Call the plumber. It’s an emergency.
This week is Alfred Hitchcock’s 118th birthday which means it’s the perfect time to talk about toilets. More specifically the toilet in Psycho, the first mainstream American film to show a porcelain throne being flushed. How far we’ve come. After the intrepid Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) does some “I regret stealing $40,000” math, she tears up her scribblings and discards the evidence with an unmistakable and definitive flush—a certitude she punctuates by firmly closing the bathroom door, stripping, and taking a shower. She’s ready to start fresh; “cleaning not only her body but also the inner dirt.”
But, famously, this isn’t Marion Crane’s story. And in the span of 45 seconds (and over 90 cinematic flesh-severing cuts), Mrs. Bates’ silhouette slashed its way through not only a shower curtain but a cinematic boundary of taste, privacy, and comfort. Before Psycho, the water closet wasn’t something you showed on film, but rather a sacred off-screen no man’s land Hollywood stars rarely seemed to visit. “It [was] thought to be offensive,” explains film historian David Thomson, “and Hitchcock said ‘well this is silly’ and he got away with it.” To his credit, screenwriter Joseph Stefano was equally keen to unsettle audiences in preparation for the next shocking scene: “we’re going to start by showing you the toilet and it’s only going to get worse.” Cue screaming violins.
Since Psycho, the cinematic bathroom has become a disturbed, uncanny place—utterly familiar and all the more terrifying for it. The bathroom is where Marty peels his face off in Poltergeist; where teens get slashed in Friday the 13th and The Final Chapter; the site of Final Destination’s improbable tub strangling; and the star of one of It’s most visually-commanding set pieces. In The Shining bathrooms serve as liminal spaces that poke holes in the pretense of sanity—a locational hint that an unhinged soul like The Sixth Sense’s Vincent is about to do something terrible. Like, drop a pervy monster into an unsuspecting woman’s bathtub.
There is an unnerving tenor to the cinematic bathroom. An unshakable suspicion that something will go horribly wrong. And while I don’t deny the visceral power of an opaque bathtub or an interrupted shower, nowhere is this lavatorial terror more well-founded than in scenes involving toilets. With its historic flush, Psycho set the standard: in cinema, the latrine is a harbinger of doom.
There’s nothing escapist about a toilet. And this familiarity bestows it with a great and terrible power. Like Psycho’s seemingly harmless madman next door, the toilet is mundane and innocuous. And when everyday-ness is jolted into violence it’s upsetting; when the regular turns nasty and you’re literally caught with your pants down. Nowhere is this truer than Pulp Fiction, in which Vincent Vega’s bathroom breaks coincide with crystalline moments of violence: whether it’s Pumpkin and Honey Bunny’s bank robbery, Mia’s overdose, or Vincent’s own murder. As our H. Perry Horton writes, Tarantino’s point seems to be that life isn’t dull or extreme but rather “made up of punctuations within routine that can come on a moment’s whim and change everything.” That’s a terrifying realization: that humdrum doesn’t preclude violence. That even the great Tywin Lannister must shit.
The scariest moments in horror are often the most intimate. And while the solitude of bathroom breaks has its contemplative perks, it also wafts of exposure. Of dropping trou and dropping your guard. There’s an evolutionary bent to this vulnerability; some primal fear of getting caught in a compromising position by an apex predator. In The Incubus, the threat comes from below as gnarled demon hands yank a young concert-goer off the bowl and out from under the stall. Meanwhile, the opportunistic Fouke Monster of The Legend of Boggy Creek simply takes advantage of a poorly-placed window. The bathroom isn’t just a boundary-pushing space, it’s a space made terrifying when these boundaries are pushed.
Who gets killed on/by a toilet? Certainly laughable characters. There’s the wise-cracking, enchilada-loving Demon Winter in Friday the 13th Part V who gets impaled by a huge, outhouse-penetrating spike. When Scream 2’s bemused goofball Phil places his ear against the neighboring stall he’s rewarded with a knife in the ear. The old pervert from Clerks who suffers a heart attack on the john while masturbating certainly deserves a shout-out. As does the “Snakes On A Dick” guy from Snakes on a Plane. And of course, there’s the expressive geezer from Street Trash who, having drunk the liquefying batch of home-made hooch, flushes his melting body down the toilet in one of the most colorful scenes of carnage conceived to celluloid.
Adjacent, almost overlapping, is the sense that these are characters who deserve to be degraded in death. Dante’s Swirly, if you will. Their ignoble demise a kind of vulgar comeuppance for past wrongs. The “bloodsucking lawyer” from Jurassic Park was a profit margin-obsessed coward who courted humiliation via T-Rex. The corporate douche/carnival-owner from Ghoulies II meets a similar fate on a smaller scale. Deviant psychos like Hostel’s Dutch Business Man and I Spit On Your Grave 2’s Nikolai suffer appropriately depraved fates (sewage belongs in the toilet after all). There’s also no shortage of shitty teens meeting shitty ends. One minute Sleepaway Camp bully Billy is throwing water balloons at the victimized Angela, the next, he’s trapped in a bathroom stall with angry bees. And to come full circle: there’s the snarky bathroom-hogging teen from Psycho III (“do you mind sister? This is ocupado”) who gets her throat sliced by none other than Mrs. Bates herself.
In Francis Ford Coppola’s first-class thriller The Conversation the bathroom is treated as a psychological space. Surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) mucks around in the lives of other folks but prefers to keep his distance (see: cameras, microphones, etc). He’s scouring this hotel room for signs of the murder he feels uncomfortably responsible for. He enters the bathroom, lifts the lid of the toilet, and flushes. It’s all he can do to watch as a cascade of blood gurgles forth, overflowing onto the tile. No longer able to deny the consequences of his line of work he stands petrified; the guilty evidence welling up before him.
In his delightfully depraved video essay, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, toilet-obsessed philosopher and polarizing provocateur Slavoj Žižek describes film as a cesspool of the psyche. And sometimes, not unlike the crimson toilet in The Conversation, film forces us to confront the darker parts of our subconscious.
Or who’s to say maybe we’re all just terrified of our toilets morphing into flesh-eating nightmare fuel.