Science fiction film stands out as a major catalyst of the anxiety and paranoia that was apparent in the United States in the 1950's. 1950's America was a ticking time bomb: people read daily about the threat of a communist takeover and the end of the world as a result of nuclear war. A specific type of science fiction film became popular in the 1950's, the 'alien invasion' film. The paranoiac themes of these films provided the framework through which post-war anxieties about altered and 'invaded' bodies could find expression.
Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers did just that; it was a 'social'-science fiction film that explored the invisible yet psychologically unbearable fears that penetrated America in the fifties. The following essay will discuss The Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a metaphor for fifties America; it was a film that intensified the issues of communism and atomic radiation, which were the paramount factors of anxiety and paranoia at that time. The threat of communism was inescapable in America in the 1950's. Communism was seen as a disease, a form of alien-mind control, and because of political figures like Joseph McCarthy, many Americans began to fear that their friends and relatives were imposters, communists who had made their way into society to start a takeover. People were not what they seemed; they were always just about to betray you. Americans were brainwashed into believing that the problems within their country were coming from an alien force.
The United States became a communist infiltration center: witch-hunts were launched throughout America, including in Hollywood in 1951-1952. Anyone was a suspect. The Red Scare was something that Siegel naturalized beautifully in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The film portrayed the invasion of alien life as a parallel to the fear of U.
S. politicians during the 1950's; the fear that communism was actually a better ideology. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a prime example of the paranoiac view of the 'enemy within', the enemy that penetrated into the very heart of American society in the 1950's: the small suburban town. The film is set in Santa Mira, which is a small suburban town in California. Siegel's choice of setting is no accident and his message is clear: there is no place to hide. An alien force that takes over its victims, producing mysterious replicates, invades the apparently safe environment of an American small town.
This was the mindset of many American small towns in the fifties: at any moment the communists could strike anywhere, and anyone was a suspect, even the authorities. In fact, in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it is the authorities, the very people that citizens look to for protection, who are leading the misinformation campaign. The notion that 'anyone is a suspect' is something that Siegel establishes in the film right from the beginning. The very first scene of the film has the character of Miles concealed in a hospital room as his doctor brings in a psychiatrist. When the psychiatrist enters, Miles immediately asks, "who are you?" This immediately signifies to the audience the extreme paranoia of Miles' character.
This was a common trend in the 1950's; a feeling that anyone could be trying to conceal his or her true identity, anyone could be a communist. Miles even jokes with Becky, his love interest in the film, about the mass paranoia of the time: "Maybe I clown around too much, but pretty soon my patients won't trust me to prescribe aspirin for them" (Siegel). Later, when the pods are discovered in Jack's greenhouse, Miles attempts to call the FBI for help. The FBI is seen in the film as the only stable authority that could re-establish order (at the end of the film when the doctor believes Miles's tory he immediately reaches for the phone to call the FBI, who will undoubtedly save the day). Miles phones the operator, and just before reaching her he states: "If they " ve taken over the telephone office we " re dead." This implies that even places, which symbolize control in American society, could be infested with communists. If a place like the telephone office is infected, then all hope is lost.
In addition to suspecting that anyone was capable of communist ties, Americans also feared that there was a secret communist congregation within the country. It was conceived that this congregation was planning to overthrow the government. People were afraid of being forced to embrace this congregation, which Siegel makes quite apparent in his film. When Jimmy, a little boy who is scared to go home to his mother, visits Miles he is hysterical; he rants and raves, "don't let her get me!" and "she's not my mother!" This symbolizes the severe paranoia that communists were in fact going to get you, and there was nothing you could do about it. As aforementioned, there was a tremendous suspicion in the fifties that secret communist meetings were taking place all over the country. This is illustrated brilliantly in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
When Miles attempts to contact Sally, his assistant, he drives to her house and discovers a secret assembly of the 'invaded' townspeople in her living room. His worst fear has come true: those he once trusted are now mindless zombies ready to take over the entire town. Suddenly the camera pans to reveal a police officer that hypnotically states: "Why don't you go in Miles. We " ve been waiting for you." This scene reinforces the fear that communists were 'waiting' for Americans to 'join' them. Many Americans believed that secret meetings between communists were taking place, and that eventually these meetings would lead to a takeover of the American government.
There was a fear that more and more people were joining the communist alliance; they just couldn't resist. Miles obviously does resist, and towards the end of the film, the whole town is possessed and in mad pursuit of the two 'humans' left, the only two that will not conform, Miles and Becky. In a way the film flips its perspective; the pod people have become a traditional American lynch mob whereas the humans have now become the demonized communists. But before the lynch mob of invaders comes together in pursuit of the two unwilling humans, Miles and Becky experience the final realization that the whole town is under invasion. From Miles' office, they see the rustle and bustle of a regular Saturday morning, but something is not right.
Then it dawns on Miles that it is much too early in the morning for the town to be so busy. The camera closes in on the grassy island in the middle of the street as all of the townspeople, who seemed to be going about their regular business, gather to await instructions. Numerous pod trucks arrive and robotic orders are barked out, permitting everyone to go to a truck that corresponds to a family in one of the surrounding towns. This scene is one of the best in the film because it subtly yet effectively exemplifies one of the greatest fears of the American people in the 1950's; the communists were here and they would eventually win. The film's producer, Walter Wander, insisted that the picture was about "conformity" and "how easy it is for people to be taken over and lose their souls." Another factor of excessive paranoia in the fifties was the threat of nuclear war. There was tremendous anxiety in America upon the realization that in an atomic world collective extinction, with virtually no warning, was possible.
