more stars than in the heavens

not in our stars, but in ourselves

Nevermore, Ever More: How Poe Lives in Hitchcock


NOTE: This is another of those academic trifles I’ve written over the years – and yes, I’ve already posted another one about Hitchcock, so if you’re tired of him and me, then I do apologize.  But anyway, have fun.  It gets real blockquotey, but hush.  This topic appeals to me as a fan of Hitchcock, of Poe, and of my wild idea that Hitch and fellow Poe-lover Nabokov should have been BFFs.

Film is well-known as a highly collaborative affair.  The art itself is an alchemical product of photography, theatre, literature, music, and dance; the making of any given film involves directors, actors, producers, cinematographers, cameramen, set decorators, costume designers, music composers, and many more; the finished film’s success depends on audience members to involve themselves in the process by going to the theatre to see it.  No surprise, then, that many filmmakers imbue their work with a sort of collaboration of different artistic forces: perhaps a musical score that quotes Wagner, imagery inspired by Dali, and mises-en-scène ­– lighting, set design, camera angles – that directly quote Expressionistic Weimar-era cinema.

Such stylistic elements, as well as many others, are easily identifiable throughout Alfred Hitchcock’s lengthy oeuvre.  However, in many of his finest films, the central themes were quite clearly inspired by the stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe.  More than imagery, more than trendy artistic movements, Poe’s neuroses, fears, and recurring motifs are so deeply embedded in Hitchcock’s films – and, perhaps, in Hitchcock himself – that the films’ debt to their literary antecedents is irrefutable.  As Guy Cogeval writes, “it is crucial to emphasize the great debt that Hitchcockian cinema owes to the literature of Edgar Allan Poe, and its ‘hallucinatory logic.’ Hitchcock’s greatest works can almost be considered Poe stories as retold by Oscar Wilde” (2001, 30).  Hitchcock, noting the stylistic influence of Surrealism on his work, acknowledged his debt to Poe in the same breath: “And surrealism?  Wasn’t it born as much from the work of Poe as from that of Lautréamont?  This literary school certainly had a great influence on cinema […].  An influence that I experienced myself, if only in the dream sequences and the sequences of the unreal in a certain number of my films” (Brougher 1999, 14).  The debt is well documented; Hitchcock often

compare[d] his own films to Poe’s tales – even though, as he put it, “I don’t want to sound immodest” – observing how each of them created “a completely unbelievable story told to the readers [or viewers] with such a spellbinding logic that you get the impression that the same thing could happen to you tomorrow.” It was this mixture of the logically incredible and the personally believable which attracted him to Poe in the first place and which he then carried over as the goal of his own work (Wollen 1997, 17).

Of Hitchcock, Pascale Bonitzer says that his “narrative obeys the law that the more a situation is somewhat a priori, familiar or conventional, the more it is liable to become disturbing or uncanny, once one of its constituent elements begins to ‘turn against the wind’” (1992, 23); of Poe, Allan Gardner Lloyd-Smith writes that he “is justly famed for his ‘domestic terror’” (1989, 50) in which seemingly ordinary situations quickly become menacing.  Norman K. Denzin explains the following of Hitchcock, but it is equally applicable to Poe:

Tension and anxiety fill every Hitchcock frame, where a delicate balance of apprehension, anxiety and certainty turn on what the protagonist (and audience) knows and does not know.  The dramatic locus of many of the Hitchcock films made between 1940 and 1964 is […] concerned less with external reality and more with the mind, a character’s subjective point of view and how it distorts and misinterprets reality and its events.  This introduces a high level of emotionality into the text, as the audience is inevitably drawn into the protagonist’s visual situation, his or her misinterpretations of that situation, and the seen and unseen dangers that lurk there. (1995, 117)

Both men depict external worlds onto which terrifying dream logic has been projected.  More specifically, both men were, in their work at least, obsessed with dead women, eerie doubles, objects that incite action and “blots” that bring about madness and ruin.  Hitchcock’s mastery of filmic form is undeniable, and clearly his own, however much he may have been inspired by other artists; but he is retelling Poe’s dreamlike narratives with the still more dreamlike apparatus of the cinema.

