Bras, Screams, & Shower Scenes: How 'Psycho' Changed Horror Forever
By | October 28, 2022
Released in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho announced a new era in scary movies. The story was darker than what we'd seen in movies before, featuring both internal psychoses and external, bloody violence. Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins, became one of the most memorable characters in film history, while Janet Leigh, as the first screaming victim of a slasher villain, claimed another spot in the pantheon of horror movies. Psychological horror has since become a staple of scary cinema, thanks to the boldness of Hitchcock's taboo-breaking classic.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is one of the most claustrophobic thrillers of the 20th century, and it features easily the most famous shower scene in film history. Considered to be one of the highlights of Hitchcock’s career, Psycho is one of those films that you just have to see. Even though the film made a truckload of money at the box office upon its release, its distributor, Paramount, had zero faith in the source material or in Hitchcock’s directing.
Hitchcock was no novice
Keep in mind, Psycho was far from Hitchcock’s first movie. He pitched the idea to Paramount after the back-to-back success of Vertigo and North by Northwest. He was more than 35 years into a career filled with hits made from odd character studies and the studio just didn’t think people would like the movie. Hitchcock believed in the story so much that he made the movie on his own dime and turned the financial setbacks into one of his most inspired films.
Norman Bates Was Based On Ed Gein
The disturbing character at the heart of Psycho, Norman Bates, was based on Ed Gein, a murderer and body snatcher who was active in Texas in the '40s and '50s. When he was apprehended in 1957, Gein was found to have a house littered with human remains, some of which had been made into furniture or clothing.
Gein's mother had died in 1945, leaving him alone and in mourning. He would explain to the police that on many occasions, in a trance-like state, he had raided graves of recently buried women who resembled his late mother, and had brought their bodies back to his house.
There was a novel before the film
In 1959, author Robert Block published Psycho, a suspense novel about a deranged character based on Gein, and the novel served as the source material for Alfred Hitchcock's film.
Parts of Gein's story served as the inspiration for Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as well as Buffalo Bill in The Silence Of The Lambs.
Paramount Thought The Story Was Disgusting
When Peggy Robertson, Hitchcock's long-time assistant, read Anthony Boucher's positive review of Psycho, a novel by Robert Bloch, she knew that her boss would want to read it. Hitchcock read the book and was transfixed by the shower scene. That brief moment had something that he could sink his teeth into. He explained:
I think the thing that appealed to me [about the book] and made me decide to do the picture was the suddenness of the murder in the shower, coming, as it were, out of the blue.
Paramount really hated the concept behind Psycho
Paramount refused to make the film based on its premise, but that didn’t stop Hitchcock -- he anonymously bid on the film rights and won them for $9,500. Going back to the studio, Hitchcock received the same pushback as he had before. Paramount felt the book was “too repulsive,” they wanted Hitchcock to make another one of his thrillers that was littered with A-list stars. Hitchcock declined, his head still in the shower.
Norman Cannot Differentiate Between Himself And His Mother
By definition, psychosis is a mental disorder wherein a person’s thought process is so distorted that he/she loses all touch with reality. Norman’s psychosis mainly included him thinking that his mother was still alive and speaking to him; never mind that he knew she had been deceased for some time. He had even “stuffed” her body to make her appear to still be alive. This detail is notable because he had a very strange and unhealthy relationship with his mother and with women in general.
In the book by Robert Bloch and subsequent Psycho-related stories (including movie sequels and the TV series Bates Motel), it is revealed that Norman Bates and his mother lived a very isolated life, with only each other as company, much like Ed Gein had lived with his mother for years. While Norman is a violent and dangerous character, there is also something to be pitied -- all of his bizarre behavior comes from a place of grief and loss.
Did you know that "mother" has a name? You might not have caught it -- it's "Norma." Talk about a son who identifies with his mother -- they have almost the same name.
Norman's Mother Rules His Life
In the first few minutes of the movie a beautiful woman, Marion Crane, portrayed by Janet Leigh, had found herself staying at the Bates Motel. Shortly after she checked in, she became the first victim in the movie. Norman’s psychosis drives him to stab her to death in the shower -- Norman, the young man, is attracted to her and spies on her through a hole in the wall. Norman's mother (who lives inside Norman's head) disapproves of his lustful feelings and wants to destroy what her son covets. Norman's mother drives him to kill Marion.
'Psycho' Established The Classic Horror-Film Link Between Sex And Death
In horror films, it's long been a rule that those who fornicate will soon pay the price. This has been especially true with slasher films, in which the killer often does away with a woman or couple who've just had sex, or even while they are having sex. The idea that the killer is motivated by jealousy of the lovers or a twisted puritanism -- committing murder to punish them for their sins -- can be traced directly to Psycho.
Marion Crane is a fornicator, established at the very beginning of the movie in unforgettable fashion: There she is, wearing a white bra and half-slip, having just had a mid-day tryst with her boyfriend in a hotel. While the scene leaves much to the modern imagination, in 1960 it was shockingly direct, screaming "these people just had sex!" at viewers who were just reaching for their first fistful of popcorn. Later, at the Bates Motel, Marion again strips down to lingerie, as Norman watches through a hole in the wall. In Norman's jumbled mind, the lust he feels for her clashes with his mother's jealousy and disapproval. And we all know who wins that battle.
