Psycho shower Janet leigh
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Fright Fortnight: The ‘Death By Sex’ Trope in Psycho

5 mins read

A girl stands in the shower, completely unaware of the homicidal motel owner that stands behind her. When the curtain is pulled back and the screech of the violin starts up, suddenly movie history is made.

While the shower scene in Psycho (1960) has terrified audiences for over half a century, it’s also a perfect early example of a classic horror movie motif- ‘death by sex’.

What is the ‘death by sex’ trope?

The term ‘death by sex’ relates to the trope that when a woman has sex in a movie she is destined to die.

Typically, in times of conservatism, this cliché tends to have a resurgence. In Halloween (1978) 3 of the 5 victims were sexually active. Friday the 13th (1980) opens with a couple having sex, then immediately meeting a grisly end.

These films were released in the years after the sexual revolution of the 60s, and before the AIDs crisis of the 80s.

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho (1960). Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

Audiences were introduced to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho the same year that the contraceptive pill was approved for release in America. For the first time woman had control of their bodies and this was a scary thought for many Americans.

Hitchcock played into this fear by giving his leading lady sexual agency. Marion (played by Janet Leigh) is a woman that knows what she wants. She has pre-martial sex, steals money, agrees to dinner with strange men and invites them into her room.

In the end, the film tells us, she is punished for it. Even the way that Hitchcock presents Marion’s murder feels targeted.

Hitchcock’s camera

Hitchcock’s camera is known for being specific. The originator of the Dolly zoom in Vertigo (1958). Voyeuristic angles in Rear Window (1954). Bird’s-eye view shots in North By Northwest (1959). Hitchcock places his camera with purpose, and Psycho is no different.

There are no Hitchcockian subjective views when Marion is murdered in cold blood. Marion’s reaction, though prominent, isn’t the sole focus either.  

Instead, we’re shown extreme close-ups of her body. Her stomach, chest, her flailing arms. The focus of the violence is on her body. It’s like retribution for the way she used her body in life.

The audience attacks her as much as Norman Bates does.

Gender roles in Psycho

It’s not just the shower scene either. Women are constantly punished for the act of sex; Even Mrs Bates is killed by her jealous son after beginning a new romantic relationship.

But they’re also rewarded for being virgins. Marion’s sister, Lila (Vera Miles) acts as her antithesis. She does what she is told, she listens to the men in her life, and she disapproves of her sister’s actions. In the end, she is the one that gets to be saved by a man.

Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

Speaking of men, they get to have as much, or as little sex as they want without facing the same moral dilemma. In fact, the ‘death by sex’ trope is inverted in their case.

Sam Loomis (John A. Gavin) is the hero in the end, despite being Marion’s Lover. While Norman Bates (played by the brilliant Anthony Perkins) is almost a virginal figure, doomed with a life of homicidal tendencies and oedipal urges.

Women are punished for enjoying sex, while men are ostracised when they don’t.

Thankfully, society and the horror genre have moved on slightly since the 60s. ‘Final girls’ are allowed to have sex and make it to the credits. Films like Scream (1996) actively try to subvert the genre and find new ways to scare.

Although Psycho has its problems- It’s iconic.  

It may seem tame by today’s standards but listen to those violin strings and tell me you don’t lock the bathroom door before stepping into the shower.

Featured Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

Stirling Choir Concert
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Film and Tv Editor at Brig Newspaper. Currently studying Journalism and English at the University of Stirling

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