So, a brief glance at my blog informs me that I haven’t written in almost two months. Since I like to post a weekly post, that should be some indicator about how well I’m juggling my time this semester (translation: not well at all.) However, Spring Break has (happily) descended upon me, and with Spring Break comes at least a little time to breath, and some horror-movie filled nights. Now, I’ll credit Michael: Invasion of the Body Snatchers was actually his idea. We were strolling the video store, when he mentioned the title. However, this turned out to be a fortuitous idea. More than some of the other films we’ve watched over break, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a fairly rich film that yields a lot of fun, exciting stuff to write about. In fact, I have many pages of notes, so I’m not sure where I’ll start. We shall find out!
First, a bit of a plot background – if that’s even necessary, because the film’s incredibly canonical, so you might know a little about it. We watched the 1956 version of the film, in which Dr. Miles J. Bennell, who lives in a small town (Santa Mira, to be precise) begins to hear people mention strange events. Ultimately, he and his friends, including romantic in interest Becky Driscoll, learn that small plant pods (from outer space, no less) are giving birth to duplicate bodies of individuals on earth, and consuming the original bodies’ thoughts and memories, replacing the old human with a new, emotion-less version of the individual. The Dr. and Becky are ultimately the only two humans left in Santa Mira, and they must stay awake, lest they be taken over by the body snatchers. (Spoiler alert to follow): Becky falls asleep and doesn’t make it (sigh, we women are so pathetic). But our valiant Dr. Bennell has escaped Santa Mira by the end of the film and is raving to a group of doctors in a neighboring town, who soon discover that the plant pods are descending upon them, too.
The obvious allegory at play – and I’m sure this is on every website that writes about the movie, making the beginning of this post painfully non-unique – is McCarthyism. Joseph McCarthy professed to know of 250 “card carrying communists” (he was a man of astounding alliteration) in 1950, six years before this film, thus provoking one of many rudely titled “red scares.” I won’t pretend I know more about this than I do, but I know some people were afraid that communism was first, hidden, and second, spreading rapidly, similar to the monstrous doppelgangers in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There is the persistent fear in Invasion that the person who you see on the outside isn’t really the person you’re interacting with, that their monstrosity is hidden, the way communism would have been seen as a hidden monstrosity by some individuals in the 1950’s. And because individuals’ monstrosities are hidden in the film, by the time the main character and others are aware of what’s going on, that monstrosity has “spread” and consumed that which is human, the way some people might have been afraid communism would spread if unchecked. Of course, the troubling implication of this allegory is that communists are equated with inhuman monsters. I don’t know that such thoughts reflected the ethos of the mid-50’s, but it probably reflected the fears of some individuals.
There is, after all – in a similar way to the film The Thing – a sense of paranoia throughout the film, and a mounting tension that’s easy to sense as the film progresses. More than once, characters mention that so much has happened so quickly in the world lately that anything is possible. Indeed, this film would have been made only 11 years after the end of World War II and the dropping of the atomic bomb, two horrifying events that would have made anything seem possible – and not in a positive way. The atomic bomb was a primary symbol that human beings had gotten way to powerful, but the level of destruction and power it evoked probably made people feel relatively powerless. And that fear of human vulnerability – especially in the face of unknown innovation – is also prevalent in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The film resonates with the lingering anxiety that was likely a hallmark of the times.
Indeed, in many ways the film is a quintessentially 50’s film. It takes place in one small town, and we only slightly move out of that small town toward the end of the film. Interestingly, the town’s name (which is Spanish) is Santa Mira. “Mira” in Spanish means (he/she/it) looks, which is appropriate for a film so obsessed with the difference between appearance and reality, and the frightening possibility that a well-constructed human façade can hide utter, impenetrable monstrosity. We meet the small-town doctor, the small-town nurse, the pretty girl, and the police officer. Much of the film takes place in the suburbs, and to a large extent, 50’s fashion is certainly prevalent: lots of cardigans and big skirts.
However, there are also some really subversive elements of the film that I wouldn’t associate, at all, with the 1950’s. When Becky Driscoll arrives on the scene, we learn that she’s just come home from five years in London. She’s oddly scantily clad (in a shirt with no shoulders) and she looks far too glamorous and worldly for the small town she’s visiting. Her marital status is a definite ellipses in the plot, signaling a disjuncture between the plot and the story. In the film’s plot, Becky and Dr. Bennell develop a romance, a narrative that weaves into the narrative about the pods falling from outer-space and taking over human beings. But subtle references in the plot indicate that the story, the part of the film we don’t see, includes a marriage or former marriage for Becky, and a former marriage for Dr. Bennell. All of this is to say that at best, two formerly married individuals (both of whom may have been divorced) are experiencing a romance in this film, an element of the film that would have been subversive enough for the 1950’s. If Becky is married (certain comments lead the individual to think so) then they’re having an affair, which of course is even more scandalous.
