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Why Janet Leigh Was Never The Same After Psycho

Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho was a landmark of modern cinema. It gave birth to the horror film as we know it, and broke a number of the conventions of film at the time — not the least of which was the unceremonious dispatching of what audiences were made to believe was the main character, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), less than halfway through the movie.

Speaking of which, it also gave moviegoers a serious case of heebie-jeebies about showers, doing for our morning ritual what Jaws would do for trips to the beach 15 years later — and nobody was immune, least of all its star. Leigh — who sadly passed away in 2004 — once spoke at length about her experience making the film in an obscure 1984 interview which was rediscovered by Woman's World magazine in 2018. Although Hitchcock has developed a hell of a reputation for being less than respectful of his female stars in recent years, Leigh — who only worked with him the one time — recalled a much different experience.

The making of Psycho went off without a hitch

Psycho, which starred Anthony Perkins as the notorious Mama's boy Norman Bates, was shot using the crew of Hitchcock's then-current anthology TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which at that point was running like a well-oiled machine. As such, the production wasn't a difficult one — up to a point.

"We shot that picture so easily, so quickly, because of Mr. Hitchcock's preparation," Leigh remembered. "The planning, the concept, the details — everything was done before. It was never a haphazard, 'Well, let's see what we do now.' He gave me great respect, but it had to be within the framework of his concept, his camera. He already knew how the camera could make it exciting."

Hitch's level of preparation and trust in Leigh's actorly instincts meant that the actress was free to give the role her all, resulting in a naturalistic performance quite different from what audiences of the era were used to. Such was her dedication that at the conclusion of the infamous shower sequence in which her character is stabbed to death by Bates, Leigh held her pose — face down on the bathroom floor, eyes wide open as the spray cascades over her — with no help from contact lenses or in-camera trickery.

"[Hitchcock] wanted me to put in those lenses that would give me a scary look... [but it] would've taken six weeks for my eyes to get used to them," Leigh said. "And if I didn't, it could have damaged my eyes. Mr. Hitchcock said... 'You're just going to have to do it on your own.' So I held that look... I will say it wasn't easy."

Psycho gave Janet Leigh a lifelong phobia

Because the visceral nature of the shower scene was to be accomplished through rapid-fire editing of multiple takes shot from a variety of angles, it was by far the most time-intensive part of the entire shoot. Although it took up only about 45 seconds of screen time, 20 different takes of the scene were shot over a whopping seven days (via The Vintage News). Perhaps this is part of the reason that the scene saddled Leigh with a lifelong, rather predictable phobia. 

"I stopped taking showers and I only take baths," she revealed to her interviewer, without a trace of humor. "And when I'm someplace where I can only take a shower, I make sure the doors and windows of the house are locked. I also leave the bathroom door open and shower curtain open. I'm always facing the door, watching, no matter where the shower head is."

Remember, this interview took place nearly a quarter-century after Psycho's release. It sounds like quite a price to pay just for one role — but then again, Psycho wasn't just another movie, and Leigh confessed to being glad that she was cast.

"I've been in a great many films, but I suppose if an actor can be remembered for one role then they're very fortunate," she said. "And in that sense, I'm fortunate."

Janet Leigh's famous daughter recreated the shower scene

Just in case you weren't aware, Leigh is the mother of the first and greatest of all horror movie scream queens — Jamie Lee Curtis, whose breakthrough performance in John Carpenter's 1978 masterpiece Halloween set a template for all who would claim the title. In 2015, Curtis recreated Mom's famous scene (well, most of it) as part of the short-lived, Ryan Murphy-produced Fox TV series Scream Queens, on which she was a regular.

The sequence plays identically to the original, right up until the part where the series' masked Red Devil killer rips back the shower curtain — only to look around in confusion upon seeing that Curtis' character, Dr. Cathy Munsch, is no longer there. She then cold-cocks him from behind, slams his head against the bathtub, and scolds him: "I saw that movie 50 times!" She then finishes him off with a wicked right cross.

It was an excellent comedic homage, one that we're sure Leigh would have appreciated. In fact, if only such an homage had been put to film much sooner, perhaps Leigh could have lived out a few of her final years unafraid of setting foot in her shower.