Who Is Norman?
"Who is Norman?" is a tricky question to answer because Norman Bates' personality is split in two. He has an alter ego. He's like Clark Kent/Superman. Except instead of a mild mannered reporter, he's a mild mannered motel operator. And instead of turning into a superpowered do-gooder, he turns into his own mother and… murders people.
So is Norman the nice guy motel operator who feeds passersby sandwiches when they arrive in the dead of night? Or is he the psychopath who puts on a dress and goes and gets stabby with people in showers?
Let's break this down.
Norman Bates seems like a sweet guy, right? He looks like he wouldn't hurt a fly: he's unassuming and shy and eager to please.
When Marion Crane shows up in the dead of night, he comes out and lets her in and then he makes her sandwiches, even though his mom doesn't want him to—which actually means that he doesn't want to. This can be seen as a pretty impressive feat of do-gooding: he's overcoming his own inner rules and regulations in order to feed a hungry woman some late-night dinner.
And Norman's cheerful and upbeat. Even though the highway moved—and no one stops at the hotel anymore—he makes the best out of a less-than-great situation:
NORMAN: It's no good dwelling on our losses We go right ahead lighting signs and following the formalities.
Life handed Norman lemons, but he's going to keep making lemon-motels anyway. (Or something like that.) The point is that Norman seems optimistic and unflappable. He's a good egg.
And no discussion of the "Norman" half of the Norman Bates character is complete without mentioning his love for his mommy, Mrs. Bates. Mrs. Bates, according to Norman, ain't right in the head. She's abusive. But nonetheless, he cares for her and refuses to even think about putting her in a mental institution. He says, famously:
NORMAN: A boy's best friend is his mother.
Out of the context of Psycho, that sounds pretty dang sweet. In fact, one of the feats of Psycho is that it twists every sweet utterance and action of Norman Bates' and makes it sinister. Even the name "Norman," which sounds like a nice little portmanteau of the words "normal" and "man" becomes real icky real fast once you've watched the entirety of Psycho.
Bad Mrs. Bates
And the reason that Norman becomes so sinister? Because he's not just a "normal man." He's a psychotically broken dude who has taken up the personality (and fashion sense) of his bat-poo crazy Mommy Dearest.
Maybe some normal dudes have their Mom as a BFF. But Mrs. Bates is more of a frenemy than a friend. Sure, she keeps him company… because she's one half of his split personality.
And she's the more powerful half, by far. Her character completely takes over his.
Early on in the film, that "taking over" seems to allude to the fact that she's a nightmare helicopter parent. She yells at Norman, taunts him, and makes fun of him. When he wants to have dinner with Marion in the house, Mrs. Bates freaks out.
MRS. BATES: 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, cause you don't have the guts!
Most mothers figure when their son is all grown up, he might want to have dinner with people he finds attractive. Not Mrs. Bates, though. She is—or at least the part of her personality now inhabiting/inhabited by Norman is—a total jerk.
Slowly, though, you learn that Mrs. Bates is much worse than just a controlling mama. She's not just "a little mad," as Norman suggests. She kills people, like Marion—and then the Norman half of Norman has to cover it up. Norman's whole life is devoted to protecting her and hiding her crimes.
By the end of the film, the Norman/ Mrs. Bates dichotomy isn't a 50/50 split. The Mrs. Bates half—the truly psychotic half—easily owns 95% of the real estate in Norman's brainpan. In the closing scenes of the film, the psychiatrist declares,
PSYCHIATRIST: Norman Bates no longer exists. He only half-existed to begin with. Now, the other half has taken over, probably for all time.
The good Norman is gone; the evil Mrs. Bates is triumphant. She's ousted sweet little Norm from his seat in Norman's head, and now totally rules the roost. And then, after destroying Norman (and killing countless others) Mrs. Bates sits and hypocritically proclaims her innocence:
MRS. BATES: They'll see… they'll see... and they'll know… and they'll say, "Why, she wouldn't even harm a fly.
Your mom is supposed to protect you, but Norman's sets him up for a murder rap. We said it before and we'll say it again: You're a jerk, Mrs. Bates.
But here's the clincher: Mrs. Bates may be a jerk, but she actually wouldn't harm a fly. Mrs. Bates is deader than a doornail, and the Mrs. Bates that exists in Psycho is only a figment of Norman Bates' extremely fevered imagination.
If Psycho were a movie about demonic possession, we could blame Mrs. Bates' ghost for all the stab-happy killings going down. But it isn't—Psycho puts the "psycho" in psychological thriller. And that means that all of this blood-spattered nastiness is 100% Norman Bates' fault.
The real Mrs. Bates, according to the psychiatrist, was "clinging and demanding." And the last time we checked, being "clingy and demanding" was not only totally legal and sane, but also pretty much a character trait of all mothers everywhere. "Do the dishes" is a demanding statement. "It wouldn't hurt you to call home once in a while" is a clingy statement. (We love you, Mom.)
In any case, Norman didn't resent his mom because she was clingy. He resented her because, years after being widowed, she fell in love with another man. That made good old Norman jealous… so jealous that he killed his mom and his step-daddy to be.
Hmm. So it looks like the super-jelly Mrs. Bates—the one who said things like " go tell her she'll not be appeasing her ugly appetite with my food… or my son"—was a projection of Norman's twisted little mind.
So in the reality of the film, there is no "Good Norman" and "Bad Mrs. Bates." This is all the Norman Show—it's all Norman, all the time. But because Norman is mentally ill, he's governed by two forces within him: the pull of his version of his mama and the push of his version of mild-mannered Norman.
But hey: Norman didn't lie—no flies were harmed in the making of this motion picture.