There are various reasons why Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds is so scary. One could be the sense of unsettlement that is so carefully woven into the plot. The film opens with the scene at the bird shop, where we can see these flying animals in an environment that is safe and in a way “civilized”. For humans, that is. The image of birds in cages is one that has become somehow naturalized in the urban milieu: having birds as pets is an unequivocal sign of homeliness. Adding to this picture of normalcy is the love subplot between Mitch and Melanie. The narrative focus and careful attention to this story in the first part of the film plays with the viewer’s expectations for a conventional film plot. Melanie buying the love birds and travelling to Bodega Bay initially seems to be only the means by which she will start a relationship with Mitch. Even the presence of Mitch’s former girlfriend Annie and Mitch’s possessive mother Lydia could be read, in this context, as possible sources of conflict for the development of the romantic plot. The first two attacks of the seagulls —the one that attacks Melanie on the boat and the gull that crashes into Annie’s door— come off as strange incidents, but as the attacks rapidly succeed one another the feeling of uncaniness grows exponentially. More so as different breeds of birds join the attack. At first, we could try to rationalize the attacks as isolated events, or as a kind of weird interaction between seagulls and Melanie. But then seagulls also attack the children at Cathy’s party, sparrows invade the Brenner house, crows attack the school, and there is no way to account in a rational way for the attacks anymore. The seagulls and sparrows that are normally hospitable beings in the network of the Bay-town suddenly are violently unrecognizable.
Here we touch on other aspects of the birds’ eeriness. The birds also scare because they are ubiquitous. The attack at the restaurant leaves this very clear. First we hear the old amateur ornithologist paint an apocalyptic picture of the possibility of different species attacking together and then this prediction is almost immediately actualized as we see the gas station exploding and the birds completely owning the space, horizontally and vertically, with a brilliantly orchestrated scene combining an aerial view, fixed shots and close ups of the attacks. There is also no possibility of shelter. The birds smash through windows, enter through the chimney, they peck their way through doors so that the sacrosanct safety of the home and interior spaces is made irreparably vulnerable.
The contrast between the different kinds of ecologies in the film might prove significant when trying to look for a sort of logic to account for the birds’ attacks. With the appearance of a streetcar in the first frame of the film, San Francisco is immediately recognizable. This city is certainly established as Melanie’s native milieu and she’s even initially characterized as somehow morally deviant because of the gossip about her bathing naked in a fountain in Rome. Now Lefevre has asserted that the modern cities are sometimes connected with a kind of “‘pathology of space’, of ‘ailing neighborhoods’, and so on”, seeing them not as “a product of the capitalist or neocapitalist system but rather as some putative ‘sickness’ of society”. (99) A similar conception is apparently at work in Hitchcock’s film, especially if we take into account an advertising clip Hitchcock himself recorded where he basically talks about the parasite customs of humans towards birds (eating chicken, using feathers in clothing, having them as pets). Melanie taking the caged birds to Bodega Bay, in this sense, might be a symbol of infection of the Bay environment and the birds’ rampage an attempt to overcome it and purify their own natural milieu.
By Yannick Bautista