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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow The Absent Mother in the Cultural Imagination : Missing, Presumed Dead

Norman’s Frustration

The first and probably most influential matricide or removal in horror movie history occurred off screen.5 Nevertheless, this exception to the rule established the stock character of the evil and ultimately absent mother of the horror film, and its successors have spelled out what the original only hinted at and, similar to horror movie sequels, often heavily relied on an increased depiction of blood and gore. Director Alfred Hitchcock chose not to depict Norman killing his mother and her lover as described in Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel but instead had the psychiatrist mention it in his final analysis of Norman’s mental condition. This matricide is therefore notably absent from the movie itself but the mother’s absence is strongly felt in her presence from beyond the grave, respectively from the rocking chair in the basement. She haunts and eventually completely overtakes Norman’s psyche, pointing towards one of the key characteristics of the abject as described by Julia Kristeva: ‘It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order’ (Kristeva 1982,4). Movie critic Robin Wood states that ‘Psycho begins with the normal and draws us steadily deeper and deeper into the abnormal’ (Wood 1991,142-143), and according to this observation, the utmost of abnormality as imagined by Hitchcock is the unholy union between absent mother and son, as epitomized in the penultimate scene of the movie, when Norma Bates’ skull is superimposed on her son’s face. Throughout the movie, Norman is portrayed as a shy and rather likable man, terrorized by an overbearing and evil mother who does not allow her son to grow up. It is only when his mother’s skull encroaches upon his face that Norman is transformed into a full- fledged movie monster. The mother and her eventual absence is thus the primal source of his ‘monstrousness’.6 He lost the battle with ‘the first preobject (ab-ject) of need’ as described by Julia Kristeva and attempted to violently enforce the abjection of his mother.

The portrayal of Norman’s absent mother rests solely on her son’s memories of her, on his reenactment of his perceived reality. Therefore, it may not necessarily be an adequate representation of her character, but since the novel and accordingly the movie were based on the real-life killer Edward Theodore Gein,7 whose mother has been described as a ‘hellfire- and-brimstone-spouting mother’ (Rebello 1992, 2), it seems rather safe to assume that Norman is meant to have suffered from her harsh and rigid nature. Throughout the movie, ‘mother’ calls Norman ‘boy’ and treats him as a child, intimidating him. As he is preparing dinner for Marion, ‘mother’ tells her disobedient son: ‘Go on, go tell her she’ll not be appeasing her ugly appetite with MY food... or my son! Or do I have to tell her because you don’t have the guts!’ ‘Mother’ senses her son’s own ‘ugly appetite’ and just like Ed Gein’s mother, she vehemently opposes any such conduct.8 Norman’s mother prevents psychic individuation and especially the sexual development of her son.9 The ‘symbolic matricide’, or removal, required for the ‘attainment of social membership’ is here understood as the fulfillment of a ‘heterosexual destiny’, to which Norma poses a threat, in a quite clearly Oedipal manner. Despite his mother’s harsh ways of raising him, Norman loved her very dearly. He remains obsessed with her, caught up in a state of hatred and adoration for the first abject, an abject stronger than his own rather weak personality structure. Symbolic matricide is thus substituted by literal matricide, resulting in the eventual destruction of his own psyche, epitomized in the penultimate scene of the movie. The rather popular scientifically-founded, even outrageous interpretation of Ed Gein by Bloch10 and its reworking in the persona of Norman by one of the most influential directors of all times, has had a vast impact on the horror genre and especially the slasher subgenre, or as Cynthia Freeland put it: ‘Ever since Psycho, this bad parenting is often held to be the particular fault of the mother’ (Freeland 2000, 162-163). As explored in the rest of this chapter, Psycho’s successors focused less on the curious presence of the absent mother but instead depicted the act of matricide being carried out onscreen, yet the mother's negative effect on the child stayed the same.

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