Lets begin another discussion of Hitchcock's The Birds. Yes, the film is a horror film. It is also a psychological thriller about a family and community. The psychological interpretation is the most commonly discussed element of the film.
But it has a deeper meaning that very few people notice and it shares the same fairy tale space as other fantasies such Lord Of The Rings and Harry Potter.
The Birds is an Alchemical Allegory.
At the end of the film, when I watched it on cable, a few of the people involved in the making of the film were interviewed. They discussed the "real" ending of the film. In which the family's journey through the destroyed town of Bodega Bay was shown. The Birds took to flight after the family's fleeing vehicle. Supposedly time constraints and money issues prevented this ending. I say hogwash. Alfred Hitchcock had a fabulous working knowledge of his visual alchemical allegory and he was quite right to keep the ending as is. There is no other ending after the four elements have been united and the Philosopher's Stone has been created.
Entering the Labyrinth
One of the main standouts of the film, is that there is no music. There is a good Alchemical reason for this, there must be silence to prevent mistakes when creating the Philosopher's stone.
The philosopher's stone starts as humble material. To become the stone it must be purified. Alchemical pictures show this as the Alchemist holding a sword over the stone or an ourobouros.
Hitchcock was a perfectionist in regards to his films. He controlled almost every aspect, including publicity shots. Which is why, Tippi Hedren is only shown wearing white and holding a raven (a symbol of death and rebirth) in the above photo. Everything in the photo is a reference to the alchemical process.
The stone begins as a dank, black substance ruled by Saturn. This first state of the stone is reflected in Melanie Daniel's name, which means dark or black. The photo shows this in the form of the raven. The purification process that Melanie must undergo is shown in the publicity photo as her white dress. In the film, the process is the attack of the birds.
As the film opens, uses the sound of bird cries as an alchemical reference. Alchemy frequently refers to the language of the birds in the process of the great work. They were considered to speak the same language as the gods. Melanie appears in her signature colors, a black suit and a white blouse. The suit represents the first stage of the stone in it's negredo or black, impure state. As the alchemical process begins, we hear the birds calling and she turns to look at them. The symbology continues as we follow Melanie into a bird shop. The calls of the captive birds are so loud that they almost completely cover the opening dialogue between Melanie and the Saleswoman.
Melanie is in the process of buying a bird, a Mynah. However since it must be delivered and the saleswoman makes a reference to it's capture, she is probably seeking to buy a more exotic breed over the common brown/black Mynah. She asks the saleswoman if the bird will speak to her. Which causes the saleswoman to look askance at her and reminds her that she will have to teach it to speak. Melanie looks quite impatient at that requirement which shows that her desire to capture this rare bird and have it speak to her on command portrays a strong selfish streak inside her character.
At this point Mitch Brenner enters the film. The process of Alchemy is the union of opposites which is referred to as the marriage of Sun and Moon. The imagery frequently uses the motif of the quarreling couple. The character of Mitch is Melanie's opposite, the Moon to her Sun. In the instance of The Birds, Hitchcock has flipped the symbols. All the Alchemical images for the wedding of opposites usually show men as representing the Sun aspect. But in the film, it is Melanie's journey, she is the stone and therefore the Sun. Mitch takes on the aspects of the Moon and/or Mercury. He is quick witted, devoted to his family, and a traveler. The character of Mercury also has a history of being the patron of thieves. Hitchcock pays homage to this symbolism by making Mitch a criminal defense lawyer. There are also references to Mercury's role in healing as well. Mitch is the one who holds his broken family together, it is always Mitch who cares for the wounded.
The process of uniting Sun & Moon always requires a third in Alchemy tales. It is the uniting of Salt, Sulphur and Mercury. The film shows that Mitch is Mercury and Sulphur is Melanie. However before these two can be united they must have a third, a conduit...Salt. This character is not present in the beginning but she is there in spirit. She is Mitch's sister, Kathy. Mitch is in the pet store to buy love birds for Kathy's birthday. The love birds being a symbol of Mitch and Melanie at the end of their journey. During the process, Salt is always left behind after Sulphur and Mercury are united. But the elements must make peace through Salt for that to occur.
Ever true to his mischievous avatar, Mitch tricks Melanie into believing that he thinks her an employee of the pet store. This vexes and intrigues Melanie enough to pursue him. She buys the love birds he was searching for and tracks him down with the help of her father's newspaper reporters. Melanie is initially on a fool's errand. She wishes to tease Mitch by leaving the birds on his doorstep. But she discovers that he has left town for the weekend. A neighbor reveals that he was gone home to visit his family. Melanie decides to follow.
Alchemists compared the process of creating the stone to entering a Labyrinth. There are a many ways to get lost in the pursuit of the great work. Hitchcock shows Melanie's Labyrinth in the twisting turns of California's Highway 1.
Water of Life
Melanie has changed out of her signature black suit and is now dressed in green. The color green represents the stone still in its infancy and ready to transform. The costume colors are extremely important as they represent the three stages of the great work. They are black (Nigredo), white (Albedo) and red (Rubedo). Since Melanie is the stone, her initial color was black. Many alchemical allegories represent the stages as character deaths. So it is extremely important to note that when we first meet Annie, Mitch's former lover, she is wearing a gorgeous red sweater and when Lydia discovers her neighbor's body he is wearing white night clothes.
