Peering Through the Hole into “Bates Motel”

BatesMotelTVPremiering in 2013, the longest running scripted drama in the history of the Arts and Entertainment (A&E) channel is Universal Television’s Bates Motel starring Freddie Highmore, Vera Farmiga, Max Thieriot, Nestor Carbonell, and Olivia Cooke. Based on the iconic film Psycho (1960), directed by the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock with story by Robert Bloch, Bates Motel takes us back to Norman’s early days when he was just a teenager–who was anything but normal. If you have kept up with the series, it is at a huge turning point in the character development of Norman and it just keeps getting better and better. Often shows as dark and heavy as Bates Motel do not have staying power or begin to wane after 2-3 seasons. Not this one. Just like Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho continues to impress, terrify, and influence even today’s suspense/horror movies, Bates Motel provides audiences with a glimpse into how Norman came to be while concurrently focussing on others who are directly and indirectly connected to the development of the most infamous psychopath in all cinema history. From visual and verbal nods even in today’s horror films to inspiring theme park attractions to television shows, the drama at Bates Motel continues to beckon audiences and intrigue those who find the characters fascinating.

Hitch_HouseSadly, executive producer Carlton Cuse confirmed that the show’s next season is slated to be the last, and will adapt the events of the series’ namesake. Although I wish the show could go on, it is clear that we are approaching the events that started it all. That being said, this upcoming season is sure to be exciting as we get to witness the gap between where we are and where Marion Crane checks into the infamous motel begin to narrow and close. Whether we are going to end the series at the point Marion walks in or recreate the diegesis from Hitchcock’s film leaves to be seen. One of the reasons that a series like this one can even be produced is that it has prolific material from which to pull and interpret–the fact that the character of Norman Bates has been studied for years, much in the same way the film itself has been explored–provides writers and producers ample opportunity for inspiration.

Norman and NormanSince we are given little information about Norman in the movie–note: that does nothing to mitigate the experience or effectiveness of the plot–his childhood to adolescent years and transition into adulthood is open for interpretation. For many years, film scholars like myself and others have often hypothesized what psychological and emotional experiences plagued Norman and affected his development. It would be all too easy and even a copout to state that he simply suffers a psychological disorder that was present when he was born. What I appreciate about the show’s portrayal of Norman is taking the cognitive and emotional atypical condition he was likely born with and throwing other experiences into the mix. It’s nature v nurture on a whole new level. Through the storytelling of Bates Motel, we have witnessed how his upbringing has had a profound impact on his development into the single most famous psychopath in cinema and now television history.

Emma_DylanThe show is not limited to the development and history of Norman, but also includes influential people in his life. Of course there’s Mother (Norma), but we also have grown to love his estranged brother Dylan, close friend Emma, and frienemy Sheriff Romero. Obviously Norman is obviously interesting to watch, but the writers and producers of the show make sure that each of the principle and reoccurring characters are fascinating as well. Dylan represents the only male figure in Norman’s life who consistently tries to help him, even though Norman often cannot see the love in his brother’s actions. Much like Norman, Dylan has also encountered much negativity and abandonment issues as a kid. Unlike Norman though, he found ways to deal with it and build a life for himself. In recent times, Norman keeps pushing the one positive male role model in his life away to further isolate himself. His close friend and coworker Emma is a very interesting female figure in his life. Unlike Mother or other females we have encountered over the series, he loves Emma and has done nothing to bring about permanent harm to her–at least so far. Emma is the only person who really gets to see the Norman hidden behind all his bizarre actions and obsession with Mother. Like Norman and Dylan, Emma had her own struggles with cystic fibrosis. Each of the characters is dealing with their own respective psychological or physical problems.

Romero_AlexLastly, prior to analyzing Norma, Sheriff Romero has played a key role in the life of Norman. Like Dylan he too is a consistent male figure in his life, but Norman has grown to resent Romero for his relationship with Norma. Romero has worked through his involvement in the drug trade and has grown as a result of it. Again, we have an individual with their own personal conflicts amidst the consistent conflict of Norman. The only other character, besides Dylan, who really knows what Norman is capable of. Romero is constantly trying to protect Norma from what he dreads Norman is truly capable of.

