Alice stories can and occasionally do end in death (see, e.g., Pan’s Labyrinth). Hitchcock’s Psycho, Chabrol’s Alice, and Lynch’s Inland Empire invoke Alice and Orpheus in equal measure. The name of Henry Sellick’s latest protagonist-in-wonderland, Coraline, sounds like an intentional blending of Orpheus and Alice.
The Alices in flight, those beautiful women alone in their cars on the run – Sylvia Kristel in Alice ou la Dernière Fugue, Candace Hilligoss in Carnival of Souls, and Inger Stevens in “The Hitch-Hiker” episode of The Twilight Zone – recall the most iconic of such women, Janet Leigh as Marion Crane on the run in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Attempting to flee whatever it is that haunts them, they pass from one reality into another. Their collective epitaph could be from John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 1 (quoted in Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim), “I runne to death, and death meets me as fast, and all my pleasures are like yesterday.”
Alice and Orpheus
Don’t ask whether Marion Crane’s descent into Hitchcockian chaos is more like Alice’s descent into Wonderland, or Orpheus’s descent into the Land of the Dead. Alice and Orpheus are two sides of the same archetypal coin.
In stories where someone crosses over into another reality, we are more likely to think of Alice if the protagonist is female, more likely to think of Orpheus if the protagonist is male. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker – about a group that journeys to a mysterious “Zone” – was most often compared to The Wizard of Oz, another archetypal protagonist-in-wonderland story. We tend to think of Alice if the protagonist is moving sideways (into a parallel or dream world) and Orpheus if the character is moving “down” (into a hellish underworld). We are more likely to think of Orpheus in connection with darker or death-related alternate reality stories. But the two concepts are not mutually exclusive. Alice moves both sideways (Through the Looking Glass) and down (to Wonderland, in a book originally titled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground). Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus reaches the Other Side by stepping, like Alice, through a mirror.
Marion in Batesland
For some reason, the shot above of Marion Crane’s boss (Vaughn Taylor) seen by Marion through the windshield of her car has always reminded me of the moment when Alice first sees the White Rabbit. This is the point of no return for Marion, and the moment when Bernard Herrmann’s “Flight” theme starts playing in earnest.
As Marion drives farther and farther away from home, she encounters figures of arbitrary male authority – the cop and “California Charlie” – who recall similar figures in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books (the Dodo, the Caterpillar, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare â€¦).
A blinding thunderstorm is the magical mirror through which Marion passes to reach “the other side of the looking glass,” the Gothic nightmare world of Norman Bates. Norman is the enchanted Prince of this world, always under the spell of an archetypal Evil Sorceress (Mrs. Bates aka “Mother”) who controls him even when not physically present. In this film filled with mirrors and dopplegangers, Norman is the looking glass version of the Prince (John Gavin’s Sam Loomis) whom Marion ran away from in the “real world.”
“Off with her head!” screams the Queen of Hearts (Mrs. Bates), and Marion is swallowed down the rabbit hole forever.