Mother dearest, how soft your skin, how golden your hair. How blue your eyes, how rosy your lips. Apron strings and home cooked meals. A feast for the eyes, a fire for the soul. She tells no one what keeps her dear boy coming back for more. It’s a secret ingredient. That bit of spice at the back of his throat that warms his belly and lulls him to sleep. Mother may not even know how liberal she’s been with this powerful ingredient.
But we do.
And we know what it is.
It’s manipulation, and it’s as sweet as it is bitter, even if the poor boy doesn’t see the way it coats his eyes and morphs his thoughts into a frenzy.
Mother and Son. Norma and Norman. Prey and predator. Best friends forever.
They say remakes are always bad, but once in a while someone comes along and tells conventional wisdom where to shove it. Carlton Cuse, Kerry Ehrin, and Anthony Cipriano are three such people, and in March of 2013, these three introduced viewers to a duo so morbidly twisted and incredibly endearing, we had no choice but to love them despite our better judgment.
I remember sitting down on a Monday evening and watching the first episode of BATES MOTEL, where I was met with Norma and Norman—a match made in the most beautifully twisted depths of Hell, and yet somehow they carried an air of innocence undeserving of two such characters.
The series was superbly cast, written with a deft hand, and brilliantly set. BATES MOTEL delivered on all fronts, which is an impressive feat. Not everyone does scary well. Horror’s a slippery slope, and if not handled delicately the whole damn thing comes crumbling down, forgotten right along with every other failed attempt.
Do any of you remember SHARK EXORCIST, released in 2015? No? I rest my case.
BATES MOTEL was expertly executed, as evidenced by its many loyal fans. It delivered in all the right ways, but there had to have been more to its success. Surely, we’ve all seen our share of disturbed duos and psychotic killers. These themes are so prevalent amongst film and TV, it’d be fair to say they’ve lost their luster. So, what was it about BATES MOTEL that kept us coming back every week for five years?
Was it a troubled boy with memory lapses? Or a mother with apron strings too short? It would certainly be easy to say it was the sheer genius of Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore, or the kookiness of Norma and all her antics. But at the heart of the show, what really drew fans in was that potent combination of love and hate, protection and neglect, fire and ice, also known as FAMILY.
Horror hooks us fast but too quickly lets us go. Shock value is cheap, and blood and guts are rookie ploys. Which explains the popularity of some recent, more evolved horror films/TV shows. It’s clear we want to be fed, instead of merely being distracted. Not everyone wants to swim in the shallow end; some of us get a thrill from not feeling the bottom of the pool under our toes.
As a more advanced society that’s not as afraid to expose the skeletons rattling around in the proverbial closet, we need something of substance to dig our fangs into, and BATES MOTEL served up enough dysfunctional family for every member of yours to feast upon.
Dysfunctional families are something nearly everyone can relate to. Yes, even you, back there, in the nice Pendleton sweater and loafers. You might have grown up with a silver spoon in your mouth, but what was daddy really doing on all those late nights at the office? And Mommy? What were those little yellow pills she swallowed every time you and your siblings got too needy and filled the house with too much ruckus?
None of us are immune. Even if it’s as simple as having that inappropriate uncle that ogles you because you’re “all grown up,” or the grandfather who makes racial slurs over dinner, none of us are immune to the feelings of loathsome love we hold for certain family members.
We can relate to both Norma and Norman—two characters who deeply love one another with the most lethal passion. Norma, a healing hand, always there to tidy up her son’s messes while never failing to remind him that she’s the center of his universe. And Norman, a sweet boy with troubles too big for such a sensitive soul. On the surface, all looks well. And maybe it is…for a little while. But dysfunction is stealth, crawling beneath the surface until it finds a snag in the fabric of your life. Some place to wiggle out of, so it can suck up all the air and triple in size, until it’s the elephant in the room.
We fell in love with Norma and Norman because they’re human. Flawed, scarred, full of love, yet capable of unspeakable acts of evil. We relate because no matter the circumstances, we’ve all loved monsters with angel wings only we can see. Sometimes, we’re the monsters, needing to be reminded of the dusty halo still perched above our heads. But what we loved most was that we could feel Norma and Norman’s pain. We’ve all been hurt by those we love most, and we’ve all made exceptions for misdeeds, some too great to speak of.
BATES MOTEL speaks a truth about families. It exposes all those nasty stains that were never meant to be unveiled. It’s honest, beautiful, and devastatingly dark, and that was the secret to its success.
Maybe we don’t all go around killing our mothers and wearing their dresses, but only a few of us can say we’ve never thought about it.