Recurring throughout Poe and Hitchcock, there is a fascination with, adoration for, and fear of women – specifically, dead women.  Poe rather naughtily wrote, in “The Poetic Principle”: “‘Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?’ Death – was the obvious reply. ‘And when,’ I said, ‘is this most melancholy topics most poetical?’ ‘…When it most clearly allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world’” (Lloyd-Smith 1989, 51).  His stories and poems, naturally enough, contain many deaths of many beauties: in the kingdom by the sea, there was Annabel Lee; in “The Raven,” there was Lenore; in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” there was the prematurely buried Madeline; and in various Gothic locales, there was Ligeia.  As the narrator, Ligeia’s husband, says, “indeed, if ever that spirit which is entitled Romance – if ever she, the wan and misty-winged Ashtophet of idolatrous Egypt, presided, as they tell, over marriages ill-omened, then most surely she presided over mine” (Poe 1902a, 249).  Ligeia loves her husband passionately, but she falls ill and dies – or so it seems.  The husband travels aimlessly around Europe, lands in rural England, marries the Lady Rowena, and develops an opium addiction.  He and Rowena hate each other, and then she develops an unknown and terminal illness as well.  As he sits by her deathbed, deep in an opium dream, waiting for her to die, he notes that the almost-corpse seems to be wrestling to come back to life.  After hours of struggle, the erstwhile body of Rowena arises; its shrouds fall off; and reveals itself to be Ligeia, apparently returned to life.  In Peter Ackroyd’s words, “This is pure Poe; the unutterable nightmare becomes earnestly wished for” (2008, 67).


The clearest and most direct version of “Ligeia,” particularly as it relates to Ackroyd’s note, is in Vertigo (1958) – a veritable feast “of delusion, fetishism, sado-masochism, mourning and melancholia, guilt complex, phobia, catatonia, scopophilia, fixation on the primal scene, obsession, repetition compulsion, loss of identity, latent homosexuality, unconscious slips and bungled actions, and finally, as Hitchcock gleefully noted, necrophilia” (Wollen 1997, 16).  Scottie Ferguson suffers from acrophobia and accompanying vertigo, and has more or less retired from the detective business.  An old college friend, Gavin Elster, asks Scottie to trail his wife, Madeleine.  Madeleine seems to think she is possessed by the spirit of her beautiful, suicidal ancestor, Carlotta Valdes, and Elster tells Scottie he fears Madeleine will kill herself.  Scottie trails Madeleine, falls in love with her, and is unable to overcome his acrophobia to keep her from jumping off a bell tower.  While wandering aimlessly through San Francisco, he sees a common shopgirl, Judy Barton, who resembles Madeleine strongly.  To borrow a comparison from Slavoj Žižek, this scenario is a sort of refraction of Groucho Marx’s quip in Duck Soup (1933): “Gentlemen, Chicolini here may talk like an idiot, and look like an idiot.  But don’t let that fool you.  He really is an idiot.” Similarly, Judy and Madeleine are one in the same: Elster had hired Judy to impersonate his wife so that he could make her murder look like suicide.  Scottie, however, has no idea, and he sets about making Judy over as Madeleine.  When he discovers the truth, he brings Judy back to the old bell tower, where she dies for real.

