The story is based on the book of the same name, published in the same year, by Morey Bernstein. He was a businessman who developed a fascination with hypnotism. It became something of a hobby and something of a parlor game. On one such occasion he hypnotized a Colorado housewife named Virginia Tighe (to protect her identity in his book and in the movie, she is called Ruth Simmons). Through hypnosis, he took her back in time to her childhood and as an entertaining experiment, tried to see how far back in her conscious he could take her. Unexpectedly, she began to speak of memories of her experiences in the previous century in Ireland, and she spoke with an Irish accent. She identified herself Bridey Murphy, who lived from the late 1700s through the early 1800s. In several hypnotic sessions with him, she told of experiences of her childhood in Ireland, her marriage, and even her death. Bernstein and their circle of friends were astounded. They had stumbled upon, so it seemed, evidence of a case of reincarnation.
Bernstein wrote a book about their sessions and it became a bestseller and spawned a great deal of talk, speculation, and fascination with her story. But since neither were after fame or notoriety, Virginia Tighe preferred to live her life out of the spotlight, for the most part, and Bernstein gave up hypnotism and went back to his business. They both died a few years apart from each other in the 1990s.
Using a cast of predominantly little-known players in a documentary format gives the movie a certain quiet, sober feel that perhaps producers felt added to its authenticity. It allows us to take the subject more seriously than if it were an overblown soap opera plot with a cast of stars.
The movie opens with Louis Hayward standing behind flats on a movie set. He breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience, describing to them what is about to happen. Suddenly, he walks onto the living room set and starts speaking as if the action has started and he is Morey Bernstein. It’s an interesting effect that seems seamless, like the drifting between past and the present in this movie, like the swing from conscious to unconscious, he moves from reality to make believe in an instant and it is kind of a metaphor for what is about to happen.
He is a businessman invited to the home of some friends where he sees a man attempting to hypnotize the lady of the house. It is all in fun and like any nightclub hypnotist of the day, he gets her to do silly things and the other guests at the party laugh. Bernstein thinks it’s all nonsense and he volunteers to be hypnotized but it doesn’t work on him. The doctor, played by Richard Anderson, tells them that not everyone can be hypnotized and this intrigues Bernstein. He learns as much about hypnotism as he can, starts trying it out on other people and finds he has a knack for it. He even helps Richard Anderson in his clinic for people who suffer from disability. Bernstein’s own skepticism tumbles away when he sees that he is able to help people walk, or take away migraine headaches purely by hypnosis. He practices on his own wife and it gives him the courage to practice on other people.
At another house party, a guest talks about another famous case of hypnosis used in medicine by renown clairvoyant Edgar Cayce, who was called The Sleeping Prophet. Cayce had died the previous decade and had become famous for his ability under a hypnotic trance to diagnose the illnesses of people and to describe how they should find a cure. Also, to the Cayce story is the aspect of reincarnation.
When we are told about Edgar Cayce, we are given a flashback scene acting out a very eerie instance where Cayce describes an old-time remedy that even the druggist doesn’t know he still has on his shelf that cures a boy’s leg. Bernstein is so fascinated, he travels to Virginia Beach, Virginia, to meet Cayce’s son Hugh who runs the Edgar Cayce research center. He comes to believe that Cayce was not a fraud. Bernstein still doesn’t believe in reincarnation but he’s very interested in seeing if he can take a person back in time through their subconscious to as far as childhood.
A couple of days later they pick up the session and he takes her back to one-year-old and he audiotapes her conversation with him. Through successive sessions he tries to take her back farther and farther –suddenly we tap into…Bridey Murphy.
Bridey Murphy is four years old and she lives in Cork, Ireland, and Teresa Wright speaks in Bridey’s Irish accent. She is eight years old. She is 15 years old. She is 18 years old in the year 1806. She talks of her family and her childhood experiences with her parents and siblings. The flashbacks occur in a foggy haze with other actresses playing Bridey and her circle. Teresa Wright sings a brief little song a cappella and it is sweet and it is eerie.
Her husband is annoyed, and Bernstein’s wife, played by Nancy Gates, is also a little jealous of their time together. Teresa Wright lies supine, serene under a blanket, her pearl choker nestled against her neck. She is utterly helpless in the hands, psychologically, of Louis Hayward.
We learn about Bridey's life, of her parents, how she married at 20 and lived with her husband in Belfast and had no children. She describes many aspects of what it was like to live in Ireland at that time.
Her husband puts his foot down once again to stop. There is a religious debate with a priest and a minister. The priest, when challenged by the concept of reincarnation as the basis of the Buddhist faith replies, “Any sincere faith manifests its strength by its tolerance of other faiths.” These are noble words to live by and they have a philosophical discussion. At first, Teresa Wright is freaked out by the notion that there is someone else living in her psychic memory, but now she is curious and her husband lets her go ahead. Richard Anderson hovers by, also concerned about some unseen danger that we don’t know. Professors and a publisher take note.
Then we have the death of Bridey Murphy, which is, after all, the point on which reincarnation hinges. A person cannot be reborn unless they first die. Bridey is 66 years old and she breaks a hip. She lingers in bed while her husband takes care of her. He goes to church (there is some discussion of their religions because he is Catholic and she is Protestant) and she has died while he is gone and he was very upset to have not been with her at her death. These are really sad and haunting scenes.
And then Teresa Wright says she is born yet again in America, another person.
Their session stops only after Bridey seems to not want to let go. Bernstein tries to awaken her from her hypnotic sleep but every time he does, gives her the command to wake up, she's still Bridey. Bernstein panics, her husband panics, everyone in the room panics as, time and time, again he orders her to be Mrs. Ruth Simmons but Bridey won’t let go.
It is a sedate and quiet moment in the living room but it is more frightening than any monster movie you’ve ever seen. She keeps speaking in that accent, running over and over again on a frantic loop, her memories as Bridey Murphy. At last, finally, Ruth breaks through and comes back.
The doc says this has to stop. Bernstein is only too happy to stop now; he’s ready to have a nervous breakdown.
A publisher has become interested in the book and the wheels are in motion to print Bernstein’s audio transcripts of his sessions with Teresa Wright. First, however, they must do some checking to see if they can verify the facts as they have come to know them about Bridey Murphy. William J. Barker, who first wrote of the sessions in a series for the Denver Post, plays himself in this movie, and co-wrote the book.
But under the glaring light of celebrity, this is where the fancy crumbles; not in the movie, but in real life.
In the aftermath of the book’s popularity, facts from the transcripts were investigated and it was difficult to find evidence of a Bridey Murphy living in the place and time that was described. Some aspects of her stories were proven but others could not be substantiated. In some circles, the debate continues to this day.
It was discovered that the real Ruth Simmons,/Virginia Tighe, had at least one aunt and also a neighbor, who came from Ireland whom she knew as a very small child and she could have been repeating memories they told her. There were some accusations of this all being a hoax.
However, scientists and psychologists have decided that this really was a case of cryptomnesia, rather than a paranormal experience or a hoax. It was really an equally fascinating aspect of our subconscious that allowed her to remember stories told her from her earliest childhood, that she had forgotten, and that she had subconsciously borrowed. Something had been planted in her memory and she could not control it but lived it through hypnosis as if it had been her own experience.
However, the mournful scenes of a ghostly Bridey Murphy watching her grieving family from beyond are of some of the most powerful in this movie and they don’t seem to be explained by the researchers, so I’m not sure if this was something the writers of the movie threw in, because I have not read the book. Maybe someone can set us straight with an explanation for that.
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century.