NormaBates1“Mother, what have you done?!?” Norma Bates is probably the most fascinating character after Norman. She is the closest to him and has been directly and indirectly responsible for his atypical development from his time as a child into an adult. Although she all but denies Norman’s psycho-social and emotional problems, she truly does recognize they exist. Unfortunately, she is so incredibly attached to him, having been abused and abandoned herself in the past, that she cannot truly provide the help he needs. Fortunately, she finally got him the help he needed–and should’ve received years prior–at the Pine View facility as we have seen in this season. It’s too little help too late. For the longest time, she felt that mother knew best and that no one could help Norman the way she could. Oh the irony. The attachment she was so fond of is regrettably the very thing that would bring about her undoing. Despite her best intentions, she really was the most instrumental in creating a monster. Her fits of rage and jealousy transferred into the mind of Norman and intensified the predisposition to sociopathic behaviors already present. Had she taken him to get help as a child, it is entirely possible that he may not have turned out to be the “psycho” after all. But, mother will always be with Norman; and no woman is allowed to take the place of her in his life.

bates_motelWell, here we are! At the crossroads between seasons four and five. This upcoming season is sure to terrify and excite as we buildup to the single most famous scene in all of cinema history. The reason the shower scene is the single most famous scene can be recognized by analyzing the length, actions, and sounds included in those few seconds. You can learn more about that scene by reading my article The “Attraction” of  Horror: a “Psycho”analysis. After more than 50 years, the Bates Motel and Norman still haunt our dreams and provide direction and inspiration for today’s cinematic storytellers. An interesting thought on the direction of these immortal characters and setting is the potential for a live theatrical production. There is certainly enough dialog driven material that Psycho and Bates Motel can easily be translated into a live theatre experience. It takes rich material to be able to be so versatile. Here’s to the final season of A&E and Universal Television’s five year homage to the infamous and macabre happenings at the Bates Motel. Thank you Hitchcock for truly being the master of suspense.

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The “Attraction” of Horror: a ‘Psycho’analysis (part 2 of 2)

UnivHollywood_BatesMotelSuccessful movie-themed attractions (stage shows or rides) create an atmosphere that is often built upon a foundation consisting of confrontation and direct simulation rather than long, sustained narratives (King, 2000). This is true of the horror film as well. Horror is a genre nearly as old as cinema itself. The horror film, according to Linda Williams, contains three basic elements: narrative, character, and setting. These same elements can be found in movie-themed attractions at theme parks (2000).

Regarding Psycho in particular, the setting consists of very liminal* spaces such as the opening hotel, the Bates house, and bathroom. This same idea can be applied to a theme park attraction because the park guests are often corralled into smaller, intimate places that serve to advance the next element. Narrative is the foundation that both themed attractions and movies are built upon. The narrative, or diegesis, is the story. Diegetically, horror films contain a story that is segmented into the following sequence: order–>disorder–>order. Increasingly, the modern horror film is often left in disorder, or an order that is dissimilar from the original (2000). Movie-themed attractions usually introduce the park guests to a short-form story based on the original, and the ride is the vehicle that takes the guests through the story that can consist of threats and chases, followed by triumphs. In regards to the character element, the characters are those who are the instruments through which the plot is advanced. Normally, characters are people or animals, but can also be inanimate objects of significance (Williams, 2000). The park guests usually encounter characters from the source material along the journey of the ride.

HitchcockBirds“Alfred Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies” (Universal Studios Florida) was divided up into four distinct parts, with the famous shower scene being the central focus (ThePsychoMovies.com, 2014). Just like a horror movie is divided up into parts, or has a cinematic structure, so too did the Hitchcock attraction. Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies was divided up into the following areas: preshow, 3D theatre, Psycho stage, and interactive area. There are may parallels between the famous shower scene and the live attraction. In the movie, the sequence leading up to the shower scene is very much a preshow in the same way the attraction contains a preshow area. The preshow in the movie is when Norman is gazing through the peephole into the room of Marion as she undresses. Just like Norman is visually gathering information about Marion, the park guests in the preshow area gather information about Hitchcock’s career. The preshow is the area that preps the audience for what they are too experience. By using the same principles of creating suspense that Hitchcock used, the preshow area reveals just enough to elicit feelings of anticipation and anxiousness.

Next, the park guests sit through clips of 3D versions of Dial M for Murder and The Birds. This preps the mind for experiencing the horror in the next room. Likewise, between the time Norman looked upon Marion through the peephole and puts on the wig and dress, he sits in the kitchen and presumably debates with mother on what to do. Following that scene, we return to the bathroom and enter the shower with Marion. After the 3D movie, the park guests enter the Hitchcock Stage and look upon recreations of the motel, shower, and house.