Cogeval expresses one interpretation: “Vertigo lay[s] bare the infernal machine – or rather the downward spiral – of conscience degraded by love” (2001, 37).  This is possible, and it is more feasible as an explanation of some of Poe’s stories of dead beauties, but here it presumes Scottie as the most sympathetic character.  He is the hero, to be sure, but the crux of both “Ligeia” and Vertigo is this: a woman loves a (frankly undeserving) man far beyond limits he can understand.  Both Ligeia and “Madeleine” return from the dead in order to reunite with the men they love.  We will never know what happens to Ligeia after she shakes off her death shrouds, but we know exactly what happens to Judy.  When Scottie begins to insist that she let him make her over as Madeleine – wear her clothes, dye her hair and wear it in a coil – she pleads with him, “Couldn’t you like me, just the way I am?” Apparently not: where “Ligeia” is a mostly straightforward story about the death and reincarnation of a beautiful woman, Vertigo is “a story about the doomed failure to maintain enchantment” (Wollen 1997, 16).  In William Rothman’s words, “Scottie promises to love Judy if she lets him change her.  And he keeps his promise” (2004, 230).  He keeps it, but only up to a point.  He never loves her for herself; only for her resemblance to Madeleine.  She becomes a signifier for Madeleine; whatever Judy herself signifies is of no interest to Scottie.  When he finds out the truth, it is catastrophic to his psyche:

[I]t is essential to be attentive to the difference between the two losses that befall Scottie, Vertigo’s hero: between the first loss of “Madeleine” and the second, final loss of Judy.  The first is the simple loss of a beloved object – as such, it is a variation on the theme of the death of a fragile, sublime woman, the ideal love-object, that dominates romantic poetry and finds its most popular expression in a whole series of stories and poems by Edgar Allan Poe […].  Although this death comes as a terrible shock, we could say that there is really nothing unexpected about it: it is rather as if the situation itself calls for it.  The ideal love-object lives on the brink of death, her life itself is overshadowed by imminent death – she is marked by some hidden curse or suicidal madness, or she has some disease that befits the frail woman. […. H]er death does not entail a loss of her power of fascination; quite the contrary, it is her very death that “authenticates” her absolute hold over the subject.  Her loss throws him into a melancholic depression, and, consistent with romantic ideology, the subject is able to pull himself out of this depression only by dedicating the rest of his life to the poetic celebration of the lost object’s incomparable beauty and grace.  It is only when the poet loses his lady that he finally and truly acquires her, it is precisely through this loss that she gains her place in the fantasy space that regulates the subject’s desire.

The second loss is, however, of quite another nature.  When Scottie learns that Madeleine – the sublime ideal he was striving to recreate in Judy – is Judy, i.e., when, after all, he gets back the real “Madeleine” herself, the figure of “Madeleine” disintegrates, the whole fantasy structure that gave consistency to his being falls apart (Žižek 1995, 85-86).

Scottie, therefore, loses his mind.  Judy, on the other hand, loses her life.  The stakes for women in Hitchcock films are immeasurably higher than they are for men.  Lloyd-Smith wrote of Poe’s women, “In the first place, we discover an extreme idealisation of women; in the second, an increasingly overt suppression of their role and rights” (1989, 50) – and this is an extraordinarily apt summary of the plight of Hitchcock’s women as well.  They must comply.  They must dress up.  They must remain unmussed when the situation calls for it, and permit themselves to be mussed if their hero wishes.  They cannot initiate.  They must remain icons of “remote sexuality, […] unattainable blondes whose icy-cool exteriors belie a destructive fire” (Cogeval 2001, 36).  Most Hitchcockian heroines play along with this scenario and permit themselves to be idealised; his other women who haunt from beyond the grave are far less sympathetic (Rebecca de Winter, Uncle Charlie’s Merry Widows, Mrs. Bates) and far less attractive.  With Judy, however, Hitchcock shows us a grim truth: we would prefer the poetry of a dead, beautiful woman than the reality of a lively, if coarse, shopgirl.  He is sympathetic to her dilemma, but he offers no hope of redemption.

While there is seldom hope beyond death for Hitchcockian women who seek their own agency, there are often active agents of destruction in both Poe and Hitchcock: doubles.  The double may be a seeming physical replica – a doppelganger – of the hero, as in Poe’s “William Wilson,” and as in Vertigo.  It may be a literal or figurative twin, as in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943).  It may function as a representation of the hero’s id, as in Strangers on a Train (1951) or his conscience (“Wilson” again).  In all these cases, the double, the doppelganger, is a harbinger of death.  And in all these cases, both the hero and his shadow are inextricably linked.

