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Horror in the shower

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho hit screens on June 16, 1960 and ever since, fear and horror have entered the nondescript washroom.

ht weekend Updated: Jun 15, 2019 07:38 IST
Paramita Ghosh
Paramita Ghosh
Hindustan Times
In the shower scene from the film Psycho, Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh) screams in terror as Norman Bates tears open her shower curtain.(Getty Images)

What can go wrong in a bathroom? The soap may get flushed down the toilet. Faucets may drip. The geyser may run out of hot water. A kitchen knife-wielding predator hiding behind the shower curtain was not on that list. Until Hollywood auteur Alfred Hitchock released Pyscho, his last black-and-white feature, on June 16, 1960, and had his heroine, Janet Leigh let out a scream that (even though it was overriden by the four sharp notes in the background score), we can still hear in our heads today.

Leigh would later say she could never look at showers the same way again. “No showers, I only take baths,” she said.

Since Psycho, generations of filmmakers have used the bathroom as an almost-psychological arena where a person faces his or her vulnerabilities or the crisis of the moment and is overpowered by it. Oddly, it is usually women who cower and die here. (Not many men have been killed in the bath).

British cultural theorist and film critic Peter Wollen, in an essay titled ‘Hybrid plots in Psycho’, argued that the murder-in-the-shower scene in Psycho was a realisation of “both erotic and threatening overtones” that mark any encounter between two strangers. The bathroom, like many semi-enclosed spaces both intimate and public — such as attics, parking lots, basements and lifts — has a hold on our imagination.

The restroom particularly feels hidden away. It is an essential part of a home but never its centre. You enter it to cut yourself off. Once the door closes, you know confinement, privacy, have a reasonable expectation of safety. This is a space with the least risk of invasion. You couldn’t possibly be harmed in a toilet. Or could you?

Bath-side murders

Jack Nicholson peering through axed in door in the film 'The Shining', 1980. ( Getty Images )

The Shining (1980)

Based on a Stephen King book with the same title, this Stanley Kubrick classic has Jack Nicholson as an overwrought writer who takes over as the caretaker of a remote hotel. Some of the film’s most unsettling moments occur in various kinds of water closets. A ghostly hotel butler tells the writer to punish his family in one. The famous “Here’s Johnny” dialogue, for which Nicholson bares his gums to flash his trademark wolfish grin, takes place in another. His next move? Axing down the toilet door to get to his wife.

Neve Campbell (as Sidney Prescott) in the slasher film series, Scream.

Scream (1996-2011)

Few actors can pull off the regular American teenager of the ’90s as well as Neve Campbell (as Sidney Prescott) did in the slasher film series, Scream. The high-school washroom is the place where she licks private wounds and has one of her many encounters with Ghostface, the masked serial killer with the swingy knife and the whispery voice. Another character who gets the knife-jab in the toilet is Phil Stevens (Scream 2), Sidney’s classmate, who takes a loo break during a screening of Stab, a film with a not so subtle title, given that that is how he will meet his end.

Poltergeist (1982)

Martin Cassella (an assistant director of Steven Spielberg), as a ghost spotter.

Poltergeist is both cult (horror) and mainstream. Considered one of the best films of the ’80s – it had three Academy nominations -- it delivered a fright in almost every scene. The plot: a malevolent force wreaks havoc on the home of a Californian couple, the Freelings, and their three children. When the freaky occurrences get too much for the family, a team of parapsychologists troop in. They are not spared the bizarre. Martin Cassella (an assistant director of Steven Spielberg), who plays one of the ghost spotters, looks in the washroom mirror and suddenly finds himself peeling his own face off! It was just a trick his mind was playing on him but boy was it effective!.

What lies Beneath (2000)

Michelle Pfeiffer tries to escape from the bath-tub.

Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford play a happily married couple. And in some ways they are. Ford is a college professor. An affair with a student, however, stretches too long; the good professor bumps her off. The murdered girl leaves scribbles on the bathroom mirror for Pleiffer. Pleiffer holds a seance in the washroom with her friend and realises that all her suspicions were true. When accosted, Ford drops the act, sedates her, places her in the bathtub, and turns on the tap....

First Published: Jun 15, 2019 07:38 IST