In “The Uncanny,” Sigmund Freud identifies the mechanism of fear produced by horror stories as one that reveals what is hidden. The uncanny, he states, is something “which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression” (833). Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film, The Birds, is set in a time and place ripe with restraint. The small town of Bodega Bay harbors good housewives, mothers and teachers who smile while their eyes reflect less-innocent feelings centered on one man—the lawyer Mitch Brenner. When a deviant, cosmopolitan socialite comes to town to court Brenner, birds start flocking and attacking. Viewed through Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of the uncanny, the birds in Hitchcock’s film represent unconscious female drives, which once awoken through the arrival of a sexy stranger, threaten the psychic sleepiness of the shuttered community.
The birds are uncanny because their winged beauty becomes murderous. They represent the freedom what threatens to kill the social order by resurfacing as an unreckonable force.
In his 1919 essay, Freud traces the roots of the German unheimlich (uncanny) to two converging meanings: familiar and concealed (828). Unfolding narratives in The Birds provoke the tensions inherent in this meeting of terms. When the attractive Melanie Daniels arrives in Bodega Bay to surprise Brenner with a pair of lovebirds, the town’s folk glare, Brenner’s mother and ex-girlfriend act threatened, and the local fowl refuse to eat. The suspicion inherent in the tense behavior of the community suggests that there is something below the surface that should be guarded from strangers, like a family secret shared by the intimacy of a closed group. As the birds in the film become increasingly violent, the hidden motives in each woman surface through their tentative relationship with Daniels. Strained conversations and emotional outbursts unearth their jealousy and despair.
What is the source of their angst? According to Freud, “every affect belonging to an emotional impulse, whatever its kind, is transformed, if it is repressed, into anxiety” (833). To the housewives of Bodega Bay, Daniels represents a dangerous freedom. Her bold antics in pursuing Brenner are amplified by her reputation: according to a gossip column Brenner’s mother read, the socialite had once jumped into a Roman fountain in the nude. In Freudian terms, Daniels is what the housewives of Bodega Bay once knew and had to hide beneath their small-town social mores: the power of their own libidinal drives.
The menacing birds in Hitchcock’s film are the materialization of the women’s latent sexuality. At the local diner Daniels tries to convince an elderly female ornithologist that the birds attacked children at the school. The woman retorts, “Birds are not aggressive creatures, Miss, they bring beauty into the world.” In other words, lovely creatures, birds or women, cannot be dangerous, and yet they are. The birds are uncanny because their winged beauty becomes murderous. They represent the freedom what threatens to kill the social order by resurfacing as an unreckonable force. Daniels becomes the focal point of the women’s hysteria as the avian horror plays out. A mother at the diner strikes out at the stranger: “I think you’re the cause of all this! I think you’re evil!”
The Birds was produced on the advent of the sexual revolution in America, more than two decades after Freud’s death. Hitchcock’s “uncanny” portrayal of women’s sexuality as both familiar and concealed is placed perfectly in the tension between conservative 1950s and the liberating 1960s. At the end of the film, Daniels is driven by her bold curiosity to an attic room where the birds trap and ravish her. In a state of shock, she allows herself to be taken into Brenner’s mother’s arms. Tamed at last, Daniels smiles up at her—a good daughter’s smile. As Brenner drives the family out of town through a mass of eerily docile birds, the viewer is left to wonder if they will attack again.
The Birds. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette. Universal Pictures. 1963. Film.
Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 824-841.