At the Bates Motel ('Psycho' (1960) dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

I read something interesting a while ago: "The transsexual is identified as such solely on his/her own script, which can be as learned as any sex-typed behaviour and as editorialized as autobiographies usually are. The lack of insight that MTF transsexuals usually show about the extent of their acceptance as females should be an indication that their behaviour is less rational than it seems. There is a witness to the transsexual's script, a witness who is never consulted. She is the person who built the transsexual's body of her own flesh and brought it up as her son or daughter, the transsexual's worst enemy, his/her mother. Whatever else it is gender reassignment is an exorcism of the mother. When a man decides to spend his life impersonating his mother (like Norman Bates in 'Psycho') it is as if he murders her and gets away with it, proving at a stroke that there was nothing to her." For those of you blissfully unaware of Germaine Greer's existence (God bless, I wish I was you), she's a radical feminist who said some pretty groundbreaking stuff in the '70s but has spent the latter half of her career trying to make transsexualism a misogynistic talking point. But it's funny that she should mention Norman Bates in the same breath as transsexualism because I'm trans and I love Norman Bates. She might be on to something, just not in the direction she thinks.

So, we're at the Bates Motel. A pretty unassuming, not-too-shabby building - twelve cabins, twelve vacancies - and there's a dark spot on the horizon. The imposing shadow of the Bates house that sits on the hill overlooking the motel itself. It's as if someone googled 'haunted house' and this is the first thing that came up. Motel guests are invited to enjoy the quaint amenities of their cabins and ignore the brooding and pressingly obvious, that gothic thing behind the motel. Already there is an internal/external divide. What the public is prompted to see and engage with, and the open secret linked with it, which they are prompted to disregard in favour of their comfort. The house which no one lives in, save for Norman and his mother. No one is invited to stay at the Bates house. The courtesy only extends as far as the motel. When Norman offers Marion a place at his dinner table up at the house, his Mother puts a swift end to that fantasy - they have to eat in the motel's office instead. Norman's mother would prefer to keep things separate. This is my house, not Norman's, she thinks. He just lives here. He tends to the motel. He is what everyone can see but never know. He might live in this house, but it'll never truly be his.

Quick 'Psycho' re-cap for the uninitiated (it's a good thing that I love to describe movie plots. At one point, I lived in a world where everyone had seen 'Psycho'. Hell, even my parents have seen 'Psycho'. After an impassioned rant to a film professor about season five of 'Bates Motel' I had him take me aside and confess he's never actually seen Hitchcock's film. This is someone paid to teach film history, mind you). Marion Crane is a clerk on the run with stolen money, which she plans to give to her boyfriend, Sam Loomis, so that she can free him of his debts from a previous marriage. She stops in at the Bates Motel and piques the interest of Norman Bates, who not only runs the place but is a budding taxidermist. As mentioned, she has a meal with him in the motel's office, surrounded by his stuffed animals. Norman's kind of lonely and pathetic, but insightful enough that, after conversing with him, Marion comes to the decision that she should return the stolen money. Unfortunately, she never gets the opportunity, as, later that night, she is stabbed to death in the shower by a figure assumed to be Norman's mother. Norman covers up the crime by disposing of Marion's body, her possessions (including the money), and her car into a nearby swamp.

Sam Loomis, Marion's sister Lila, and a private detective named Arbogast all begin the search for Marion. Arbogast is also stabbed by Norman's mother after breaking into the Bates house. Having not heard from the detective, Sam and Lila go up to the house to investigate themselves, and find that Norman's mother is actually long-dead, a corpse preserved in the house's cellar. Norman, dressed as and assuming the personality of his mother, is actually responsible for the crimes. He began to impersonate his mother to cope with the guilt of killing her and her boyfriend, and the persona soon took a controlling grip on his life, much as the real version of Norman's mother was controlling and abusive. At least, as much is explained to Sam and Lila by a psychiatrist after Norman's arrest. The swamp is dredged, Marion is found, and we get a wonderful dissolve shot of the preserved skull of Norman's mother, superimposed over his face for just a second, purely for audience benefit, before Marion's car can be seen being recovered.

What exactly does the psychiatrist say? Well, that Norman had been put-upon by his Mother for years, and that when she began to withdraw from him after finding herself a boyfriend, he was so jealous that he killed them both. Mad with guilt, he repressed the crime and preserved her corpse to keep her alive. He "began to think and speak for her, give her half his life, so to speak. At times he could be both personalities, carry on conversations. At other times, the Mother half took over completely. He was never all Norman, but he was often only Mother." The shrink also asserts that Norman is not a transvestite, just in case the audience was confused.

