There might not be a single moment in movie history that has been analyzed more than the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock‘s horror classic Psycho. There’s even a documentary movie – entitled 78/52 after the 78 camera set-ups and 52 edits – dedicated to exploring every last detail of cinema’s most famous murder.
It might be the most obvious choice of scene when assessing the genius of Alfred Hitchcock, but it’s iconic for a reason. Psycho still stands tall among the best horror movies of all time, paving the way for the best slasher movies we saw in subsequent decades from the likes of John Carpenter and Wes Craven. We all know the stories about how the shower scene was carefully edited to avoid troubling the censors with too much nudity or violence.
But the biggest challenge of making the shower scene happen had nothing to do with knives or gore. In fact, the most difficult shot involved Janet Leigh simply holding her eye open for a very long time without blinking. Eventually, she just had to do it for real.
“About three weeks before we shot it, Mr Hitchcock and I went off to the optometrists. He wanted me to put in those lenses that would give me a scary look,” Leigh recounted to Woman’s World. “At the time — remember, we’re talking late 1959/early 1960 — for me to wear those lenses would’ve taken six weeks for my eyes to get used to them. And if I didn’t, it could have damaged my eyes.”
Leigh explained that Hitchcock obviously didn’t want that to happen and eventually said, “you’re just going to have to do it on your own”. She explained that “it wasn’t easy” for her to hold that look for as long as she did — we make it 31 seconds before the camera cuts away — and has been frustrated at rumors claiming Hitchcock spliced in a still photograph to create the effect.
Frankly, we’d be frustrated too if we’d pulled off something that impressive and cinematic trickery was getting the credit. That’s probably why Tom Cruise is so keen to tell everybody that he rides motorbikes off cliff edges for real in his best movies.
The haunted look on Leigh’s face, as her body lies dead in the bathroom, is one of the most powerful details in the scene, with water trickling down her face that could be either from the shower or her tears. It’s the perfect final note for a shocking flurry of cinematic brutality.
Given the amount of effort that went into the shower scene, we definitely understand why Hitchcock insisted on the revolutionary policy of cinema’s shutting the doors to latecomers at Psycho screenings. In an era when so few things we see in new movies are genuinely surprising, we’d love to have something as bold as Psycho’s early protagonist death.
For more on the Master of Suspense, find out why Alfred Hitchcock got banned from Disneyland and read our deep dive into how Psycho broke Hollywood taboos. Alternatively, look ahead to upcoming horror with our guides to the Five Nights at Freddy’s movie release date and Wednesday season 2.