A Different Kind of “Psycho”?

I wanted a compelling opener to this feature article, and ironically one fell into my lap. I recently experienced someone in what I understand is a dissociative state. The someone who’s closer to me than anyone else in the world: my wife. It didn’t last long, but it scared me. A bit of background: neither of us ever do any drugs, nor do we drink alcohol to excess. Neither of us has any history of psychiatric problems either. She does however have a history of talking in her sleep, going back to when she was a kid. It doesn’t happen often, maybe once or twice a year, and we’ve always had a good laugh about it. Except this time.

It happened right after we went to bed. Totally out of character, she roughly shoved my arm off her and started telling me to “Stop, just stop it, quit asking me to open that! You’ve asked me to open that picture 10 frickin’ times. Enough, stop it!” I hadn’t said or asked a thing, and I had no clue what the hell she was talking about. Her eyes were wide open, and she didn’t seem asleep at all. And her voice was different; it sounded..mean. And understand she is not a mean person at all. We rarely argue or fight, and whenever I’ve upset her it’s always been inadvertently. I don’t think anyone could blame me for getting freaked out. I was saying “What are you talking about? I have no idea what you mean! [her first name], you’re scaring me!” Then it passed. She was suddenly her normal self, and she was totally unaware of what happened. To her, she’d just woken up out of a deep sleep. She had no idea what she’d said or done, and just before she woke up all she heard was my voice going faintly, “What?”

Holy shit.

I told her what happened and how she’d acted and what she said. It was her turn to get freaked out, and she kept apologizing even though I kept telling her, “It’s okay, you didn’t do it on purpose; it’s not your fault.” Nothing like that has happened since (I’m knocking on wood here), but it was goddamn scary. It did briefly feel like a scene of life imitating art. The underlying cause was most likely stress, since dissociative states like this can affect people both with and without some existing underlying psychological issue.

So the whole point to this: Dissociative “black-outs” are not just the stuff of fiction that Norman experiences. They do happen, and to say the least they can be unsettling. In this feature, I’m going to cover the psychiatric definitions and proposed causes of these altered mental states, explore the role of dissociative states on the big and small screens, look at the roles/implications of dissociative states in violent/criminal behavior, and finally share some other fascinating things I found in my research.

Psychogenic Amnesia

The preferred term in the psychiatric/medical communities is “fugue state,” rather than “black-out” to describe these periods of unexplained memory loss accompanied by speech, behaviors and actions the person is unaware of and later can’t remember. The broadest category of this phenomena is called “psychogenic amnesia,” and there are a few sub-categories of it, namely global and situational psychogenic amnesia. The global variety involves a sudden loss of all autobiographical memories, sometimes even one’s basic sense of self. The situational type can have several varieties, but one commonly-observed one is when a person temporarily loses all past memories but is able to recall more immediate events. In either types of these fugue episodes, up to 50% of the people who experience them have suffered a head injury at some point in the past. Preceding any form of psychogenic amnesia are often depression, suicidal thoughts, severe stress or disturbing memories of past traumas.

Dissociative Identity Disorder

This form of dissociation used to be called “Multiple Personality Disorder,” and it’s generally the one that’s garnered the most notoriety and is the most familiar. Although there have been well-documented cases of it, some medical professionals are still skeptical of its existence. They question whether it really is possible for someone to have at least two distinct personalities that are totally unaware of one another. While the history and specifics of DID could take up a whole lengthy blog post on their own, I’ll touch on a few of its important characteristics as they may be part of the dark force driving Norma(n) to kill.

Clinicians report over and over that severe child abuse is the most common cause of DID in those cases that have been documented. The victim’s personality essentially splinters apart as he or she grows up, as a protective coping mechanism against such trauma. The separate personalities are manifestations of specific, intense emotions tied to repressed memories of the abuse. According to Glenn Saxe’s “Dissociation and Criminal Responsibility: A Developmental Perspective,” the way these separate personalities are viewed by attending psychiatrists is critical for determining competency to stand trial for crimes that someone with DID may have committed as one of the “alters.” Legal experts, the psychiatric community, and to some extent the public all have conflicting views about how accountable someone with DID can be held for criminal acts. Some believe the diagnosis precludes criminal responsibility while others believe it does not.