You might think I'm joking with that last part, but, in all seriousness, screenwriter Robert Stefano wrote the psychiatric explanation scene to reassure censors and audiences that any depictions of cross-dressing in the film actually served a clinical purpose and therefore were not queer and scandalous. The whole psychiatrist scene still remains very funny to me. You have the sheriff, this previously introduced and reliable minor character wheeling out the doctor and introducing him like a special guest star - "Don't worry folks, if you're confused, here's this guy to smooth everything out". And then the shrink basically does a piece to camera, five-minute monologue backstory for Norman which plays more like he's addressing the audience than Sam and Lila. He's all "and just to reiterate, that guy is crazy. Like, he's insane. There's no sort of gay or trans undertones to be found because he's just nuts. I'm a professional and while some cases of cross-dressing are a bit gay, that doesn't apply here because, viewers, the man's sick." He's looking at the camera now. "This film is straight. Don't worry about it - we've got an explanation for it. This film is straight."

It makes sense though. When 'Psycho' was in in its pre-production stages, America was still somewhat in the grips of 'lavender scare' witch-hunts: the fear (linked with anti-communist attitudes) that anyone could be harbouring a 'perverse' queer secret identity. Norman thusly is villainous because he harbours secret feminine tendencies. Smoothing any feathers ruffled by this with a medical explanation, rather than making 'Psycho' an out-and-out ghost/possession story (which it arguably is anyway), may owe to the fact that the most mainstream trans figure at the time was Christine Jorgensen, whose medicalised narrative of sex-change surgery was subject to heavy media coverage in 1953 - what Susan Stryker in 'Transgender History: The Roots of Today's Revolution' calls the "mid-twentieth-century awe over scientific technology, which now could not only split atoms but also, apparently, turn a man into a woman."

So, there's nothing science can't explain, right? The Bates House as haunted house, to me, suggests otherwise. As does the superimposition of Mother's skull onto Norman's face. Even Greer uses the language of all things paranormal and unscientific when she brings up exorcism in relation to transition (she was cooking with gas here, not that she knows it). In the realm of queer identity and gender affirmation (or lack thereof/struggles with) there are so many things that are more spiritual and go beyond what can be explained in black and white scientific terms. Even in the overt text of 'Psycho' this is confirmed when Mother, now fully in possession of Norman's body, does her internal monologue in the final scene, proceeding after the psychiatrist throws in his two cents. She believes that she has turned Norman in for the crimes. "They'll put him away now, as I should have years ago. He was always bad, and in the end he intended to tell them I killed those girls and that man as if I could do anything except sit and stare - like one of his stuffed birds." So clearly, the doctor only has parts of the full story, and cannot fully and accurately interpret the internal dynamic of Mother/Norman.

Norman Bates is really interesting to me in the realm of characters that could be labelled trans in any direction. There's the obvious interpretation of Norman as transfeminine, even backed up that duff shrink describing Mother as a female personality housed in a male body, expressed through a feminine voice and clothing. There's the idea that Norman is a passive entity in his own life but becoming the feminine persona of his Mother is what gives him an active role. But then, you could turn on your heel and read Norman giving his mother 'half his life' as an allegory for abusive or disproving parents hindering a queer child's ability to live openly. Norman is forced to adopt feminine characteristics that are not his own at the whim of his Mother. I think, also, of associations between transness and death. Deadnaming and ghosts that just won't go away. I think about the psychiatrist bringing up the idea of 'dead' identities, saying, "Norman's battle is over - the dominant personality has won." As a taxidermist, Norman preserves dead things, including his mother's corpse, and, assumably, her personality. However, If Mother was the dominant personality, Norman never being only himself, but "often only Mother," then the dead, preserved identity is arguably Norman's male self.

I think of him and the stuffed animals in the parlour of the motel, out for show. How the motel is his to run as he pleases, now that his Mother is dead, but no one ever really stays long because they moved the highway. That it's out in the open, public, and waiting, but still lonely. That whenever guests occasionally check in, they're often still party to Mother's hospitality, reaching from that dark house behind the motel, rather than Norman's. That whatever's dead can still have an impact on the living. Norman can never be Norman because the past won't let him. Any attempts at romance or sexual encounters are quickly squashed by Mother. There's no chance for him to be anything but a pretty stuffed bird, or an idea set in stone by formaldehyde. He's rigour-ed, unable to develop any further past being the facade of something living, something pushing through into the future, because the shadow that the Bates house casts over the motel is too long. So, he's stuck forever with twelve cabins, twelve vacancies, and ghosts that won’t let him live peacefully.