The main show at the attraction is the Hitchcock Stage where the infamous shower scene is reenacted before a live audience. In addition to the Bates House and Motel, there is a recreation of the tub/shower used by Hitchcock to film the scene. At this point in the movie, Marion is thoroughly enjoying her shower, and the audience gets both objective and subjective camera shots from inside and outside the shower. All of a sudden a shadowy figure approaches the opaque shower curtain and throws it open, wielding a knife. The sinister figure stabs Marion repeatedly and through more than fifty cuts (editing cuts), the scene is played before the people in the dark. Likewise, this same scene is brought to life for the studio audience at Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies. Through mechanical engineering and film production techniques, the cast of the show reveals how the master of suspense filmed this iconic scene.

HitchcockAttractionFinalRoomFollowing the show on the Hitchcock Stage, the park guests walk into a museum-like interactive room revealing many of Hitchcock’s secrets and techniques in some of his most notable films. It parallels the end of Psycho when the psychiatrist is analyzing Norman and explaining how and why he did what he did. Just like Norman is the master of slasher films, so is Hitchcock the master of the art of suspense and horror cinema. A close reading of these areas reveals that they each take an element of the setting, narrative, or characters and use the tool of spectacle to bring them to life for the live audience. The preshow area acts as the prime for the horror/suspense pump that is gearing up. Watching the 3D scenes from The Birds and Dial M for Murder serves to generate feelings of ensuing chaos and acts as the big event that causes something to go wrong in the otherwise narrative that is in order (remember: orderdisorderorder). Following the 3D Theatre, is the central Psycho stage that takes any order and casts it to the wind and enables the horror of the shower scene to come to life for the naked eyes of the audience.

Hitchcock AttractionThis was a main attraction at the theme park until its dismantlement in 2002 to make way for the Shrek: 4D experience. From the aforementioned explanation by one of the producers of the attraction, the audience was completely immersed in the magic of bringing a Hitchcock thriller to life, and got to witness the most famous single scene in all of cinema history. This was all done with practical effects, just as Hitchcock would have done it. But, with the advent of computer generated imagery and incredibly accurate and time efficient non-linear video editing, most of the effects can be generated in other ways. Although it remained one of the most popular attractions at the theme park until its closure, Universal saw the future of attractions and decided to do away with nostalgia and pave the way for digital simulated attractions (Singer, 2013).

Click HERE for Part 1

*(adjective) 1. of or relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process; 2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold

The “Attraction” of Horror: a ‘Psycho’analysis (part 1 of 2)

HitchcockAttractionJust as audiences are fascinated by horror movies and seek to watch that which would be repulsive in real-life, they are equally fascinated in immersing themselves into the experience by way of a theme park attraction. This phenomenon is not limited to horror movies, because rides like Jurassic Park the Ride (Jurassic Park River Adventure in Florida), Revenge of the Mummy, and Pirates of the Caribbean beckon millions of guests a year. In addition to attractions based on the movies, movie studio executives and theme park engineers created attractions that embody what Carl Leammle first envisioned, by taking the audience behind the magic of the movies. This is the case with the (now closed) Backlot Tour at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies at Universal Studios Florida (Murdy, 2002). The relationship between the cinema and theme parks is a strong one and creates an energetic synergy that entertains millions of people each year by eliciting laugher, screams, tears, and smiles.

BatesMotelFloridaThe most admired and revered part on the famous studio tour at Universal Studios Hollywood is the Bates House and Motel. As the tram passes the iconic motel and house that set the bar against which all other slasher films would be judged, an actor portraying Norman Bates charges toward the tram wielding the famous butcher’s knife (Murdy, 2002). Even though the audience knows this is a tour behind the scenes of the most utilized backlot and studio in the world (Milman, 2001), there is something uniquely special about this chance encounter on the tour. And, that something is what the designers of the guest experience on the studio tour use to bring about the successful convergence combining both the original movie and the live experience. In order to successfully complete the transposition from the movie to the live experience, the attraction designers tapped into the uncanny or unheimlich (Freud, 1919) of Psycho and utilized the elements of terror and shock to facilitate the aura of horror that exists just by looking upon the timeless motel and house.

Psycho_SoundstageCentral to Psycho and the single most famous scene in cinema history (Cosgrove, 2013) is the groundbreaking shower scene. And, it is the highlighted element at the former Universal Studios Florida attraction Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies. One of the opening day attractions located in the former Production Central area of the park (Singer, 2013), this attraction took park guests into the world of suspense and horror as meticulously crafted and defined by Alfred Hitchcock (ThePsychoMovies.com). Although it was replaced with a less critically important and pivotal movie themed attraction in 2002 (mostly to attract younger audiences), it is an excellent example of the fusion of horror cinema and themed entertainment attractions. In addition to the Art of Making Movies attraction, there was a recreation of the infamous motel and house in the park built for the filming of Psycho IV: The Beginning in 1989-90 (MovieMassacre.com, 2014). For those who have seen Psycho, the very sight of the motel and house is enough to strike fear into the mind and bloodstream. It is representative of the very best that horror cinema is able to offer society. In no attraction, based off a work of horror, is there a better example of the very essence of horror films than in the synergistic experience of beholding the four-fold elemental process of the Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies attraction (Singer, 2013).

