Dust off your taxidermy and grab your loofahs: Politely creepy motelier Norman Bates is back to terrorize your showers tonight on A&E’s Bates Motel. Though you’ve probably seen Anthony Perkins’ perfectly off-kilter performance (and maybe even Vince Vaughn’s pale imitation), you may not know the Bates backstory. Let me fill you in on how Norma and Norman Bates came to be.
The Real Norman Bates
Yes, there was a real Norman Bates, but you don’t have to worry that he’s still behind the desk of a quaint little motel somewhere. In 1957, Psycho author Robert Bloch was living in Weyauwega, Wisconsin, when serial killer and cannibal Ed Gein was arrested just 35 miles away. Bloch said that he didn’t actually base his character on Gein, but rather was inspired by the circumstances of the whole case. It wasn’t until years later when many of the sordid details came to light that Bloch discovered “how closely the imaginary character I'd created resembled the real Ed Gein both in overt act and apparent motivation."
Unusual attachment to an overbearing, verbally abusive mother? Check. Deceased father? Check (and a suspiciously deceased sibling, in Gein's case). Meticulously curated shrine to said mother after her death? Yep. A penchant for morbid crossdressing? Indeed. Gein even had clothes made from women. The so-called Plainfield Ghoul is even reported to have had a Batesian demeanor: generally polite and easy to talk to, but with something that was just slightly off. “If all our patients were like him, we’d have no trouble at all,” the superintendant at the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane once said.
The Real Norma Bates
It’s much debated, but some of Bloch’s friends and professional cohorts claim he found inspiration for Norma Bates in a mutual acquaintance. Calvin Beck was a magazine publisher and editor whose mother rarely left his side. “She told me herself that she went to his college classes, she monitored classes at college with Calvin,” said Noel Carter, wife of author Lin Carter. “As she told me this, I thought to myself, ‘He must want to kill her!’” When Mrs. Beck wasn’t able to chaperone her son, she called “virtually every hour on the hour” to check on him, according to Carter. Calvin also bears a passing resemblance to the Norman Bates Bloch describes in the original novel: paunchy, greasy and generally “unhealthy looking.”
Bonus: Norman Bates is Hilarious
Though he eventually tired of being typecast as Norman-like characters, Anthony Perkins wasn’t above poking fun at himself. “Are you motel material?” he asked on SNL in 1976. “Let’s find out with this simple quiz. Question one: A guest loses the key to her room. Would you, A, give her a duplicate key? B, let her in with your passkey? C, hack her to death with a kitchen knife?”
He reprised the role in 1990 for—of all things—a General Mills Oatmeal Crisp commercial.