Raymond Shaw and Norman Bates: The Manchurian Candidate and the Psycho (class essay)
In The Manchurian Candidate, Raymond Shaw’s mother, Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin, over-mothers her son and makes him incapable of successfully fighting in the Korean War. Whenever he tries to break free of her control, she reins him back in. What’s more, she is a communist agent who betrays her son to a team of Asian communists who brainwash and reprogram him. He comes back to America an unwitting assassin; a slave controlled through a special kind of hypnosis. And it is Mother who gives him his marching orders. We call the complex of a man dominated by his mother “Momism.” If we wish to find another film that exemplifies such a psychological complex, then let us ask, who is the most classic example in cinema of a man dominated by his mother? Norman Bates from Psycho. Here is a man who — like his real-life counterpart Ed Gein, an oft-used source of inspiration in films — is so dominated and damaged by his mother that even after she is dead, her voice compels him to commit murders. At first blush, the stories are very different, but the more we look at them, the more uncanny commonalities they have.
Norman Bates lives all by himself in his mansion and runs a motel in an out-of-the-way place. He is a man of no great importance with no friends except his mother, whom he loves dearly and whom he only imagines to be alive. Raymond Shaw has been named a war hero by his country, and though it is said of him that he has no friends, people surround him constantly. There are the soldiers who have served under him, his superior officers, the newspaper manager, the hired help, the girl who loves him and her father. And of course there are Mrs. Iselin and her husband Senator Iselin, both of whom Raymond detests. Surely Raymond Shaw is no Norman Bates. Or is he?
Both Raymond Shaw and Norman Bates are driven to kill by their mothers, but in entirely different ways. Mrs. Iselin employs a kind of hypnosis, using psychological links put into place by a team of brainwashing experts in Manchuria, to take control of her son and instruct him to murder specific targets. In a trance-like state, Raymond kills politicians who threaten his mother’s aims. Mrs. Bates, on the other hand, is dead when the film begins. But with her verbal and, we may guess, physical abuse, she planted an insidious germ of murder inside her son while she was alive. She imbedded herself so deeply into Norman that her voice and persona live on inside him, and she is able to make him kill from beyond the grave. Ironically, she probably never would have wanted her son to murder anybody at all. But both men are turned into murderers through extreme psychological conditioning. Raymond is brainwashed by communist agents, and then he is hypnotized. Norman is brainwashed by his abusive mother, and then he goes insane. Both men are not in their right mind when they kill.
Both men are also sexually repressed. Mrs. Bates, of course, like Ed Gein’s mother, lashed out at her son every time healthy sexuality tried to emerge. She kept him away from women; she saw them all as whores. Any woman who had the slightest chance of coming between her and her son was a whore. And she tormented Norman until he had no choice but to agree with her. Mrs. Iselin substitutes whores with communists. Though she herself is one secretly, she uses the term in the common manner of the time: as an attack intended to destroy one’s standing in the world. Anyone who disagrees with her, anyone who poses a threat to her, she calls a communist. When a charming woman, Jocelyn Jordan, threatens Mrs. Iselin’s control over her son, she repaints this young woman as a communist agent; the fact that the girl is the daughter of Mrs. Iselin’s (and her husband’s) sworn enemy is only half of the equation. And like Mrs. Bates, Mrs. Iselin torments Raymond until he has no choice but to agree with her.
And both men are made to kill the objects of their affection. Raymond marries Jocelyn and intends to break free of his mother’s domination. But Mother gets him back under her control. Raymond kills Jocelyn during his mission to assassinate her father, Senator Thomas Jordan, because Raymond has been instructed to kill all witnesses. Psychologically and metaphorically, he kills her against his own will because she comes between him and his mother. It is Mother makes him kill her. Norman Bates lusts after Marion Crane but does not know what do with his feelings because his psychological growth is so stunted. He even expresses his sexuality by spying on her through a peep hole. But then Norman’s Mother persona takes control of him, and he murders Marion in the famous Shower Scene. Like Raymond, Norman kills his love interest against his own will because she comes between him and his Mother. As before, it is Mother who makes Norman kill her.
What’s even more uncanny is that both sons kill their mothers because of what their mothers have made them. And they both lose themselves in doing it, though in different ways. Normal Bates kills his mother some time — possibly years — before the movie Psycho even begins. Says the doctor at the end of the film, Norman killed her because he found her with a man (his father having died some time before) and couldn’t handle it. His fear of sexuality, his confusion over his mother’s actions contradicting her words, drove him to it. And to compensate for having killed a part of himself, Norman preserves his mother’s body in their mansion and keeps her voice and persona alive in his brain. He goes insane. Raymond Shaw kills his mother near the end of The Manchurian Candidate. Because of the threat she presents to the nation, because of what she did to him, and because no one else will do what needs to be done, he shoots his mother and her husband dead. And then — because he has lost an essential part of himself, because of what he did while hypnotized, and because he has simply been through too much — he kills himself, too.
Of course, in the course of their respective films, Raymond Shaw steps to the edge of the looking glass, while Norman Bates never does. In the famous 52 Red Queens scene, Major Bennett Marco deprograms Raymond and destroys the system of memory suppression. Raymond remembers everything; how he and his platoon were brainwashed in Manchuria; how he killed his wife and her father, who was like a second father to him, under his mother’s instruction (although Ben makes him promptly forget this part again); how the communists intend to take control of the nation. He sees everything clearly. Norman Bates, however, never becomes clear. He never recovers the memory of killing his mother, or even comes to understand that his mother is dead. His Mother persona remembers killing Marion and Detective Arbogast, but Norman himself does not. At the end of the film, Norman Bates is gone, and only Mother remains; he is presumed incurable. (Psycho II is outside the scope of this discussion.)
Also, the two men have very different circumstances surrounding their murders. Norman Bates was terrorized by an abusive mother. It was just one woman who unwittingly turned him into a murderer, and he continues to be one even after she is gone. Raymond Shaw is worked on by a large number of people; brainwashing specialists, foreign leaders, secret communists. All of these people besides his mother. Norman is an autonomous killer; everything required to make him continue murdering is right there in his mind. Raymond, however, requires regular psychological maintenance from his communist handlers to keep him on track.
The thing that really makes the stories seem so different at first is the difference in genres and styles that Raymond Shaw and Norman Bates inhabit. The Manchurian Candidate is a wartime thriller, filled with political intrigue. Psycho is a horror film, perhaps even the first slasher. Raymond’s weapon of choice is a gun. Norman’s is a knife. Raymond is cold and calm when killing. Norman is impassioned and deranged.
But again, on closer inspection, Norman Bates and Raymond Shaw are two versions of the same thing. They are both men dominated, sexually stunted, and made to murder by their mothers. Both ultimately kill both their love interests and their mothers. Whether they are calm or deranged, insane or just hypnotized, everything the two men do in their respective films can be traced back to a single person; Mother.