The following contains potential spoilers and scenes which may be considered NSFW.
The scariest moments in horror are often the most intimate. This is why knives are far nastier, button-pushing instrument of death than guns. As the Joker famously put it in The Dark Knight, “You can savor all those little emotions.”
Intimacy may be the key to understanding why, in horror films, so many dreadful things tend to happen in bathrooms. The bathroom is often where we go to be by ourselves, whether it is to answer the call of nature, brush our teeth, or simply relax in the bath after a hectic day at work. It is where we are at our most vulnerable: naked, or at least with our pants down, and often with nothing more to defend ourselves with than hand sanitzer and some floss.
The following is by no means an exhaustive catalogue of every terrible bathroom moment that has occurred in cinema, but it hopefully offers a broad cross-section. So from nasty experiences on toilets to far-from-relaxing encounters in the bathtub, here’s our selection of horrifying bathroom moments…
17. Psycho (1960)
Here’s the granddaddy of the bathroom horror scene, and likely the one you’ll immediately think of when someone asks you to think of an unpleasant scene set in a restroom. It’s important to remember just how boundary-pushing the shower stall death of Marion Crane was back in 1960 (famously, this was the first time we’d seen a flushing toilet in an American movie). The censors also complained to Hitchcock that they could see actress Janet Leigh’s nipple during the bloody onslaught – Hitchcock, mischievous old soul that he was, told the board that he’d cut the scene out, screened it for them again, and the censors gave Psycho a pass.
The secret to the shower scene’s brilliance is the sound and editing. Hitchcock can’t really show us anything as graphic as a knife slicing flesh, but he can give us the sensation of violence through jolting cuts and the sonic jabs of Bernard Herrmann’s classic score.
16. Shivers (1975)
Leave it to director David Cronenberg to direct a bathroom scene that is so repulsive and disturbing that it seems to have scorched itself on the minds of numerous other filmmakers. Cronenberg’s low-budget feature debut sees a breed of disgusting, man-made parasites – part leech, part turd – spread a venereal disease through an exclusive high-rise building.
In Shivers’ most effective scene, one of these parasites pushes its way up through the drain and into the bathtub of horror queen Barbara Steele, who’s enjoying a bit of me-time with a glass of wine. Her moment of relaxation is ruined when the loathsome critter noses its way out of the plughole and slowly, deliberately makes a beeline for an intimate area between the poor woman’s legs. What happens next is far from explicit – we see nothing but the thrashing of her legs and the shattering of her wine glass – but it’s all we need to know. It’s a horrible, squirm-inducing moment.
15. Deep Red/Profundo Rosso (1975)
At the height of his creative powers in the 70s and 80s, Dario Argento specialized in staging a string of elaborate, grisly and slickly-executed murder scenes. Profundo Rosso was among the very best of his giallo movies, with a sparky pair of leads (played by David Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi), an intriguing central mystery, and of course, Argento’s trademark horror set-pieces.
This particular one is particularly withering: the unseen killer attacks a woman in her own bathroom and, in a horribly protracted sequence, drowns her in a bathtub of scalding water. Argento’s camera lingers over every unpleasant, murderous detail, before later delivering the warped punchline: the victim, in her dying moments, scrawled some incriminating evidence in the condensation on the wall.
14. The Shining (1980)
There’s an entire article to be written, perhaps, about the significance of bathrooms in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. As Jack Nicholson’s wannabe novelist Jack Torrance slowly goes crazy in the remote environs of the Overlook Hotel, notice how the film’s most disturbing moments occur in water closets of one sort or another. Butler Delbert Grady fatefully tells Torrance to punish his family in one. The famous “Here’s Johnny” sequence takes place in another.
For the purposes of this article, we’re concentrating on the scene where Torrance, midway through the film and still teetering on the brink of insanity, wanders into room 237 and sees a naked woman lying in a bath. Seemingly hypnotized by her curviness, Torrance wanders in, and the woman – naked, obviously – gets out of the bath and stalks towards Jack. It’s only when they embrace that Jack realizes the woman is in fact a hideous old ghoul. It’s both an effective jump-scare and a further insight into the decaying state of Jack’s mind.
13. Poltergeist (1982)
Did Steven Spielberg direct the best moments in this 80s cinematic ghost train, as the legends suggest, or was it Tobe Hooper? Whoever it was, they allowed their imagination to run riot. What starts as a low-key tale of the supernatural soon branches out into wildly unpredictable horror territory, as the malevolent force terrorizes the Freeling household with a series of freaky occurrences. The goriest: the one where paranormal investigator Marty (Martin Cassella) looks in the mirror and promptly peels his own face off. We’re allowed a moment to gasp at the horror of it, before a cut reveals that it was all in the character’s mind. Gratuitous? Yeah. Effective? Undoubtedly.
12. The Dead Zone (1983)
Here’s David Cronenberg again, this time with his superb adaptation of Stephen King’s best-selling novel. Eschewing gore for the most part, Cronenberg angles the story of small-town psychic, Johnny (Christopher Walken) as a chilly tragedy, and the result is one of the most satisfying King-derived films yet made.
