So tell me, what’s the scariest movie you ever saw?
Rich still talks about Alien. “I had no idea what the movie was about,” he says. “I bought a box of Milk Duds and never ate a single one. I clutched that candy so hard that by the end it was just a mangled lump.” For me, it’s The Exorcist; just hearing the theme music makes me start hyperventilating. Everybody has a movie memory that makes them shiver and wonder whether they should sleep with the lights on tonight.
Alfred Hitchcock gleefully claimed he gave audiences pleasure — “The same pleasure they get when waking up from a nightmare.” When a moviegoer complained to him that Janet Leigh’s death scene in Psycho left her daughter too traumatized to use a shower, he was unrepentant, saying, “Then, Madam, I suggest you have her dry cleaned.”
Like that moviegoer's daughter, I grew up traumatized by Hitchcock classics. So you can imagine my sentiments when Rich and I began discussing a birdwatching expedition to Bodega Bay, where Hitchcock filmed The Birds. Yes, the one where our feathered friends mass for an attack on humanity, and Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor have to take time out from their mating dance to fight back. Not very successfully.
Bodega Bay is a famous spot for birdwatching — Rich’s latest hobby — so I wanted to be a good sport about the outing. And after all, The Birds was just a movie. Pure fiction. Right?
This week, I discovered the movie was based on actual events. Yes, it was partly inspired by Daphne du Maurier’s fantasy about avian mayhem, but it was also based on the very real sooty shearwaters incident in Capitola, 100 miles south of Bodega Bay. There, on August 18, 1961, at 3:00 in the morning, thousands of shrieking birds began raining down from the sky.
“Struggling to the door, I was awed at the sight of hundreds of birds — all with the cry of a baby,” recalled Edna Messini, proprietor of Capitola’s Venetian Court Motel. “They were heavy with sardines unable to fly and lost in the dense fog as they came in from the sea attracted by our lights. They slammed against the building, [regurgitating] fish blood and knocking themselves out. Our manager phoned me, asked what to do? She knew it was the end of the world, panic set in, sure it was germ warfare.”
Hitchcock immediately phoned the newspaper to get details of the story so he could work them into his plot. The reason the birds — known as sooty shearwaters — went so nuts remained a mystery until the 1990s, when tests revealed they had gorged on shellfish that had eaten a microalgae producing a toxin causing confusion, disorientation, seizures, and death. Yikes! Note to self: avoid eating shellfish in areas where birds are falling out of the sky or flying down your chimney.
Luckily Rich and I never encountered any crazed sooty shearwaters on our birdwatching hike — that we know of. Frankly, as rank amateurs, we were rarely sure what we were seeing. Arriving in Bodega Bay, we ambled along the path — called, with more accuracy than originality, “Bird Walk” — enjoying the brisk air, colorful saltwater marsh, and glimpses of deer, rabbits, and various birds.
Rich brought binoculars, a field guide, and an app that identifies all known avian species. Unfortunately, unless you’re fairly close, the app has difficulty distinguishing a perching bird from a clump of leaves, so it kept coming up blank. “But I can see the damn thing right there,” Rich growled at his iPhone, which wisely refused to engage further in the conversation.
Falling back on binoculars and his guide book, Rich identified a Vaux’s swift, a turkey vulture, a Brandt’s cormorant, some great blue herons, American white pelicans, snowy egrets, and western gulls. There might have been terns. There was definitely a row of grayish lumps standing on the far side of a distant pond. “I’m almost positive those are turkey vultures,” he said. “No, wait, I think they’re condors. Could be buzzards. Oh, I know, they’re pelicans. Yes, they’re pelicans for sure.” Later he positively identified them as herons. But hey, as long as they weren’t sooty shearwaters under the influence.
One of the bird walk’s most charming features was a series of rustic wooden benches, each bearing a heartfelt tribute such as, “In loving memory to Jane Bidinger, better known as Mrs. B. This is her happy place.” There was also kind advice: “Rest your legs. Ease your mind. Celebrate this moment.” Was there an implied “because it could be your last if the birds come back” somewhere in there? I like to think not.
Later we ate chowder on a breezy wharf, and as I wandered over to check out a wooden carving of a whale’s tail, Rich said, “Don’t look now, but I think the birds are massing behind you.” Glancing back I saw a dozen or so feathery forms silhouetted against the sun-flecked water. “Not that many,” I said. “I think we could take them on.” All the same, we left soon after. No point in tempting fate.
Why do scary stories claim such a firm grip on our imagination? For a start, they’re exciting, getting our adrenaline pumping while we’re safely ensconced in the comfort of our living room sofa. We know zombies aren’t really about to break down the door, so many of us — especially young people — enjoy the fizzing nerves and heightened awareness.
Also, spooky films serve as dress rehearsals, teaching us the ropes so we feel better equipped to deal with actual emergencies that might arise someday. I often find myself calling out good advice to the clueless characters onscreen. When Taylor and Hedren finish boarding up the windows and gather everyone in the kitchen, I couldn’t believe they didn’t think to equip themselves with defensive weapons. “Grab a broom, you idiots! Don’t you have frying pan? A baseball bat? Anything?”
When real life becomes as scary as Hitchcock’s imagination, these stories help us formulate a survival strategy. In 2020 Contagion became one of the most-watched films in America. Millions thought, “Oh, so that’s how you cope with this stuff.” One survey showed horror fans had less anxiety and greater resilience, finding enjoyment in life despite the catastrophe playing out across the globe. After reading the latest headlines, it helped to be able to turn to your lockdown companion and remark, “Hey, it could be worse. At least we haven't been kidnapped by aliens today!”
Not all horror movies end with the good guys vanquishing evil and restoring order throughout the land. Like real life, these tales can leave us scratching our heads uneasily. At the end of The Birds, the survivors drive away surrounded by feathered hostiles; many view it as an allegory for humans' uneasy relationship with nature. If so, I’ve learned my lesson. Rich and I drove out of Bodega Bay and went directly home to fill our bird feeders. If the avian apocalypse ever comes, at least we'll have a few backyard songbirds on our side.
After I posted this, my friend and long-time reader Alicia Bay Laurel wrote a comment about living in Bodega Bay and designing a t-shirt for The Big Event with a theme of The Birds. She just sent me this delightful photo of her artwork:
What a gem! She also sent this wonderful photo of a child's kite from the same event, with a Birds theme.
Thanks so much, Alicia, for sharing your memories and these great images!
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Why I Spray-Painted My Shoes (Theme Weddings)
Please, Please, Please Don't Ask Me to Sing Karaoke (San Anselmo)
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Why Isn't Anyone Banning My Books (Alameda)
When Pigs Fly (Yes, They Can!) (Sacramento Pig Races)
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The Nutters' Guide to Modern Comfort Food (My Kitchen)
Relationships: Do Humans Stand a Ghost of a Chance? (Hangtown)
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Can Artificial Intelligence Help Me Plan the Next Nutters Tour?
SPRING 2023: THE NUTTERS' TOUR OF SPAIN
Spain Never Runs Out of Offbeat Curiosities (Zaragoza, Barcelona, Tarragona)
I Travel Deep into the Heart of Nuttiness (Palencia & Pamplona)
Road Warriors: Let the Good Times Roar (Léon & Oviedo)
Travel Alert: You Can't Always Get What You Want... (Madrid & Burgos)
Gobsmacked at Every Turn but Embracing the Chaos (Jaén & Valdepeñas)
All Aboard for the Nutters Tour of Spain (Packing & Organizing)
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