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The Gothic Undead: a 20th-Century Interpretation(26 May 2015)
By Ms Emily Zarka
Diving in the 1900s, I present to you Rebecca, a 1940 Hitchcock classic with a supernatural Gothic twist on the traditional romance. Winner of two Academy Awards the black and white film, based on a 1938 novel of the same name written by Daphne du Maurier, tells the story of a young woman as she falls in love with and eventually marries a wealthy widower. This protagonist’s name is never mentioned in the film, automatically setting a tone of displacement for the audience. Her new husband, Maximillian “Maxim” de Winter is controlling, prone to anger, and patronizing to his new bride. Oh, and he killed his first wife, or so it seems.
Like all good Hitchcock films, there are many twists along the way, and as the narrative unfolds, we learn that the first Mrs. De Winter’s, the titular Rebecca, while intensely admired, was far more complex than she appeared. * As her secrets are revealed, her death becomes increasing complicated. I won’t give away the ending because you should watch it yourself (seriously, it’s a fantastic, beautifully crafted film), but I will briefly summarize how Rebecca functions in the story, particularly in relation to the unnamed protagonist. Discussions of the Gothic elements that maneuver Hitchcock’s first American project are essential to understanding its motives, and the construction of the mythical Rebecca.
Even in the opening credits the audience knows that this will not be a simple love story. The first image that appears on the screen is of a foggy wood accompanied by disarming, ominous music, but both the music and the lightning quickly shift to something brighter, a disarming shift that foreshadows the events of the film. Like many Gothic texts, Rebecca begins with a dream. Mrs. De Winter gives a voiceover where she describes returning to the great de Winter’s estate, Manderley, and walks through its closed gate using supernatural powers. The mansion itself is the perfect Gothic setting. Seemingly ancient, the large stone manor is encloses by large, overgrown trees and bordered by a sea, which is constantly in a state of turmoil. Almost always shrouded in a deluge of rain, Manderley is a character itself. Full of dark, unseen rooms, large staircases, familial portraits and an absolute plethora of servants (the better to spy on you with, my dear), it is not hard to see how the naïve new wife of its master feels at immediately uneasy—a sensation shared by the viewer.
(Manderely as first seen by the audience)
Some consider this film a ghost story, despite the lack of any spectral phenomenon. I would like to argue that although untraditional, Rebecca functions as an undead text. Yes, there is no physical or ethereal construction of a human body; Rebecca occupies a space between life and death.
There are tangible reminders of Rebecca everywhere in Manderley. The morning room Mrs. de Winter is meant to spend her days in has stationary with Rebecca’s initials on them. The handkerchief her husband carries, the jacket he gives her to wear, the menus she eats—all were originally Rebecca’s. And that is made very clear to Mrs. de Winter, whether it’s through embroidered initials or constant reminders from the servants.
(Rebecca's stationary in Mrs. de Winter's morning room)
Most troubling however, is Rebecca’s bedroom, left untouched and preserved since the night she died. Lovingly tended to by Rebecca’s personal maid and current housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, the cavernous room is more beautiful decorated and much larger than the room assigned to the current Mrs. de Winter. The new bride receives a tour of Rebecca’s intimate space from Mrs. Danvers whom forces her to lie on the bed, touch her predecessor’s lingerie, and essentially confront the sexuality the deceased woman.
(Entering Rebecca's boudoir)
All of the expensive, monogramed tokens belonging to Rebecca overwhelm Mrs. de Winter, as well as the viewer. There is something crypt-like about the solemn stone mansion by the sea, with its dark rooms full of the dead. Although Rebecca’s corpse doesn’t appear until much later in the movie, and it never reanimates, Hitchcock approaches the undead through the more elusive and ephemeral power of suggestion. While this text challenges even my own definition of the undead, evocative objects replace the lack of a corporeal resurrected body. I would classify Rebecca’s belonging as relics in every sense of the word. As the Oxford English Dictionary defines the term, a relic is “a previous or valuable object of thing, esp. a sacred ornament,” or “something kept as a remembrance, souvenir, or memorial; a historical object relating to a particular person, place, or thing; a memento.” In the Christian Church, the physical remains can be a body part of “a thing believed to be sanctified by contact with the owner” (OED). All of Rebecca’s things are seen as sacred, and are worshipped as such. These “physical remains” hold no other value other than that she once touched them, wore them, called them her own. The inhabitants of Manderley seem to believe that she exists still through these objects.
Perhaps then it is unsurprising that Mrs. Danvers tells her new mistress “Sometimes when I walk along the corridor, I fancy I hear her step.” Referring to the hallway outside of Rebecca’s bedroom/shrine, Mrs. Danvers (in all her lunatic devotion) thinks that she is keeping the woman alive by keeping her relics in the house. She even asks Mrs. de Winter, “Do you think the dead come back to the watch the living?” Rebecca is undead because of the living’s inability to forget her. She is kept alive not only in memory but in a physical place. Unlike a haunting, where the ghost returns to the physical world on its own accord or because of some inability to cross over, this type of undead monster exists because it is demanded. Rebecca does not “rise up” from her grave physically, but the memory of her is never buried and can never be buried.
Hitchcock presents a decidedly unique take on the undead, the haunted house, and the Gothic with Rebecca. His work with this film reflects the continually changing culture of the 1900s aided by advances in technology and cultural thought. As people began to live longer, the threat of the living dead becomes more tangible, literally, both in the shambling bodies of the elderly, and the growing accumulation of material goods in an ever expanding consumer culture. Rebecca masterfully offers social commentary in the guise of a Gothic thriller that paves the way for more metaphorical constructions of the undead.
* In order to keep the two wives straight, I will refer to the Maxim’s first wife Rebecca de Winter by her forename only (Rebecca), and his unmanned second spouse as Mrs. de Winter.