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‘Psycho’ and the Sexual Violence It Unleashed at the Movies

An engrossing new documentary only scratches the surface of that horror classic’s most powerful and disturbing sequence

The great new documentary 78/52 is about three of the most famous minutes in film history: the infamous 1960 Psycho shower scene in which the movie’s supposed main character, Marion (Janet Leigh), is murdered by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Writer-director Alexandre O. Philippe examines the scene from many perspectives, speaking to editors, sound designers, actors, authors, art experts, screenwriters, critics and filmmakers about that sequence’s structural brilliance, envelope-pushing riskiness and cultural impact.

But while 78/52 makes a convincing case for the scene’s historical importance, the documentary only briefly touches on perhaps that moment’s most powerful contribution to cinema: its unleashing of a previously pent-up sexual violence into mainstream entertainment. Before Psycho, the merging of sex and horror had never been so overt. After Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark film, it would become difficult to separate the two.

Philippe explores many ways in which Psycho was radical for its time. Here was an acclaimed director, hot on the heels of his polished 1959 smash North by Northwest, essentially making a low-rent black-and-white horror movie. And then, after introducing Marion as the film’s protagonist — a woman who skips town with a bunch of money she stole — Hitchcock takes her to the Bates Motel, where she’s killed about a third of the way through the film, suddenly leaving audiences completely marooned: Wait, who’s this movie about if not her?

To maintain the surprise, Hitchcock didn’t let critics see the film until opening day — and in addition, he instituted a theater policy in which he insisted that exhibitors not admit any viewers into Psycho after it started. As Hitchcock explains in an archival interview in 78/52, his rationale was a ploy to keep out stragglers: “I didn’t want people whispering to each other, ‘When is Janet Leigh coming on?’”

These and other behind-the-scenes tidbits make 78/52 manna for film lovers, and the in-depth breakdown of the scene’s effectiveness illuminates how chilling the sequence remains nearly 60 years after its release. But the awe that Philippe and his talking heads rightly show the sequence doesn’t make enough room for the awful ripple effect Psycho provoked.

Early on in 78/52, director Karyn Kusama speaks to the film’s dark legacy when she says, “It’s, I think, the first modern expression of the female body under assault — and in some ways, it’s its most pure expression, because it is devastating.” Her comments, and a few others’ remarks, suggest that 78/52 will wrestle with what Psycho wrought, and the ending does pay lip service to the wave of slasher films that came into vogue—starting with 1978’s Halloween— featuring beautiful young women being terrorized by dangerous men. But it’s impossible to watch 78/52 or Psycho and not think that the shower scene remains one of the starkest violations in film history. We’ve seen plenty of attractive women in different states of undress be killed in horror movies, but to this day, none of those deaths feels as primal, terrible and heartbreaking as Marion’s.

In large part that’s because of the way the camera lingers on Marion after she’s been killed, practically grieving as it forces us to see a character whom we’d identified with suddenly be ripped away from us in the cruelest, most savage of ways. And that’s from the perspective of modern eyes, when we know the murder is coming. Director Peter Bogdanovich, who was at the initial New York press screening for Psycho, recalls in 78/52 the sustained screaming that erupted during the shower scene as the unprepared audience tried to absorb what was happening. “It was actually the first time in the history of movies where it wasn’t safe to be in the movie theater,” he says. “When I walked out into Times Square at noon [after Psycho was over], I felt I’d been raped.”

Sixty years later, the feeling that we’re witnessing a sexual assault remains central to the horror of the shower scene. The stark, invasive directness of Norman’s assault on Marion, combined with Bernard Herrmann’s simple shrieking score, adds to the scene’s nightmarish quality. But so was Hitchcock’s cavalier, almost callous attitude about his terrifying film — which, in a 1964 interview included in 78/52, he dismissed as “tongue in cheek.” “It was a big joke, you know? I was horrified to find that some people took it seriously,” he says of Psycho. “It was intended to cause people to scream and yell … but no more than the screaming and yelling on the Switchback Railway.”

Whether or not Hitchcock was being facetious, treating his film as if it were some harmless carnival attraction, the casual coldness of Psycho’s horror only amplifies the scene’s matter-of-fact efficiency. 78/52’s selection of experts explain that the movie is consistent with the director’s detached worldview in which inexplicable things happen to people all the time, but there’s also a notion that Marion’s death is, in a bizarrely roundabout fashion, a cosmic punishment for her thievery earlier in the film. It’s that judgmental implication that helped spawn the slasher genre and its punitive, puritanical bent. As Laura L. Finley, a professor of sociology and criminology at Barry University in Florida, argues in her 2016 book Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault in Popular Culture, “While some maintain that these films allow viewers to identify with victims, others note that the girls who are killed are often being ‘punished’ for sexual behavior and/or for other alleged negligence and violations. Horror/slasher films equate sex with violence.”

Aided by Leigh’s deeply empathetic performance, Psycho made Marion’s death seem both random and tragic — a horrible thing that transpired, in part, because of Norman’s repressed sexual desire for her. But subsequent films wouldn’t bother with such subtlety, as movies like Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th showed attractive women (and sometimes men) getting killed after or around the time they have sex. Freddy and Jason, with their phallic needles and machetes, indiscriminately slay women at close range, mirroring Norman’s intimate killing of Marion. Yet it doesn’t feel like murder — just acts of sexual violence. And as slasher films became a Hollywood staple, these kill scenes were more and more often treated as fun, disposable popcorn thrills, exploiting the underlying traumatic parallels to rape for cheap scares. In fact, the 1996 meta-slasher satire Scream specifically refers to this phenomenon when movie nerd Randy lists his rules for surviving a horror film, warning his friends, “You can never have sex. Sex equals death.”

In Scream, that’s a knowing joke aimed at the predictability of horror movies, but it’s also a creepy acknowledgment that, in slasher films, women need to “behave” and be on the lookout for male serial killers who could assault them at any minute. As novelist Bret Easton Ellis observes in 78/52, Hitchcock’s decision to make Psycho’s centerpiece this harrowing killing meant that “murder was now going to be an acceptable part of entertainment.”

So while it would be unfair to place the blame for the slasher genre’s most execrable convention at Hitchcock’s feet, it’s grimly ironic that, for a movie that at the time was treated as a disreputable, trashy throwaway, Psycho has proven to be far more humane and poignant in its depiction of death (and coded sexual assault) than the films it inspired.

That’s why the shower scene remains terribly moving and genuinely upsetting at the same time: We still haven’t really come to grips with its disturbing implications.