Ghosted Lesbians in Rebecca and The Uninvited

The plot of both Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940) and The Uninvited (Lewis Allen, 1944) contain references and themes of sex perversion, as analyzed by author Rhona J. Berenstein in Adaptation, Censorship, and Audiences of Questionable Type: Lesbian Sightings in “Rebecca” (1940) and “The Uninvited” (1944). Both of these films include the haunting by a lesbian-coded character on the living. Berenstein explores the idea that these characters, in these disembodied states, act as metaphors for lesbianism. Both of these films use ghost stories and hauntings to explore a narrative about female desire.

In Rebecca (1940) it is clear to follow the “unconventional” relationships the eponymous character shared in her life. The housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, is one of the main antagonists of the film, her being portrayed as evil codes her to be a lesbian. An interesting part of this film is Rebecca being defended at one point for having not been gay because she supposably shared a romantic incestuous relationship with her cousin, Jack Favell, played by George Sanders. Sanders is illustrious for having played characters that were coded to be queer, and in some films, he played characters who initiated beard relationships as to conceal one or both characters’ sexual orientation. In All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950), Sanders character, Addison Dewitt, proposes one of these relationships with the eponymous lesbian-coded character of the film. His character Jack Favell demonstrates the same qualities which code him to be queer in Rebecca (1940). His character Jack Favell being villainous is another indicator of him being queer. I don’t think it is at all an extreme assumption that this character most likely shared a beard relationship with Rebecca. 

In The Uninvited (1944) the relationship between the orphan, Stella, and her deceased mother, Mary Meredith, serves as the main force in the narrative. Stella’s desire for her mother and the home she haunts overshadows her heterosexual romance with Rick. To interpret this maternal relationship as lesbian would seem rather Freudian, even though Stella’s mother is revealed to not be Mary Meredith, but Carmel, her father’s Spanish mistress. Berenstein argues that this is not the case: “In fact, it seems that lesbian relationships are not manifestations of love for the mother so much as the relationship to ‘the mother’ is a cover or representational idiom for lesbianism” (Berenstein, 22). The maternal relationship is only a symbol for lesbian desire rather than a manifestation. In gay history, this has a social and legal manifestation. 

The phenomenon of same-sex adult adoption, when same-sex marriage was unavailable, is when gay people would adopt their adult partners in order to have legal protections. Gay adult adoption is described by writer Elon Green as “an artifact of an earlier societal paradigm that, in a remarkably short period of time, has come to seem inconceivable.” It was an enticing option for gay couples to have their relationship validated in the eye of the law that offered federal protections. In this case, for lesbians that went through adult adoption as an alternative to marriage, the maternal relationship became a cover for their relationship.

While watching The Uninvited (1944) I understood that Miss Holloway and Mary Meredith were coded to have had a queer relationship. These characters were very clearly coded to be lesbians because they are shown to be evil, and one of them is dead. Miss Holloway keeps a portrait of Mary Meredith in her office and regularly speaks to it, along with other portraits of her, throughout the movie. In one scene she tells Mary Meredith’s portrait “they shan’t ever find out, my darling, I promise you.” She calls her spirit and endearing term, and speaks to her as a romantic partner, and she promises to keep the truth secret even after one of them is dead. Mary Meredith is shown in the film to be different from societal expectations of women because she didn’t give birth to Stella, and is shown as unmotherly for trying to murder her. These different facets of her character show her to be unnatural and unfeminine, coding her to be queer. 

Film critic Michael Koresky once wrote that  “The Uninvited, like so many sexually cryptic films of the classical Hollywood era, is by turns transgressive and traditional, but as a ghost story it’s an especially perfect vessel for a queer love story: it’s all about the viewer’s perception” (Koresky). The film can share a queer love story without needing to be so forward. 

Before the debut of the film, Paramount had an advertisement in Motion Picture Herald that read, “from the most popular mystery romance since ‘Rebecca,’ Paramount has made a superbly beautiful and thrilling picture of a strangely haunting love” (21). These words are interesting because haunting love in this film is the romance shared between Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers, the head housekeeper, or with Mrs. de Winter, not the males lead. The haunter and the haunted in both films are women. While Maxim. de Winter could be argued to be haunted too, Rick does not have any emotional attachment to Mary Meredith. The film was not just marketed as similar to Rebecca, but was shaped in its image. The opening shots of the two films are nearly identical, both of a cliff over the ocean, one in France, and one in Cornwall. The opening sequence of Rebecca is an attempted suicide by Maxim into the ocean we later learn Rebecca drowned in. By emulating this shot The Uninvited is alluding to death on the cliff, which is revealed to be the place Mary Meredith died, linking the two women. 

The lesbians portrayed in these films exist being the antagonist, female desire can be shown in both of these narratives because one of the parties in each relationship is dead. In both films, these characters have living partners who play the antagonist who devote their lives to them. “The lesbian is not only a ghostly figure of representation, but she is ghosted as well” (Berenstein, 22). The haunting character is a disembodied figure of the subject within society, a metaphor for the lesbian who is invisible but present.

Works Cited

Allen, Lewis. The Uninvited. 1944.

Berenstein, Rhona. Adaptation, Censorship, and Audiences of Questionable Type: Lesbian Sightings in “Rebecca” (1940) and “The Uninvited” (1944). Cinema Journal. 1998.

Green, Elon The Lost History of Gay Adult Adoption. 19 October 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/19/magazine/the-lost-history-of-gay-adult-adoption.html

Hitchcock, Alfred. Rebecca. 1940. 

Koresky, Michael. Queer & Now & Then: 1944. Film Comment. 23 October 2019. https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/queer-now-then-1944/

Motion Picture Herald, 1 January 1944. 

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