The Primal Drive of Fear and Desire in Hitchcock’s 'Vertigo' and 'The Birds'

by C.E. McAuley

22 June 2010

A moment of fear in Vertigo 

Primal Drives

Birds of all kinds begin massing and attack the population of Bodego Bay, Mitch’s weekend home, soon after Melanie arrives from San Francisco. Coincidence? Or can it be concluded that her subconscious libidinal forces are rising into the realm of the conscious and symbolized by these birds? Soon enough, it’s not just Melanie’s subconscious forces at work, but the shadow impulses of the entire town – a sampling of humanity itself—though primarily, and strangely enough, the main female characters of the film that are unleashed.

Not limited to Melanie’s psyche, representations of the fears and desires emanate from the other two main female characters in the film, as well. The case of Brenner’s mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and schoolmarm Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), also residents of the beleaguered Bodega Bay, serve as prime examples. As viewers get to know each character, they find that each one has repressed some important aspect of desire, fear or both.


Is this final scene an escape? Or merely a continuation? (The Birds)

Following the death of her husband, Lydia (Mitch’s mother) has a great fear of being left alone. This manifests itself in a distrust and dislike of any woman her son may become involved with romantically.  First it was Annie the school teacher and now it’s the myterious Melanie Daniels. Strangely, over the course of the film the attacks of the birds and her growing familiarity, or shared trauma with Melanie, seem to bring the two closer together. In the final sequence, as they are preparing to leave Bodega Bay, Lydia can be seen to be cradling the nearly catatonic Melanie in a very motherly way.

Annie Hayworth does not fare as well. Killed by the birds while protecting the school children, Annie’s desire for Mitch, ultimately, goes unrequited. She has been blocked by Lydia and Lydia’s fears. This symbolic death of her love leads to the character’s actual death in the film.

With The Birds, Hitchcock has created a complex matrix of Freudian fear and desire from the Oedipal to the outright sexual. Generally speaking, though, repression is order of the day until the birds symbolically attack from the subconscious realms of fear and desire and unleash Hell on Earth. Hitchcock’s birds are birds of the mind – and, apparently, mostly the female mind. “Birds” is, of course, slang for “women” in Hitchcock’s native England. The hidden libidinal forces of the female are righteously powerful and many a man has feared them or depicted them with fear. In this film the audience also witnesses what might be Hitchcock’s own fear of women.

Indeed, this film demonstrates that if the shadow elements of the mind are not processed in a healthy manner they can lead to psychic or very real death—even from the seemingly innocuous birds. Indeed, it’s very dangerous when everyone’s shadow libidinal forces – not always sexual, but rather primal—are evoked at the same time.

In the end, Hitchcock once again leaves the audience in a very unsettling place. Melanie has been brutally attacked by the birds, everyone’s psychic wounds have been laid open and some have died terrible deaths. As the Brenner family and Melanie make their way slowly to the car (with love birds in their cage accompanying them), they must navigate once again through the massing amount of lingering birds.

Melanie is very close to the fugue state of Scottie in Vertigo. She can no longer process the trauma of the situation. As the Brenner Family, Melanie and the love birds drive away there is every indication that all they are doing is escaping the full onset of the unleashing of the psychic shadow side for the time being. Will Melanie recover? Will the birds follow? Hitchcock, again, does not answer the questions. He only shows the dangers of suppressing the twin feelings of fear and desire.

Both films are expert examples of the fear/desire paradox. Without one, the other cannot exist. In Vertigo, fear precedes desire. In The Birds, desire precedes fear. However, by the climax of Vertigo, Scottie has confronted and overcome his fear. He is left with death. In the climax of The Birds, Melanie has been ravaged by the winged creates and is very close to being catatonic. She is left with life – at least for the time being. Typical of Hitchcock, he does not provide answers in Vertigo and The Birds, rather, he demonstrates the inherent dangers of living with—yet denying—the dark psychic forces that control our lives from deep withing our subconscious minds.

C.E. McAuley lives, writes and teaches Communication Studies in Northern California. He can be reached at [email protected]

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