Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities
11×08: “The Murmuring”
Directed & Written
by Jennifer Kent
* For a recap & review of 11×07, click here.
It’s 1951. Nancy Bradley (Essie Davis) gives a lecture on the dunlin. She talks about their impressive flight patterns, as well as their uncanny, near telepathic communication powers that still mystify researchers. She mentions “mysterious concepts like natural telepathy” and that they’re hard at work still trying to decipher how exactly the dunlins communicate so well as to fly in massive flocks without collision or anything of the sort. After Nancy’s done she has her husband Edgar (Andrew Lincoln) play footage he’s captured of the dunlins and their amazing formations. During a reception afterwards, people talk about the Bradleys’ work, as well as all they’ve “been through,” suggestive of tragedy in the couple’s past. When someone asks Nancy what she loves most about birds, she replies “their freedom,” being able to fly off anywhere they want at any given notice.
The ornithologist couple are headed for a getaway to a remote country house where they’re planning to do more study. The house itself is more like a mansion. Inside are many old photographs from years gone by. The Bradleys settle in and quickly prepare to get to work. They setup their audio and visual equipment along the shoreline, as a huge flock of birds settles nearby on a sandbar while others fly into the distance. As the sun sets, Edgar and Nancy capture magnificent audio and video while the dunlins flock in their strange yet beautiful formations (a.k.a murmurations).
The couple go to bed, and though Edgar tries to get intimate Nancy wants to go to sleep. There’s an unease between the two still after whatever tragedy struck them; obvious without words. During the night, Nancy can’t sleep. Then she hears a crying baby and footsteps in the hall. She pretends it’s only in her head. Suddenly the audio equipment starts playing downstairs, startling the couple out of bed. They’re all but ready to go back out to work, so a little later, still dark out, they head for the shore again.Nancy’s a bit solitary throughout the day, not working with her husband as closely. She goes back to the house to work more on the audio, and also to start dinner. While she works there are more footsteps in the hallways. It’s only so long before Nancy can’t ignore it; the sounds aren’t just in her head, it seems. She hears someone running around. But then Edgar turns up, interrupting Nancy and whatever ghosts are kicking around that house. When he leaves the room for a second there are more noises, as faint baby cries are heard in the background.
The couple spend the evening having a drink and talking more about BIRDS, of course! Edgar throws on some music and does a little dancing for his wife. Then the two of them dance a bit. Yet it just makes Nancy feel melancholy. “You‘re never in the mood,” Edgar says. And silence falls over the couple for the night. In bed, it’s more tossing and turning for Nancy whereas Edgar sleeps soundly. She also hears more running footsteps in the hall, though doesn’t dare get out of bed. A loud banging frightens Nancy, forcing her further under the bed’s covers. But it only continues, so she finally goes to check and sees an open door banging against the wall. She sees a set of stairs inside and goes up into the attic to find a bunch of dunlins perched in an open hole in the roof.
The attic dunlins fascinate Nancy. She rushes to her husband and brings him upstairs. They setup their equipment, amazed at dunlins nesting anyplace so high, particularly an attic in a house. A convenient place for the Bradleys to study their interest, too. They’ve got a built-in dunlin nest. While Edgar films outside, Nancy records sound inside. She hears the familiar whistle of her husband, the one they used to communicate over the radio, but he’s not even inside. The whistle changes a bit, sending Nancy to check for him and finding nobody. She goes back upstairs, listening to some of the audio, and part of the recording sounds strange, like a hissing of air, followed by an odd tone and a child’s voice saying: “I‘m so cold.” Except when Nancy plays Edgar the tape, he doesn’t seem to hear any of that, only noting that the birds sound “more melancholy.” She plays it back for herself again and doesn’t hear it, either. Edgar suggests she’s just overtired, or maybe she reused an old tape. This only makes Nancy angry.
