Whether or not you have seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, released 50 years ago this June, you already know all about the “Shower Scene”. You may have seen the scene itself or parodies of it on TV or in films or online, or heard about it as a perfect example of the power of cinema to thrill and scare. In addition to the eager explanations of movie buffs, you may have experienced its jarring rapid-editing style in “how it was done” exhibitions at the Universal Studios Special Effects Tour. And you have probably heard countless imitations of the screeching violins of its soundtrack with or without the rapid up-and-down bent-arm motions that imitate the knife slashing up the nude body of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh).
As if enacting a new definition of metonymy, of how one thing can stand for another, the “Shower Scene” exemplifies the pleasures and dangers of iconicity: the soundtrack stands for the scene, the scene stands for the film, and the film stands for Hitchcock, for horror movies, and for the power of cinema itself. In Psycho in the Shower Philip J. Skerry indeed describes this as “Cinema’s Most Famous Scene”, and it very well may be. But what one could describe as the scene’s success, its ability to transcend the bounds of its narrative and acquire its own cultural meanings, is also a serious liability. After all, if the scene is enough in itself, what would that imply about film as a narrative art, as the art of images, emotions, and events unfolding in time? And if the “Shower Scene” is a separate text or brand with its own independent cultural meaning, what is the effect of this autonomy for Psycho, and for understanding Hitchcock’s style as a filmmaker? The scene may be proverbial, knowing about it a requirement for contemporary cultural literacy, but is it characteristic of Hitchcock’s work? Or is it perhaps time to get Psycho, and Hitch, out of the shower?
Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin
(US theatrical: 16 Jun 1960)
Never one to shy away from the power of branding (the man created a logo out of his own rotund profile), Hitchcock also never challenged the popular fascination with the “Shower Scene”, instead fueling its mystique in his usual ways: narrating his own campy, ironic movie trailers, making choice revelations in interviews about his intentions and designs, and proliferating all the little special tidbits about his directorial command that have slowly risen to the level of folklore. The juicy details combine true and false rumors, from the chocolate syrup used for blood, to the knifed melon that provides the sound of the slashing. Did he turn off the hot water during the filming in order to elicit a more authentic sense of horror from Janet Leigh? Does the knife touch the body? Is anyone, Leigh or her body double, ever naked in the scene? More importantly, Hitchcock instituted a rule for theater owners, requiring them to follow advertised screening times for starting Psycho, close the doors after the film started, and not allow audiences to come in late or leave and return. As a marketing ploy this was genius, producing a sense of enclosure or claustrophobia for the audience, and activating the darkened cinema as a space with its own mysterious rules—Hitchcock’s rules. Audiences also had to crowd outside the theaters or wait in line for the next screening, and this in turn produced a visible spectacle of the public’s desire to see a film that promised to scare them.
Linda Williams argues that this new discipline—audiences having to arrive on time and stay till the end—creates a structure for then enjoying the film’s unruliness, its uncharted and multidirectional narrative development after Marion’s murder. If Williams’ interpretation locates Psycho within the tenets of postmodern cinema, what I want to offer here is an appreciation of a certain classicism in the film’s narrative structure, which becomes clear when we consider that the closed door policy also forces audiences to experience the film in sequence, in order. From its heist or crime film style in the beginning, to its evolution into a thriller, to the psychiatrist’s explanations of what is going on with Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and Mother, to the final moments of Mother’s own voice explaining her motivations yet again, the film depends on numerous retroactive reorganizations of meaning. Oscillating wildly among different sets of generic conventions, Psycho becomes a horror film only at the end, when a skull is superimposed on Norman’s grinning face and the Mother’s voice undermines our sense of the plot once more.
In other words, we are forced to reconstitute what this story is about at every step, constantly revising our expectations as we continue to be bombarded with pieces of information that may be legitimate clues but may also be useless digressions. In a way it is the film’s own complex textual structure that requires experiential orderliness, and it is within this orderliness that the “Shower Scene” has to be experienced, not as the product of a familiar and characteristic Hitchcockean treatment of suspense, of the gradual development of clues, motivations, tensions, and expectations, but as a violation of the rules of narrative development, as the opposite of suspense, as an unmotivated and unexpected surprise.