To begin at the beginning, at least in psychoanalytic understandings of the double, we turn to Freud:

Thus we have characters who are to be considered identical because they look alike.  This relation is accentuated by mental processes leaping from one of these characters to another – by what we should call telepathy – so that the one possesses knowledge, feelings and experience in common with the other. […] The theme of the “double” […has connections] with reflections in mirrors, with shadows, with guardian spirits, with the belief in the soul and with the fear of death […].  In the pathological case of delusions of observation, this mental agency becomes isolated, dissociated from the ego, and discernible to the physician’s eye (1919, 356).

Gry Faurholt writes that “the split personality or dark half of the protagonist [is] an unleashed monster that acts as a physical manifestation of a dissociated part of the self” (cited in Liebig 2010, 429).  Rounding out the psychoanalytical approach to doppelgangers, Jacqueline Bradley writes,

For the Freudian subject, the repressed self may emerge as the double.  The double mirrors the buried self denied expression by the subject’s censor, the superego.  Because the Oedipal complex has created the father-as-possessing-phallus image for the subject, the subject yearns for the phallus that will win him the love of his mother.  Yet, this desire for the father’s power status, the phallus, would never pass the internal censor into expression.  Instead, some separate character is created to represent the subject’s desire to usurp the phallus.  Freud described this as “transferring mental processes from the one person to the other … so that the one possesses knowledge, feeling and experience in common with the other, identifies himself with another person, so that his self becomes confounded … by doubling, dividing and interchanging the self.” The ego avoids “the reproaches of conscience” because the subject “no longer accepts the responsibility for certain actions of his ego,” but has placed “it upon another ego, a double.” This double is allowed to feel and want things the subject could never admit feeling and wanting.  Some other character is effectively established to act on behalf of the subject. This double represents uncensored desire (2008, 57).

“William Wilson” – written a decade before Freud was born – neatly describes this split between the buried self and the superego.  The narrator – not the avenging angel, who is the other William Wilson – is the representation of uncensored desire, but (perhaps in a bid to usurp the phallus, although one doubts Poe would have imagined such terminology) the avenging Wilson follows him, ruining his card games and love affairs.  When Wilson the narrator kills Wilson the avenger, he realises that he has committed suicide: “You have conquered, and I yield.  Yet, henceforward art thou also dead – dead to the World, to Heaven and to Hope!  In me didst thou exist – and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself” (Poe 1902c, 325).


In Hitchcock, the double scenario is not quite so neat – although it does always lead to death.   The two Charlies in Shadow of a Doubt seem to share telepathic powers.  They love each other, perhaps more than the typical uncle and niece usually do (referring to themselves as “twins,” and sealing their quasi-incestuous relationship with Uncle Charlie’s “wedding” ring, given to Young Charlie in a sort of ceremony in the kitchen.) When that love becomes hate, they nearly destroy each other.  Donald Spoto writes,

The lunatic murderer Uncle Charlie – capable, as we see, of great charm, of generosity to his family, of warmth toward his sister – shares the same blood with his sweetly virginal niece Charlie.  She is capable, as we learn, of murdering her uncle. […] The idea that we are all to some extent combinations of angelic and demonic impulses, that we have dual forces at war within us, is as old as the Greeks and the Judaeo-Christian tradition; even the Oriental yin/yang shares the concept (1992, 119-120).

Sharing Uncle Charlie’s blood, Young Charlie soon shares his guilt as well.  As Žižek says, “this ‘transference of guilt’ does not concern some psychic interior, some repressed, disavowed desire hidden deep beneath the mask of politeness, but quite the contrary a radically external network of intersubjective relations” (1995, 74).  After his gift to her – the ring, taken from one of his “fat, wheezing” victims, and now an external reminder of their indelible bond – she cannot bring herself to give him up to the police.  It would be as terrible as giving up her husband, or herself.  No, she must destroy her once-beloved uncle – who represents the darkness in her own blood.  She cannot win unless she embraces that darkness, and fights like with like.  She succeeds in killing him, the externalization of her own wickedness, but only just.

