Diagnosing Norman Bates

The dangerous reality of dissociation

The name "Norman" always comes with an explanation.

Norman Bates is your typical American teenager. After his father dies, he and his mother move to White Pine Bay, Oregon to start a new, happy life and open up a bustling motel. There, Norman goes on dates, puts a lot of work into the family business, and maintains a close relationship with his mother. Well, some would say a little too close. At his heart, Norman really doesn't mean any harm. He just wants to stay with his mother forever.

The problem is, Norman can't quite remember why everyone's afraid of him. He knows he has a few "issues," but in her efforts to protect him (from himself), his mother always seems to turn the vacuum a little louder when he inquires into his episodes.

In Bates Motel, the series and prequel to the film Psycho, Norman Bates experiences a series of blackouts that render him unable to recall the traumas that he inflicts on others' lives. We, the audience, get a front row seat to his puzzling episodes, but Norman is clueless as to his unconscious activities and behaviors. Could Norman's murderous dissociations actually happen in real life?

You probably associate the word "blackout" with the aftermath of a few too many tequila shots back in college. But Norman's blackouts are not induced by alcohol. They are usually induced by a trauma or intense emotion related to a past memory. Like a PTSD trigger, a small detail can spark an episode at any moment.

Somnambulism, or sleepwalking, is one of the more widely-recognized levels of dissociation that occurs commonly in children or sleep-deprived adults. In deep sleep, a sleepwalker will start performing tasks that can include everything from talking to driving. It can quickly escalade to danger. In some cases, sleepwalking can be associated with violence and intense fear.

This is no joke. According to Cracked, a young girl in London once climbed a 130 foot crane while sleepwalking. Though what Norman experiences somewhat resembles sleepwalking (or in his case, sleepmurdering), he achieves these states without having been in a deep sleep. They occur more spontaneously.

Sleepwalking and other memory-related lapses can also have something to do with dissociation, a state of creating distance between yourself and a real-life situation. Most cases involve a spectrum of detached states from reality, from mild to severe. We all dissociate. Think about a time when you're really into a great TV show (like Bates Motel, for example), or when you're enraptured in a book. That's all fine and well, but what becomes serious is when dissociation reaches the level of psychosis.

What seems more likely is that Norman suffers some degree of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). A dissociation is often linked to multiple personalities. In a defense against a traumatic trigger or memory, sufferers of dissociations attempt to "escape" the situation by embodying someone else. Common traumas causing dissociations can include sexual or emotional abuse in children. (If you're interested in another great series on DID, check out The United States of Tara.)

Though we don't see into Norman's mind when he is dissociating, all we know is that he usually doesn't remember what just happened. We don't know what he's doing during the dissociation, or what he's seeing. It is incredibly difficult to properly diagnose DID and to create an effective path of treatment. His mother makes an attempt to treat him with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) at a fancy institution in combination with antidepressants.

But could someone actually murder someone (or multiple people) while in a dissociative state? The answer is: quite possibly. In the case of serial murderers, an article by Arnon Edelstein from the Department of Criminology Kaye Academic College in Beersheba, Israel, presents research that supports the DID theory. This theory posits that what makes serial murders able to "do their thing" is the fact that they enter a dissociative state. Human behavior is increasingly difficult to explain, but the theory does not take into account environmental factors that can impact individuals in unpredictable ways.

Though the case of Norman Bates is far from closed, Bates Motel can teach us a lot about mental illness. In some cases, there can be an uncontrollable disconnect between internal feelings and external behaviors, which often, sadly results in alienation. Norman is a good kid who had bad things happen to him. It's not his fault, and he needs help, whether he can understand that or not.