Since the Things I Learned from the Movies blogathon was happening so close to Halloween, I wanted to pick a scary movie to write about, and once I went down that path my choice was easy. One movie spooked me in a way I never forgot, it’s one I think about and often mention whenever talking about some nutty mass movement, frightening groupthink, demand for conformity, or suppression and punishment of individualism: Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The one I saw first was the amazing 1956 Don Siegel version, but most of this post applies to the very good 1978 version directed by Philip Kaufman, as well as Body Snatchers (1993) and The Invasion (2007).
For those who haven’t seen these movies (please do, especially ’56 and ’78) the story is based on Jack Finney’s science fiction novel (first a magazine serial) The Body Snatchers (1954). It focuses in all versions on a doctor or someone in the medical/scientific field sounding the alarm when everyone around them is replaced by duplicates, manufactured by some alien life form. Depending on the version, this is done by plantlike pods/seeds or a fungus, some have more optimistic endings than others, and depending of the era, each film emphasizes or allows for a political, environmental, anti-war or other reading. But all adaptations have in common the rapid advance of a nightmarish madness that leaves the main character with few to trust, and with an overwhelming sense of futility at being a lone voice against a mindless crowd.
Whoever “they” are, they get you while you sleep, which gives the horrible replacement/brainwashing fate a depressing inevitability; after so much running and battling, odds are you’ll nod off in the most vulnerable ways and places, and the movies have good variations on those scenes. It’s a nice way to tell viewers to be vigilant and aware of potential threats. Once transformed, these “pod people” look and sound just like the friends and family you knew, but they’re eerily cold, hollow, emotionless, inhuman. Worse, they enjoy that state, call it safe and comfy and command prospective victims to join them in this weird serenity.
With its strong sense of paranoia, of being hunted in a secret conspiracy and conversion drive, the story is easily understood as a comment on a political cause or ideology that demands loyalty while demonizing and erasing those who don’t belong or out themselves by dissenting. No matter how or why they get you, the big horror is dehumanization, the death of individuality. It’s a scary idea, that you could suddenly lose, be forced to give up, or have to hide everything that makes you a unique, interesting person, that your freedom to question and form opinions could be wiped out or outlawed for whatever greater good, illusion of safety or artificial calm is promised by a mob who claim to know what’s best for you.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers taught me that it was wise to suspect, challenge and resist anything that felt like indoctrination, conformity or fad, to wonder about anyone who said they were smart enough to tell you what to think, or didn’t like when you spoke your mind. The threat of the pod people isn’t always in the obvious power positions, seen during elections or forced on us as in the movies, it’s also–if you’re awake enough to spot it–in elitism and bullying, efforts to reshape thinking, police thought and speech, in a fear of challenging ideas and emotions. Pod people say their blissful bubble-wrapped lives are superior, even perfect, because there are no more tears, no choices, no difficult decisions, no discomfort, debate or doubt. All those things make us flawed, creative, interesting, unique and valuable humans, so don’t fall asleep, because “they’re here already! You’re next!”