Smiling strangers

Linked not by blood, but more incredibly by sheer coincidence, Guy and Bruno in Strangers on a Train are “like positive and negative ions, interchangeable and mutually necessary” (Conrad 2000, 43) in the original Patricia Highsmith novel on which the film is based.  In Hitchcock’s film, they are more like the positive and negative images of the same photograph: Guy is a staid, ambitious tennis player who aspires to Congress one day.  He is married to a “tramp” whom he hates, not-so-secretly courting a Senator’s daughter, and extraordinarily conscious of keeping up appearances.  Bruno is a flamboyant tennis fan and daredevil who lives with his dotty mother (whom he loves) and his stern father (whom he hates).  He wears a tie clip with his own name on it and demonstrates at a swishy Washington D.C. soirée the impossibility of screaming while being strangled – nearly crushing a woman’s trachea in the process.  Bruno is, in far less precise psychoanalytic terms than those outlined by Bradley above, like Guy’s id.  Guy hates his wife, so Bruno murders her.  Guy wants to impress his future father-in-law, while Bruno openly despises his own father.  Guy tries to focus on his tennis game, and Bruno focuses only on him.  Bruno is truly the personification of Guy’s darkest, most secret desires, and he is impossible to shake off.  As William Wilson says of his avenging double, “I fled in vain.  My evil destiny pursued me as if in exultation” (Poe 1902c, 321), so might Guy have said of Bruno, his own seeming destiny.  As in Shadow of a Doubt, Guy (ostensibly, the “good” double) must embrace the darker impulses in himself that run rampant in his “evil” double in order to destroy him.

While these battles between doubles may seem to be battles between Good and Evil, they are actually more complex than that.  In Shadow of a Doubt and Strangers on a Train, especially, the clear implication is that it takes the merest nudge to push a virtuous person into evil and depravity.  In fact, evil seems to spring quite readily from the transfer of guilt.  There is more here than simple black and white, however.  Poe and Hitchcock both describe the dark power of the human will: it can, and often does, ruin lives.  Lloyd-Smith writes, “Poe’s own obsession with the idea of the will is inescapable.  His protagonists act out their deepest desires, yet seem in the end to be victim of those desires, which return upon them with redoubled force as guilt, especially in the relation between the male self and the woman-as-other” (1989, 42).  Those desires and that will are externalized in the double.  The double, the agent of will, is never a mere supernatural occurrence in Poe or in Hitchcock: he is always somehow an uncanny projection of the hero’s secret desires, wishes, and impulses.  As such, he is doubly linked to death and ruin:

[T]he extreme exertion of will becomes demonic and results in horror, decay and putrefaction […].  The will provides a cloak for desire, which is thereby dramatised as inexplicably different from the rational, responsible self.  In the clothing of madness the inadmissible desire is represented as thrust away from the self in an autonomous, uncontrollable will, free to prey vampiristically on the other, to indulge in profane explorations of death, and annihilate all resistances to infantile regression. (Lloyd-Smith 1989, 50)

The double in Poe and Hitchcock is the embodiment of the will, motivated by the hero’s unspeakable desire.  The one will pursue the other, quite like a shadow, until one or both of them is destroyed.  In Poe, it is often both; in Hitchcock, the hero usually prevails – but again, only just.

