In “Vertigo,” What Do the Ghost References Signify?
The story of the ghost in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) plays into the film’s theme of exchanging reality for fantasy. Ultimately, through the characters’ obsessions with ghost figures, the film warns that pursuing a dream idea of a person can lead to misery and madness.
In this classic psychological thriller, John “Scottie” Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) is hired as a private investigator by acquaintance Gavin Elster to follow Gavin’s wife Madeleine (Kim Novak). Gavin claims that Madeleine has been behaving strangely, and he fears his wife has been possessed by a dead woman named Carlotta Valdes, who tragically committed suicide. Scottie follows the deeply troubled Madeline as she falls into trances, visits Carlotta’s grave, and gazes at the dead woman’s portrait on the wall of a museum gallery. When Scottie observes that the curl in Madeline’s hair mirrors the curl of the dead woman in the painting, this moment raises the question of how art relates to life and what divides the representational world from the true one. (Likewise, to the audience watching the film, Hitchcock may be using the painting to suggest that submerging oneself in the moving images of a film, too, should only be a temporary escape.)
Meanwhile, Scottie becomes infatuated with a vision of Madeleine, projecting onto her his idealized version of the perfect woman. We sense that he wants to take the place of the pretend ghost so he can “possess” Madeleine in his fantasy world. But Madeline is not real – she is an imposter in Gavin’s plan. She is a form of ghost herself and, thus, something Scottie can’t really have. When the couple visits the sequoia forest, Madeleine seems to disappear amidst the trees, like an unearthly spirit.
After Scottie’s release from the mental institution following Madeleine’s apparent suicide, Scottie looks for Madeleine wherever he goes, like a morbid ghost hunter. In a clever use of irony, the film now shows Scottie becoming haunted by the ghost of the woman who pretended to be haunted by another dead woman. When, by chance, Scottie sees Judy (also played by Kim Novak) and assumes she is only a Madeleine look-a-like, rather than part of the murder conspiracy, he wants to resurrect the dead Madeleine, forcing the now-in-love Judy again to play the same ghostly part. When Scottie finally recreates her with makeup, hair styling, and clothes, Hitchcock makes Madeleine/Judy look like a ghost as she materializes out of the hotel room’s wall in a neon sign-lit mist.
As we witness the psychological damage to Scottie and the tragic fate of the doomed couple, Hitchcock shows us that the urge to possess one’s dream person is an elusive desire, an impossible act that transforms real life into a nightmare.