The dunlins leave the attic now, so the Bradleys go back to the shore the next day to do more work capturing audio and video of the dunlins murmurations. That evening, Nancy reads more about dunlins, noting to Edgar that there’s no other instance of dunlins nesting in a human structure. She wonders whether the dunlins were drawn to that house specifically. She’s also curious about the family in the photos on the walls, and why all the furniture and everything in the house was left after they were gone. But Edgar doesn’t have time to care about such things. He tries to get intimate with Nancy again and she pushes him away. She’s still damaged by the loss of their child. That night, Nancy hears the ghostly boy again: “I‘m so cold.” She yells out, waking Edgar, but says she only had a bad dream and tries to go back to sleep.The following morning, Nancy has a look around the house herself. She sees embroidery with FREEDOM on it, depicting a woman and a flock of birds flying off almost out of her hand. It strikes Nancy as a strange coincidence because of what she always says about birds and freedom. Edgar says it’s a natural thing people feel about birds. But Nancy feels close to the woman on the tapestry, living in that big house and feeling isolated. She believes the women “felt trapped” there, like she does.
That night, Nancy wakes to the sounds of a baby next to the bed. She calls the baby Ava; more clues that Nancy and Edgar lost a baby at some point in the recent past. Then another small hand reaches up behind her. She turns but no one’s there. And baby Ava’s gone, too. Nancy goes downstairs and hears noise, including the baby. She finds a bunch of letters strewn across the floor. She reads one, discovering a man writing to his sweetheart, talking about leaving his wife but never actually leaving his wife.
Nancy tells Edgar about the letters, but he thinks it’s foolish. He considers it might be an invasion of privacy while she believes those people are dead and so it wouldn’t matter anyway. He suggests “some people” find ghosts in old houses, and she takes offence to that, especially after Edgar says she’s more interested in those peoples’ lives than her own work. Nancy’s fought hard as an academic against patriarchal nonsense and doesn’t appreciate Edgar’s implications. Meanwhile, the birds have returned to the attic and Nancy starts recording more audio. In the evening, Nancy hears the crying boy again, then she sees him weeping nearby and soaked in water. She goes downstairs after the boy, then he turns to her revealing a bloated, dead face, and she turns away in terror.
Moments later, a dunlin flies inside the house and breaks its neck.
While Nancy takes a bath she hears an unsettling moaning sound, then somebody starts pounding on the bathroom door. She also hears the boy again, too, then sees him under the bath’s water. The door opens and a woman comes flying through, screaming: “What did you do?” It rightly terrifies Nancy, which alerts Edgar. She tells him about what she saw, though he clearly doesn’t believe her. They get to talking about their personal tragedy, leading to an argument over emotions. Nancy decides it’s better just to go to bed.
Next morning, same routine: go to the shore and film/capture audio. The distance between the Bradleys is obvious as they stand apart on the beach. When Mr. Grieves shows up with more supplies, he gets asked by Nancy about the people who lived in the house. She tells him about “odd things” she’s seen, asking why the woman who lived there stayed on the island alone with her son. Mr. Grieves explains that the boy drowned and the mother killed herself. Then he says he doesn’t “believe in ghosts,” in spite of many others claiming they’ve seen things at the house.
Nancy tells Edgar she’s seen and heard the woman and her son in the house. Edgar ridicules her, saying he’s seen “no ghosts or goblins” since they’ve arrived. It leads into more talk about their tragedy, the loss of their child Ava. Edgar wants to know why Nancy hasn’t cried since their child died, and Nancy wants to know why she has to grieve in a certain way for it to be legitimate. He’s angry that she seems more sad about the family of that house than about Ava. He’s nearly on the verge of saying divorce when the conversation is finished.
In the early morning, Nancy’s alone after Edgar goes out to work. She hears noises again. She finds the boy running away from his mother, and the ghostly mother comes screaming out of the shadows. Nancy locks herself in one of the rooms trying to escape, yelling at the mother to leave the boy alone. She then hears the boy crying in the dark, scared of his angry mother. Nancy attempts to console the boy and tells him: “You were hurt, and you‘re not alive anymore.” She assures the boy he was “the perfect child,” as the boy wails about the cold and the darkness. Nancy urges the boy to come into the light and take her hand. And when the boy runs into the light he disappears. Now, finally, Nancy cries.
But then the ghostly mother screams again.
Nancy goes to the attic and finds the woman at the window grieving what she’s done. The woman steps back and falls over the edge. Although Nancy sees nothing when she goes to the window. The dunlins fly away into the sky before they fly back down, circling around Nancy as she stands outside the house. It’s almost as if the birds and Nancy share something in this moment. Nancy then calls Edgar on the radio to apologise. She breaks down a bit and says she’s “been so lost.” They express their love for one another, then Nancy says she wants to talk about their daughter.