While Poe and Hitchcock employ similar conflicts between people to generate the emotional core of the story, they also often rely on things – tangible and otherwise – to precipitate the action.  Sometimes, these things are actually meaningless.  Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” is, in itself, a “parable of arbitrary signification, the stolen letter is entirely a sign, an empty vehicle whose content is assumed but never made visible however much the object itself is contemplated in full view” (Lloyd-Smith 1989, 37-38).  It is what the characters do because of the letter that matters.  Similarly, Hitchcock’s films are full of his famous “MacGuffins”: signifiers without signifieds, they are objects that spur characters into action, as they seek to recover or to hide or to master them.  Those objects are eventually revealed to be meaningless: the real plot is much bigger.  North by Northwest (1959), for example, is full of MacGuffins: the mistaken Lester Townsend, the non-existent George Kaplan, the government secrets.  Roger O. Thornhill (the “O” itself is a sort of MacGuffin, as he ruefully admits that it stands for nothing) searches desperately for all these essentially unimportant things, and finds in the process that he has involved himself in something far more complicated than he had first imagined.


More than stolen letters and MacGuffins, however, both Poe and Hitchcock employ what Hitchcock scholars often call the “blot.” It is a seemingly small disruption, stain, or event that alerts the hero to evil doings:

For crime drives both the natural order of things and the natural order of cinema off course, by introducing a stain which precipitates a gaze and so brings about a fiction.  Evil itself is a stain.

Hitchcock’s films can therefore work only if a natural order is presupposed.  Everything is proceeding normally, according to routines that are ordinary, even humdrum and unthinking, until someone notices that an element in the whole, because of its inexplicable behaviour, is a stain.  The entire sequence of events unfolds from that point (Bonitzer 1992, 20).

Indeed, the blot is often more than the starting point for unfolding events: it leads to death and madness.  “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Poe’s claustrophobically written story of murder most foul, features a narrator who is driven to homicidal mania by an old man’s cataract: “It was open – wide, wide open – and I grew furious as I gazed upon it.  I saw it with perfect distinctness – all a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones” (Poe 1843, 5).  He kills the poor old gentleman in the night, dismembers the body, and rests proud in his accomplishment.  Soon, though, he hears (or believes that he hears) the man’s heart beating under the floorboards: “I felt that I must scream or die! – and now – again! – hark! louder! louder! louder! louder! – ‘Villains!’  I shrieked, ‘dissemble no more!  I admit the deed! – tear up the planks! – here, here! – it is the beating of his hideous heart!’” (1843, 8).  The “vulture eye” and the beating heart serve as Poe’s own blots: stains on the natural order that disturb the narrator to act violently and irrationally.


There are many examples of blots in Hitchcock’s films, the most famous of which is the windmill turning against the wind in Foreign Correspondent (1940) (Bonitzer 1992, 21; Žižek 1995, 88).  The most spectacular example, however, is in The Birds (1963).  For no apparent reason, birds begin to attack the occupants of Bodega Bay: first, a gull swoops down and pecks Melanie on the head; second, a gull kills itself by trying to fly into Annie’s door; third, a gang of birds attack children as they play Blindman’s Bluff; and from there, the birds’ attacks escalate into full-fledged warfare.  As Bonitzer says of the windmills, “The-object-which-makes-a-stain is thus, literally speaking, an object which goes against nature.  The object in question invariably shows up against the background of a natural nature – of a nature that is, as it were, too natural” (1992, 21); this is true of Bodega Bay’s birds, and with a vengeance.  David Sterritt explains,

The Birds is very much a follow-up to Psycho, with Hitchcock seeking to go further beyond the bounds of rationality than even Norman Bates’s grim adventure allowed.  It projects Norman’s disequilibrium into the world at large, showing us not an individual but an entire world possessed by madness, confusion, and a rage – erupting not from within but, incredibly, from without – that is as mysterious as it is murderous….  The Birds not only depicts the irrational; it becomes the irrational by refusing to allow natural (or cinematically naturalized) causal relationships to glue together its hazily separated “real” and “fantastic” elements (cited in McCombe 2009, 267).

