Sci/Tech

Hitchcock horror mystery possibly solved

Scientists have finally found an explanation to the real events that inspired Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 classic “The Birds.”

Horror movies aren’t known for having the most believable plotlines. A deranged dream invader with knives on his fingers definitely strikes fear in the audience, but in a purely fictitious setting. For modern-day moviegoers, a classic like Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” where flocks wreak havoc on a coastal town in California, might seem even more distanced from reality. But Hitchcock drew inspiration for the film from a bizarre occurrence in the 1960s – which couldn’t be explained until now, reports USA Today.

Two years before Hitchcock’s film was released, swarms of dying seabirds pelted themselves against homes in normally sunny and carefree Monterey Bay, California. Locals awoke around 3 a.m. one summer morning to a horrific shower of birds. “When the light of day made the area visible, residents found the streets covered with birds,” the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported in August, 1961. “The birds disgorged bits of fish and fish skeletons over the streets and lawns and housetops, leaving an overpowering fishy stench.”

Hitchcock, who owned a house close to the beach community, contacted the Sentinel a few days later to request a copy of the story for a film he was planning based on the British novel, “The Birds,” which Daphne Du Maurier had penned ten years before. Was the connection between fact and fiction a strange stroke of fate, or a coincidental phenomenon?

Sibel Bargu, an ocean environmentalist from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, may have found the missing the link. “I am pretty convinced that the birds were poisoned,” Bargu told USA Today. For a study published in the current issue of Nature Geoscience, Bargu lead a team of scientists through a Hitchcock-like detective story. While inspecting samples from the stomachs of turtles and seabirds gathered from Monterey Bay in 1961, the team discovered toxic algae in almost 80% of the plankton the animals ingested.

The most potent toxin in the algae acts like a natural nerve agent on birds, disorienting many species and causing seizures and eventually death. In 1987, a similar toxin was found in mussels on Canada’s Prince Edward Island, where four people died and around 100 were hospitalized after eating the seafood, according to ABC News.

"This is the most compelling evidence so far that there's a direct link," Raphael Kudela, a plankton expert at the University of Southern California, told USA Today. In a separate study in 2008, Kudela and a team of researchers suggested the toxin could have been behind the crazed birds in 1961, but the study lacked a clear connection. Researchers previously believed the toxic algae was fed by farm fertilizers, but Kudela argued that leaky septic tanks, installed during a Monterey Bay housing boom at the start of the 1960s, may have been the cause. This line of reasoning has a very Hitchcock feel to it, as if the Master of Suspense has somehow come back from the grave to add a few finishing touches to his repertoire.

By mail.com Editor Will Cade

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