Queer Horror 101: Rebecca (1940)

Hello everyone and welcome to my series on queer horror throughout the years, Queer Horror 101! We’ll cover a variety of movies and topics, and spoilers will abound so be warned.

The plot of Alfred Hitchcock’s gothic masterpiece Rebecca (1940) is so famous it almost isn’t worth describing, but for the uninitiated the movie follows an unnamed protagonist who becomes the second wife of the rich and handsome Maxim de Winter after meeting him while she is working as a lady’s companion. They have a whirlwind romance and return to his ancestral home Manderley, at which point the second Mrs. de Winter finds herself sucked into a nightmare. A naive and very nervous young woman from a respectable but more modest background, she struggles to navigate the social complexities of her new role in life. Worse still, she feels haunted by the first Mrs. de Winter, the beautiful and witty Rebecca of the title, who apparently everyone loved and no one could find fault with—unlike our awkward heroine. Her new husband is mercurial and strange, thrilled by her in one moment and cold and biting in the next. And then there’s Mrs. Danvers, the grim and angular housekeeper who is still savagely loyal to the memory of Rebecca and doesn’t seem to like the idea of this interloper taking her place…

So those are the bare bones of the story. It’s the stuff much of gothic fiction is made of, but like all gothic fiction the real story is in the subtext—and the subtext in Rebecca is as blatantly queer as it was going to get in 1940. The psychosexual undertones are a huge part of why this movie is so good at what it does, even as they’re often uncomfortable to watch and even homophobic. It’s the complicated question of representation, years before there really was any such thing. Mrs. Danvers’ thwarted love for Rebecca may have twisted her into an awful shape, but it also feels real to me.

Joan Fontaine gives a wonderful, terribly vulnerable performance as our nameless heroine. She’s as transparent as a plane of glass and about as breakable, following Maxim around with all her adoration of him in glowing in her face, begging for his attention. Her shoulders are in a permanently apologetic hunch. She’s already been told that she isn’t good enough for him by her former employer, her new marriage gives every appearance of being sexless, and then she falls under the sway of an older woman with a much more powerful personality than her own. A woman who takes her on a tour of Rebecca’s fantastic ice cave of a bedroom (the shades of silver here make me miss black and white film) and takes special care to show off her former mistresses underthings, stroking them like they’re the skin of her beloved. Who demonstrates the sheerness of Rebecca’s lingerie by putting her own hand under it.

It sounds like the outline to a lesbian pulp novel, but the subtext in this film doesn’t quite work like that. It’s unclear if Danvers— or “Danny” as Rebecca used to call her— were ever lovers, but if I was to guess I would guess that they weren’t. Rather Mrs. Danvers appears to use the men in Rebecca’s life as proxies for her own feelings. “He [Maxim] doesn’t love you” she tells the second Mrs. de Winter, trying to talk her into leaping from the bedroom window, “he wants to be alone again with her.” Joan Fontaine reacts as if hypnotised, snapped out of her stupor only by the sound of a flare gun outside. “Why shouldn’t she have her fun?” she says later at an inquest into Rebecca’s death, referring to Rebecca’s affair with her cousin Jack (played with delicious caddishness by George Sanders). When she finds out that Maxim is suspected of murdering Rebecca her face goes rigid with rage and grief. Bad enough that she be dead, but for it to be the responsibility of one of these men, the men they used to laugh at together? Intolerable.

But there’s another shock coming for Mrs. Danvers, and it’s one that she won’t survive: that Rebecca had been diagnosed with cancer, and perhaps wanted to die after all. That she didn’t bother to tell Danny, or turn to her for comfort. That she left her all alone on purpose. “Well, I guess she fooled us both,” Jack says to Mrs. Danvers, making it clear that they weren’t really that special to Rebecca, just a couple of her playthings like everyone else. Danvers has built her entire life around Rebecca. All she has left is her memory, and now even that is tarnished. The same truth which sets Maxim and the second Mrs. de Winter free destroys Mrs. Danvers. She sets Manderley aflame. Judith Anderson glides like a cobra through the halls of the building—here is an actress that knows what to do with her silhouette—but in her final scene she jerks around like a malfunctioning robot. She opens her arms and raises them towards the crumbling, burning ceiling as it falls in, embracing the inevitable.