Now since this was not a fantasy but a horror story, a castle icon could not be used. Usually alchemical allegories use castles as a motif because they represent the oven alchemists use to cook the elements into the stone. Instead Hitchcock used a lonely, seaside farmhouse as his "castle". Hitchcock represents the first cleansing of his stone as Melanie uses a small boat to cross the channel to reach Mitch's family farm. The seagull attack itself represents the first cooking, the rise of the birds or "amorous birds of prey", in which the alchemist completes the first cycle of dissolving and coagulation of the stone. The mercurial spirit along with sulphur, separates from the stone material rises then falls back to the stone material cleansing it, purifying it. The bird attacks are therefore driven by the mercury figure and that is Mitch. Far from Melanie being the mistress of the birds of prey she is merely their focus because she has Mitch's interest.
There are many cycles of this dissolving and coagulation. Different treatises on the alchemical process instruct on a different number in which this process should be completed. Hitchcock seems to be following a more popular method called Rosarium Philosophorum which highlights the solve and coagulation process 8 times.
Nigredo/Black = Melanie meets Mitch at the Bird Shop
1 - Conjunction = Melanie is attacked by the seagull
2 - Conception/Putrefaction = Bird flies into Annie's door
4 - Extraction/Putrefaction of the Soul = Attack on Cathy's birthday party
5 - Ablution/Mundification = Swallow attack in Mitch's living room
Albedo/White = Lydia discovers the death of her neighbor
6 - Sublimation = School Attack
7 - Fermentation = Town Attack
Rubedo/Red = Annie's Death
8 - Fixation = House Siege
9 - Multiplication = Final attack on Melanie in the bedroom
The last cycle called Return involves no attack because it represents the unification of the 4 warring elements into the 5th element or Pure Love.
The Warring Elements
The dissolving and coagulation process is shown as union in alchemical artwork. The most common union is between man and woman. Another mostly infrequent illustration is between father and son. The process is also referred to as the "Torturing of the Elements". Because each cycle shows the stone transforming into each of the elements returning to its ever more purified body. This is why the attacks include Melanie, Mitch, his mother Lydia and his sister Cathy. Together they represent the warring elements that must be united.
Air = Mitch
Fire = Melanie
Earth = Cathy
Water = Lydia
Even the names Hitchcock's four elements are important.
Melanie = dark
Mitch = "resembles God"
Cathy = Pure
and the most importantly
Lydia = Purple
The color purple is frequently used to represent the stone in its final state as the Philosopher's stone. It represents the mastery of all four elements. Only the most adept alchemist can wear the purple robes. And this is why Lydia is the most important character in the film. She represents the water that cleanses Melanie. Yes, the film does showcase a union between Melanie and Mitch but that occurs relatively early in the film. They are the typical, quarreling lovers but they unite after the attack on Lydia's neighbor or the Albedo stage. However we have already discovered the film isn't really about the love story between Melanie and Mitch. That it is really about the unification of an entire family. Melanie as the fire element quickly forms relationships with air/Mitch and earth/Cathy. It is with her opposite, Lydia/water, that she has the most trouble.
In Lydia's story, after the attack on her neighbor and Melanie's union with Mitch, Lydia tells Melanie of a time when her family was whole. When there were four loving members in her family. Obviously Lydia's late husband represented the fire aspect in the family hierarchy. But with his death, it threw Lydia and the rest of the family into disharmony.
This is the genesis of why Lydia ruthlessly culls any unworthy candidates to Mitch's affections. She and her children instinctively know that they are searching for a person who can fill the shoes of their missing father/fire element. Frequently in alchemical treatises, the great work is described as cycles and many times these cycles end in failure. Hitchcock shows a prior cycle in the person of Annie. She failed to unite the elements because she could not make a union between herself and Lydia.
Alchemy states that Fire and Water have nothing in common and that they can only be united by harmony. This harmony can be brought about by either air or earth. Usually it is the air element that unites Fire and Water. However Hitchcock states in this film that the love between Melanie/Fire and Mitch/Air is not enough to bring Lydia/water into harmony with them. It is through the shared love of Lydia/water and Melanie/fire for Cathy/earth that brings about harmony. This is what finally stops the attack of the birds.
Melanie makes a sacrifice of herself two times for Cathy. It is a selflessness that would have been impossible for Melanie in the past since she was a selfish woman. But her love for Mitch and affection for Cathy inspire her to grow. She heeds Lydia's feelings of foreboding and agrees to check on Cathy at her school. In the process she was instrumental in saving Cathy and many of her schoolmates.
The final and most important sacrifice that indicates Melanie's rebirth as the philosopher's stone, is when she protects the whole family from a final attack. We, and Melanie, discover that the birds have found a way inside the house and are waiting to attack. There is a hole in the roof of an upper floor bedroom, Melanie enters the room and closes the door behind her to prevent the birds from accessing the rest of the house. There she tries to fight off the birds. At first it looks dire but she is saved when she gives up all thoughts of herself and her final thoughts are of protecting Cathy.
Melanie's final sacrifice brings Lydia into the fold of the new, restored family. The elements have finally been united and Melanie is born anew. Unfortunately we never see who Melanie becomes after this disaster. But Hitchcock does reveal to us that Lydia has accepted Melanie into her family and willingly becomes a kind of surrogate mother. He also gives us a hint of the future marriage between Mitch and Melanie by showing Cathy saving the love birds that started the whole alchemical process.
As the family drives away, the harmonious union of the 4 elements have created Quintessence or the 5th element. This has finally subdued the birds and they watch calmly as the family's car drives away. Hitchcock ends the film in the way he began it, with bird song...the voices of the gods.
A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery - Lyndy Abraham
The Weiser Concise Guide to Alchemy - Brian Cotnoir, ed. by James Wasserman
Alchemy and Mysticism - Alexander Roob
The Alchemy Website
Labels: alchemy, Alfred Hitchcock, commentary, fairy tale, filmmaking