PsychoShowerClensePrior to ‘psycho’analyzing  the attraction of horror, it is imperative to understand why the shower scene is the single most famous scene in all cinema. The shower scene is a roller-coaster of emotions; and, in many ways, this scene in and of itself follows the basic structure of a story (introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement). The scene begins with Marion closing the shower curtain as we get a closeup shot of her face as the shower turns on.  Given this closeup, the facial expressions are easily denoted on her face. The flows of emotions on her face resemble the face of someone who is being cleansed from or baptized for their transgressions. This emotional transition is made more clear when comparing this scene to the earlier one with Marion and Norman in the office when she suddenly feels as if she “stepped into a private trap” and wants to see if she “can step back out of it” (Psycho, 1960). In addition to the metaphoric sin cleansing affect of the shower, Marion is also physically and emotionally exposed and vulnerable. And, what about that showerhead? Throughout the movie, there are eyes on Marion (real estate buyer, boss, police officer, mother’s eye, etc…). The frequent cuts to the showerhead essentially imply the showerhead as yet another eye watching Marion. Furthermore, the frequent cuts to the showerhead also help to create the sensation that something is not right.

Following the symbolic cleansing in the shower, the audience witnesses the shadowy figure emerging from the bathroom door and walking up to the infamous shower. Due to Hitchcock’s use of the cinematic rule of thirds, we are already expecting the entrance of someone before the door ever opens. Through the eyes of the camera, we see Marion’s private space is violated by this shadowy figure. The camera slowly zooms in to the figure through the opaque curtain until the moment when the shadow throws open the curtain and there is a closeup of Marion’s face exhibiting total terror as the knife is raised against her.

PsychoShowerScreamImmediately after the shots of Marion’s iconic scream and the knife, the speed of the cuts increases exponentially. Aside from having to creatively cut the film in such a way that neither Marion’s naked body nor a knife officially penetrating her body is seen, the speed was necessary to enhance the disorientation and violence of the relatively short montage. Through both objective and subjective shots, we are both mother and Marion within hundredths of seconds of one another. The precise cuts in the film give the illusion that Marion is being stabbed multiples times; however, there is only one shot that captures the knife barely penetrating Marion’s vulnerable and exposed flesh. The terrifying key to this scene is the fact that very little violence is actually seen; most of what is shock-inducing is what is not seen and implied through the artful use of music, cuts, and angles. Hitchcock once said, “there’s nothing more frightening than an unopened door.” This implies that there is a greater fear of what in unseen than that which is visible in the diegesis on the screen.

MarionCraneEyeIt is nearly impossible to closely read this scene without acknowledging the most famous orchestral screeches in cinema history. Those famous screeches greatly enhance the disorientation and terror of the scene. Coming out of nowhere, the terrifying sounds from the orchestra create the sound design for the knife penetrating Marion and slashing her to death. One could cut to black and allow the music to be heard throughout this iconic scene, and the audience would still feel anxious, macabre feelings and shock. Interestingly, this same action would also reveal how short the shower scene really is. Regarding the sound design, there is much more of the water heard than the sounds of murder. Following the murder, the score greatly slows down and deepens. This musical movement allows the audience to reflect upon what has just occurred and begin to contemplate the various consequences of mother’s actions.  Lastly, the camera slowly spirals out from Marion’s eyes symbolizing that everything Marion planned has just gone down the drain through this seemingly random act of violence, and then there is a cut to the drain of the bathtub itself cementing this metaphoric notion. Keeping with the reoccurring theme of eyes, this also reinforces the fact that the eye is the window to the soul and someone is always watching.

CONTINUED NEXT WEEK. Check back next Monday 🙂

BatesMotelAETVDon’t forget to watch Bates Motel on A&E tonight! It’s the season finale and it’s going to be intense!