There is, however, one scene where Cronenberg lets the blood flow. Having been unmasked thanks to Johnny’s psychic powers, serial murderer Frank Dodd (Nicholas Campbell) is cornered in his mother’s bathroom. The cops break the door down, but not before Frank has managed to terminate himself in one of the most unpleasant ways we can think of: essentially, he head-butts a pair of scissors.
For several years, British audiences couldn’t see the more graphic parts of this sequence. They have since been reinstated in all their gory glory. Even now, it’s a gasp-inducing moment; not because of its special effects, but because the sheer notion of it is enough to send a shudder down our spines.
11. A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
Wes Craven’s 1984 slasher was all about a demon which could strike while his victims were at their most vulnerable – in their dreams. In one stand-out sequence, Craven went for a double-whammy of horror intimacy, and had dream demon Freddie Krueger attack heroine Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) when she foolishly falls asleep in the bath.
The scene appears to be influenced by Cronenberg’s Shivers, particularly when you compare the camera angles and pacing; in fact, Craven lifted Cronenberg’s bathing scene once before, in his lesser-seen Deadly Blessing (1981). There, a young woman (Martha Jensen) is attacked by a snake while she’s lying in the bath.
The equivalent scene in A Nightmare On Elm Street is far more accomplished. Like the foul beast in Cronenberg’s film, Krueger’s familiar gloved hand emerges in a particularly vulnerable are, pulling Nancy under the water and into a scary underwater netherworld. While later sequels drifted into self-parody, Craven’s original film saw Krueger at the height of his unnerving powers.
10. Friday The 13th Part V: A New Beginning (1985)
The Friday The 13th series occasionally dabbled in bathroom horror over its long history. In the original film, a victim received an axe to the face and fell against a shower curtain. In the deceitfully-titled Final Chapter, Voorhees bucked the horror trend and killed a young man in a shower stall instead of a young woman (interestingly, he chose to crush his face rather than stab him).
For the purposes of this article, we’ve chosen the bizarre toilet sequence from Friday The 13th Part V: A New Beginning. Here, bejewelled young buck Demon (Miguel A Nunez, Jr) attempts to enjoy a relaxing poo in a ramshackle outside toilet, only to be impaled by a huge spike. Far scarier than the murder is the Glee-like singing contest that takes place between Demon and his girlfriend Anita (Jere Fields). There’s a time and place for everything, but engaging in a duet while emptying your bowels? There should be some sort of law against it.
9. Ghoulies (1985) and Ghoulies II (1988)
The enjoyably schlocky horror Ghoulies offers a rare example of a scene being inserted into a film to fit with its advertising campaign. When Ghoulies’ producer Charles Band came up with a poster depicting a little green monster emerging from a toilet, an additional sequence was shot to tie in with it.
The lavatorial humor was retained for the 1988 sequel, where a young man’s attacked by a monster rising up from the U-bend (as seen in the video above). It delivers on what the first film’s strapline promised: “They’ll get you in the end.”
Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go To College (1991) offered a Hitchcockian twist on the scenario: a showering co-ed is attacked by a group of critters wielding a sink plunger. Classy.
8. Street Trash (1987)
Like the toilet scene in Ghoulies, this one plays out like a grotesque, schoolboy joke. A batch of home-made booze called Tenafly Viper has the nasty side-effect of turning its unsuspecting drinkers into puddles of goo, which is essentially all you need to know about this messy B-horror. Such is the fate awaiting one poor old geezer, who drinks a bottle of the spiked booze while sitting on a loo in the remains of a demolished building, writhes in pain, and manages to flush himself down the pan. It should be a joylessly grotesque moment, but the dayglo colors and sheer absurdity of the scenario make it strangely entertaining. Note, too, the wobbly cardboard walls.
7. Fatal Attraction (1987)
You’re probably well aware that Fatal Attraction originally had a much different, more downbeat ending, in which Glen Close’s infatuated Alex Forrest committed suicide after being given short shrift by Michael Douglas’s love rat, Dan Gallagher – an act which leaves Dan framed for her murder.
Test audiences, baying for blood, wanted a more gratifying come-uppance for Alex, so this sequence was shot instead. As a piece of suspense, it’s nicely staged; Anne Archer’s Beth runs a bath, unaware that a crazed, knife-wielding Alex has broken into the house. A desperate struggle ensues between Dan and Alex, before Beth ends the encounter with a single gunshot.
Audiences clearly liked this new ending, because the film was a massive hit, making $320 million and sparking a string of other evil-woman-in-our-midst thrillers (The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, Single White Female, and so forth).
6. Arachnophobia (1990)
Frank Marshall’s spider-infested comedy thriller found time to pay homage to Hitchcock’s Psycho, as an arachnid creeps into a shower stall and leaves its occupant screaming for her life. It’s more of a throwaway gag than a horror scene – the young woman showering is intercut with a scene of her father sitting on the toilet, blissfully unaware of the spider lurking beneath his arse – but like the rest of the film, our visceral reaction to creepy-crawlies still gives it impact.
