Of Alfred Hitchcock’s long and varied career, perhaps no single sequence is better known than the Psycho shower scene from his 1960 thriller, Psycho. Spawning three sequels and a remake, Psycho is considered one of Hitchcock’s finest masterpieces. Psycho is an unusual “phobia film,” as it does not directly portray a phobia. Instead, the film generated or exacerbated a specific phobia, the fear of showering, in legions of movie fans.
Psycho is almost two films in one. The first part follows Marion Crane, a Phoenix secretary who embezzles $40,000 from her boss to start a new life with her boyfriend Sam in California. On the way, she stops for the night at the Bates Motel. After a long talk with the innkeeper, Norman Bates, who is trapped under the weight of a failing motel and a sickly old mother, Marion decides to return the money before her own trap closes.
Vowing to return to Phoenix in the morning, Marion retires to her room to take a shower. In one of cinema’s most horrifying scenes, she is brutally stabbed by an old woman in a long dress. Norman arrives too late, but like the dutiful son he carefully cleans the room and disposes of the body and the evidence in the swamp.
The second half of Psycho is a detective story, as Marion’s boyfriend, her sister Lila and a private detective named Arbogast attempt to find her. During the course of investigation, Arbogast is killed in the Bates mansion and the local police chief reveals that Mrs. Bates has been dead for ten years, having poisoned her boyfriend and herself. Eventually Lila and Sam go to the Bates home, where Sam distracts Norman while Lila investigates. She discovers that Mrs. Bates is a decaying corpse. Norman, wearing a dress and wig, attacks her, but Sam manages to overpower him.
In the final scene, a psychiatrist has questioned Norman Bates. It is revealed that Norman actually murdered his mother and her boyfriend, but could not bear to live without her. A skilled taxidermist, he preserved her body and soon developed a multiple personality. It was the Mother side of Norman that committed the murder.
The Shower Scene
The shower scene in which Marion is killed is considered one of the most stunning and horrifying scenes of all time. It is this scene that makes Psycho worthy of inclusion on a list of top phobia-inducing films. Legions of fans claim that for many years following their first viewing of this film, they refused to take showers. It is difficult to prove the truth of this claim, but shower phobia is a legitimately documented phobia, and if any film moment could induce it, this would be the one.
Hitchcock was concerned about the potential goriness of the scene, so he decided to shoot the entire film in black and white to soften the effect. Since stage blood tends to look gray in black and white, he used chocolate syrup as the blood.
The shower scene has long been studied in film classes as a preeminent example of masterful editing. The scene is highly unique, as the camera becomes the knife. It has been claimed that the knife never actually pierces the skin, but this is technically untrue. In three frames, the knife penetrates the skin just below the navel about ¼ of an inch. Regardless, the decision to shoot the scene in close-up from the point of view of the knife itself both limited the gore and made the scene much more personal to the audience than most on-screen attacks.
Filming the shower scene took seven days and more than 70 separate camera angles. Interestingly, it is often claimed that while Anthony Perkins (Norman) was present for the filming of the shower scene, Janet Leigh (Marion) was replaced by a body double. The truth is actually the opposite. According to interviews with both actors, Janet Leigh actually played the role of Marion for the duration of the shower scene, although a stand-in was used for the next sequence, when Norman wraps Marion’s body in the shower curtain for disposal. However, Anthony Perkins did not perform that scene. He was in New York rehearsing for a play, and a body double was used for Mother. That is the reason that Mother’s face is darkened in the scene.
Psycho was met with a mixed reaction upon its initial release. Some critics panned the film, while others declared it a masterpiece. There were no advance screenings for press or critics, and Perkins and Leigh were forbidden from doing the usual prerelease interviews for fear of giving away the plot. Additionally, audience members were not permitted to enter the theater after the film began.
These factors greatly increased the anticipation in the minds of audiences. During the shower scene, it is said that people fainted, vomited and ran screaming from the theater. An onscreen attack had never before been captured in such a personal way. In the frenzy, it is easy to believe that at least some fans’ terror mushroomed into a full-blown phobia.
Today it is highly unlikely for a new shower phobia to be triggered by Psycho. The 1980s slasher films desensitized us to brutal attacks in the movies. Nonetheless, if you already have a tendency toward a fear of showers or a fear of attack, it would not be surprising for Psycho to push you over the edge.
American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.