Why all the rage?  John P. McCombe believes that, if there is any explanation for the birds’ attacks, it lies only in Hitchcock’s directorial intent – not in the text of the film itself.  According to screenwriter Evan Hunter, “[Hitchcock] said, ‘I believe that people are too complacent.  People like Melanie Daniels tend to behave without any kind of responsibility, and to ignore the more serious aspects of life.  Such people are unaware of the catastrophe that surrounds us all’” (2009, 275).  McCombe refers to “the film’s didacticism, […which] connects the work to its distant early nineteenth-century Romantic cousins” (2009, 270) – Poe, Coleridge, et al.  If there is a point to these gruesome attacks, it is “to remind optimistic America of mortality” (Conrad 2000, 135): not only of their own, but also of that which they inflict on the world around them.  From caged lovebirds to cooped up chickens (presumably raised for eating and laying eggs), from Melanie’s lush fur coat to a diner order of fried chicken, The Birds depicts a world of blots – all leading to death and despair.  Where the humans in the film interpret Dan Fawcett’s pecked-out eyes as a horrific stain on their usual, natural world, Hitchcock invites us to imagine how the gulls, crows, and sparrows interpret their continued subjugation, slaughter, and scavenging.  He even shows us a point-of-view shot from above the town, as seagulls watch (with delight?) the havoc they have wreaked.  However, Hitchcock never offers an explanation per se, and by the end of the film, Bodega Bay is full of birds, squawking and waiting for their next battle.  Melanie is near-catatonic, unable to speak, nearly unable even to stand up.  The blot is often, in Hitchcock’s films, a transformative agent of consciousness – the sign that all is not well, that the hero(ine) has to be careful – but in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and The Birds, it leads irrevocably to madness.

McCombe states that The Birds “exceeds what any rational person [is] likely to experience with his or her senses [….  It] surprises us because of this very same quality of dreamlike absurdity” (2009, 270).  Ultimately, the greatest similarity between Poe and Hitchcock, the most frequently remarked upon quality of their respective works.  William Wilson wonders, “Have I not indeed been living in a dream?” (Poe 1902c, 300); Roderick Usher’s houseguest, upon his arrival at his friend’s ancestral home, finds he must shake “off from my spirit what must have been a dream” (1902b, 276) as he regards the seemingly sentient manor.  For his part, the “project which underlies Hitchcock’s films, or at least his greatest films, is to create a kind of dreamworld within the cinema, not just through the use of dream sequences or fog filters, but through the logic, or anti-logic, of cinematic narration itself […] dreamworld[s], fascinating and yet terrifying, […] evoked only to be destroyed” (Wollen 1997, 17).  Their greatest achievement as artists is their extraordinarily successful depiction of dream worlds.  Both invoke dream logic, in which every woman is your mother, every person you meet is some expression of your dirtiest secrets, every object is imbued with some sort of horrific significance.  When the last page is turned, when the last scene has played, the dream ends, and we can resume our waking lives.  However, both Poe and Hitchcock seek to awaken us forever to the darker sides of life.  As Uncle Charlie says to Young Charlie, so might Poe and Hitchcock say to us:

You go through your ordinary little day, and at night you sleep your untroubled ordinary little sleep, filled with peaceful stupid dreams.  And I brought you nightmares. […] You live in a dream.  You’re a sleepwalker, blind. […] Do you know the world is a foul sty?  Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine?  The world’s a hell.  What does it matter what happens in it?

Decades after Hitchcock, and almost two centuries after Poe, it’s still a difficult question to answer.




Works Cited

Ackroyd, Peter. 2008. Poe: A Life Cut Short. London: Chatto & Windus.

Bonitzer, Pascale. 1992. “Hitchcockian Suspense.” In Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock), edited by Slavoj Žižek, 15-30. London: Verso.

Bradley, Jacqueline. 2008. “Character Doubles and Barrier Imagery in Poe’s Work.” In Edgar Allan Poe Review 9, no. 2: 55-66. Humanities International Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed October 17, 2011).

Brougher, Kerry. 1999. “Hitch-Hiking in Dreamscapes.” In Notorious: Alfred Hitchcock and Contemporary Art, 8-20. Oxford: Museum of Modern Art.

