“Give them pleasure. The same pleasure they
have when they wake up from a nightmare.”
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.
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.