The birds and the bees? How Hitchcock’s 1963 horror uses birds as punctuation, punishment, and symbols of the unsayable.
What is The Birds about?
When wealthy socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) follows lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) home with a pair of caged lovebirds, it’s thinly disguised flirtation. But they have to park romance when thousands of wild birds descend on the town and start killing residents.
The film’s opening titles credit Daphne du Maurier’s 1952 short story The Birds as its genesis. Yet while they share themes – avian assassins, family, rural life – Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 adaptation is markedly different. It moves the drama from Cornwall to California, and frames it as a love story between a handsome lawyer and a chic socialite.
In the end, du Maurier’s story is the frame on which Hitchcock hangs true-life inspiration. When characters in a diner discuss a bird attack on Santa Cruz a couple of years before, they’re remembering a real event.
In August 1961, the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported seabirds slamming into residents’ home:
“Dead and stunned seabirds littered the streets and roads in the foggy, early dawn. Startled by the invasion, residents rushed out on their lawns with flashlights, then rushed back inside, as the birds flew toward their light.”
Three days later, one Santa Cruz resident – a certain Alfred Hitchcock – told the newspaper he was using their report as research for his big-screen adaption of du Maurier’s short story.
Situating The Birds
In The Birds, Hitchcock swaps extraordinary evil for the horror of the everyday. Rather than the devious human nature of his other films, it asks: what if something that surrounds us, and which brings beauty into the world, were to turn hostile? Would we stand a chance?
As such, it belongs to a sub-genre of horror film that situates terror in the real unseen, in the everyday world we don’t notice or take for granted. Often, this is nature (Jaws, Piranha, Alligator, The Swarm), but can equally be about home (video cassettes in The Ring, TV in Poltergeist).
But does the horror in The Birds lie in its winged killers? Much of the film isn’t about them at all; rather it’s about a burgeoning romance, and the chain of sexual conflict unleashed on the town as a result.
The Birds looks, sounds and functions like a horror movie, yet its unspoken significance is all sexual. And one character powers this undercurrent more than any other: Mitch Brenner.
As a rural backwater removed from the frenetic glamour of San Francisco, Bodega Bay is testament to the innocence and nostalgia of simple living – of the good old days.
It’s also a lure for the women who fall for Mitch: from mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) to teacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) and Melanie. The women dispute this sexual territory through coded dialogue.
This isn’t out of place in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, where home often parallels the psycho-sexual:
- Rope is set in a claustrophobic apartment, mirroring the sexual manipulation at play in the story
- In Rear Window, protagonists share a scandalous sexual intimacy – while monitoring the transgressions of others
- And Normal Bates recreates his neuroses as motel-flavoured theme park in Psycho, where mother is missing … and yet all around.
Not seen, but heard
Like Norman Bates’ mother, birds are everywhere and nowhere in Hitchcock’s follow-up horror movie.
It opens with a meet-cute in a bird shop, a scene that leads to Melanie ordering a pair of lovebirds as an excuse to see Mitch again. Like this first scene, much of the film is sound-tracked by birds. At first their chirping and later their eerie screeching replaces music (compare the sound of Jurassic Park’s Velociraptors, incidentally).
Despite this, the birds are initially background characters. We glimpse flocks migrating out of step with seasonal patterns. When Melanie’s boat stalls near the Brenners’ dock, the movement comes from gulls dipping in and out of the frame.
It’s a very artful manipulation, one that brews dread of something we can’t quite see. In fact, the ‘bad’ birds don’t fully materialise on-screen until the 25-minute mark, when a seagull attacks Melanie (and even then, it’s ambiguous).
When they finally attack, they’re powerfully memorable. The single bird in the hearth that presages a horde, the murder of crows that masses under cover of a children’s song: countless scenes are pure horror magnificence.
There’s no doubt the birds in this film are a vehicle for terror. But their appearance can also be read as a kind of punctuation, one that ends scenes, disrupts conversations and repeatedly reveals the unsayable.
‘Bird’ is dated and dismissive British slang for a woman. The film’s horror comes from the feathered kind, but its metaphors point back at Mitch’s problems with the opposite sex. Gull trouble? Quite.
Love and location
What’s the deal with Bodega Bay? It may be beautiful, but love doesn’t last there:
- Lydia Brenner is widowed
- Mitch, Annie and Melanie are single
- Mitch’s ex Annie can’t bear to be apart from him
- Dan Fawcett lives and dies alone
- If the hysterical mother, the sardonic driver and ornithologist Mrs Bundy have partners, there’s no mention of them, either.
So characters are alone and lonely, and relationships end in sad or sour ways. In fact, Melanie’s lovebirds are the film’s only ‘couple’.
Moreover, just as Bodega Bay is the epicentre of the bird attacks, Mitch Brenner stands at the heart of the film’s tangled relationships.
Mitch is the flame that lures women to Bodega Bay. However, their success as sexual and romantic partners depends on his mother.
Melanie’s arrival in town stirs up this conflict and insecurity. Of course, the real kicker is the striking visual similarity between her and Lydia. They’re lookalikes separated by age, and drawn together by their desire for Mitch.
Similarly, Mitch puts Annie and Melanie in conflict as soon as they meet. The pointed conversation when Melanie asks for directions is typical of their interactions: characters say one thing, yet they – and we – hear what remains unsaid as clear as day.
