15 Psycho Behind-the Scenes Facts About 'Psycho'
With Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock basically reinvented horror -- every movie you’re going to watch this Halloween owes a stabby debt of gratitude to his ode to mommy issues. Hitchcock’s decision to casually retool the entire process of how to make a movie forever changed the cultural landscape, from production rumors that are still spread to the entire concept of spoilers.
The Real Norman Bates
Norman Bates was based on Ed Gein, A.K.A. the Butcher of Plainfield, who also inspired the creation of Buffalo Bill and Leatherface. Gein killed two women but never actually became his mother, though it wasn’t for lack of trying -- he picked up his favorite hobby, graverobbing, hoping to create a woman suit for that exact purpose.
The Psycho novel, based on Gein’s story, didn’t reach Hitchcock until after Paramount had already dismissed it as an impossible movie to make. What Hitchcock wanted, Hitchcock got, however, so the studio very begrudgingly granted him his weird crossdressing murder movie but only a fraction of the budget he was used to, which is why the movie is black and white at a time when color film was widely available but more expensive.
Psycho is a Christmas Movie
Psycho initially wasn’t set during any specific part of the year. It’s Phoenix, after all -- how could you tell? Well, Christmas decorations are a pretty dead giveaway, so after the crew unwittingly filmed some of the city’s holiday cheer, Hitchcock decided it would take place between December 11 and 20 in a universe where nobody talks about Christmas during those days.
The Big Flush
They were considered too icky for mainstream movies and TV, so Psycho was the first Hollywood movie to show a toilet. In fact, not even Hitchcock was altogether down with it, but screenwriter Joseph Stefano got so weirdly fixated on it that Hitchcock relented only if he managed to work it into the plot, which is why Marion Crane flushes her incriminating notes.
Sweet, Sweet Blood
Fake blood can be tricky for the prop department because the color and texture are hard to get right, but that wasn’t a problem for Psycho. Since it was filmed in black and white, they just used Hershey’s chocolate syrup. This helped them get around the censors, too, because “it’s obviously chocolate syrup,” according to no one who didn’t already know that.
It Wasn’t Cold Water
Lots of poorly researched trivia Instagrams will tell you that Hitchcock blasted Janet Leigh with freezing cold water to get the most realistic possible scream out of her in the shower scene, which is believable enough because he was a notorious asshole to his leading ladies, but this wasn’t one of those times. Leigh always maintained that the show was perfectly warm and actually kinda nice, although…
Leigh Never Took Showers Again
Despite being in a unique position to see just how not-scary it really was, Leigh is among the hordes who became devoted bath-takers after Psycho. In fact, “when I'm someplace where I can only take a shower,” she said. “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." Stars: They really are just like us!
No One Can Agree On the Number of Shots
It’s generally accepted that there are 78 shots and 52 cuts in the shower scene, but even Hitchcock himself once claimed there were only 70, and the actual figure may be even lower. Philip J. Skerry, who literally wrote the book on the scene and somehow was really named that, counted only 60 shots and suggested the inflated numbers may be based on storyboards, not the actual film.
The Boob That Never Was
All those close-ups helped Hitchcock get around the censors, too, since filming an entire naked woman would get you executed in 1960. They were certain they saw a flash of a boob, though, so Hitchcock promised to edit it -- and then sent them the exact same cut, which they approved.
Those Slacker Censors
The censors also objected to the opening scene showing Marion Crane and Sam Loomis scantily dressed and in bed together, so Hitchcock likewise agreed to reshoot but only if they came to the set to make absolutely sure everything was up to their standards. They never showed up, so Hitchcock got to keep his opening and America’s youth was irrevocably corrupted by the sight of a slip.
The Invention of Spoilers
Back in Psycho’s day, it was totally acceptable for a review or even your friend Steve to reveal a movie’s entire plot, which was mostly fine because twists weren’t that common. It was definitely not normal for a movie to become an entirely different movie halfway through, so Hitchcock embarked on a campaign to discourage viewers from discussing the ending, essentially creating the spoiler warning. He even bought up every copy of the book he could find so people wouldn’t read it.
The Invention of Showtimes
Psycho was also the first American movie, at Hitchcock’s insistence, that theatergoers weren’t allowed to watch if they arrived after it started. In fact, before Psycho, theater showtimes weren’t even a thing. Theaters played films in a loop, so people just wandered in whenever, knowing they’d see all of it eventually. Theater owners loved the long lines of people who showed up for Psycho, though, so now you have to arrive exactly 15 minutes early or Steve will complain all night about missing the previews.
Janet Leigh had to make a lot of the 20th-century equivalent of “new phone, save this number” texts because for the rest of her life, she was targeted by weirdos who harassed her via mail and phone. Two of them were eventually identified by the FBI as guys the FBI had been watching “for some time,” meaning they were legit dangerous.
It Can’t Be Recreated
Gus Van Sant’s Psycho was supposedly a shot-for-shot remake, but Hitchcock’s techniques were so advanced that even one of today’s best directors couldn’t figure out how he did it. “There were a couple of scenes we just couldn't get it right,” he said. “We just couldn't see how Hitchcock did the blocking, where people were supposed to be standing in relation to the camera. So all we could do was loosely base them on the original."
You can’t swing a dead mom without hitting a horror movie influenced by Psycho, but even nearly 40 years later, it was still shocking when the biggest star of Scream, Drew Barrymore, died within the first 12 minutes of the movie in a clear homage to Janet Leigh. One of the killers is also named Billy Loomis, which is actually a callback to Halloween’s Dr. Samuel Loomis, so it’s a reference within a reference inside a reference quilt. Which is what most horror movies are these days anyway.
Top image: Paramount Pictures