Edgar Allan Poe as seen through the lens of Hitchcock
Several authors have explored the aesthetic relationship between Edgar Allan Poe and Alfred Hitchcock, particularly writers like Dennis Perry and Donald Spoto among others. Although Poe has had major influence on many artists, (with Hitchcock demonstrating many of Poe's influences and gaining worldwide recognition for it) few have truly attempted to understand Poe. The only one who seems to have tried and lived a life similar to Poe's is Alfred Hitchcock. And as people, as men, they share several similarities, both professionally and personally.
Ever since his youthful submersion into Poe lore, Hitchcock consciously or unconsciously continued using Poe as a source for new ideas. One may argue Poe's main legacy to Hitchcock is the masterful generation of emotional reactions in audiences. The key to that legacy is the notion of surrealism and the concurrent experience of (that Perry so well puts it) delight and terror, which becomes the symbol and trademark of both their narrative styles. Their ability to both mesmerize and shock is meshed together in such a way that becomes more than what it is. As Hitchcock identified from reading Poe: "fear . . . is a feeling that people like to feel when they are certain of being in safety." (Perry 190)
Looking back at the lives of both creative madmen, they shared the same obsessive, grim outlook on life that they carried into their work. Hitchcock with his obsession over screen actress and lead from "Psycho," Tippi Hedren and Poe's obsession with the fear of beautiful women dying. It is no wonder Hitchcock's work is so intricately connected to Poe's. Films like Vertigo and Psycho and works like "The Raven "and "The Fall of the House of Usher," and Eureka: a Prose Poem, reveal just how insane Hitchcock and Poe were. In that insanity lies a connection and in that connection lies masterpieces.
Insanity is afterall a result of many things, usually fear and obsession being the front runners. Hitchcock's constant fear made him go into directing just like Poe's constant fears made him write. Death, which was something they both obsessed over and used throughout their works, always had a way of not only taunting them, but also luring them. To begin, first must be examined Hitchcock's early life.
As a teen, Hitchcock fervently read Poe and declared: "without wanting to seem immodest, I can't help but compare what I try to put in my films with what Poe put in his stories: a perfectly unbelievable story recounted to readers with such a hallucinatory logic that one has the impression that this same story can happen to you tomorrow." (Schroeder 200) He was an obese boy, being rejected from a regular job in the military and dealing with his father's passing at 15. It was through his creative expression of directing he was able to finally showcase not only his talent, but also provide a realm for his obsessions, desires, and expressions. In many films his perspective is clear and recurring.
Vertigo, a film by Alfred Hitchcock, plays with the theme of death. Hitchcock does a fabulous job of creating both a fear and an attraction to death. Like Poe, Hitchcock used the perception as death as both fuel for his creative work and his obsessions. Scottie, the protagonist, becomes obsessed with a woman named Madeleine/Judy who pretends to be obsessed with dying. Acrophobia, the fear that debilitates him from saving "Madeline" and also leaves him cured when Judy dies, symbolizes most of what Hitchcock is. He is a man that turns simple things into major things. The act of staring down from a ledge now becomes the very act of life and death.
Poe and Hitchcock in some way or form were obsessed with beautiful women. Hitchcock with his now infamous unrequited love with Hedren, is a perfect example. He was horrible to Hedren. In his film, The Birds, Hitchcock tormented Hedren for failure of to respond to his sexual advances. One known way was his substitution of real birds for mechanical ones. Hitchcock had her act with the birds until she was covered in bites, scratches and bird droppings all while continuing his exacting and demanding vision.
To better examine how Poe could influence Hitchcock, it is important to take a look at what drove Poe's most famous obsession. The obsession with death stems from Poe's tragic losses. Every woman he loved seemed to die his mother, to his wife, foster mother, aunt and even a woman he once fell in love. Like with Hitchcock, his most famous works typically showcases well this obsession. One of his literary works that was influenced and shaped by this fear and obsession was the ever famous "The Raven." One quote from The Raven that shows this fear is "Sorrow for the lost Lenore- the rare and radiant maiden…" (Poe 4)
"The Fall of the House of Usher" by Edgar Allen Poe showcases the recurrent theme of the dead having power over the living. Poe often uses memory to give life to and sustain the power of the dead. Although in Psycho and Vertigo, Hitchcock brings to life the dead in a meaningful or symbolic way through the use of a skeleton or a "disguise," Poe literally brings the dead back to life, using memory as the key to reawakening them. Madeline, the wife to Roderick, was considered dead. In reality she was alive, struggling to break free. Her appearance although inferred to be that of a zombie, was in actuality her just being buried alive. This confusing twist much like the befuddling twist of "Madeleine/Judy," adds to the tension of the story and increases the fear in its narrative.
Something as simple as burying one's wife alive, although horrible and tragic, lends to a much more fantastical experience with the fog and the noises, and the possible zombie. Poe apart from the death illusion, also generates a sensation of claustrophobia in the story. The narrator remains in Roderick's house until the house of Usher fully collapses. His language within the story as well as the final scenes that lead to the ending, where the narrator reads Roderick a medieval romance novel, again evoke surrealism. A romance novel plays backdrop to a man dying of fear from his still living wife. Similar to the shower scene in Psycho and the irrational image of the knife attacking a woman showering. At first glance, they do not appear to fit, but yield significant meaning after the scene is finished.
Eureka: a prose poem (1848), represents all of Poe's philosophical thinking, including his perception of the nature of the universe and humanity's relationship with God. This non-fiction piece works as an arrangement for Poe's use of the sublime, including his use of imagery and structures as well as provides a perfect reference to aid in examining Hitchcock's cinematic use of Poe in Vertigo. "After all, as Jean Douchet affirms, "is not inversion our filmmaker's favorite system?'" (Perry 2) Although Poe heavily influenced Hitchcock's work, nevertheless Hitchcock always had his own creative and personal style/point-of-view showcased in his films. As shown by Perry and stated by Hitchcock in one of his interviews, he knows what he wants to achieve in his films and how to communicate it, "The cameraman knows me well enough to know what I want -- and when in doubt, I draw a rectangle, and then draw the shot out for him."(Perry 2)
Hitchcock was and always will be a man of obsessive detail. His ability to transform something as simple as staring into the distance into a sight of sheer terror is one of the key things people identify in him. Some might say his obsessive need to express his perspective among other things could be considered symptoms of anxiety or a path that leads to anxiety. Francois Truffaut suggests that "Hitchcock belongs...among such artists of anxiety as Kafka, Dostoyevsky, and Poe" (Truffaut, and Hitchcock 15). Hitchcock and Poe are connected, but not through the feelings and behaviors related to anxiety. The relationship as identified in the public mind, is one of suspense and horror. Referencing back to Vertigo for instance, he heavily relies on the aesthetic formed through the influence of Poe's writing style. The constant "suicidal attempts" by the beautiful woman, the spiral image of the staircase, they all work to show Poe's view point.
More recently, themes between Hitchcock and Poe are briefly examined by Donald Spoto, who finds Hitchcock's theme of the dead's influence over the living reminiscent of Poe (Spoto 121). In Psycho, the main protagonist's mother even though dead, still greatly influenced his behavior and delusions. This woman, which can be compared to Poe's many women who died, still is regarded with love by an ill and demented son. It is through this "mother" that the main character grows in madness, much like in "The Raven" with the main character maddening with frustration by the repetitions of the…