What do you feel when you look at a bird? For many people, certain birds evoke an uneasy or even fearful feeling. People living with ornithophobia may even feel absolute terror at the sight of birds.
From our early history to the present day, humans all over the world have shown a strong tendency toward superstitious beliefs. Birds feature prominently in many myths and legends, both as harbingers of doom, symbols of peace, and a variety of other omens.
However, the natural beauty of most avians puts them at odds with any sinister omens. Why then have birds been the subject of such dark themes as horror films and stories? In this article, we’ll be taking a closer look at the role of birds in horror.
From the fearsome lightning bird (Hamerkop) of Africa that was said to drink human blood and lure young maidens to the Barn Owl, which was widely feared in medieval England, birds have been feared as dangerous mythical creatures and forewarnings of death and doom for a very long time.
Their place in folklore has not only been passed down through oral tradition. Poets and writers have immortalized their fear in centuries-old tales. In the 1700s, poet Robert Blair penned ‘ The Grave’ which features a chilling shrieking owl, and then there’s the 1845 classic ‘The Raven’ by American Writer Edgar Allen Poe, about a menacing Raven that visits a grieving man on a cold winter’s night.
Close up of a Barn owl flying at night
Since the invention of motion pictures, birds have featured in various and often sinister roles.
“When he moves, the whole Earth quivers and quakes, and an abyss of horror opens up.” This line from the trailer of ‘Rodan,’ a 1956 Japanese film, sets the scene for a terrifyingly massive ancient bird-like creature with a taste for destruction.
Nine years later, viewers were treated with a far more believable tale. Directed by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock, ‘The Birds’ was released in 1963. It was based on a story written by English author Daphne du Maurier that was published eleven years earlier.
‘The Birds’ is an iconic horror film set in California and follows the story of a group of people in Bodega Bay battling to survive an attack by tens of thousands of birds, including Crows, Gulls, and Sparrows. In the story, birds of various species amass and flock together, attacking and killing several people. Their motivation: revenge against humanity that uses them for their own selfish gain and takes nature for granted.
The film remains popular more than half a century later, although birds are still considered an alternative choice in the horror category. Since ‘The Birds’ was released, birds have been the avian antagonists of many lesser-known films, including titles like ‘Beaks: The Movie’ and ‘Poultrygeist: Night Of The Chicken Dead.’
Alfred Hitchcocks The Birds (1963), Photo by Courtesy of AMPAS
It’s easy to see how something like a werewolf or a giant toothy shark could be effective in a horror story or movie. Birds are pretty harmless creatures, though, so what makes them so scary? Read on as we explore some menacing avian undertones.
There’s something very mysterious about our feathered friends. These creatures of flight are masters of the air and ground, and their superior senses give them a window into the unseen and unknown. Owls, in particular, are feared for their ability to navigate in the dark.
Birds are popular pets and display animals housed in cages and aviaries. There is the perception that such beautiful and mobile creatures should not be confined. More than that, humans farm, hunt, and exploit birds for their feathers, meat, and eggs.
Through this lens, it’s easy to personify birds and see how they may bear a grudge. Perhaps the scariest thing about birds is their abundance. If they were to hold a grudge, we’d be up against quite an army!
Large birds of prey like Eagles are naturally intimidating, with their speed and power, but it is the symbolic Crows, Ravens, and Vultures that are most prevalent in horror. As scavengers, these intelligent birds profit from death and decay.
Vultures are one of the most prevalent birds in horror
In the 21st century, birds continue to play a role in film and television. More than just sinister symbols, birds are often portrayed as full characters, particularly in animated films like ‘Rio’ and ‘Angry Birds.’ However, they have also evolved to play deeper roles in the horror genre.
In the ‘Game Of Thrones,’ a hugely popular fantasy series, Brandon Stark begins having visions and seeing through the eyes of a mysterious three-eyed Raven, eventually going on to become this mystical being. Ironically, Bran is the old Welsh word for crow.
More recently, a horror film called ‘Hatching’ features a family in crisis when a young girl hatches a bird egg that grows into a monstrous creature that goes on to transform into a human-like being.
The Three-eyed Raven from Game of Thrones
Birds don’t only symbolize the dark and mysterious. Some of their calls are also downright creepy and feature in many films and television shows. Hooting Owls, cawing Crows, and the hauntingly beautiful wails of Loons are often used to set the scene and establish ambience in horror scenes.
But why are some bird sounds so scary to us? It could be that the calls of Owls and Crows are easy to identify, so we naturally associate them with their mystical makers.
Other calls trigger our emotions because they sound similar to human sounds of distress, like screeches and cries (Barn Owl calls), or they remind us of real threats, like howling wolves (Common Loon calls) or roaring lions (Ostrich calls) that still act on our instincts, even from the safety of our homes.
Common Loon breaching out of the water
Birds have featured in horror films from all over the planet. ‘Rodan,’ for example, is a Japanese film while ‘Beaks: The Movie’ is Mexican. Bird-themed horrors continue to be created in various countries in the 21st century.
‘The Mamtsotsi Bird,’ a short South African horror film, follows a mythical theme and centers around a bird-like creature that torments a lonely woman. ‘The Hatching,’ a 2022 film, is a Finnish-made movie that was shot in Latvia.
Close up of Rodan
It’s amazing to think that creatures as harmless and beautiful as birds can strike such fear in people from all walks of life. This enduring relationship between bird and man has ancient roots and lives on in the minds of people all over the world, immortalized in centuries-old poems and modern-day movies.
It could be their spooky calls, their advanced senses, or their association with darkness and death that causes the widespread superstitions and fears around birds.
One thing is for sure - they certainly make good subjects for horror stories. Keep an eye out for new features and series as this interesting horror genre continues to evolve.
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