Coolest Movie Sets Ever is a new series at Movies.com celebrating some of the most elaborate, impressive, and possibly even mind-bending movie sets that have given us some of our favorite movies of all time.
The Bates House (often referred to as “The Psycho House”) is one of the most infamous “spooky” houses in all of cinema, and yet, it wasn’t really a house at all. The sinister abode that Norman Bates and his mummified mother called home in Hitchcock’s classic slasher precursor Psycho was actually what filmmakers call a façade – a flat left side and front piece that created the illusion of a real building, with nothing but supports behind it.
The original Bates House was built on the Universal lot back in 1959. Created by art directors Joseph Hurley and Robert Clathworthy, the structure is said to have been at least somewhat inspired by Edward Hopper’s painting The House by the Railroad. Comparing Hopper’s piece (which can be seen here) to the model of the house used on camera, it’s easy to spot the similarities.
Since the actual Bates House and Motel were empty shells, all interior scenes in the locations were filmed on soundstages, also on the Universal lot. The Psycho interiors were housed at 18-A and Stage 28, which were very close to the location of the exteriors – making it relatively painless for the production to move back and forth between shooting spots as needed.
As you can see in this picture, there really were only two sides to the house at the time of Psycho’s shooting. The pieces are placed on the hill overlooking the motel, and propped up using wooden scaffolding. It’s amazing to look behind the curtain and see how the magic is created – and honestly, a little sad, too. The house that looks so real, and terrified so many people, is really just a few pieces of wood and glass propped up by shady looking supports. It’s a testament to the ability of Hitchcock, Clathworthy and Hurley that audiences never realize that the buildings on-screen aren’t really buildings at all.
By 1963, Psycho was already a huge success, but Universal decided to add a third wall (this one on the right side of the house) so that the set could be reused as a location for Westerns like Invitation to a Gunfighter. The addition of this new wall meant that directors could shoot footage of the house from the opposite side, which made it slightly less obvious that it was the same set that had been used in Psycho.
The other reason for the addition of a third side came with the beginnings of Universal’s infamous Studio Tram Tour in 1964. The Bates House and Motel were prominent stops on the guided trip through the Universal lot, and the addition of a third exterior wall helped sell the illusion that Norman Bates’ creepy home was a real dwelling to the customers.
In the early 1980s, the home finally received its fourth wall for the filming of Richard Franklin’s Psycho II and its transformation from a mere façade into a genuine structure was complete. Since the original house had been taken down years prior, Franklin and his team to rebuild the menacing building utilizing blueprints of the original house.
Chronicling all the places The Psycho House has turned up over the years is an exhausting undertaking. The home has been a horror staple for years – appearing in episodes of shows like Thriller and Night Gallery, but it was also featured in Western shows like The Tall Man and Wagon Train.
In 1976, the house got an addition in the form of a porch and veranda prior to its appearance in the miniseries The Captains and the Kings – which was a tale of an Irish immigrant family’s rise to riches, and about as far removed from the world of Norman Bates as you can get. Even Amazing Stories and Murder, She Wrote managed to work the iconic location into episodes.
Over the years, the Bates House has been torn down, moved, rebuilt and received various upgrades, but it will always be instantly recognizable as the place where Norman Bates went a little mad.
To learn more about the history of the Bates House, check out websites Psycho Movies and The Cabinet. You can find even more awesome photos of the set here.
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