How ‘Cape Fear’ got its name

Last weekend, driving to the Burren in County Clare (just south of Galway, where I live, and an endlessly interesting place to explore), a friend and I picked up the relevant Ordinance Survey map to get a better sense of the terrain.

Maps are a reliable source of pleasure, firing the imagination as we pore over their flattened geography, their special codes and symbols. Digital maps are ubiquitous now, but I still love to use paper maps when the opportunity arises.

Photo of the Clare landscape, with hills in the distance, green fields and hedgerows and mixed forest in the middle-ground, and patches of granite in the foreground, at the edge of Mullaghmore. The sky is bright and cloudy.

View of Co. Clare from Mullaghmore (‘Great Summit’ or ‘Big Summit’)

The Burren is famous for its unique ecology and its karst limestone landscape, which originated in the activity of sea creatures millions of years ago. After returning to sea level, I revisited the map, scouting for names and places of interest for future trips. The next day, I learned that this is essentially how Cape Fear got its name.

Gregory Peck, who stars in the 1962 adaptation of John MacDonald’s novel The Executioners, was also a producer on the film, his company teaming up with that of Robert Mitchum, who plays his antagonist. (Both stars, and character actor Martin Balsam, would be given cameo roles in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 version.) In a making-of documentary on the DVD, Peck recalls how he named the film:

Gregory Peck, with grey hair and beard, wearing a green cardigan and dark polo-neck, sits indoors and talks about Cape Fear. Image from the making-of documentary on the Cape Fear DVD.The Executioners, I thought, was a kind of a turn-off of a title. And I think I had the idea that geographical titles were sometimes successful. You know, like Casablanca, Dodge City. And it occurred to me to run my finger up the Atlantic coast, from Florida on north, and look for an interesting title. And I was lucky enough to discover Cape Fear, the Cape Fear River in North Carolina, and it seemed extremely appropriate for our story.

It was. When I first heard of the film, I didn’t know if the title was geographical or figurative, and it hardly mattered: its sparse syllables conjured up just the right elements for a punchy psychological thriller. I can only imagine Peck’s satisfaction when his roving finger reached those words on the map.

I saw Scorsese’s film first, on a ferry to France for a school exchange, our parents hundreds of miles away. The boat’s isolation and erratic movement deeply enhanced the film experience, especially its stormy climax. The French title, Les Nerfs à vif, which adorned the posters on the ferry, didn’t have the same effect at all on us giddy teens.

Leaving the Burren, my friend and I headed east across Clare and stopped at the ruins of Kilmacduagh, which include a c.7thC monastery and a tall (and visibly leaning) 12thC round tower, with a single door 7m off the ground. It looked imposing under the gathering rainclouds: Had it been named after a certain river rather than the son of an Irish chieftain, it would not have seemed altogether inappropriate.

Foreground shows a roughly built stone wall, angled right; behind it is a lush green field. At the far end of the field stand the ruins of Kilmacduagh monastery and its round tower, looking imposing under dark-grey rainclouds

Round tower at Kilmacduagh monastery, Co. Clare

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8 Responses to How ‘Cape Fear’ got its name

  1. Greg Pringle says:

    Captain Cook liked to give names like this: Mount Warning, Point Danger, Cape Tribulation, Repulse Bay, Weary Bay, Cape Flattery, Mount Upstart, Thirsty Sound. Deception Bay was named by John Oxley, who originally named it Pumice Stone River because he thought it was a river. When he found it was a bay he changed the name to Deception Bay.

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