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When we finally get to see her, she’s grinning. Maybe that’s telling.
After 100-odd minutes of hearing - and, we think, seeing - what an evil, horrible woman Norman Bates’ mother is, Lila Crane (Vera Miles) heads down to the Bates fruit cellar, spins that chair around, and we’re horrified to see that Mrs. Bates is nothing more than a shriveled, mummified, grinning corpse.
That’s the twist we’ve been conditioned to pick apart and analyze in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, a masterpiece of misdirection and possibly cinema's ultimate "bad mom" moment. But often lost in that revelation is another, almost subliminal clue about the mysterious woman. The Mrs. Bates that Lila finds in the fruit cellar - the “real” Mrs. Bates - is harmless. Placid. “Smiling.” And in revisiting the original film, evidence suggests there’s a good chance that, in life, that’s all she ever was.
The problem with our perception of Mrs. Bates - domineering, spiteful, cruel, murderous - is that literally everything we know about her comes to us from that most unreliable of narrators, her son Norman (Anthony Perkins). Perkins’ portrayal of the wounded, victimized Norman made such an indelible impression on pop culture that we’ve maybe never really stopped to wonder how much of what we’re told about his mother/tormentor is true. When we go back (and confine our focus) to the original text of the 1960 film, all we have to go on is the word of a young man who is, frankly, out of his mind. Norman is a psychotic whose jealous, sexual fixation on his mother not only drove him to murder her, not only led to him robbing her grave and reanimating her lifeless husk in his mind, but maybe also made him falsely reimagine her as a violent, bloodthirsty shrew.
As a culture, we’ve bought Norman’s story whole cloth (as evidenced by three sequels, a remake, and a popular TV series). But what if Norma Bates was just some unfortunate single mom whose son was indeed "always bad," a lunatic who wove a complete fiction about his mother to make his monstrous deeds somewhat understandable, if not justified?
The film offers quite a few bits of evidence to support this. We all know how Norman’s early dialogue is ripe with double meaning: “Mother...she isn’t herself today”...“she’s as harmless as one of those stuffed birds.” Sure, these lines play as subtle hints that Mrs. Bates is in fact a taxidermied carcass chilling in the basement. But they can also be read as Norman pushing back against his own malevolent fantasy of Mother. Is he hinting that she's really dead or is he arguing with himself as to how malicious his mother ever really was? Norman's conflicting emotions toward her suggest the latter might be the case, that he on some level knows his mother was never really what he's now presenting her as. For every moment of Norman defying his mom, there’s another of him defending or deifying her.
Remember, too, that Norman didn’t suddenly fall into a world of make-believe as a reaction to his mother’s death. He’s been throwing the old girl under the bus since the day he murdered her and her lover, ten years earlier. As Sheriff Chambers (John McIntire) tells Lila and Sam (John Gavin), “it's the only murder-and-suicide case in Fairvale ledgers! Mrs.Bates poisoned this guy she was...involved with, when she found out he was married, then took a helping of the same stuff herself. Strychnine. Ugly way to die.”
In other words, after killing his mom and her boyfriend in a jealous Oedipal rage, Norman deliberately staged the deaths in such a way that his mother’s legacy within the community would be “the only murder-suicide in Fairvale ledgers!” Norman could have easily reversed the frame-job and told the world his sainted mother was offed by this unscrupulous new lover; instead he chose to paint her as the aggressor and annihilator, in effect staging a smear campaign against the woman who “threw him over” for another man.
Dick move, and anyone capable of such a slanderous act against their own mother is surely not above fictionalizing other aspects of her personality to suit himself. (The psychiatrist (Simon Oakland) hints that this is the case: “because he was so pathologically jealous of her, he assumed she was as jealous of him.”)
There are other hints. While talking with Marion (Janet Leigh) just before she hops in the shower, Norman paints a picture of his mother as a controlling, hateful woman, then hints that this version of Mrs. Bates bears no resemblance to the woman who lived ten years earlier: “I don't hate her. I hate... what she's become.” Again, a second viewing lays these moments bare in a "ho ho, she's really dead!" way, but it's also further evidence that Norman’s personification of his mother as a domineering, unstable maniac - the person whom unsuspecting 1960 audiences believe is the eponymous “Psycho” - might well be a boogeyman Norman has invented to both justify what he’s done, and with which to crucify himself.
The doctor speculates, and the sheriff presents some hard facts and figures in the way of who died and when, but when the dust settles at the end of Psycho, there’s a good chance none of what we’ve heard about Mrs. Bates is true. In the decades that followed, Norman is given three more opportunities (one in which he’s full-on narrating flashbacks to a talk radio host) to bolster his story and to further smear the memory of his mother. In his words and deeds, Norman so convincingly painted Mrs. Bates as a monster that we’ve gone ahead and printed the legend, putting evil flesh on her mummified bones in sequels and remakes and reimaginings for the last half century. In this light the A&E series Bates Motel becomes a kind of fan fiction in which Norman’s anecdotal, completely unverifiable tales of his abusive, unbalanced mother have been padded out into hours of anti-Mrs. Bates propaganda.
If we have in fact been watching an insane young man drag his mother’s name through the mud for the entirety of Psycho, the film’s finale might also take on a new meaning. Psycho’s final scene has always been held up as this moment in which the "Mother" half of Norman’s mind throws her son under the bus. She quietly and calmly insists that she never could have committed the crimes laid at Norman’s feet, a disingenuous, “who me?” lilt to her internal monologue. It could be viewed as “Mother” committing one last act of betrayal against her son; it certainly works in that capacity. But maybe we can also see in this scene Norman’s guilt coming to the forefront, as best it can, to finally absolve his mother. Maybe in these final moments Norman is trying to let the beleaguered, besmirched old gal off the hook, as we see his "Mother" persona transform before our eyes from the active, homicidal Mrs. Bates of Norman’s imagination, to the inert, harmless, grinning skeleton in his cellar.