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Credit: Paramount Pictures 

Horror, femininity, and the vulnerability of bathrooms

Contributed by
Oct 17, 2019

There is no such thing as taking a relaxing bath or shower in a horror movie. Alfred Hitchcock put an end to feeling safe in a locked motel bathroom when Norman Bates slashed through the flimsy plastic shower curtain in Psycho — a defining cinematic moment that has been repeated, recycled, and referenced over the last 60 years.

This location, whether in the home or hotel, is meant to feel safe. Other than doors to exit or enter the home, this is typically the one room that can be bolted from inside. A lock on the door ensures privacy, but this is also the place in which you are often at your most vulnerable. Clothing is shed to bathe, not yet awake from the previous night's sleep or relaxing in a blissful soapy haze after a long day. Usually, there is only one door in and out and if there is a window, it is likely on the smaller side. It is hard to avoid the mundane everyday routine and functions a bathroom provides. For horror, the more humdrum the location the better, as the scare can exist long after the movie has come to an end — and you will never look at a bathtub in the same way again.

Ever since Janet Leigh took that fateful shower in 1960, Hitchcock made the bathroom an acceptable venue for terror; this was also the first time a flushing toilet was shown in an American movie. Leigh was the star of Psycho, or so audiences thought, which made her death by surprise shower attack even more unprecedented. After stealing $40,000 from her employer and being convinced she's gotten away with it, Marion Crane is washing the day off when the camera reveals the silhouette of a figure on the other side of the curtain. The point-of-view switches between killer and victim, thereby putting the audience in the position of both.

Credit: Paramount Pictures 

Bathroom violence isn't just experienced by women in horror, as the infamous castration scene in I Spit on Your Grave can attest. However, this is one of the few occasions in which a man is on the receiving end of an attack in the tub. Jennifer (Camille Keaton) enacts her revenge on one of her rapists by luring him back to her rented home, taking a bath with him and then cutting off his genitals. She leaves the room, locking the door behind her so there is no chance for an escape. A flimsy lock is often no match for an attacker, but here it keeps him in.

Drawing a bath to unwind with bubbles and a glass of wine is frequently gendered as a relaxation activity for women. While illustrated as a location of comfort, the horror audience knows that something terrible is likely to happen whenever a character has let their guard down. Nudity plays a role, with the promise of titillation wrestling for attention from the potential terror. Unlike the kitchen, the number of weapons in the bathroom is limited, but there are still items such as scissors, heated curling irons, and even the ceramic toilet lid that will prove useful in a pickle. Sometimes the attacker isn't even human, which proves to be harder to fight back against. A locked door is no barrier to something that can crawl up a drain or in through a window.

In David Cronenberg's 1975 debut Shivers, Scream Queen Barbara Steele as Betts sips on a glass of wine in the tub when an extremely phallic (seriously, it might as well be a penis) creature enters via the plughole, slowly edging toward her crotch. The lack of bubbles ensures the audience is aware of this danger before Betts is — by the time she notices, it is too late. We don't see where the creature ends up, but there's enough bloody water information to suggest there is only one place it could've gone. This violation is a form of sexual assault by a man-made parasite, which spreads like an STD. "They Came From Within" was a working Shivers title featured on a poster bearing the image of a terrified woman in a bathtub to mirror the scene with Steele. In a horrifying premise, those infected with the parasite pass it on via sexual assault. It is no accident that the shape the parasite resembles most is a penis.

Credit: Universal Pictures

James Gunn pays homage to this particular scene in his 2006 alien invasion movie Slither, which uses the image of Kylie's (Tania Saulnier) impending bathtub attack on the poster. One is an overhead shot, which shows Kylie in the bathtub — oblivious and surrounded. The other key art is slightly more ambiguous as to who this person in the bath is, though the smooth skin implies it is a woman. A bare leg pokes out the top of the image and again, the phallic creatures edge toward her. The scene starts with a close-up of a foot turning the tap, adding more water to the brimming tub. Her mother bangs on the door, warning her she will end up with prune-like skin if she languishes in there for too long. Kylie ignores her mother's advice, instead sticking in headphones in her ears. The latter means she is unaware of the danger until it is almost too late. Unlike Shivers, this worm-like being goes for her mouth, but this attack is no less phallic. As she struggles to pull it out of this orifice, it is no doubt meant to look like something else.

