Fear of an Empty Nest: Maternal Anxiety in THE BIRDS

USA, 1963, 119 min. Cast: Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Plushette, Veronica Cartwright; Produced by: Alfred Hitchcock; Original Music: Bernard Herrmann; Written by: Daphne Du Maurier; Screenplay by: Evan Hunter; Cinematography: Robert Burks; Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock.

One of the most striking reoccurring figures in the films of Alfred Hitchcock is that of the overbearing mother who seeks to control her grown son. Overbearing mothers appear as supporting characters in both Notorious and North by Northwest, while Psycho takes the characterization to a shocking extreme. Another Hitchcock horror film, The Birds, also features a conflict between mother and son that should not be overlooked. There is a good reason why discussion of mother Lydia Brenner’s possessiveness regarding her son Mitch dominates as much of the film’s dialogue as the titular birds do. A close examination of the mother-son relationship in The Birds reveals Lydia’s fear of abandonment as a central source of conflict in the film; one that lends even the mysterious behavior of the birds a greater meaning.

In an early scene Lydia criticizes Mitch’s new love interest, Melanie Daniels, prefaced by an unconvincing, “Of course it’s none of my business.” Melanie’s subsequent conversation with Mitch’s ex-girlfriend Annie Hayworth confirms that Lydia has proven destructive to Mitch’s relationships with women in the past. “Maybe there’s never been anything between Mitch and any girl,” Annie muses, saying of Lydia, “Her attitude drove me crazy.”

“So what’s the answer? Jealous woman, right? Clinging, possessive mother?” Annie rhetorically asks, concluding, “With all due respect to Oedipus, I don’t think that was the case.” Annie explains that Lydia is “not afraid of losing Mitch…only of being abandoned.” Lydia is a woman who had relied so much on her husband that she does not feel she can survive on her own. The death of Mitch’s father Frank has left an unbearable void in Lydia’s life, and she seeks to fill the void the best she can, adopting Mitch as a surrogate source of strength. She can’t image surviving should she lose her son as well. Time and again, Lydia herself states these fears exactly. “I wish I were a stronger person,” Lydia confides in Melanie, “I lost my husband four years ago, you know. It’s terrible how you – you depend on someone else for strength and then…suddenly all the strength is gone and you’re alone.”

What Lydia fails to recognize in her anxiety is that Mitch’s involvement with Melanie does not necessarily signify his abandonment of his mother. The introduction of Melanie into the Brenner household could mean the expansion of Lydia’s familial support base. Melanie suggests this possibility early in the film during her conversation with Annie. After Annie explains Lydia’s fears, Melanie responds, “Someone ought to tell her she’d be gaining a daughter.” Those words are the first indication of the void that Lydia could fill in Melanie’s life, if only she could conquer her fears of abandonment. At the birthday party of Mitch’s young sister Cathy, Melanie reveals her own issues involving abandonment. During the party Mitch tells Melanie that she needs “a mother’s care.” Visibly upset, Melanie responds, “My mother? Don’t waste your time! She ditched us when I was eleven and ran off with some hotel man in the east.” Thus Melanie is an abandoned child who would welcome a maternal figure such as Lydia into her life – if only Lydia would accept her. Of course, Lydia does not accept Melanie, instead offering her advice on the quickest ways out of town.

Lydia’s determination to chase Melanie away connects her anxiety with the terrifying actions of the birds. An extremely relevant detail in The Birds is the fact that Melanie is present during every onscreen bird attack and is in fact the focus of many attacks, including the most brutal. The bird attacks spring from Melanie’s presence and the threat that she poses to Lydia and the status quo. The bird attacks can be seen as the embodiment of Lydia’s frightened urge to drive Melanie away, if not tear her to pieces.

Even as the film’s horror elements take center stage, the mother-son conflict is never cast aside. For example, following a horrific scene in which Lydia discovers a man with his eyes gouged out by birds, the distraught mother returns home to see Mitch and Melanie together, and it is clear that the sight only increases Lydia’s sense of helplessness and terror. Hitchcock discussed the scene in an interview with Francois Truffaut: “The point I was trying to make is that this woman, though she was so terribly distressed about having seen the farmer with his eyes gouged out, was still a possessive mother. Her love for her son still dominated all of her other emotions.”

Hitchcock emphasizes the connection between Melanie and the bird attacks during a scene in which Melanie interacts with some of the Bodega Bay locals. One woman blames Melanie for the onslaught of the birds. “Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all this! I think you’re evil! EVIL!” the woman shrieks at Melanie. It is important to note that the woman who screams at Melanie is the mother of two children (a boy and girl, just like Mitch and Cathy) who has spent most of her time onscreen wondering how she can protect her family from the unexpected new threat that the birds pose. The hysterical woman is clearly a stand-in for Lydia, who also rejects and fears Melanie. The woman notably appears without her husband. Melanie’s reaction to the screaming mother is to slap her in the face. As is evident by this point in the film, Melanie will not allow the opinion of a hysterical mother to shake her.

Just as Lydia’s anxiety is linked to the mysterious attacks of the birds, the easing of these same anxieties is linked to the mysterious quiet of the birds when the film concludes. After Melanie is attacked by the birds one final time, with a devastating result, Lydia reacts with unmistakably maternal concern. Prior to the attack, Melanie had seen Lydia as a potential mother figure, but Lydia can only imagine Melanie displacing her as a maternal figure, never realizing that she might, as Melanie has suggested, “be gaining a daughter.” After Melanie is attacked, Lydia cares for her out of maternal instinct, making a first step toward accepting Melanie as an addition to the family rather than a usurper. Mitch decides that Melanie needs to get to a hospital, and so he leaves with her, Lydia, and Cathy. No one is left behind. When Lydia and Mitch are helping Melanie out of the house, the birds are massed all around, but they do not strike. The actions of the birds again parallel Lydia’s emotions. Although Lydia’s anxieties still exist – indicated by her expression of fear to Mitch just before they leave – they are soothed. Some of the final images of The Birds are of Lydia comforting the injured Melanie. Perhaps the mass of birds that watches the family leave Bodega Bay is an indication that the conflict between Lydia and Melanie might resurface at another time. More optimistically, however, the concluding scenes can be read as the family leaving their conflicts behind as they drive away from the strangely vicious birds.

Victoria Large Written by: