Electrifying the Dead: The Psycho Franchise and Industrial Horror

Curator's Note

Keeping the mummified corpse of a relative locked in the basement might be the most economical funereal decision you make or the most troubling one. Such are the dilemmas posed by Norman Bates, who has shuttled from charming-yet-“off” boy next door to homicidal shower-slasher and back throughout his mediated lifespan. Psycho (1960), of course, introduced us to the famous motel-keeper; Psycho II (1983) gave us a noir horror-thriller; Psycho III (1986), perhaps my personal favorite, sends the Bates mythos spiraling through a sleazy, Italian giallo-esque fever dream; and Psycho (1998) stands as the controversial but fascinating remake of the original.  There are also the television iterations to consider: the NBC made-for-TV movie Bates Motel (1987), which is not related to the recently ended Bates Motel series (2013-2017), and Psycho IV (1990), another made-for-TV movie that features Black Christmas (1974) star Olivia Hussey as everyone’s favorite Mother(!).

            The Psycho franchise, then, is a flurry of excess. Norman, Mother, their quaint motel, and the Victorian house are yanked from the basement of cinematic history time and time again, and in each instance a new coat of lurid paint or new pair of psychedelic lenses is thrown over the whole affair. The franchise sequels and series defy the bourgeois decorum of media practice by refusing permanent death after the first “masterpiece,” and what a horror these resurrections can be! Categorical confusion, or the transgression of boundaries, is a defining mark of horror—Mary Douglas talks about it in relation to im/purity, Julie Kristeva discusses it with bodily abjection, and Pierre Bourdieu and Noël Carroll affirm its generation of disgust.

            The Psycho franchise is rife with this horror of confused categories. The narrative is a modern-day Frankenstein tale, replete with living corpses (death/life confusion) and fused subjectivities (Norman/Mother). It is also a categorically horrifying industrial tale. Purists might have wanted the original Psycho to remain a singular, bounded, and discrete object, but franchising and seriality are their own versions of the dead-don’t-die: “classics” come lurching back to life, and new storylines creep and crawl over multiple iterations. Franchising horrifies our sensibilities because it exceeds the rational economies of media taste and blurs the boundaries between media death and life. Mortuary media, then, might include media practices that refuse a supposedly elegant death. And thank the heavens for mortuary media, because I can’t imagine a world without Psycho III.

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