The shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 chiller, Psycho, is one of the most famous scenes in the history of film-making, coming instantly to mind whenever discussing Hitchcock’s classic film. Not especially long – lasting perhaps a minute – the scene’s length belies its importance to the film. It has a very significant place in Psycho for it represents a complete change of direction in not only the storyline, but also in the way the audience reacts to the film and to its characters. As such, to understand Psycho it is essential to understand how this one scene fits into the story and how it relates to the rest of the film.
Prior to the shower scene the film carefully develops the audiences’ empathy towards Marian Crane. Every scene up to this point has been focused around Marian. The film starts with her in a seedy hotel room with her married lover, Sam Loomis. We see her striving to maintain a relationship with a man who is more concerned with his financial insecurity than with romance. The audience is sympathetic to her and unsympathetic to her lover, for they “expect the romantic hero of a film to sweep aside” mundane considerations and take control of the relationship. (Wood, 1989: 143). His excuse for keeping the relationship at arms length is his financial situation. This leads to Marian being tempted to steal $40,000 from a client of her boss. We know and understand that when she decides to take the money she isn’t doing it for herself, but for her relationship with Sam.
Marian makes her getaway but is consantly racked with guilt and remonstrates with herself as she drives out of Phoenix into the desert beyond. She imagines the consequences and has imagined conversations with Sam and her boss. She knows she cannot hope to get away with stealing the money, but she goes on. Even when she is watched by a suspicious police officer she is unable to stop the impulse to continue onwards, even recklessly switching cars in full view of the police officer. Eventually she arrives, in the rain and after nightfall, at the Bates Motel, “which seems to materialise abruptly out of the darkness in front of her.” (Wood, 1989: 145).
At the motel Marian is able to gather her thoughts. In a long and important scene, Marian and Norman Bates sit talking in a parlour behind the motel’s office. Marian is able to eat, drink and relax while Norman relates his lonely existence with his mother at the ill-frequented motel. This is the first time we are being offered another character we can relate to. We see Norman as a charming and lonely man. He talks of being trapped: “We’re all in our private trap. We scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it we never budge an inch.” (Stefano, 1960). The audience is not un-sympathetic to his situation and Marian is also understanding of his condition, and this gives her the chance of redemption.
Norman speaks of his torment and asks Marian: “We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?” (Stefano, 1960). Her mind is focused at last and she realises she has been a little mad too. “Sometimes just one time can be enough,” she replies to Norman, thanking him for unknowingly showing her that she has been wrong. (Stefano, 1960). She has decided to take the money back – it is not too late for her to correct her mistake.
Marian returns to her motel room, set on returning the money the next day. We have been with her on her journey and have shared her fears and anxieties. We are in no doubt that Marian is deserving of a second chance to redeem her actions before they get out of control. The viewer, up to this point, has been travelling on a voyeuristic journey with Marian, even inside her thoughts themselves. Our perceptions and carefully prepared feelings towards Marian are quickly thrown into chaos.
The shower scene begins with the viewer watching as Marian undresses and prepares for her shower. Norman is also watching – through a peep hole drilled through from the parlour behind the office. As Marian undresses, the camera cuts to a close-up of Norman’s eye peering through at Marian. We cannot see what Norman sees, but we know what he is looking at.
Marian enters the shower in the sparkling white bathroom. She unwraps a bar of soap and begins to shower. For a few moments we are with Marian behind the closed and semitransparent shower curtain, once more voyeurs where we know we don’t belong. The water flows and Marian’s movements “have an almost ritualistic quality; her face expresses the relief of washing away the guilt.” (Wood, 1989: 146). Then, quietly we see the bathroom door open from inside the shower and a dark figure move towards us and Marian. A hand grabs the curtain and the camera returns to Marian. She turns, horror distorts her face and she screams. We don’t see the attacker, only a long kitchen knife, repeatedly and noisily stabbing and slashing at Marian as she screams and struggles for her life. All the time we hear the high-pitched violins that has so characterised Psycho.
The stabbing stops, and in shock we watch from behind the attacker slips out before Marian has even lost the last struggle for life. Her hands slide down the white tiles, and blood swishes around the shower as she falls, grasping in one last effort the curtain rails, which snap from their rail as she falls. Marian lies there lifeless, her eyes wide open, staring into nothingness. The sound of the water continues and the blood trickles down the plug-hole.
