Hitchcock’s Take on Reality

By Judy Berman

It seemed so innocent. Feeding pigeons in a park. The next I knew, a flock of birds converged on my baguette. I dropped the bread, fearing that if I didn’t, all that would be left of me was my trench coat and glasses.

I also feel uneasy around the ominous stares from birds gathered on the power lines. Birds swooping down on the beach near our home also make me edgy.

What accounts for this irrational fear? Blame Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, The Birds. Just what was the Master of Suspense’s inspiration for swarms of birds that ganged up on the public and attacked them?

The genesis for that plotline was ripped from the headlines. It was not the first time that Hitchcock chose to weave fact with fiction to keep audiences riveted in their movie seats.

Truth is stranger than fiction. Imagine Hitchcock scouring the news stories and breathing new life into ancient yarns. He did this with Rear Window (1954), by using details from two different crimes to develop characters and the story. With The Lady Vanishes, he also rewove elements in an old tale to create his suspenseful 1938 spy movie.

In 1961, Hitchcock was shooting a movie in Bodega Bay when he heard about crows attacking some young lambs “in the same locality where we were working,” according to “Hitchcock,” by Francois Truffaut, a noted film critic and filmmaker. The movie director met with the farmer whose lambs had been attacked and got the idea for some of the scenes in the 1963 suspense thriller.

Hitchcock said “these things do happen from time to time, and they’re generally due to a bird disease, a form of rabies.”

The birds are now believed to have ingested toxic algae.

“The cause of the outbreak in 1961 was not identified. Then, 30 years later, disorientation and death struck brown pelicans in the same area,” according to a recent story by LiveSciences senior writer Wynne Perry.

“It was found that the birds had eaten a toxin, domoic acid … which are diatoms, a type of algae.” This can “cause confusion, disorientation, scratching, seizures and death in birds that eat the stuff,” Perry wrote.

For Rear Window, death also occurred by an unnatural cause: murder. Here, Hitchcock took “two news stories from the British press. One was the Patrick Mahon case and the other was the case of Dr. Crippen.”

After Raymond Burr’s character, Lars Thorwald, kills his wife in Rear Window, Thorwald has the same problem as Dr. Crippen. How is he going to dispose of the body? Then, the added dilemma of how to explain her absence. Justice quickly caught up with both. (The movie also starred James Stewart, picture at left, and Grace Kelly.)

The Lady Vanishes was based on a film called So Long at the Fair. “It’s supposed to be a true story, and the key to the whole puzzle is that it took place during the great Paris exposition, in the year the Eiffel Tower was completed,” Hithcock told Truffaut.

In this film, mother and daughter are visiting Paris when the mother becomes ill. She has bubonic plague, and officials were concerned that this would scare away crowds who were coming to Paris for the exposition. This yarn fits the story line of The Lady Vanishes, where a great scheme is devised to deny the existence of Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), who turns up missing aboard a moving train. As it turns out, Miss Froy was key in unraveling a spy mystery.

Hitchcock always did have the knack to leave me Spellbound. That the plots were strange … and often based on reality … I Confess that’s even spookier.

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Still of Alfred Hitchcock from The Birds trailer


Flock of gulls


Article: “Blame Hitchcock’s crazed birds on toxic algae”


Still of James Stewart in Rear Window