“Who’s Afraid of a Shower Curtain?” How Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho Changed the Movie Industry and our Bathroom Habits

By Pia Buchty

“Give them plea­sure. The same plea­sure they

have when they wake up from a nightmare.”

Alfred Hitch­cock

                         

 

A beau­ti­ful blonde woman takes a relax­ing show­er, some­body enters the room, posi­tions him­self behind the show­er cur­tain, then there’s a knife and shriek­ing vio­lins. Does that ring a bell?

To this day, Alfred Hitch­cock is con­sid­ered one of Hollywood’s great­est film­mak­ers, and his mas­ter­piece, Psy­cho (1960), has become part of our col­lec­tive mem­o­ry. Espe­cial­ly the show­er scene is often described as the most pow­er­ful and haunt­ing scene in film his­to­ry. Since the release of Psy­cho, not a sin­gle year has gone by in which the movie – and espe­cial­ly its one-of-a-kind three-minute show­er sequence – has not been ref­er­enced, imi­tat­ed, or par­o­died in pop­u­lar cul­ture. What is it about that scene that caus­es peo­ple to look three ways before tak­ing a show­er? Well, for one the bath­room – nor­mal­ly asso­ci­at­ed with pri­va­cy and safe­ty – turns into an anx­i­ety-induc­ing place where dan­ger lurks behind the show­er cur­tain. Any­thing could hap­pen here – and appar­ent­ly some­times does.

Psy­cho was a low-bud­get pro­duc­tion, filmed in black-and-white. Since Para­mount Pic­tures refused to finance the movie as it involved vio­lence and nudi­ty, Hitch­cock decid­ed to pay for it him­self. The show­er scene includes more than 90 cuts in three min­utes, per­fect­ly syn­chro­nized with the slash­ing of the knife and the screams of the woman (this scene alone took a whole week to shoot). Hitch­cock did not have to explic­it­ly show how Mar­i­on Crane (Janet Leigh), the blonde girl in the show­er, gets stabbed to death – there is no actu­al image of the knife pierc­ing her body. The audi­ence only sees the blood wash­ing down the drain.

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How­ev­er, the killing is not the only unex­pect­ed event. Mar­i­on Crane, thus far the main char­ac­ter, is killed off. Up to this point, Psy­cho tells the sto­ry of a young woman who works in an office, steals mon­ey, and escapes. In any movie, killing off the appar­ent pro­tag­o­nist ear­ly on is nor­mal­ly not advis­able; how­ev­er, Hitch­cock man­ages to turn a sto­ry about a female rob­ber into the sto­ry of a mur­der­ous psy­chopath. By shift­ing the narrative’s focus so dra­mat­i­cal­ly, Hitch­cock makes view­ers feel inse­cure, thus increas­ing their feel­ing of sus­pense. From that point onwards, every view­er knows that the sto­ry will take them to unex­pect­ed places. And almost 60 years lat­er, even though there is very lit­tle that we haven’t seen in a movie, noth­ing makes us hold our breath like the excep­tion­al and icon­ic show­er scene in Psy­cho.

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Pia Buchty, born in 1988 in Aachen, is a stu­dent at Hum­boldt-Uni­ver­sität zu Berlin. After delv­ing into the fields of Dutch Philol­o­gy and Lit­er­ary Stud­ies as well as a brief excur­sion into the world of librar­i­an­ship, she is cur­rent­ly earn­ing her B.A. in Amer­i­can Studies.