According to Annie Hayworth, Lydia is still mourning husband Frank, and terrified of losing the one man left in her life. Meanwhile, Mitch calls her ‘dear’ and ‘darling’, and together they muddle along in companionship and co-parenting of Cathy (Alien’s Veronica Cartwright).
“A clinging and possessive mother? Wrong. With all due respect to Oedipus, I don’t think that was the case.”
She’s denying that Lydia is moved by subconscious sexual desire for her son (not quite what the Sigmund Freud’s controversial psychoanalytic theory suggests, in any case).
Perhaps it’s fairer to say that Lydia contests ownership of her son’s sexual territory. This might be because of his role as substitute husband, but it’s also a protectionist racket.
Sex is the unspeakable boundary to Lydia’s relationship with Mitch. Sex is the one thing that Annie, and now Melanie, can give Mitch that Lydia can’t – and that terrifies her.
Consider Lydia’s anxious questions about Melanie jumping into a fountain in Rome. This sounds like Lydia’s is thinking about reputation, but it acknowledges something far deadlier: Melanie’s nakedness. This is really what Lydia wants to shield Mitch from.
And her most pained facial expression – next to finding eyeless Dan Fawcett, anyway – comes when Melanie announces she’ll spend the night. It implies sexual shenanigans, but also threatens to oust Lydia from her maternal role (a fear heightened by Cathy and Melanie’s bond).
And is it significant that Lydia walks into Dan’s bedroom, of all places, and leaves horrified? Then gets home to finds Melanie in a nightgown in cosy intimacy with Mitch. All Lydia can do is shove them away as though revolted, once again, by the symbols of seduction and sexual intimacy.
Why do the birds attack?
We don’t know why the birds attack Bodega Bay, though there’s plenty of speculation.
Lydia suspects faulty bird feed. There’s talk of disorienting fog. Mrs Bundy initially claims such attacks are impossible in nature, later adding:
“It’s mankind who insists upon making it difficult for life to exist upon this planet.”
Incidentally, this remains a common refrain in cinema sci-fi even now. Perhaps it’s something we like to say rather than fix.
In the diner, a hysterical mother turns on Melanie: “They said when you got here the whole thing started.” In other words, she accuses Melanie of being either witch or a harbinger of doom. Either is a losing position.
The town stands apart from San Francisco, and Melanie’s appearance surfaces no end of conflict: familiar Vs strange, youth Vs age, city Vs countryside, family Vs sex. And also, perhaps, tame Vs wild.
Like the birds, Melanie’s presence is a source of discomfort and fear to the town’s residents. Note, too, that Melanie and Lydia embody all these oppositions, like opposing ends of a spectrum. No wonder they fear each other.
Another meaning of birds
This leads us to the greater question: what is the function of the birds in the film? They’re a source of terror … but that terror both masks and reveals tensions on the ground. The lovebirds, for instance, are a sharp contrast to the town of singletons.
The wild birds also come to punctuate the narrative, dialogue and scenes, particularly at moments of sexual conflict.
- A gull strikes Melanie, bringing her flirtation with Mitch to an abrupt anti-climax.
- A bird slams into the front door just as Annie and Melanie’s unspoken rivalry for Dan peaks.
- Lydia’s anxiety about Melanie staying the night manifests in an avalanche (of birds).
One of the best examples is darkly comic. Mrs Bundy berates Melanie that birds “bring beauty into the world” – only to be cut off by an order for “three southern fried chicken!” Perhaps it’s no wonder the birds fight back …
Du Maurier’s tale features terror from the skies, perhaps partly voicing British trauma from WWII. Hitchcock’s film adds a parallel text of sexual conflict, in which birds are punctuation and punishment. The latter is hardest on the women who fall for Mitch.
When birds kill Annie Hayworth, it’s a moral convenience, i.e., payback for her sexual freedoms out of wedlock. It also leaves an opening for Melanie and Mitch to get together … though whether this is even possible is debatable:
“Maybe there’s never been anything between Mitch and any girl.”
And just like that, Annie sows doubt about Mitch’s maternal ties, his playboy antics, the loveless curse of Bodega Bay, and even his heterosexuality.
The film’s ending appears to back these doubts. It resolves Lydia’s anxiety by de-sexualising her rival, and punishes Melanie’s sexual permissiveness.
As the Brennan family fall into exhausted sleep, Melanie slips upstairs – once again to a bedroom – to find the birds waiting for her. The vicious attack that follows is a sustained violation; its dubious thrills foreshadow the genre’s affinity with sexualising, then killing women (see also Halloween).
When she comes out of the bedroom, Melanie is changed. She’s no longer the threatening sexual being, but a child clinging to Lydia. This is the film’s parting shot, and it endorses Melanie’s earlier throwaway comment:
“Someone ought to tell her she’d be gaining a daughter.”
And so she does. The world may be ending, but there’s some comfort for Lydia, at least.
But as the family ride off into the sunset, it’s to an uncertain future. They’re fleeing Bodega Bay, but attacks have spread to Sebastopol and Santa Rosa. This may be the end of the horror, or just the beginning.
The Birds (1963), directed by Alfred Hitchcock
What to read or watch next
- The Birds (story by Daphne du Maurier)
- Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho (Hitchcock)
- Marnie (Hitchcock, Tippi Hedren)
- Run (mad, bad mothers)
- The Happening (homage?)
- Why horror movies are open-ended
Picture credit: Pixabay