On Cinema and Theme Parks (part 1)

My BookDo you love learning about the magic of movies and theme parks? So do I! Living in Tampa, I am surrounded by some of the world’s top destination white sand beaches and exciting theme parks just up the road. As a passholder to Disney World, Universal Studios, Busch Gardens, and SeaWorld, I frequent the parks nearly as often as I go the cinema. Having spent a great deal of time working in independent film, working for three years at Disney World, and now as a cinema and theme park critic, I have a great deal of passion for both storytelling mediums. And the amazing thing is that there is such a fantastic and symbiotic relationship between the two. Hence why I spent my Master’s program at the University of South Florida studying the place at which both converge. Specifically, I researched the elements of narrative, spectacle, pleasure, character, setting and more in terms of how they correspond with one another. Whether that is taking a movie and developing it into an attraction or taking an attraction (or entire section of a park) and developing it into a movie. Both are powerful means of conveying a story or message. I delve into what it takes for a movie to be a successful attraction or vice versa.

Although there have been peer-reviewed articles and books written on cinema, there definitely lacked empirical research on the theme park side. Furthermore, most peer-reviewed articles and books are so incredibly boring and pretentious to read. My goal was to break down both and write about them in such a way that it is fun to read about. Movies and theme parks are FUN! So, reading about the relationship between the two should be equally fun and interesting. Starting with the history of how cinema influenced the modern theme park design and finishing with some of what to expect in the future, this book has it all! Although I would prefer that you buy my book (on Amazon), I have selected excerpts from it that I will publish over the next few weeks as I work on my next theme park piece. I hope you enjoy!


 

WDW CastleIn today’s world of entertainment, where some media conglomerates own both film studios and theme parks, successful films sometimes bridge these two media to create the basis for new theme park attractions. The following research study seeks to define the elements that a film needs in order to be successfully translated to a live themed entertainment experience, thus eliciting the desired emotional response from the guests; and also the necessary elements that a theme park attraction needs in order to convey both spectacle and narrative regarding the film upon which it is based.  Although there are tools currently available to studio executives and creative staff at entertainment companies, this study will serve as a model using the ideas, theories, supporting evidences, and streamlining them into one study—a consolidation of tools, if you will.

As media companies grow, and both cinema and theme parks adapt to changing needs and desires of movie patrons and park guests, the leadership at these companies needs to have the appropriate information at their fingertips to create effective and memorable stories for the screen and park. This study highlights what the potential park guests or movie patrons are looking for in terms of what drives them to spend money on themed entertainment or the cinema. Condensing this complex set of desires into a simplified answer: in terms of cinema-based attractions, the audience is searching for attractions and rides that immerse themselves into a participatory environment in which they make a difference in the story and encounter the unique characters, settings, and plots from the movie.—they want to be viscerally engaged and transported into a world of fantasy or adventure.

Universal HollywoodEver since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, audiences from around the world have been drawn to the temple of the height of the visual and performing arts, the cinema. In many ways, the early days regarded the cinema as an attraction, an amusement. In fact, many of the first silent films were shown in carnivals. Nickelodeons dotted the landscape in drug stores and clubs. Elaborate and ornate movie palaces housed some of the first big screens, and orchestras played along with the narrative (Gunning, 1986). Over the last century, cinema has gone from existing in sideshows to being a dominant mass communication source that has evolved into the very rollercoaster to which many critics and lay people compare it; and, not only metaphorically.

From starting in carnivals to now being the inspiration for the most visited theme parks in the world, cinema has gone full circle and is now instrumental in an unparalleled synergy with themed entertainment. Over the decades, there has been a strong convergence between cinema and theme parks. Studio executives, filmmakers, and theme park designers are working together in ways that serve to support both the movies and the parks that have rides based on the movies. More than ever, filmmakers and attraction designers need to know what the cinema patron and park guest both want in order to create a synergistic and dynamic entertainment experience based on a single narrative.

Hitchcock AttractionTwo of the greatest forces in media and entertainment are the cinema and theme parks; and for the latter part of the 20th Century and continuing strong into the 21st, the convergence between the cinema and theme park is becoming clear. Additionally, within the last several years, theme park attractions have inspired movies (e.g. Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion). The relationship between the movies and theme parks is a strong one, but why is that so? Can one exist without the other? Or, is it a co-dependent relationship that benefits both entities? Perhaps it is all of the above. But, not every successful movie makes an equally successful theme park attraction. Often times, it is the Horror and Action genres that are used as the inspiration for successful attractions (e.g. ET-The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, The Bates House and Motel, and Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies).

As technology advances, the cinema and theme parks have adapted and evolved over the years to include the technology to both impress audiences and save money. Still building off the success of the cinema, theme parks have evolved their rides and attractions to go from the magic behind the movies to immersing the audience or guests into the movie itself. Likewise, studios and production companies are producing movies that act as attractions themselves. But, central to this study are the questions: why is it essential for the cinema to continue this synergy with the theme park industry, and what does it take for a movie to be a successful theme park attraction?

(Continue to Part 2)