Two actors who portrayed Norman Bates side by side. Right side Freddie Highmore in Bates Motel and left side Anthony Perkins in Psycho.

Understanding Bates Motel as a Transmedia Text


One of the posters of the first season of Bates Motel. Norma and Normal are sitting on a bed in a bedroom, with the title 'Bates Motel' appearing by the side.
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Bates Motel is a prequel reboot of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho. The series premiered in March 2013. Starring Vera Farmiga, Freddie Highmore, Max Thieriot, Olivia Cooke, and Nestor Carbonell. It is about the story of how Norman Bates became the killer that we see in Alfred Hitchcock’s Pycho. Unlike Psycho, the television series is set in the present day. The show has received great praise from television and film critics for its creative plotlines. As well as the talented performances by Farmiga and Highmore, who portray Norma and Norman Bates.

By rebooting the franchise, Carton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin, the producers of the series, created a new story. This made it possible to add more to the original story. By doing so, they were able to provide more depth to the characters. For example, unlike Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and the novel Psycho written by Robert Bloch, the family dynamics of the Bates family is explored in-depth in the series. This is essential to explaining the transformation of Norman Bates. From when he was a socially awkward teenager to the cosplaying psychopathic murderer in the Psycho film.  

In her book The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart, Noel Carroll explains that “he is Nor-man: neither man nor woman but both. He is son and mother. [Norman] is of the living and the dead. […] both victim and victimizer. He is two persons in one.” The difference between Bates Motel, the film Psycho and the book Psycho is that in Bates Motel, the viewer gets the opportunity of witnessing Norman’s transformation. The viewer gets to see Norman transitioning from being the victim to becoming the villain throughout 5 seasons.

Why is Bates Motel a Transmedia Text?

Bates Motel is an adaptation of the film Psycho, the most iconic film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock’s Psycho is an adaptation of the book Psycho, written by Robert Bloch.

The simplest way of defining a transmedia text is by saying that it tells the story across multiple platforms. A platform can be television, radio and novels. Bates Motel is a transmedia text because it’s the same story that is being told to an already familiar audience. But it uses a different format to tell its story. Previously, the story was told through a book and a film.  

Two actors who portrayed Norman Bates side by side. Right side Freddie Highmore in Bates Motel and left side Anthony Perkins in Psycho.
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Why did the creators of Bates Motel decide to focus on Norman Bates, before he became the notorious killer?

The producers of Bates Motel decided to depict Norman Bates mother, Norma, as a living person. In Hitchcock’s Psycho, she is portrayed as a dead body. They chose to portray Norma as a living person to distinguish themselves from the texts that Bates Motel is based on. Norma often tells her son, “It’s just you and me Norman. It always has been. We don’t need anyone else”. As a result, Norma and Norman develop a very close relationship. That relationship is only hinted in the film Psycho when Norman tells Marion Crane that, “a son is a poor substitute for a lover”.

Freddie Highmore as Norman Bates.
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The producers did not feel that Bates Motel was tied to the texts that it is based upon. By not being bound to previous Psycho film and novel, it gave them the capacity to surprise the audience. They were able to include unexpected twists and turns that were created by a new take on a well-known story. Carton Cuse, one of the producers of Bates Motel, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, said that Universal was planning on doing a television series on the Psycho franchise. He felt that there was a good audience for it.

What tells apart the audience who watches horror?

As claimed by Deirdre D. Johnston, the audience of the horror genre within film and television can be put into four motivational categories. In addition, those categories can give an overview of why the viewer is watching this genre in the first place.

Scared audience in a cinema, watching a film.
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  1. Gore Watching

    This approach shows liking towards revenge and portrayal of physical violence that the viewer is watching. The viewer gives full attention towards watching ‘victim’ characters dying since the viewer can enjoy watching characters be tortured. In addition, the viewer takes pleasure in how the film or television programme is showcasing gore and blood. This specific viewer is usually identified by having a low level of compassion, increased desire for revenge and lowered levels of fear.

  2. Thrill Watching

    This approach shows the emotional stress and the excitement by watching. However, unlike gore watching, the viewer is watching the horror film or television programme for the thrill. The viewer has a high level of empathy, simultaneously as a craving for adventure.

  3. Independent Watching

    This approach shows that the viewer has a need to prove themselves worthy of watching. The viewer wants to prove that they are fearless or have enough courage by watching a horror film or television series. Like the gore watching category, the viewer in the Independent Watching category has a low level of natural empathy.

  4. Problem Watching

    This approach shows a way of escaping everyday life. While watching the viewer can disconnect from problems everyday life problems. The viewer will search for a thrill in the form of watching fictional characters be put through misery. Bonding frequently bonds with the fictional character in horror films or television series. Usually, the viewer bond with the ‘victim’ character as a way of processing the own problems.

