In “Psycho,” What are the Underlying Meanings of the Character Names?

In the opening scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), we first see Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) with her lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), in a hotel room. Although she has taken a long lunch break from work to have pre-marital sex, Marion tells Sam that she really wants marriage and respectability. He reminds her that he’s divorced and must pay alimony, also making good on his father’s debts, when he has only a low-income job at a hardware store. He promises he will marry Marion when he is in a better financial situation to support them. Marion’s first name,* with its phonetic implication that she is the marry-in’ kind, underlines her deep concern over the question of marriage. Considering that she absconds with stolen money from her office and dies without ever getting married, though, the use of the name evoking marriage may be an ironic choice, as well as a device to emphasize how severely she sabotages her goal when she steals the money. Similarly, Marion is shown in the first scene wearing white lingerie, giving off an angelic, bridal image. After she steals, we see her in black underwear, signaling the loss of both her virtue and her marriage prospects. (Likewise, the color of her purse changes from white to black.)

(*As an aside - Apparently, the name of the female character in the book was Mary, but the film changed it to Marion because of clearance issues – there were two Mary Cranes living in Phoenix.)

Marion’s last name, Crane, is of course a type of bird. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), the proprietor of the motel where Marion stops in a rainstorm after stealing the money, reveals during supper in a parlor behind his office that he is an amateur taxidermist. He notes that he has a special interest in stuffing birds because they are passive creatures. Marion’s last name foreshadows that she will become one of these dead creatures, a victim of Norman’s damaged psychology that forces his sexual desires into a knife-wielding homicidal rage against the passive female body. References to birds surround Marion: there are pictures of birds in Marion’s room at the motel; Norman ominously comments that Marion, true to her last name, “eats like a bird,” and the two eat dinner together flanked by stuffed dead birds at the motel. Another interpretation is that Marion is, like the stuffed birds, already dead inside because her life is empty. Early in the story, when Marion returns to work from her lunchtime rendezvous, we see a painting of an Arizona desert behind Marion’s desk. Does the desert hint at Marion’s barren life? Or, does it point to her infertility, thus indicating that her biological clock is ticking since she has no children? Can it be morality has a difficult time growing within her? Maybe the painting points to all of these things.

Norman Bates’ name is equally evocative. “Norman” suggests the word “normal,” and the character does appear to be an average, harmless person on the surface. But, of course, he is anything but normal, as we learn when we witness his psychotic homicidal tendencies. The name Norman also sounds like nor man, with the suggestion that, while his sex is male, part of him is a reincarnation of his mother. So, in fact, he is neither woman “nor man,” but both in the same body.

As for his surname, “Bates and “baits” are homophones – thus the film implies Norman is trying to trap someone with his innocent appearance. Hitchcock purportedly cast Anthony Perkins in this role because the actor was considered boyishly handsome, and his innocent looks belied the violent, psychopathic nature of the character. Thus Hitchcock encouraged his audience to sympathize with Norman’s character, only to be stunned when they witness his acts of violence.