The shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s horror masterpiece, “Psycho,” is arguably one of the most dissected moments in cinematic history. In fact, there’s even a documentary film, aptly named “78/52” after the 78 camera setups and 52 edits used, dedicated to scrutinizing every intricate detail of this infamous murder sequence.
While it may seem like the obvious choice when appraising Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliance, its iconic status is well-deserved. “Psycho” remains a towering figure in the realm of horror, laying the groundwork for subsequent decades of top-notch slasher films from luminaries like John Carpenter and Wes Craven. The lore surrounding the shower scene’s meticulous editing to navigate censorship concerns regarding nudity and violence is widely known.
Yet, the most formidable challenge in bringing this sequence to life had nothing to do with blades or blood. Strikingly, the most demanding shot involved Janet Leigh simply keeping her eye open for an extended duration without blinking. Eventually, she had to do it for real.
Leigh recounted to Woman’s World, “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.” She explained that, at the time, around late 1959 to early 1960, adapting to these lenses would have taken approximately six weeks, and failure to do so could have posed risks to her eyes.
Hitchcock understandably wanted to avoid such complications, and ultimately conceded, stating, “you’re just going to have to do it on your own.” Leigh acknowledged that sustaining that intense gaze for as long as she did was no easy feat. In the final cut, she manages an impressive 31 seconds before the camera cuts away. Leigh has expressed frustration over rumors suggesting that Hitchcock incorporated a still photograph to achieve the effect, rightfully asserting her own accomplishment.
The haunted expression on Leigh’s face, juxtaposed with her lifeless form in the bathroom, constitutes one of the most poignant elements of the scene. The imagery of water streaming down her face, potentially a blend of shower droplets and tears, provides a fitting denouement to this shocking flurry of cinematic brutality.
Given the considerable effort invested in the shower scene, it’s entirely comprehensible why Hitchcock staunchly advocated for the groundbreaking practice of theaters prohibiting latecomers at “Psycho” screenings. In an era where genuine surprises are a rarity in new films, there’s a longing for something as audacious as the early demise of the film’s protagonist, as seen in “Psycho.”