The scene is shocking and violent. As we stare into Marian’s lifeless eyes we are dazed and confused. Here is the central character, we thought, dead before the film is half over. We have been made to sympathise with Marian and to accept her as the focus of the film, only to have her snatched away in a brutal and meaningless fashion. We know that Marian committed a crime. We understand that but we, like Marian, were secure in the fact that she was about to return the money and repent for what she had done. The crime has been punished out of all proportion, but the message is clear – “look what thieving necking girls get.” (Durgnat, 1969: 212). Raymond Durgnat’s description is crude but the moral is clear. If you have a relationship with a married man and steal money from your employer then you can expect to be punished.
The scene over, the attacker gone into the night, we hear in the distance the anguished cry of Norman: “Mother, oh God, mother. Blood!” (Stefano, 1960). Norman goes to the motel room, discovers the body and appears genuinely shocked at what he finds. He then meticulously removes the body, wrapped in the shower curtain, and cleans the room of all traces of Marian. He finally spots the rolled-up newspaper in which Marian has concealed the stolen $40,000. Norman, however, does not find the money, which surprises the viewer who see the money, like Marian, as central to the story. Throughout the time Norman is cleaning the room, the camera keeps returning to the rolled-up newspaper, hinting to us of its importance. Yet when Norman picks up the newspaper he simply bundles it into the back of Marian’s car, along with the body and all her possessions. He then pushes the car into a swamp. The money, like Marian, has become meaningless. Marian stole the money and has died for it. A possible reason for the murder, in the minds of the audience, is passed up and the money is discarded as casually as Marian’s life was.
With Marian dead the audience needs to find a new focus. We have only Norman to relate to. He has been shown to be kind and considerate. He is a lonely man who we can sympathise with. Despite what we have watched him do to protect his mother we can still relate to Norman. The audience’s focus naturally and effortlessly falls into him.
The shower scene has forced the film into a different direction, away from an adventure towards a mystery. New characters are developed. We see the private investigator Arbogast, Marian’s sister Lilah and Marian’s lover Sam. These three characters go in search of the truth. Arbogast, the diligant private eye, searches the local motels and hotels for Marian. He ends up at the Bates Motel where, after he becomes suspicious, we see him brutally murdered by Norman’s mother. Again, “the whole plot, which has twice ended so disastrously, starts again.” Now Sam and Lilah go in search of Arbogast, themselves drawn inevitably to the Bates Motel. (Durgnat, 1969: 215). By now, Raymond Durgnat suggests that “most spectators have guessed that Mom is Norman,” but we cannot be sure. (Durgnat, 1969: 215). All we know for sure is the imminence of violent death.
We are apprehensive as Sam and Lilah search the motel, as we were when Arbogast did. We know danger lurks inside the house but we can’t make up our mind whether the danger is coming from Norman or from Norman’s mother. (Durgnat, 1969: 215). We soon discover the truth and realise with horror that Mom doesn’t exist and that Norman is the killer. We see the grotesque decomposed body of Mrs Bates. Her mocking eyes deride us for thinking she could be the killer and for liking Norman.
We are disturbed to realise that we have been fooled. Even the psychiatrist’s explanation does not prepare us for the image of Norman sitting alone, but not alone, in his cell. “His identity finally dissolved in the illusory identity of his mother.” (Wood, 1989: 149). Mother is the victim as much as Marian was. Norman is the evil killer and we are left to ponder our emotions and the fact that we have “been made to see the dark potentialities within all of us.” (Wood, 1989: 149). Finally we are offered some hope of salvation. We see the car being pulled out of the swamp in which Norman pushed it, and the story returns back to Marian, “to ourselves, and to the idea of psychological liberty.” (Wood, 1989: 149).
Durgnat, Raymond (1969), Inside Norman Bates, in Films and Feelings magazine.
Stefano, Josef (1960), screenplay to Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Based on a novel by Robert Bloch (1959).
Wood, Robin (1989), Hitchcock Films Revisited, Columbia University. First published in 1965.