The Psycho shower scene isn't just one of the most iconic sequences in horror film history, but in the history of cinema as a whole. While the scene only comprises a few minutes of the Alfred Hitchcock classic, its construction was complex enough that director Alexandre O. Philippe has created an entire 90-minute documentary around it, 78/52, which IFC Films will release on Friday, October 13.
Assembling both experts and filmmakers—including Danny Elfman, Guillermo del Toro, and Elijah Wood—the documentary picks apart the technical artistry and historical significance of Hitchcock’s groundbreaking direction. Here are 12 things we learned about the scene from 78/52.
1. IT TOOK AN UNUSUALLY LONG TIME TO SHOOT.
Despite clocking in at under five minutes, the shower scene took seven whole days to shoot which, per Hitchcock (2012) producer Alan Barnette, was “pretty much unheard of.” Hitchcock’s granddaughter Tere Carrubba estimates that that seven-day span was about a third of the time Janet Leigh spent filming Psycho.
2. JANET LEIGH’S BODY DOUBLE WAS ONE OF THE FIRST PLAYBOY BUNNIES.
It wasn’t just Janet Leigh you saw getting slaughtered by Norman Bates in Psycho’s most famous scene. 78/52 director Alexandre O. Philippe managed to track down Marli Renfro, the then-21-year-old pinup model who served as Leigh’s shower scene body double. After shooting the scene, Renfro went back to Chicago, where she shot the September 1960 cover of Playboy and subsequently worked at the Playboy Club, which had just opened in February of that year.
3. LEIGH WASN’T INVOLVED IN SOME OF THE FILM'S MOST FAMOUS SHOTS ...
Two of the most famous individual shots in the shower sequence—Norman Bates’s knife against Marion Crane’s stomach and Marion’s hand grabbing the shower curtain—were of Renfro, not Leigh. For the latter shot, per Renfro, you can tell it’s her because “the ring finger is disfigured a bit. The nail is darker than a regular fingernail. When I was three years old, I reached down to help my brother on a [push] lawnmower and cut it off.” For the stomach shot, Hitchcock had a knife pressed against Renfro’s stomach and then pulled it away; in the film, the shot was reversed.
4. ... AND NEITHER WAS ANTHONY PERKINS.
All the footage of a bewigged Bates stabbing Marion wasn’t actually Anthony Perkins, who was in New York rehearsing the Broadway show Greenwillow at the time. Instead, it was a stuntwoman whose face was blackened in order to achieve a silhouette effect. When you see Perkins cleaning up the scene of the crime, it’s Renfro’s body he’s lugging around in a shower curtain.
5. MARION CRANE KNEW WHO WAS MURDERING HER.
“I talked with Janet Leigh a bit about what she thought she saw coming out at her, and she clearly saw Norman," Stephen Rebello, writer of Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, explained in the documentary. "And that’s what she played. So the reality for her was ‘I’m going to die this way by this person who tried to befriend me and I tried to be polite to.’ It really does lend an extra air of horror and pathos to that moment.”
6. BERNARD HERRMANN’S SCORE HELPED SAVE THE FILM FROM TELEVISION.
“When my grandfather first saw the first rough cut of Psycho, he didn’t like it at all," Carrubba said. "He was just going to cut it down to an hour and make it part of [Alfred Hitchcock Presents]." It was composer Bernard Herrmann who convinced Hitchcock to add the iconic screeching violin score to the shower scene, which made the sequence work and resulted in the movie being the classic we know it as today.
7. THE SOUND OF MARION BEING STABBED IS SIRLOIN AND CASABA MELON.
Hitchcock had his sound team stab dozens of different types of melons to find out which one best replicated the sound of a butcher knife stabbing flesh. What he settled on was the casaba melon, the thick rind of which kept the sound from being too hollow. To supplement the casaba, Hitchcock used recordings of a giant slab of sirloin being stabbed over and over again. Per Rebello, after recording the necessary noises, “the sound man took [the sirloin] home and had it for dinner that night.”
8. IT CAUSED AUDIENCE MEMBERS TO FREAK OUT.
Director Peter Bogdanovich recalled his experience as one of the first people to see the shower scene at the first New York screening: “The minute the curtain opens and [Norman] started stabbing, there was a sustained shriek from the audience. You couldn’t hear anything of the soundtrack. Through the entire shower scene … it was actually the first time in the history of movies where it wasn’t safe to be in the movie theater.”
9. HITCHCOCK WENT TO GREAT LENGTHS TO PREVENT SPOILERS.
It’s a well-known fact that Psycho changed the way movies were exhibited. Prior to Psycho, according to editor Walter Murch, “there was a tremendous … coming and going in movie theaters. And Hitchcock brilliantly said, ‘We don’t want anyone coming in after the beginning of this film.’” As Hitchcock explained later, he didn’t want people wandering in after the shower scene and wondering where Leigh was.
Secrecy around the shower scene dated all the way back to the trailers, which featured a shot of Vera Miles—not Janet Leigh—screaming in a shower.
10. THE PAINTING NORMAN BATES SPIES THROUGH IS SIGNIFICANT.
Hitchcock was all about attention to detail, and that extended to the painting Norman Bates pulls away to spy on Marion Crane in the bathroom. The painting depicts the morality story “Susanne and the Elders,” about a virtuous woman who’s bathing in her garden when she’s spied on by two men.
Over the centuries, that story was painted in several different ways, with various emphases and varying levels of female nudity. In the version Hitchcock chose, painted by 17th-century artist Frans Van Mieris Le Vieux, the elders are groping Susanne, echoing the violence of Psycho’s shower scene along with its voyeuristic elements.
Per Timothy Standring, Gates Foundation Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Denver Art Museum, Bates “removes the voyeuristic painting to become the voyeur looking in on the shower. [Hitchcock] could have picked from 50 different examples, but he chose this one because it had the most amount of information that he could use for his film.”
11. A LAST-MINUTE EDIT COVERED UP A CRITICAL ERROR.
At the end of the shower scene, Leigh had to keep completely still—not breathing, her eyes not moving—while the camera slowly pulled back and away from her. It took many takes to get right … but, per Carrubba, when the movie was completed and Hitchcock showed it to executives, Hitchcock’s wife pointed out that at one point you could see Leigh take a breath. Because Leigh was already gone and there wasn’t enough money for reshoots, Hitchcock cut away to a shot of the showerhead to cover the error.
12. THE SHOWER SCENE HAD A DIRECT IMPACT ON RAGING BULL.
One of the many filmmakers influenced by Psycho is the great Martin Scorsese, who modeled the fight between Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) and Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes) directly after the Psycho shower scene. “I literally got a shot-by-shot breakdown of the shower scene in Psycho and [matched it] up [to] my original storyboard for this one sequence,” Scorsese said.