What is the Freudian Interpretation of “The Birds”?


In 1959, Alfred Hitchcock directed a film titled North by Northwest. The picture chronicled the unfortunate circumstances of Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), a man who is mistaken for someone else when he raises his hand at the wrong moment to summon a waiter. The reason he needs the waiter is to place a phone call to his mother, with whom he is very close and has a very unique relationship.

The next year, Hitchcock created Psycho (1960), the story of a young man “living” with his mother, and with whom he has an incredibly unusual bond. Hitchcock once again picks up the odd mother-son relationship and this time couples it with avian metaphors, all entwined in the head of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Norman is a hobbyist taxidermist and the office of his motel is littered with stuffed birds. Norman’s affection for them is connected with his mother. As he cleans up the murder scene of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a woman with an avian surname, who Norman actually murdered posing as his mother, he pauses to straighten a picture of birds on the wall.

Ahead to 1963, Hitchcock directs The Birds—a horror film where birds congregate and attack the masses, and which again contains a mother-son contest of affection. Says Paul Gordon, a professor at The University of Colorado: Boulder who teaches a “Hitchcock and Freud” class, the birds “obviously represent “castrating” symbols meant to keep Melanie (Tippi Hedren) away from the protective mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy).”

Thus, in the Freudian interpretation of the film, The Birds refers not to the countless flying beasts terrorizing the town, but to the female characters in Mitch’s (Rod Taylor) life. The women all have a relationship with Mitch that is interrupted by Melanie’s arrival: His mother, Lydia, his ex-lover Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), and his little sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). Each woman flocks around Mitch until the powerfully sexy Melanie shows up and, like an object being tossed into a flock of birds, causes them to disperse. Angry and frustrated by Melanie’s presence, the physical bird attacks are the manifestation of this rage.

As the residents of the town in The Birds are unable to come up with a scientific reason for why the birds are attacking, it is decided there is simply no explanation. Filmsite argues, “When this is understood, the symbolic film’s complex fabric makes more sense, especially if interpreted in Freudian terms. It is about three needy women (literally ‘birds’) - and a fourth from a younger generation - each flocking around and vying for varying degrees of affection and attention from the sole, emotionally-cold male lead, and the fragile tensions, anxieties and unpredictable relations between them. The attacks are mysteriously related to the mother and son relationship in the film - anger (and fears of abandonment or being left lonely) of the jealous, initially hostile mother come to the surface surface when her bachelor son brings home an attractive young woman. Curiously, the first attack has symbolic phallic undertones - it occurs when the man and woman approach toward each other outside the restaurant in the coastal town.”

Columbia College adds, “The Birds depicts the kind of everyday reality which, from Freud’s perspective, a person suffering from mental pathology experiences: it is filled with dangerous, fatal things, and gives rise to hysteria, anxiety, and paranoia; but why, exactly, they are dangerous and fatal is not consciously known.”

One can see this theory hold merit: The first attack in The Birds comes after Melanie enters to drop off the love birds for Cathy. A seagull attacks in a foreshadowing moment of warning, which Melanie is quick to dismiss. When she settles in with Annie for the night, a gull flies into the door. The initial large attack happens at Cathy’s birthday and spread from there, with Melanie eventually dubbed an evil that brought the attacks upon the town. Once Melanie sacrifices herself at the end of the film, the attacks stop. Melanie is out of the picture, catatonic and helpless, as the mother once again becomes the head of the core female group.

This is, of course, one of many readings of the subject. Plenty of critics and analysts have made other observations, viewing the film as a Cold War parable, a religious metaphor, and a chaotic image of nature turning on itself. There are also those that see it as nothing more than what it appears to be and the birds symbolize nothing. Such is the nature of a well-composed Hitchcock classic.