The distinction between suspense and surprise was one that Hitchcock himself often turned to in order to explain his narrative tendencies as a director. Here is how he describes the contrast in a 1963 interview with Peter Bogdanovich:
“Here we are, back in our old situation: surprise or suspense. And we come to our old analogy of the bomb: you and I sit talking and there’s a bomb in the room. We’re having a very innocuous conversation about nothing. Boring. Doesn’t mean a thing. Suddenly, boom! the bomb goes off and they’re shocked—for 15 seconds. Now you change it. Play the same scene, insert the bomb, show that the bomb is placed there, establish that it’s going to go off at one o’clock—it’s now a quarter of one, ten of one—show a clock on the wall, back to the same scene. Now our conversation becomes very vital, by its sheer nonsense. “Look under the table! You fool!” Now they’re working for ten minutes, instead of being surprised for fifteen seconds.”
The classic treatment of suspenseful narration Hitchcock describes here can be found for example in the tennis match scene of Strangers on a Train (1951): tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is trying to win the match as quickly as he can, in order to catch a train to the amusement park where Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), the man who killed his wife, is about to plant a cigarette lighter that incriminates him. The film has worked hard to build up the stakes of this match and its aftermath, with Guy’s friend poised to distract the detectives, the prepaid taxi waiting to take him to the train station, a pair of trousers in the back seat ready for him to wear over his tennis shorts, nighttime fast approaching, and so on. After this masterful orchestration of details, watching the tennis match becomes riveting, as every delay, every move, every lost and gained point fuels a sense of intensity. The silence that often accompanies high-profile tennis matches accentuates the audience’s breathless attention, as everything seems to hinge on the moments of contact between ball and racket, every hit sounding like a gunshot, a heartbeat, or a clock ticking away the precious seconds in the quiet stadium.
For Hitchcock, such an arrangement often depends on allowing the audience to see or know certain parts of the story, even know the course of the unfolding crime or plan, before the characters, or some of the characters, do. This emotional and narrative preparation of the audience becomes precisely the structure that Hitchcock can then upend, disrupt, challenge, or redirect, rigging the balance between the expected and the unexpected. The suspense structure creates the baseline, in other words, for narrative expectations, and the classic narrative question “what will happen next?” is doubled into “and will things go as planned?” Instead of the pure open-endedness intrinsic in narrative unfolding, the Hitchcock suspense structure creates authoritative expectations that can then be thwarted or undermined. It limits the realm of possible outcomes, and this in effect magnifies small motions and actions.
For example, the counterpart of the tennis match in Strangers on a Train comes in the extreme close-ups of Bruno’s hand reaching for the incriminating lighter, which he has accidentally dropped down a street drain. The action itself may be mundane or predictable, it’s just a man reaching for his lighter, and the scale amazingly small, just a few fingers and an inert object in luminous close-up, but in terms of feeling and intensity the scene is excruciating. Timing, position in the overall narration, differences in scale, crosscutting, silence, and emotional preparation are all important factors in the handling of suspense. Most importantly, no matter how small or unrelated they may seem, set-pieces such as the tennis match or Bruno’s reaching for the lighter have to be related to the through-lines of the film, they have to be experienced as having the potential to make a difference. The implicit contract suspense structures make with their audience is that details will matter.
Considering Psycho in relation to the distinction between suspense and surprise offers some unexpected insights. As many critics have noted, the first part of the film—in which we are introduced to Marion and her boyfriend Sam (John Gavin)—definitely operates according to the rules of suspense, and is indeed a fabulous example of such a setup. In a narrative move that Hitchcock will deploy more than once in this film, we are instructed as audience members to be good detectives, to notice the minute details and the exquisite subtleties of the build-up of Marion’s story: the double entendres and puns, the rich rancher’s smug flirting at the office (“I never carry more than I can afford to lose”) and Marion’s understandable spitefulness at his pithy aphorisms about “buying off unhappiness.” By the time we see Marion getting dressed, in black bra and slip, with the money and her suitcase on the bed, we have a complete sense of what inspired and what provoked her theft of the $40,000 worked out in our minds. Cause and effect, psychological motivation and character action, action and reaction, these are the epistemological certainties of the heist/detective/crime plot. People do strange things, but they do them for a reason: anger, money, jealousy, spite, self-interest and so on. The emotions and motivations at the core of the story are complex but they are understandable, and the audience is fully in on the action.
In contrast, the “Shower Scene” does not operate according to the structuring of suspense that Hitchcock describes. Instead, it is as if all the suspense the film builds up through the story of Marion, her affair with Sam, the theft of the money, the running away, the anxious drive through the night, is deliberately misplaced, mishandled, thrown away with her sudden murder, following her blood and the camera down the drain of the famous bathtub.