Bras, Screams, & Shower Scenes: How 'Psycho' Changed Horror Forever

Entertainment | December 5, 2017

Left: The original poster for 'Psycho,' featuring a scandalous shot of Janet Leigh wearing a bra. Right: Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates watching Janet Leigh's character through a hole in the wall. Source: IMDB

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.

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. 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.

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

Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in her room at the Bates Motel, and lying dead on the bathroom floor a few scenes later. Source: IMDB

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 nude.

Master Marketer Hitchcock Sold 'Psycho' Well

In this newspaper ad, the director makes it clear that 'Psycho' would be a different type of viewing experience. Source: Pinterest

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."

Tags: 1960 | Alfred Hitchcock | Horror | Psycho | The 1960s | The Golden Age Of Cinema

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Rebeka Knott


Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.