What tells apart the audience who watches Bates Motel?

A couple watching a horror film/tv series at home in front of a TV screen.
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To look at why the audience is watching Bates Motel. We have to establish which motivational categories the audience of Bates Motel falls into.

Bates Motel is not gory, and because of that, it is not the Gore Watching. The audience is not shown explicit scenes where fictional characters are put through torture. Another category that can be excluded is Independent Watching. The reason being is that Bates Motel does not give satisfactory satisfaction to the viewer. Because the viewer does not get their need to prove themselves fulfilled.

That leaves Thrill Watching and Problem Watching. Either one of the categories can be a valid reason for why the viewer is watching Bates Motel. The Thrill Watching category makes the viewer too emotionally invested in the series to stop watching it. While on the other hand, the viewer watching Bates Motel in the Problem Watching category gives the viewer a chance to process their day-to-day life.

Identify the Target Audience for Bates Motel

Friends watching something scary in front of the TV.
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It is possible to say that the audience of Bates Motel is a niche audience. Bates Motel‘s audience is already established by the book Psycho and the film of the same name. By Oxford References definition, a niche audience is “a specific target audience, as opposed to a mass audience”. This made it easier for Bates Motel to appeal to and target audiences. The audiences were already familiar with the concept of Bates Motel from the book and the film Bates Motes is based on.

“Fan accounts of horror and pleasure have tended to centre on self-mythologized ‘first encounters’ between fan and genre, as well as on how ‘being a horror fan’ shifts its experiential meaning between childhood and adulthood. For many horror fans the pleasures of horror are discursively constructed through micro-narratives of biography as well as through notions of belonging to a fan culture and through notions of horror-as-art. Yet in each case fan accounts of the horror genre and its pleasure circle around a discourse of connoisseurship.” – Matt Hills, The Pleasures of Horror

How is Bates Motel taking advantage of being a transmedia text?

Two posters side by side. Right side poster of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and left side poster of Bates Motel.
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“The immediate ancestor of the slasher film is Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Its elements are familiar: the killer is the psychotic product of a sick family but still recognizably human; the victim is a beautiful, sexually active woman; the location is not-home, at a Terrible Place; the weapon is something other than a gun; the attack is registered from the victim’s point of view and comes with shocking sadness. None of these features is original, but the unprecedented success of Hitchcock’s particular formulation.” Berry Keith Grant, The Dread of Difference Gender and the Horror Film

Bates Motel is using Hitchcock’s formulation to appeal to a broader audience. It uses the core concept of the origin story of Norman Bates.  At the same time, it brings the story of Norman Bates to television. Which is a new format for the story. This format is not a scene for scene copy of the previous Psycho film or book. Bates Motel uses the already established target audience of Robert Bloch’s Psycho and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho

Why does the transmedia approach work with horror television series?

Screengrab side by side. Right side Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and left side Bates Motel.
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It is possible to say that horror television series are too weak on their own to establish a loyal and dedicated target audience. Therefore they need to lean onto different texts to gain a bigger audience.  Some of the popular transmedia horror television series include Bates Motel, Teen Wolf, The Vampire Diaries, The Walking Dead, iZombie, True Blood and Dexter.

Bates Motel, The Vampire Diaries, True Blood and Dexter are examples of horror television series. All of the four television series was based on books. The Walking Dead and iZombie are examples of television series that started as comic books before they were adapted into television series. A different example is Teen Wolf which is a teen-horror television series, which is based on a film by the same name


Horror within television has different definitions depending on how one look at it. However, the most general definition of horror within television can be qualified as everything that makes the viewer experience a ‘negative’ emotional response, such as fear. 

Poster for season 3 of Bates Motel.
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Bates Motel is a television series based upon Robert Bloch’s Psycho and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Because of that it is considered as a transmedia text with a niche audience. Bates Motel does not have a target audience that they have established on their own. Still, instead, they are targeting an audience that is already familiar with the text. The creators behind Bates Motel choose to do that to have ‘the upper hand’ on their audience. Because that would allow them to surprise the audience along the series course.

The audience of Bates Motel can be described as Thrill Watching or Problem Watching. That’s because the target audience of Bates Motel does not qualify as Gore Watching and Independent Watching. Also, since Bates Motel is not gory. It does not give the viewer an opportunity to prove themselves worthy of watching Bates Motel.

Bates Motel is a transmedia text to make the television series appear stronger than if it was not a transmedia text. If Bates Motel was not a transmedia text, it would seem too weak on its own. Because of that it needs a transmedia platform. Since it would allow the genre to easily sway across the media, such as TV, film, and books. And allowing the genre to establish a wider audience than it would have otherwise. Bates Motel is a strong transmedia text that uses the familiarity of Psycho to get a wider audience for  Bates Motel.

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