Given the events of Norma Louise in Season 3, one could put forth a plausible theory that Norman’s personality really started to break apart for good when she ran out on him and Dylan, even though it was only for about 24 hours. This was of course the first time he had a supposed “alter” appear and take over his actions, that alter being Norma.

Interestingly enough, according to a published theory called the Discrete Behavioral States Model (Saxe), he would not be held criminally liable for murdering Bradley in the Season 3 finale. I could say the same for the murder of Ms. Watson in Midnight, if in fact he did do it. Call me crazy, but I still have one nagging grain of skepticism in my mind that he actually did commit that one. Anyway, this behavioral model does not assign “personhood” to an alter in the same way, considering them “nonpersonlike parts of one deeply divided individual,” and the actions of these nonpersonlike parts are completely involuntary on the part of the “born” or “dominant” personality. This is only one school of thought concerning DID and criminal responsibility. Others counter that while many violent acts are committed in a mental state that falls on the dissociation spectrum, the born personality is still aware on some level of what’s happening and therefore can be held liable. This debate over DID and criminal behavior is ongoing in the medical, legal and psychiatric communities.

Not Necessarily One and the Same

The “Psycho” name in both the classic film franchise and in Bates Motel has been a reference to psychopathy in many viewers’ minds, since of course Norman (or anyone, really) would need to have this level of insanity to commit so many knife-blade murders. Right? Only one reference to his “blacking out” comes up in the original Robert Bloch novel, and it’s cited as an effect of his getting drunk on whiskey. He then “goes to sleep” so that Norma’s personality can take over. The writer quickly moves on and shifts back to the brutality of the murders. Anyone who does this would have to be a total psychopath, yes? Not so fast.

According to its strict clinical definition, there are no fugue states accompanying psychopathy in its standard diagnosis. The condition is characterized by a lack of empathy towards others, a superficially charming and charismatic personality, a lack of ability to form emotional attachments with anyone, and a lack of qualms about using other people as means to an end. Thinking over the course of these three seasons so far, I honestly don’t think of Norman when I think of most of those traits. The obvious intense emotional relationship with Norma aside, he does make friends and show plenty of concern and empathy for others–namely Emma, Cody and even Dylan once he isn’t fighting with him anymore. He also shows plenty of genuine emotion arguably too much at times. And as sweet as Norman can be at times, the words “charismatic” and “superficially charming” don’t come to mind when I think about him either. Especially in earlier seasons, he’s shy and awkward, and he has a certain level of charm, but it’s purely accidental and comes off as endearing (at least to me) rather than menacing.

SO, if we’re going strictly with the picture of a psychopath that criminal profilers paint for us, the theory that Norman in Bates Motel is one…well, it starts to show less validity than before. As the FBI’s Law Enforcement Bulletin on psychopathy points out, psychopaths do not lose touch with reality, and their criminal actions are not the results of a loss of emotional control–rather they’re carefully planned well ahead of time. It seems to me that the “Psycho” moniker assigned to both the films and the series reflects how psychopathy is one of the most notorious yet one of the most-frequently-misunderstood personality disorders in existence.

Real-Life “Black-Out” Murders?

Situation-specific forms of psychogenic amnesia have been reported by a noticeable percentage of people who commit violent crimes, including murder. As many as 40% of people who commit “crimes of passion” murders report this kind of temporary fugue state. Many indeed claim to have “blacked out” and are unable to recall events immediately before and during the crime. The presence of situation-specific psychogenic amnesia presents unique challenges for both defense and prosecution attorneys. So many different variables factor into getting a proper diagnosis of situation-specific psychogenic amnesia that can be admitted in a court of law. The possible occurrence of a fugue state in a suspected killer has implications for his or her competency to stand trial. Testimony from a forensic psychiatrist is required, and even then findings are often prone to subjective interpretation.

