the ones Hitchcock chooses to reveal — so even when Norman cleans up after “Mother’s” murder of Marion, we understand why he does this. The good will of our first encounter with Norman never entirely dissipates even as we learn his complicity in, and eventual responsibility, for Marion’s murder. But that is the genius of Hitchcock’s method: he makes us root for the villain even after we realize he is the villain.

Psycho is a film where the director intentionally and obviously manipulates the audience. In fact, Alfred Hitchcock took pride in his manipulation of the viewing audience, remarking in an interview, “You might say I was playing them, like an organ,” (Truffaut 269). Hitchcock’s main intention in manipulating the audience throughout the film is to make us complicit in the actions of Norman Bates.

In the opening shot of the film, Hitchcock zooms in on a nondescript apartment building in the Phoenix skyline until we actually enter the scene through the window. The camera movement makes us voyeurs watching the lives of these individuals. Hitchcock commented on the scene and said it “allows the viewer to become a Peeping Tom” (Truffaut 266). Voyeurism is a recurring theme throughout all of Hitchcock’s work and has especial importance in Psycho in connecting character and audience.

Beyond the framing act of voyeurism in the opening scene regarding Marion, there are other instances of voyeurism throughout the film, most significantly when Norman watches Marion undress. Just as in the opening scene when we watch Marion enjoy the afternoon, half-dressed, with Sam, Norman watches Marion undress for his own enjoyment; the repeated motif connects the viewer to Norman through similar behaviour. Even before Norman is introduced in the film’s narrative, we are assuming a position similar to his.

Beyond direct voyeurism, there are various instances of characters watching others in Psycho: the cop watching Marion through his aviator sunglasses; Norman watching Marion eat the sandwiches he made her; Arbogast (Martin Balsam) watching Lila and Sam through the window of Sam’s hardware store; the chilling closing lines in which Norman, as Mother, says, “They’re probably watching me;” and even the stuffed birds looking down on Marion and Norman in the parlor — these repeat the motif of watching; all are implicitly acts of voyeurism. By making the act of watching a recurring motif in Psycho, Hitchcock unconsciously connects the viewer to Norman Bates. However, this unconscious connection between audience and villain also manifests itself in forms other than voyeurism.

The central shift of protagonist in Psycho is mostly an unconscious one. By the time Marion Crane prepares to take a shower, the narrative has already begun to follow Norman as much as Marion; after Marion leaves the parlor, we see Norman go up to the mansion and sit at the dinner table, waiting. We are unaware of the shift until Marion’s narrative is abruptly and radically ended by her death in the shower. By that point, the film belongs to Norman and Hitchcock is careful to make us root for him.

Although we do not yet know that Norman is the murderer, we are aware that he is complicit in Marion’s death as he cleans up the evidence. However, even as he does so, Hitchcock is playing us. We cannot help but be impressed by Norman’s efficient cleaning of the murder scene; Hitchcock is playing upon the viewer’s desire to see a job well done, regardless of the viewer’s moral position. When Norman is sinking Marion’s car in the swamp and the car abruptly stops sinking, Norman’s frightened reaction and the tense musical swell heightens the tension, making the viewer want it to sink completely. Just as the viewer wants Marion to escape the pesky cop early in the film, the viewer wants Norman to sink the car completely. The fact that our former protagonist’s body is in the trunk of the car is of no importance: by this point, we are fully complicit in Norman’s actions.

When Arbogast comes to the Bates Motel to investigate Norman, Arbogast’s rudeness — “Did you spend the night with her?” — and our sympathy for Norman encourages the viewer to take Norman’s side in the confrontation, even though he is lying about Marion. Just as with the cop earlier, Hitchcock plays upon the viewer’s intrinsic distrust of authority and makes the viewer root for Norman to outsmart Arbogast, even though Norman is the villain.

Near the end of the film when Sam and Lila go to the Bates Motel to investigate, we again take Norman’s side. Although by this point in the film, the narrative focus splits between Norman and Sam and Lila, our sympathies remain with Norman. Sam is rude to Norman during their conversation together, insensitively pressing him on the matter of his mother. In his scenes with Arbogast and Sam, Norman is placed in the position of victim, and thus, becomes the object of sympathy.

By the end of the film, Sam and Lila do not become the protagonists. The viewer desires Sam and Lila to discover the secret behind Mother merely to satisfy his or her curiosity and desire for closure, not out of sympathy for them. It is only our desire for resolution that makes us wish Norman to be caught. After Norman is introduced into the narrative, our focus remains on him. Although there are scenes involving other characters, none of them capture our interest and our sympathy the way Norman does, which is just the way Hitchcock intended it to be.

Hitchcock is a master manipulator and there is no greater evidence of this than the closing twist that reveals Norman is “Mother.” Just like Norman, the audience is kept in the dark about the truth of his situation throughout the film. Unlike Norman, the audience is told the truth during the final scene, but by then the narrative has been wrapped up; the need for further identification is ending. The same lack of information can be said about the other characters in the film, but Hitchcock does not make us complicit in their actions or have them capture our sympathy the way Norman does.

We may not understand the condition that Norman Bates has, but we relate to him as a person, as a tortured son, as a beguiled motel owner, and as a hapless man living out his existence in a trap he was born into. Psycho is a horror film, playing upon the audience’s fears and there are few things scarier than making the viewer identify and root for the villain. This is one of the reasons Psycho is a great horror film; what “makes Psycho immortal…is that it connects directly with our fears: Our fears that we might impulsively commit a crime, our fears of the police, our fears of becoming the victim of a madman, and of course our fears of disappointing our mothers” (Ebert).

Psycho also plays on our fears of becoming the madman, for as we are made to identify more and more with Norman, the final reveal makes us recoil in horror all the more at how we could connect ourselves to such a deranged villain. That is Hitchcock’s genius at work in Psycho. Norman Bates may be a villain, but there is no question that he is also our hero.