The privacy aspect of the bathroom means it is often shorthand for giving teens a place where they can get away from their parents or siblings for a moment to themselves. Sure, they have a bedroom, but true peace and quiet can only be achieved in one room in the house. One of the most memorable shots from A Nightmare on Elm Street is Freddy Krueger's fingers reaching up between Nancy's spread legs as she reclines in her tub. Before this moment, her mother has knocked on the door. As with Slither, it is a bid to get her out of the bathroom, though Nancy's mother is concerned she will drift off. Accidental drowning is the least of Nancy's concerns if she does fall asleep, as Freddy is ready to pounce. In the 2010 remake, Rooney Mara as Nancy sets an alarm on her cell phone to ensure she has an escape if she does succumb to slumber.

This moment in both versions also straddles the line between innocence and burgeoning sexuality. Girlish bubbles, a blow-up pillow, and the nursery rhyme Nancy is singing all point toward childhood bathtime play, even if the lyrics have been changed to a foreboding "Freddy's coming for you." The duality of this scene also exists in the provocative, almost gynecological camera angle between her legs. In film, a tub is often the scene of sexual awakening via a showerhead-aided exploration, and the bathroom typically serves as a place where a girl crosses the line into symbolic womanhood via menstruation. Placing Freddy in this arena adds another disturbing layer to what should be a blissful scenario.

Beverly Marsh experiences an extreme version of this in It Chapter One while she is hanging out fully clothed in her home bathroom. Nothing good can come from hearing voices down the drain. At first, Bev is attacked by bloody vines before the sink vomits up gallons of blood, covering the entire room in the crimson substance. Again, there is this sense that there is no escaping danger in a bathroom when the drains provide access. Her abusive father enters, but he cannot see what Bev can. Instead, he creepily touches her face and bemoans her new haircut, telling her she looks like a boy.

It isn't just the bathroom that is meant to be a safe haven, but the entire home — something Bev has never experienced. This whole scene plays into the fears caused by girls on the verge of womanhood and the notion of possessing agency of her own. It also underscores the danger Beverly is in, as Pennywise is not the only predator in her life. School bathrooms are another source of danger in horror (see Scream), but they can be a location of personal torment as Bev can't even use the restroom in peace. There, the monsters are tween girl bullies.

A bathroom also represents the source of beautifying rituals; it is where the makeup and grime of the day are removed, but is home to cleansing, shaving, and applying mounds of products that promise a variety of solutions. Cabin Fever showcases that a cut is not the worst thing that can happen while shaving your legs, as the flesh-eating disease is revealed with each stroke of the razor. In the recent Evil Dead remake, a mirrored medicine cabinet displays a terrifying image of Olivia, her cheek cut to resemble the Black Dahlia. This image becomes a reality when the possessed Olivia hacks away at her own face with a piece of shattered mirror glass. The bathroom cabinet is a classic horror go-to for a jump scare as shutting it will reveal someone in the mirror who wasn't there before. Candyman plays with audience expectations in a moment like this; instead of the mirror, his arm reaches out from the medicine shelves, attempting to attack Helen in the so-called safety of her bathroom.

Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures 

Outside of Psycho, perhaps the most famous horror bathroom is in The Shining. The foreboding Overlook Hotel has three key different locations of this kind including the ominous red-walled men's room, in which Jack Torrance is told by Delbert Grady that he had to "correct" his family — a euphemism for killing his wife and two daughters. The crimson room is based on a Frank Lloyd Wright design from a real-life hotel in Arizona, and violence suggested as a solution in a room decorated with this much menace is far from subtle production design but incredibly effective. In another part of the Overlook, Room 237 lurks. Young Danny has been warned to stay away from this specific location, but his curiosity gets the better of him. When his dad goes to investigate, he is momentarily seduced by a naked blonde woman before he notices her decaying bloated corpse in the mirror.

The climax of the movie also involves a bathroom; instead of using seduction to mask the true horror, it provides a temporary refuge. As one of the rooms with a lock, it seems like the safest location, but the exit opportunities are slim. Danny can fit through the window but his mother cannot, eventually left brandishing a knife as Jack makes quick work out of the cheap wood door. If there is someone who deserves a long, hot bath it is Wendy Torrance.

Slashers, supernatural, psychological, and body horror have all utilized the familiar location of a bathroom, transforming it from a place of rest and relaxation into a room of torment, and women are often attacked in this location that represents privacy and vulnerability. It is not the safe haven it appears to be when Freddy, alien parasites, Pennywise, and abusive dads are hanging around. Any part of the house can be infiltrated by these monsters, even the tub.

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