Cogeval, Guy. 2001. “What Brings you to the Museum, Mr. Hitchcock?” In Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences, eds. Dominique Païni and Guy Cogeval, 21-37. Montreal: Mazzotta.

Conrad, Peter. 2000. The Hitchcock Murders. New York: Faber and Faber, Inc.

Denzin, Norman K. 1995. “Flawed Visions: The Obsessive Male Gaze.” In The Cinematic Society: The Voyeur’s Gaze, 114-138. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Freud, Sigmund. 1919. “The ‘Uncanny’.” In The Penguin Freud Library: Vol. 14, Art and Literature, 339-376. London: Penguin.

Liebig, Sueli Meira. 2010. “Criminal Insanity and Hypersensibility in Edgar Allan Poe.” In International Journal of the Humanities 8, no. 2: 425-435. Humanities International Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed October 30, 2011).

Lloyd-Smith, Allan Gardner. 1989. “The Romantic Uncanny: Poe’s Horror Fiction.” In Uncanny American Fiction, 35-52. London: Macmillan.

McCombe, John P. 2009. “’Oh, I see…’: The Birds and the Culmination of Hitchcock’s Hyper-Romantic Vision.” In A Hitchcock Reader, 2nd edition, eds. Deutelbaum and Poague, 264-279. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Poe, Edgar Allan. 1843. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Elegant E-books.

—. 1902b. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” In Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe: Volume III, edited by James A. Harrison, 273-297. New York: Fred de Fau & Co.

—. 1902a. “Ligeia.” In Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe: Volume II, edited by James A. Harrison, 248-268. New York: Fred de Fau & Co.

—. 1902c. “William Wilson.” In Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe: Volume III, edited by James A. Harrison, 299-325. New York: Fred de Fau & Co.

Rothman, William. 2004. “Vertigo: The Unknown Woman in Hitchcock.” In The “I” of the Camera: Essays in Film Criticism, History and Aesthetics, 2nd edition, 221-240. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Spoto, Donald. 1992. “Shadow of a Doubt.” In The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 116-127. London: Fourth Estate.

Wollen, Peter. 1997. “Compusion.” Sight and Sound 7, no.4: 14-19.

Žižek, Slavoj. 1995. “How the Non-duped Err.” In Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, 69-87. Cambridge: MIT Press.

—. 1995. “The Hitchcockian Blot.” In Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, 88-106. Cambridge: MIT Press.



Vertigo. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. James Stewart, Kim Novak. Paramount, 1958.

Duck Soup. Dir. Leo McCarey. Perf. Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo Marx. Paramount, 1933.

Shadow of a Doubt. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Joseph Cotten, Teresa Wright. Universal, 1943.

Strangers on a Train. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Farley Granger, Robert Walker. Warner Brothers, 1951.

North by Northwest. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason. MGM, 1959.

Foreign Correspondent. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, Herbert Marshall. United Artists, 1940.

Birds, The. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy. Universal, 1963.


6 comments on “Nevermore, Ever More: How Poe Lives in Hitchcock

  1. Pingback: 2015 Movie Challenge: Rebecca | more stars than in the heavens

  2. David L. North
    October 29, 2015

    Is there any archival or historical evidence that Hitchcock was actually inspired by any of Edgar Allan Poe’s writings? “The Birds” certainly seems a direct parallel. Just curious, thanks.

  3. David L. North
    October 29, 2015

    And then I found the answer (figures).

    Alfred Hitchcock once said, “It’s because I liked Edgar Allan Poe’s stories so much that I began to make suspense films.”

    • mcwhirk
      October 29, 2015

      Haha, I promise I wasn’t just making it up! Obviously Hitch did his stories in his own way, but he loved Poe’s work, and it shows.

      • David L. North
        October 29, 2015

        Indeed. I have been researching Poe for a book and the first person who struck me as inspired by him was Hitchcock (who oi watched as a young boy). Turns out it is true.

  4. Pingback: basically-a-day-off roundup | more stars than in the heavens

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