The most current version of the DSM IV places dissociative disorders in five categories for purposes of interpretation in criminal as well as clinical cases:

  1. Dissociative amnesia
  2. Dissociative fugue
  3. Dissociative identity disorder
  4. Depersonalization disorder
  5. Dissociative disorder not otherwise specified

From the lengthy and rather dense readings I’ve done on this subject matter, I can say with confidence that the doctors at Pinehurst would have a challenging task at hand placing Norman definitively into one of these five categories. I’d say chances are good he’d end up with a diagnosis of dissociative disorder NOS. Out of 13 symptoms of classic DID listed in “Objective Documentation of Child Abuse and Dissociation,”(Lewis, Yeager, Swica et al) he’s got seven of those, which leaves room for at least some question marks. But the biggest unanswered question is this: if severe childhood abuse is the supposed cause, when did that happen to him? And who did it? If we’re to believe the beginning events of season 1, his father abused Norma but not him–at least not that was ever mentioned. Unfortunately large numbers of kids grow up watching spousal abuse occur between their parents, and that alone isn’t enough to trigger DID. Don’t try to tell me that his close-if-rather-dysfunctional relationship with Norma would be enough to trigger it, either. Variations (and more positive ones) of that consanguinous love happen over and over in real life, and it can be the furthest thing from the abuse that supposedly causes DID. To assume the opposite would not only be a fallacy but a travesty, far as I’m concerned.

An additional interesting note: roughly five out of every 12 patients suspected of having DID have an alternate personality who’s an embodiment of a parent, whose primary role is comforting and care-taking. Descriptions I read of the real-life cases of child abuse that happened to some DID sufferers are horrendous and difficult to get through, and I can only hope the abusers eventually got what was coming to them. But that kind of abuse still remains glaringly absent in Norman’s history, at least as far as audiences have been led to believe. So where did this darkness in him come from? It didn’t just spontaneously spring out of nowhere. The fact an exact etiology remains a mystery is one of the many things that keeps me fixated on this whole story arc.

Hitchcock, Dissociation, and the Elusive Etiology

Psycho is not the only Alfred Hitchcock film that makes scary, suspenseful use of dissociation. The same effect showed up for story effect in Spellbound and Vertigo. Spellbound tells the dark tale of a new doctor at a mental institution who suffers from fugue episodes and eventually appears not to be what he seems. It comes to light that Dr. Edwards suffers from tramua-induced amnesia that has put him out of touch with his tragic past, driving him to assume another doctor’s identity. Scottie, the main character in Vertigo, suffers serious post-tramuatic stress that involves dissociative black-outs, vertigo and fear–stemming from watching a friend fall to his death from a rooftop while trying to save Scottie’s life. In both of these movies made before Psycho, the dissociative states and heightened emotional stress of these characters are conveyed with unsettling camera cuts and angles, along with the characteristic Hitchcock-employed camera position that makes the audience feel uncomfortably like voyeurs.

The big difference with Scottie and Dr. Edwards: they have definite root causes (etiologies) of their psychogenic amnesia, black-outs, and detachment from reality. Norman does not. In “Dissociation in the Movies,” he’s simply listed as having a split personality and the etiology is “unknown.” More verification of the mystery’s existence. Like Norma said at the end of Season 3: “You need help. Help I cannot give you.” Since the whole Psycho/Bates Motel saga leaves that etiology unknown, it’s up to us the audience to spin our imaginative wheels and fill in those gaps with possible “why’s.” To me, it deepens both the mystery and the tragedy of this story arc.

Sources/Recommended Reading:

On psychogenic amnesia: http://www.human-memory.net/disorders_psychogenic.html and http://apt.rcpsych.org/content/15/2/152

Amnesia and Crime: http://www.jaapl.org/content/35/4/469.full#sec-2

Dissociation and Violence

Dissociation and Criminal Responsibility

Dissociative and Somatoform Disorders


2004 Butler & Palesh [Spellbound] JTD: Dissociation in the Movies

Psychopathy The Basics

Psychopathy Law Enforcement Bulletin