7 things the horror genre can learn from A&E’s Bates Motel


Bates Motel

“We are two parts of the same person”

“Both are very real.”

After a five season run, A&E’s Bates Motel has come to a shocking end. Since its 2013 premiere, the show has shifted and evolved, smearing itself across genres. What began as a campy teen flick with hints of dark tragedy and suspiciously creepy behaviour, soon became a fully-fledged psychological horror. The show, which is based on the 1959 suspense novel by Robert Bloch, is a prequel of sorts telling the story of Norman’s youth and his decent into insanity.

Over its four-year run, Bates Motel won the hearts of many unsure Hitchcock fans, winning three Primetime Emmy awards whilst bringing a new and refreshing twist to a genre which has been in desperate need of a shake-up.

While most horror films rely on unrealistic CGI, over-used tropes, and banal scripts, Bates Motel has proved that there is still a place for genuinely good on-screen horror. Warning: Spoilers Ahead

7 things A&E’s Bates Motel can teach the horror genre

Bates Motel

1. There is more to life than horror

It seems counter-intuitive for a horror flick to aim for something more than pure horror, but if Bates Motel has taught us anything it is that backstory matters. You don’t need loads of gore and spooky music to scare someone, you need likeable characters and suspense. When I watch a horror film I don’t want to scream and cover my eyes, I want to feel a shiver run down my spine and my toes curl in my shoes.

We watch horror films because we want the exhilaration of being scared. The problem is if you aren’t invested in the characters, why would you care when one of them is brutally murdered? If the character is stupid enough to follow a noise into a dark basement alone they probably had it coming.

We need fewer stereotypes and more intuitive characters, characters with flaws, interests and relationships outside of the terror that is about to haunt them. Don’t make them good or bad, make them complex. I want to be shown their family relationship, what they do in their spare time, their internal struggles and of course what they eat for breakfast. We need time to care about the banalities of the character’s life before they are destroyed.

Over five seasons, we have seen around 48 people murdered in Bates Motel, of those murders Norman was responsible for nine. When Norman’s alter ego wasn’t taking over we learnt about Norman’s relationship with his mother and brother, his school life, his romantic interests, we saw him fall in love with his disturbing taxidermy hobby, and help his mother around the hotel. We watched Norman’s slow descent into madness, as he struggled to come to terms with his mental health and tried his best to steer himself along the right path before losing touch with reality.

2. The real story isn’t about the victims

Sure victims are important, but the victims aren’t as interesting as the one that is about to put an end to them all.

In modern horror, we are often force-fed explanations for the murderer’s blood thirst. Time and time again we are given scenes where the antagonist stabs their final victim while they explain how their life was filled with tragedy and cruelty, instead of showing us a slice of their life, and what led to that moment.

Modern horrors could take a leaf out of Bates Motel‘s book, and give their antagonists a heart, and a chance to show their story. A murder isn’t made overnight. Sharing their story with us will in and of itself bring a sense of unease, as the audience are forced to deal with our own conflicting feelings. There is nothing worse than feeling guilty for caring about an on-screen murderer as well as their victims.

In Bates Motel, Norman seems like a cute, calm and innocent teen, and he is. But while the optimistic lad has some exceptional qualities, his dark side comes out to help him overcome his own emotional turmoil, retain his relationship with his mother, and of course creepily spy on hotel visitors.

3. Add some humour

Horror can be emotional, serious and scary, while also being humorous.

“Norman, that’s Norma’s dead body in there!”

“Well, I disagree.”

Bates Motel proves that humour isn’t reserved for B-rated horror films. Amusing one-liners can be added without seeming overdone or cheesy. Horror should be given the chance to be dark, heart-wrenching, and messed-up, all the while making you laugh.

4. Put an end to unrealistic CGI

There is nothing worse than an unrealistic scare that was better left to the imagination. Yes, Bates Motel does include CGI, but it does so sparingly.

In season one, the roof of the Bates house was created with special effects. However, after being picked up for its second season, the show opted to say goodbye to the CGI and construct a real roof.

CGI should be a last resort.  Let viewers fill in the blanks.

5. A good soundtrack goes a long way

In 2013 composer Chris Bacon was awarded a Primetime Emmy for ‘Outstanding Music Composition for a Series (Original Dramatic Score)’ for his work on Bates Motel. Released by Lakeshore Records the original soundtrack creates an atmosphere of suspense, romance and despair, with its sombre piano and eerie strings.

While the original score is something to behold, the show also made use of well-loved songs such as Mr. Sandman, Que Sera, Sera, and Dream a Little Dream of Me, contrasting the uplifting tunes against some of the show’s most unsettling scenes.

6. Not all murders are born out of hate and revenge

Hatred, revenge, and hunger for power is a driving factor for most notorious on-screen killers, but for Norman, his murders were a little more complex.

He murdered because he had too much love. He killed to remove outside distractions, to protect the relationship he had with his mother, and in the end, to avoid the reality of being alone.

“Mom, you’re everything. Everything to me. And I don’t ever want to live in a world without you. You’re my family… my whole family, my whole… my whole life, my own self. You always have been.”

“It’s like there’s a cord between our hearts.”

His end goal was not to murder everyone in his sight, it was to be with his mother forever.

7. The end can be moving

*Major Spoilers*

The on-screen death of a murderer is normally rejoiced, as characters bask in their new-found safety. However, the writers over at Bates Motel decided to let Norman go with dignity. While it would have been all too easy to have him killed off by Romero or Sherrif Jane Greene, or even to let him live, the writers opted to give Norman the end he wanted.

In the final scene, Norman wasn’t retributed for his crimes, instead, he was reunited with his mother. In, seemingly, his last moment of sanity, Norman appeared to welcome death, as his brother pulled the trigger.

Collapsing in the arms of his sobbing brother, Norman had a warm vision of his mother and shared his last words.

“Thank you.”

The scene is proof that the finale doesn’t have to be a celebration for those left alive, instead, it can be a heartwarming goodbye to a complex person, both a victim and a murderer, with an uncontrollable dangerous side.

 

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