The development and eventual use of the atomic bomb created, quite possibly, the most widespread paranoia in America in the 1950's. After seeing the effects of atomic radiation on the people of Hiroshima, Americans began to fear radiation contamination. People began to construct bomb shelters, and in an attempt to downplay the fear of radiation, the government created propaganda films that emphasized the potential for nuclear power. General Groves of the American navy remarked that anyone exposed to radiation "simply took a vacation and in due time became all right again." However, other information was alerting the American public to the idea that radiation was an invisible enemy, a silent killer that was inescapable. This is well expressed in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Siegel allegorizes an America that is being poisoned and transformed in its sleep in the safety of suburbia (as aforementioned, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was set in Santa Mira, a small suburban town in California.
Although many Americans found security in small towns, many were aware that California was a regular test ground for the atomic bomb). The invaders represent not just the fear of nuclear war, but also the fear of invisible radiation contamination. The transformation between human to pod is invisible in Siegel's film on purpose; he wishes to install a fear in the audience of what they cannot see. The replicate body that is found at Jack's house is unformed, there are no visible features present, or perhaps the features have been radiation-burned beyond recognition (in Hiroshima, many radiation burn victims were burned so badly that they were thought to be aliens). Miles even speculates at the beginning of the film, when the pods are discovered at Jack's house, that the invaders may be linked to radiation: "So much has been discovered these past few years, anything is possible. They may be the results of atomic radiation." And earlier in the film, when Miles inquires about the cause of the mass hysteria in Santa Mira, Dr.
Kaufman answers, "worry about what's going on in the world, probably." Siegel is signifying the idea that such an unusual occurrence was expected in the post-war period and that radiation contamination was a fear most Americans had to deal with. As the opening titles of the film appear over rolling clouds, Siegel forces us to ask ourselves, 'are those regular clouds, or are they radioactive?' Later in the film, Miles is shocked to hear Dr. Kaufman's explanation of the invasion, and he reluctantly replies, "so that's how it began, out of the sky." These scenes symbolize the intense paranoia of the threat of atomic radiation in the fifties; America was constantly peering up into the sky, looking for atomic bombs that were about to be dropped and mushroom clouds that were about to be formed. One of the greatest fears associated with atomic radiation in the 1950's was the loss of manhood. Atomic radiation threatened the body on many levels, but the main concern was that male sexuality would be altered and reproductive ability would be lost. Many soldiers in the American navy were forced to endure high doses of radiation to prove their manhood (in many instances this would involve sleeping in one's shorts on the contaminated decks of ships).
Anyone who complained about the threat of contamination was seen as effeminate. This has a direct parallel to the character of Miles in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Miles' character is associated with a marginalized, feminine position; he is extremely concerned with the well being of the town. In fact the only person that sticks by him, almost until the end, is a woman, which is his lover, Becky. Miles is also associated with a certain degree of romanticism in the film. At the beginning of the film he reassures Becky that by kissing her he will be able to determine whether or not she is an invader.
Then, towards the end of the film, while Miles and Becky are hiding out in the caves on the edge of town, they hear romantic music. Upon hearing the music, Becky replies, "Perhaps we " re not the only ones left who know what love is." Miles proceeds to investigate the source of music, and he leaves Becky behind in the caves. When he discovers that it is just a trick, he rushes back to Becky and they continue their journey towards the highway. However, as they are running Becky trips, causing Miles to fall on top of her. Miles passionately kisses Becky, but realizes that she is invaded; she has fallen asleep.
This is the only way Miles can discover if Becky is one of them; he must use his romantic senses to find out if she has been invaded. Miles' romantic nature is also apparent earlier in the film, when he and Becky discover that the entire town has been invaded: "Only when we fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us, as you are to me." The film portrays the invaders as asexual beings, incapable of love, and the humans as romantic, sexually charged beings. Many men in the fifties were ashamed of being recognized as romantics, and romanticism was something that was associated with radiation contamination. The fear was that if one was exposed to enough radiation their sexuality may change, leaving them an outcast in society. Also many men feared that they would lose their sexual drive if they were exposed to radiation.
But of course, as aforementioned, there were many men who considered these fears to be myths, and it was those men who came to the conclusion that a fear of radiation contamination had a feminine effect on one's manhood. The original ending for the film, which had Miles running through the street in a hysterical attempt to warn his fellow citizens, installed a powerful fear of radiation contamination. Miles rants and raves, "you " re in danger", while people brush him off as another nut who has had one too many drinks. This was the mindset of a lot of Americans in the 1950's; they didn't want to believe that the threat of atomic radiation was possible, so they brushed it off as a fairy tale, a myth that only crazy people and drunks believed in.
Finally, Miles discovers a truck that is transporting pods to another town and he reluctantly accepts his fate, as the camera pulls in for an extreme close-up: "They " re already here. You " re next." Anyone could be affected by atomic radiation at any time because it was an invisible phenomenon that could manifest itself anywhere. No one was safe and the threat of a nuclear war was inevitable; a certainty Americans did not want to accept. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a film that explored the paranoia of post-war America. There was always the notion in the fifties that nothing was what it seemed. The American public was frightfully paranoid of the suspicious activity within the country.
This secret activity threatened the strength of American democracy, for it could involve anyone, anywhere, at any time. Even relatives and neighbors were suspects; nobody really knew what was going on behind their backs. Furthermore, no one was safe from the invisible enemy, the enemy that lurked silently and perilously within the very air that was being breathed. People would never know that this invisible enemy infected them, until it was too late. It was a time of severe anxiety, and films that empathized with the fears of that era fascinated the American people. Above all, social-science fiction films of the 1950's intensified the unbearable psychological fears that faced Americans.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers was just one of many examples in which post-war anxieties were heightened to a new level of extreme paranoia, a level that captivated yet terrified American audiences.