Marion Crane enters her motel shower and closes the transparent curtain behind her, prepared for a serene, relaxing wash. She turns on the faucet, allowing the water to pour over her, and begins cleansing her body. Through the curtain behind her, we see the door slowly swing open and a vague figure enter the bathroom. When it finally draws close enough, it rips open the shower curtain, with one arm holding a kitchen knife, ready to strike. Marion is able to let out one deafening shriek before her attacker begins to stab, and the slaughter-music takes over. The intruder continues to stab at her, as Marion spins about the shower in terror, dripping blood down the bathtub drain. We then, see the back of the robed killer as he exits the room, and Marion slowly descends to the bottom of the tub. She reaches out desperately, clinging to the shower curtain and ripping it down before fully falling to the ground. The water carries her blood down the drain, and we exit the scene on Marion’s widespread, lifeless eye.
Perhaps one of the most memorable movie scenes of all time, the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, has stayed glued to our minds for the past 56 years. It’s obvious, yet guarded, ferocity makes it intensely thrilling with every watch, forbidding us from looking away from the screen. Though it is certainly not the goriest movie moment we have seen–especially with all of the special effects we have today–there is something about this scene which keeps us unsettled. Even with the innumerable disturbing horror films we have today with scenes of clear violence, so gory that we must cover our eyes for half of them, Psycho’s shower scene remains the most iconic. So, what is it, exactly, that makes this scene so famous?
For one, Hitchcock pulled a stunt that no one saw coming: he killed off his main character in the middle of the movie. With Marion Crane dead, Hitchcock leaves us shocked, bewildered, and wondering what could possibly happen next. How on earth does a movie continue without its main character? Not only does Marion die, but she dies in perhaps, one of the most brutal ways possible. She is attacked, seemingly by a total stranger, while completely unsuspecting in the shower. Hitchcock took an act which is supposed to be serene, relaxing, and rejuvenating, and turned it into something terrifying. He shows us how susceptible we really are while showering: we are completely unarmed, and unaware of what is going on outside of the bathroom. Even more, we are entirely naked, making us vulnerable in every sense of the word. Instead of being excited to rinse off and feel clean, we now are cautious every time we step under the faucet. Ever since this scene, we all think twice before closing our eyes to shampoo.
Though brutal, this killing scene is not necessarily gory, nor unwatchable, perhaps adding to its utter brilliance. There is something about the ambiguity of this scene—the fact that we cannot clearly see the knife penetrating Marion’s body—that adds to its mystery. Of course we know that she is being killed, but we do not know by whom, and we cannot clearly see it being done. The quick flashes from knife, to blood, to Marion’s body and her facial expressions make it all the more hectic, and consequentially, all the more nerve-wrecking. With this scene, Hitchcock proves that gore is not always necessary for creating an effectively terrifying film.
Aside from the eeriness of the shower scene, in analyzing its importance, it is crucial to consider the type of horror films being produced prior to Psycho. If you look at the major horror films made before 1960, they are essentially all monster films. Think: Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and Godzilla (1954). However, Hitchcock’s Psycho brings a new twist to the horror genre. He takes that monster which previous scary movies depicted and instead of portraying it through some mythical creature, puts it inside of the human mind, Norman Bates’s mind, to be specific. Hitchcock proposes a new take on horror–that our own people, our own kind, can be the most terrifying and ruthless monsters of all.
Hitchcock eminently reveals this idea to us through the shower scene, when Bates brutally murders Marion with a kitchen steak knife. He proposes the idea that even people who seem normal on the outside could be entirely different on the inside. A monster does not only reside within a terrifying, hideous creature. It can live within a seemingly normal, put-together, handsome man. Though Bates certainly seems a bit off, one would hardly suspect him of being a deranged killer. However, Psycho uses this shower scene to remind us that we never can truly know what a person is thinking.
This scene essentially redefined horror, and made it what it is today. This film showed people that horror could be about much more than just scary monster stories: it could explore human beings and the psyche, showing us just how cruel and damaged people can really be. There are infinite movie characters today that share Norman Bates’ qualities; a myriad of films based on serial killers and mystery murders. Psycho’s shower scene, where we learn how violent human beings can truly be, makes the plot for all of these other films possible. It allows for the exploration of people, and makes for much more interesting films.