5. Jurassic Park (1993)
Steven Spielberg’s the master of inserting horror moments into films otherwise aimed at a broad audience; at his best, he has an eye for a starkly nasty image. Take, for example, the blood-stained remains of a floatie washing up on a beach in Jaws, or the silhouette of a small boy in a doorway, just seconds before he’s kidnapped by aliens in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
Spielberg was firing on all cylinders when he made Jurassic Park, a broad thrill-ride of a movie laced with moments of quiet brilliance: the shaking of a cup of water heralding the approach of the monster we’ve all been waiting for, the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Had Spielberg or effects supervisor Stan Winston botched this moment, the whole film could have collapsed. Instead, it’s a masterpiece of anticipation and then pulse-pounding excitement. And in the middle of it, that brief, yet unforgettable moment: terrified lawyer Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero), hoping to find protection from the T-Rex by hiding in the loo. He barely has a chance to scream before the tyrant lizard leans down and gobbles him up like sushi in a suit. Sublime.
4. Scream 2 (1997)
Wes Craven breathed new life into the slasher genre with his self-referential Scream series, and Scream 2 continued its run of gore and arch humor. Early in the sequel, Phil Stevens (Omar Epps) heads to the bathroom during a screening of Stab – a film-within-a-film based on the events in the original Scream. Entering a stall, he hears strange noises from the next cubicle, and mystifyingly places his head against the partition to try to make out what it is. His reward? A knife in the ear.
The scene was parodied, predictably, in 2000’s Scary Movie, where Shawn Wayans is killed by a phallus through the ear during a screening of Shakespeare In Love. For us, the most horrifying aspect of either scene is that anyone would think of putting their head against any surface in a public toilet. If Phil hadn’t been killed by a psycho’s knife, he probably would have died from some hideous disease within a few days in any case. At the very least, he’d probably have left the bathroom with someone’s curly trouser hair stuck to his face.
3. Final Destination (2000)
Death is cast as the ultimate serial killer in the Final Destination series: invisible and, thanks to his ingenious ability to make his crimes look like accidents, almost undetectable. In the original film, Death stalks a young victim in a bathroom, where all manner of mundane dangers hide: razors, pointy nose-hair scissors, and electricity in close contact with water. In this instance, a wire cord for hanging washing over a bath becomes a deadly noose. It’s a wince-inducing scene, partly because it’s a reminder of how dangerous everyday objects can be if we’re unlucky – or, in this film’s case, if we’ve somehow ended up on Death’s hit list.
2. Slither (2006)
James Gunn’s irreverent sci-fi comedy clearly took inspiration from Shivers, from the design of its parasitic monsters to this bathroom horror sequence, which, like that earlier cult horror, was considered strong enough to be featured on its poster. This time, the leech-like creatures crawl in through an open window, and makes a beeline for an unsuspecting woman’s face. It’s a scene played for gross-out laughs more than terror, but it says a lot about how well the idea of a crawling parasite plays into our subconscious fears that, even as Kylie (Tania Saulnier) is frantically killing the alien slug with what appears to be a pair of hair straighteners, we still can’t help but feel a hint of revulsion.
1. The Conversation (1974)
To conclude, here’s what might be the most unsettling bathroom scene of the lot, since Francis Ford Coppola’s bravura thriller contains a moment of unexpected and surreal terror. Surveillance specialist Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) explores a deserted hotel room, and hears the sound of running water from the bathroom. Lifting the lid on the toilet, he stands transfixed as a cloud of blood bubbles up from the piping, forms a skin on the top and then comes oozing down the sides of the pan.
It’s a moment that seems to come from a half-remembered nightmare, and aptly summarises what the best of the scenes on this list achieve: they appeal to a nervy, primal bit of our subconscious that would prefer not to dwell on things like death and defecation for too long. Here, those subjects come together in a stomach-turning stew.
In his video essay The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema, philosopher and critic Slavoj Zizek describes the cinema as a kind of sewage works for the subconscious, where all our fears and desires are projected on the screen, and then come rising back up in ways that horrify but also thrill us – just like the blood in Francis Ford Coppola’s grim toilet.
“The art of cinema is in playing with desire but at the same time keeping it at a safe distance,” Zizec says. “When we spectators are sitting in a movie theatre and looking at the screen, are we not basically staring at a toilet bowl, waiting for things to reappear out of the toilet? Is the entire magic of [cinema] designed to conceal the fact that we are watching shit, as it were?”
See also: grim toilets in Trainspotting (1996) and Headhunters (2011). Bathtub suspense in What Lies Beneath (2000) and an unexpected ferret in The Big Lebowski (1998). Terror in the shower in Squirm (1976), Dressed To Kill (1980), The Prowler (1981), TV mini-series, It (1990), and too many slasher films to list.
This article originally ran on February 2, 2015 on Den of Geek UK.