Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is a pioneering psychological horror-thriller and one of the most acclaimed movies of the 20th century. The movie was based on the novel of the same name written by Robert Bloch, and many contemporary film theorists consider it as the foundation of contemporary slasher flicks.
Even those people who haven’t seen Psycho are probably familiar with its shower scene, where the unwitting fugitive Marion, played by Janet Leigh, gets brutally stabbed by the titular serial killer, Norman Bates. The scene is famous for introducing new levels of violence and socially unacceptable behavior to the American audience and is regarded as one of the most recognizable scenes in cinematic history.
The three-minute scene is comprised of 50 cuts and was filmed over a week in December of 1959. Many shots during the scene are extreme close-ups: they infuse the scene with subjectivity and create an atmosphere of dread.
However, the scene wouldn’t be nearly as unsettling if it weren’t for the stellar soundtrack written by the film’s composer Bernard Herrmann. The soundtrack of the shower scene features a mind-bending crescendo of screeching violins, violas, and cellos. Such instrumentation is nowadays commonly used to create the atmosphere of tension in thrillers and horrors, and Psycho is praised as the origin of this trend.
However, Hitchcock initially intended to use no music throughout the shower scene: he thought that the absence of instrumentation would present the viewer with an extremely graphic and personal depiction of murder. Still, Bernard Herrmann composed the all-strings piece named “The Murder” and persuaded Hitchcock to try and edit the piece into the shower scene.
After the music had been edited into the scene, Hitchcock realized that the scene’s atmosphere was intensified by the eerie tunes and decided to include the piece into the final cut. In the end, Hitchcock was so impressed by the music that he doubled Herrmann’s salary.
Herrmann’s persistence was responsible for the inclusion of the music into the shower scene, and the music is what makes the shower scene exceptional.
Also, all the chilling screams that can be heard during the scene were produced by the actress Janet Leigh herself. When the movie was released, a popular rumor was that Leigh’s screams were so authentic because Hitchcock decided to use cold water during the filming of the shower scene.
Although Hitchcock was known for his unorthodox treatment of actors, Leigh denied that he forced her to stand in an ice-cold shower for a week. She stated that the week-long shoot was in fact very pleasant and that the film crew supplied the shower with plenty of hot water.