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Now, on to today's tragedy, some more great psychological horror!
I know, it’s a little odd to give a spoiler alert before talking about such a classic, but I’m one of the few people of my generation who got to see Psycho unspoiled the first time, and if there’s anyone else still out there who doesn’t know how it ends, I’d hate to deny them that rare chance to find out the right way.
For those who do know but haven’t seen the movie at least a few times, here’s the refresher: Our apparent heroine, Marion Crane, steals money from her job and runs away, hoping to use it to help her boyfriend out of a tight spot, but on her way to meet him, she stops for the night at the secluded Bates Motel and spends the evening talking with its painfully lonely and boyishly charming owner, Norman Bates.
It soon becomes apparent just how he’s managed to stay both painfully lonely and boyishly charming. He has scary-sad mommy issues. Then, in a pulling-the-rug-out storytelling move that would afterwards be known as the Psycho Switch, Marion is murdered halfway through the movie, and the focus shifts to her boyfriend and the police, trying to figure out what happened to her, and Norman, trying to cover for his homicidally possessive mother. When the two sides finally collide, it turns out that Norman’s mother has been dead for years but had him so utterly dependent on her by that point that he’s been keeping her mummified corpse in her old room and has taken her on as a second personality, which routinely kills off any woman the Norman personality is attracted to.
Did I mention this movie was released in 19-freaking-60?
It isn’t just great because it’s shocking for its time, though; it’s timeless. The thing that makes Norman so special as tragic villains go, other than that previously, repeatedly noted boyish charm…
In order to give me that mind-blowing Psycho virgin experience, my husband had to be very careful the first time. (Um… yeah, I know what I just said.) I didn’t know the ending, but by how excited he was about breaking in a Psycho virgin, I could already tell there was going to be a twist, so when Marion was stabbed in the shower, apparently by Mother, I instantly accused the only other suspect, Norman.
My husband’s reply? “This is all Mother.” And, in a way (as he pointed out in impassioned self-defense as the closing credits rolled), he was right.
That’s why Norman’s different. Lots of tragic figures are insane, and most have the lost potential to be good people under better circumstances, but usually we’re only told about that those lost good people in passing, or through a few snippets in the setup phase. After that, it’s all about the madness. Norman’s particular brand of madness – multiple personality disorder – leaves a very large, very active element of goodness in him all the way through the story. That’s what lets him go from this:
Tragic sweetness runner up:
Seymour Krelborn of Little Shop of Horrors. Unlike Norman, Seymour does commit every one of his crimes with full knowledge and consent. They’re of the seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time variety, all meant to build a half-decent life for himself and the woman he loves, but somehow through every bloody, no-win turn of his tragic story, he maintains his well-meaning sweetness and never does descend into true madness.