‘Psycho’: Janet Leigh Was So Scarred She Stopped Taking Showers

Horror is a massively popular genre in modern cinema. While some still find it distasteful, fans love the tension of horror films, as well as the extraordinary feats of makeup and cinematography commonly offered by the genre. While audiences have grown to increasingly love horror in the past half-century, there was a time when it was a novel concept. Early pioneers of the genre like Alfred Hitchcock showed in their work how the twisted and grotesque can provide cultural commentary and compelling storytelling. Hitchcock himself was such a master of horror that his famous film Psycho even left its leading lady scarred by a recurring phobia after.

Janet Leigh Screaming in Psycho Shower Scene
Janet Leigh in Psycho | Bettmann via Getty Images

The dawn of modern horror

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While the horror genre has roots way further back than 1960s Psycho, many fans and experts would admit that the film is foundational to modern horror.  The movie was divisive for critics at the time, however, with The New Republic reviewer Stanley Kauffman summarizing it as “Hitchcock employing his considerable skill in direction and cutting and in the use of sound and music to shock us past horror-entertainment into resentment.” Sex and violence in the film had gained Hitchcock a controversial reputation in the past, but Psycho took it to another level.

The film begins with a controversial scene Kauffman described as a dispensable “close-up face-nibbling sex scene at the very beginning” and builds tension with simple, low-budget camera work and a very small cast of actors. The story meanders slowly, focusing on sometimes awkward details to build tension in the bleak setting of the Bates Motel. This climaxes, surprisingly, mid-way through the movie with the brutal stabbing of Janet Leigh’s character of Marion Crane

The shower scene

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The surprising murder by a shadowy figure is itself a startling payoff for the audience tension, but the famous murder in the shower is shown in such gruesome detail that many at the time were shocked. Many would call the gory murder the beginning of the slasher genre, and it was produced so simplistically in black and white. Even from simple, low-technology origins, the film maintains relevance today.

New Yorker reviewer Richard Brody wrote in a 2012 review, “Psycho, in its dark and sordid extravagance, remains utterly contemporary, in its subject as well as in its production.” Actor Janet Leigh would later admit to being deeply affected by the entire ordeal, during which she filmed that scene exclusively for seven days. With Leigh being stabbed repeatedly by a prop knife, Hitchcock did retake after retake to capture the iconic moment from all angles he needed.

Janet Leigh traumatized

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Even nearly 35 years after the movie’s release, Leigh was still deeply affected by her experience on set. She commented to a reporter decades later, “I stopped taking showers and I take baths, only baths.” according to The Vintage News. The filming was so traumatic, that she continued to think about it daily her whole life. She continued to the interviewer, “I make sure the doors and windows of the house are locked, and I leave the bathroom door open and shower curtain open. I’m always facing the door, watching, no matter where the showerhead is.”

She goes on to explain that the scene took over 20 takes to get all the required angles, which means that 45 seconds of the movie took a full week of very intense and stressful work. Leigh was unwilling to wait the six weeks required for protective contact lenses to adjust to her eyes, so she instead played the part of a dead body on the floor of the shower with her eyes open with no assistance. The style of the scene meant it had to feel real– Leigh fell against her head every time she slumped to the tile and the water streamed across her face while the camera looked at her dead eyes.

If some audiences at the time felt traumatized by what they saw on-screen during Psycho, Leigh probably every right to have been scarred by living it. Still, her dedication to her role gave viewers one of the most memorable scenes in the history of cinema. Psycho and Leigh herself were pioneers in cinema and will be legends for a long time to come.