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'The Birds' is terrifying because it doesn't explain anything

Alfred Hitchcock's suspense masterpiece is chilling because of what it doesn't give the audience: Answers. 

By James Grebey
Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963)

“Ending explained.” It’s a two-word phrase you’ll find in so many headlines after a big blockbuster comes out. This very website has certainly published its fair share of “ending explained” stories, as frequently that’s the thing that readers want to know more than anything. However, not all movies’ endings can be explained. Some shouldn’t be explained, and indeed the filmmakers behind them deliberately don’t answer the myriad of questions viewers have when the end credits roll. Perhaps one of the greatest of these movies is Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, a masterpiece in both suspense and disaster filmmaking that deprives audiences of any comforting explanation or resolution to great effect. In fact, The Birds barely has an ending. The movie just… stops. For this, it is incredible. 

The Birds, which opened in theaters in 1963 and is now streaming on Peacock, largely takes place in the little seaside Northern California town of Bodega Bay. Tippi Hedren, making her film debut, stars as Melanie, a puckish San Francisco socialite who heads up the coast to surprise Rob Taylor’s character, a lawyer named Mitch, at his family’s home following a flirtatious meet-cute. However, once she’s there, strange things start to happen. A seagull swoops down and attacks her, and then later another gull is found dead at Mitch’s door. Things escalate quickly from there, as before too long a flock of gulls are dive bombing schoolchildren and sparrows swarm down chimneys. Eyes are pecked out, crows gather en masse outside of a schoolhouse, and an avian onslaught outside a gas station leaves a block of Bodega Bay in flames when spilled gas ignites.  

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The film ends with Melanie inside Mitch’s boarded-up home along with his mother and much younger sister, Cathy. Melanie’s almost killed when she unknowingly enters a room that birds had breached, and though Mitch is able to get her to safety, she’s in need of medical attention. As the radio announces that other towns on the California coast are experiencing similar bird attacks, the four slowly, carefully walk amongst the hundreds of birds that surround the house, all of whom are sitting menacingly but peacefully… for now. Cathy brings her caged lovebirds, who have not been aggressive, and they drive off as the movie ends. 

Do they make it to safety? Do the birds keep attacking? Is this just a series of occurrences in Northern California or the start of the end of the world? The movie doesn’t say, nor does it say why the birds are attacking in the first place. 

There are suggestions of an answer. One character posits the idea that the birds are attacking humanity as revenge for the way mankind has treated the environment, not to mention all the birds we’ve eaten. That’s not really sufficient, though, and while it is a fine explanation on a thematic level, there’s still something visceral missing, and this lack of any explanation viewers can put their hands around, not to mention the extremely open-ended (lack of a) conclusion, makes The Birds eerie and great. We as the audience know as much as the characters we’re watching. Their terror and confusion is our terror and confusion. If The Birds ended with Melanie and Mitch making it to safety, an indication that the bird attacks had stopped, or had them discover why they were attacking, it would be a far less effective movie.

The Birds was based on a 1952 horror story of the same name written by British author Daphne du Maurier, and further inspired by a real-life incident in 1961 in Capitola, California, not too far from Bodega Bay. A number of birds — though not to the extent or ferocity of the birds in The Birds — dive-bombed the town and generally caused chaos. As in Hitchcock’s film, the cause of the avian attacks was unknown. In more recent years, scientists have theorized that the Capitola birds were not attacking but disoriented because they had ingested a toxic algae, Pseudo-nitzschia, that bloomed in the waters off the coast. 

That’s an interesting, mundane, explanation, but isn’t there something scarier about the not knowing? Looking up at the sky, or at the birds flying around that you take for granted every day, and having no idea when or why or what might drive them to attack? The Birds knows this well, and it’s not going to give audiences a comforting place to put their fears to roost. The birds are just doing what they’re doing for unknowable reasons to unknowable ends. There’s nothing scarier. 

The Birds is now streaming on Peacock