Marion dies, of course, in the shower.
Master Marketer Hitchcock Sold 'Psycho' Well
Hitchcock battled with Paramount Studios and Hollywood censors -- and won. The movie he made was as he had envisioned it, he knew it would be a game-changing film, and the buzz was strong. Posters that featured Janet Leigh wearing her bra were all over the place and were considered risque at the time. To play up the film's unprecedented chills and encourage reverence for the movie, Hitchcock made a show of not admitting guests after the film had started, putting up posters and signage to that effect:
"Surely you do not have your meat course after your dessert at dinner. "You will therefore understand why we are so insistent that you enjoy PSYCHO from start to finish, exactly as we intended it to be served."
Hitchcock Used The Crew From His TV Show To Save Money
It’s inaccurate to say that Paramount softened on their stance surrounding Psycho. They never warmed to the film, but they were finally worn down by Hitchcock, who clearly knew that the movie had artistic and commercial value. At first, Paramount tried to dissuade Hitchcock from making the movie by refusing to provide his usual budget. North by Northwest cost $4 million, Vertigo cost $2.5, but Psycho was made for the paltry sum of just over $806,000.
To get even a minuscule budget Hitchcock, had to make a series of concessions. He agreed to a quick turn around, and to film on black and white stock (more on that later), and in order to keep things cheap he said that he would shoot with the crew from his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series. Paramount balked at this, saying that even with those cost-saving measures in place that there was nowhere for the film to be shot because all of their sound stages were booked despite the fact that this was a financial low point in the industry.
Hitchcock put his neck on the line for Psycho
Faced with the prospect of being locked out of the studio from which he had a contract Hitchcock countered that he would personally finance the film and that he build the sets at Universal-International or shoot on location when possible if Paramount would simply agree to distribute the picture. He didn’t take his $250,000 director's fee and instead received a 60% stake in the film negative, one of the most judicious deals ever made in Hollywood, although Paramount didn’t realize it at the time.
Paramount Wanted An Audrey Hepburn Movie Instead Of 'Psycho'
By 1960 Hitchcock was known for making mid-budget suspense films with high-caliber stars. He regularly worked with Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, and Grace Kelly. Hitchcock’s run from Dial M for Murder to North by Northwest contains some of the biggest Hollywood actors at the time, which in theory makes people want to see the movies. Before going all-in on Psycho Hitchcock was prepping an adaptation of No Bail For The Judge, a thriller about a lawyer who has to defend her father, a judge, who’s accused of murdering a sex worker.
Audrey Hepburn was set to star in the film, but when complications with her pregnancy arose she backed out of the film. Hitchcock told Paramount that he was scrapping the picture even though they’d already spent $200,000 on pre-production. It’s likely that Paramount was supremely unhappy with Hitchcock for his decision to throw away a bunch of their money, and that’s why they didn’t want to help him make Psycho.
Hitchcock Didn’t Want To Shoot 'Psycho' In Black And White
Despite its ability to bring out harsh shadows and to put the viewer in a specific mood, Hitchcock didn’t have any particular affinity for shooting in black and white. In 1959 (when the film went into production) there was no nostalgia surrounding black and white film the way there is today. It was seen as the film used by cheap B-movies that couldn’t afford to shoot in Technicolor.
French cinema inspired the look of Psycho
If Hitchcock wanted to keep the budget below $1 million, the easiest way to do that was to shoot in black and white. This fiscal choice allowed for Hitchcock to keep the shower scene (the one thing he really wanted to shoot) from being too gory, and he was also able to pay homage to Les Diaboliques, a French thriller from 1955 that the director found particularly inspiring.
Janet Leigh And Anthony Perkins Took A Pay Cut To Appear In The Film
Hitchcock wasn’t averse to having stars in his films, he loved the power that an A-list actor wielded over an audience, but with the minuscule budget for Psycho, he couldn’t exactly cast Audrey Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart. Instead, he cast Janet Leigh who was hot off of Touch of Evil and Who Was That Lady in the role of Marion Crane for $25,000 -- a quarter of her normal fee.
Anthony Perkins, who was already well known for his roles in Friendly Persuasion and Fear Strikes Out, was seen as the perfect actor to play Norman Bates. Perkins was paid $40,000 for the role, which wasn’t a bad chunk of change, but it was less than a star normally received for appearing in an Alfred Hitchcock and Paramount production. It’s obvious that everyone working on the film understood that something special was happening with the film and that they wanted to be a part of it.
'Psycho' Was A Huge Hit
After its premiere in New York on June 16, 1960, Psycho became Hitchcock’s biggest hit. At the time critical reception was middling on the film, but that didn’t matter. By the end of the film’s theatrical run, it made $50 million on an $800,000 budget; adjusted for inflation that’s nearly half a billion dollars. Thanks to his 60 percent ownership over the film he made $15 million from the box office, and the movie is still making money.
The Bates Motel still stands
Aside from the sequels, remake, and television series surrounding Norman Bates, the sets for the original Bates Motel and Bates house are still standing at Universal Studios in Universal City near Hollywood. After more than 50 years, the film that no one but Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make is still affecting viewers, and making them cry, “Mother, what have you done?”