Oh God, mother! The style!

One of the many proteges of H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch penned Psycho in the late 1950s, at a time when psychiatry was largely considered the domain of lesser physicians. The Freudian model of the mind prevails throughout the novel and the characters are easily dissected through the psychoanalytic school of literary criticism. That said, it reads like a novel from the 1950s minus Atticus Finch or the imago of Atticus Finch.

Robert_Bloch_with_His_Award
Robert Bloch, the student….
H._P._Lovecraft,_June_1934
H.P. Lovecraft, the mentor….

Bloch based the character of Norman Bates on Ed Gein, a real-life serial killer who was captured a few miles from Bloch’s home in Wisconsin. When the police arrested Gein, they discovered the dismembered bodies of several women and girls in his home. The bodies were mostly stolen from graveyards, but Gein is known to have murdered at least two women. Upon discovering a belt made from human nipples, police decided that Gein was attempting to make a suit out of women’s flesh in order to emulate his dead mother.

Ed Gein
Ed Gein. A real mama’s boy….

According to people who knew the family, Gein’s mother, a puritanical and strict woman, dominated her son and kept him from making friends. She ruthlessly controlled him, kept him down, and eroded his self-confidence. This treatment exacerbated Gein’s psychological problems and, instead of facing immediate trial, the killer found himself in an asylum after his capture.

Bloch drew from the news reports to create Norman Bates. Again, the Freudian analytic model of the human psyche inspired him. Bates’ mother, long dead as a result of her son’s psychotic break with reality, has become internalized, a twisted, bitter imago of the woman she had been. As a result of his heinous action, Norman internalizes his mother’s nagging, and her memory replaces or masks his superego. It is this imaginary mother, this other presence in Norman’s psyche, which compels him to murder Mary Crane.

The details of the novel match the story of Hitchcock’s masterful adaptation. It’s difficult to read the book knowing that Norman’s mother isn’t really there, isn’t really speaking to him, but is a figment of his deranged imagination. That difficulty is compounded by the style of the novel which is, as noted, archaic. Further, the author waxes a bit melodramatic in places, belaboring points and making several contemporary faux pas which add emphasis. It’s stilted now, but remains a far cry from the eldritch style which suffused his mentor’s works.

Ultimately, the novel works well as a piece of realist horror, despite the antiquity of style. Ed Gein was a real man who really did murder and desecrate the bodies of women. Like Gein, Norman Bates kept the dessicated corpse of a woman in his home. Like Bates, Gein murdered a family member (his brother, Henry.) Like Gein, Bates was fascinated by the foreign cultures and practices of the islanders of the South Pacific.

Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis....
Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis….

Bloch’s portrayal of Gein as Bates, though fictionalized, gives the reader an insight into not only the twisted psyche of Ed Gein, but also into the prevailing psychoanalytic philosophies of the day. The emphasis on Gein’s relationship with his mother reminds us that we’ve come a long with mental health in this country.

7 thoughts on “Oh God, mother! The style!

  1. The emphasis on the relationship with the mother in the case of Ed Gein and the fictional one of Norman Bates presents an interesting case for the Freudian system. I understand that since then, our understanding of the human psyche has brought to a place far beyond Freud, but the case of Gein could be used to support his theories on the effects of different relationships between parent and child. I wonder what other details about Gein’s crimes or life might have been overlooked in his psychological profile, and whether those details would have lead to a different profile of him.

    The evidence seems to suggest that it was his relationship with his mother that was the trigger or the fuel for much of his psychosis, but there were underlying problems before. What would have happened had his mother been nurturing instead of cruel?

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    1. I would like to believe that, had Gein’s mother been less self-absorbed, less cruel toward her son, she would have recognized his mental illness and tried to get him help. He may have had to endure electro shock, he may have been lobotomized, but that was what they had to work with back then.

      I don’t think that Gein’s mother made him crazy. I’m a firm believer in the chemical / biological origin of mental illness. But behavioral issues can compound those mechanical problems. Gein’s familial relationships antagonized his problem, but I don’t think they caused it.

      Though this comment gives me an idea for a cross-genre story: a parallel-universe-hopping Ed Gein discovers one of alternate selves is a serial killer and tries to stop him, only to become another victim.

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  2. Matt Andrew

    I had no idea that Gein’s relationship with his mother was so similar to Norman’s portrayal. I thought he was just a nut who murdered women and I’d never heard of a mother mentioned before, in this way. Very interesting the power women can have over their sons.

    I thought it was funny how when Lila was searching his house, the author seemed to be making the conclusion that a crossdresser with a thing for sensational porn was a key indicator of a “psycho.” That must have been the prevailing theory of the day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, Ed Gein was very much the exemplar of Freud’s theories regarding the mother’s power over her children’s psychological development. I think that cases like Gein’s gave credence to the Freudian model and that’s why some still hang on to it today.

      When my own mother gets a bit out of hand (normally at night when she starts to get confused) I put on my best Anthony Perkins voice and tell her, “Someone’s down at the motel. I’ll go see who it is.” In her confusion, she’ll often say, “Good. Do that.” Of course, there is no motel in front of our house. (grin)

      Pornography’s purpose was considered a sign of and a contributor to mental illness. Further, cross-dressing or transvestism was a sure sign of homosexuality which was considered a mental illness at the time. So your analysis of Lila’s discovery would be correct. Norman Bates meets all of the older criteria indicative of a true psycho.

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  3. michaelkingram

    I really enjoyed the structure of the book and, though I agree that the prose itself was a bit stilted, it still read very easily and was effective enough. Obviously, you have to accept the tropes of the day for the story to work. I had a laugh about the porn too. Wears a dress? Likes porn? Obviously a murderer!

    I think the story holds up well though, and with a bit of a cosmetic prose makeover, I think it would hold up fine as a modern novel.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. There is so much to read into in Psycho, I feel like it is one of those books that meshes the literary and genre categories and takes things to a new level. I feel that much of the subject matter continues to be relevant today. Namely the importance of acceptance and acknowledgement of sexuality for everyone, that to control and/or withhold that sexuality is damaging to not only the individual but society at large. There is a wonderful sentiment expressed in the book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, that slavery is not only damaging to those who are enslaved but also corrupting to the moral fiber of the society that does it. I think that Psycho is an example of how such things affect more than the microcosm.

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  5. Pingback: The 1970s and the Emergence of the ‘True’ Horror Novel – The Spectacular, Tentacular Spec-Fic Roundup

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