An affair is especially scandalous because the film is obsessed by what it means to be “human,” and holds that which is human to a perhaps ironically, fallaciously high standard. The film evokes, first of all, a definite fear of “losing one’s humanity,” as the word “humanity” is used frequently. Toward the end of the film, one of the bodies hatched from the pod – one of the monstrous doubles – proclaims that life is much easier without all those human emotions like “love, desire, ambition, faith,” even as Becky cries and says she’d die before she’d live in a world without those things. The film thus seems to make definite assumptions about what it means to be human and to celebrate so-called humanity, even as Dr. Bennell and Becky’s complicated romance sheds light on human imperfection and the complications that can come from human emotions. The monsters are seen as monsters because they are emotion-less, suggesting that monstrosity stems from a lack of affect. Emotion is equated with the human in this film. Still, further confusion about what it means to be human is underscored when Becky and Dr. Bennell hear beautiful music coming from outside the tunnel they’re hiding in. They assume a sound so striking could only be made by humans, but they look outside the tunnel to find the pod people passing plant pods and creating such music, thus emphasizing the fact that it’s hard to pin down exactly what is “human” and what is “inhuman,” and suggesting that sometimes what is actually inhuman or “monstrous” may surprise us. Indeed, the beautiful music that Becky and the Dr. hear is very emotional, possibly undercutting the assumption that the pod people are completely emotionless.
Of course, the monstrous double, or the evil doppelganger, is a trope as old as time in the literary genre (see Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for example). There is, of course, something particularly troubling about monsters to the American psyche, and this trouble only amplifies when the monster looks exactly like us. We begin to glimpse a crisis of embodiment, as the monster flaunts about, nonchalantly, daring to wear our skin. We expect our monsters to look hideous, so when the “monstrous double” is an amalgam of a monster, and of us, we’re all the more troubled. There is something even more hideous, more disturbing, about a monster who looks like us or our next-door neighbor. In the film, certain individuals know that there is something “different” about their family members, but they can’t quite place what it is. Like the dead bodies who will be resurrected thirty years later in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, the pod bodies are simultaneously like the person (if we Mira, or look, they look like the person) and not the person at all.
And of course, as with most films like this, the shortcoming of our general human ontology and positivist science are underscored. It’s a familiar trope: there are always a few individuals who know something is wrong, and nobody else believes them. Dr. Bennell is a disbeliever at first, telling one woman that there’s nothing different about her uncle, that “the problem is inside you,” and that she thus needs to get some help. Indeed, our brilliant scientist can’t seem to allow for the probability, at first, that beings are falling from the sky and hatching, beings that look exactly like the townspeople. He freely doles out psychiatric advice to all of the women who sense something’s wrong, even as he admits that he’s not a psychiatrist. Another man in town, in a position of power, calls the epidemic “mass hysteria” and claims that wide-scale neurosis is running rampant. It is easier for him to believe that people are inexplicably succumbing to delusion throughout the town than it is for him to believe what individuals are actually saying. Indeed, as is often the case in films, madness is the easy answer for everything. But in this film, it’s very clear that madness becomes an insufficient answer, and that those who are ostensibly “mad” are actually the most perceptive, the most correct.
Overall, this film enjoyable not just because it’s a relatively intelligent film, but because there are some classic horror movie moments. I mean, come one, clones hatching out of pods? How much more 50’s horror can you get than that? As we watch the clones hatch out of the pods, a liquid goo bubbles around them, thrusting us into the stomach-churning world of the disgusting, the abject. Perhaps the best scene is when one of the clones, merely laying on the ground, looking half dead, opens his eyes. A woman sees him open his eyes and lets out a classic, horror-esque, bloodcurdling scream followed by the best horror lines in classic cinema: “It’s alive!” And as we begin to see these creepy pod-person clones tossing around more pods that seek domination, we begin to fathom the possibility of a world overtaken by our own, affect-less clones. By the end of the film, we learn that the pod people are spreading, that body-snatchers are snatching bodies in other towns. It is an unnerving ending, indeed.
And it’s a film that reminds us that we’ll always be afraid, of something. We’ll always be afraid of some unknown “other” not only robbing us of our “self” and our so-called humanity but infiltrating our society and creating chaos on a grander level. These dead-in-life pod-people, partial specters who disrupt the boundary between life and death (of course, like all doppelgangers) remind us that we’ll always be afraid of that which is “not” – that which is “not us,” that which is “not human,” that which is “without emotion,” that which is monstrous.