Are You One of Us, or Are You One of Them?: Five Decades of Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Published on February 14, 2011   ·   No Comments

by Mark Kiyak
Valdosta State University

From Proceedings of the Georgia Political Science Association Annual Meeting, 2007 Edition


It has long been possible to make the most grandiose political statements within the context of science fiction, and in 1954 Jack Finney wrote a serialized three-part science fiction/horror story in Collier’s magazine called “Body Snatchers” which, aside from being published one year later as a novel, has also spawned four movie versions. The premise of fear and paranoia has always been a staple of the horror/science fiction genre, and the related theme of loss of identity through alien invasion has also been quite popular as well. In its various permutations and titles, “Body Snatchers” has proven to be quite durable in its ability to exploit that fear within the context of science fiction, and the fantastical aspects of the filmic versions of Finney’s story have sometimes obscured the most common anti-communist/anti-conformist political themes since tied to it. These themes are indeed important, but perhaps it is more fascinating to take the frightening idea of the invasion of an individual body and turn it around to where the individual is a nation. The uniqueness of this storyline’s staying power is not only that can be studied on many different levels, but that it can be so easily updated for every generation of audience for which it has been produced.

Steve: We gotta go right now!
Carol: Listen to me Steve.
Steve: We gotta go!!!
Carol: Go?…Where?
Carol: What happened in your room is not an isolated incident. It’s something that’s happening everywhere to everyone. So, where ya gonna go? Where ya gonna run? Where ya gonna hide? Nowhere…’cause there’s no one like you left.
—“Body Snatchers” (1993)


Every generation has its paranoia. Some of the more famous examples include the Spanish Inquisition, the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, and the Salem Witch Trials. Through the years, religion, race, and viewpoint have been used to control and terrorize entire populations, perhaps reaching a climax with World War II. Written commentary on such reigns of terror has been penned by the likes of Niccolo Machiavelli, Maximilien Robespierre, and many others.1 In 1954, Jack Finney wrote a serialized three-part science fiction story in Collier’s magazine called “Body Snatchers” which, aside from being published one year later as a novel, also spawned four movie versions. The focus of fear and paranoia has always been a staple within the horror/science fiction genre, and the related premise of loss of identity through alien invasion has also been quite popular. In its various permutations and titles, “Body Snatchers” has proven to be quite durable in its ability to exploit that fear. In fact, even though the causes of paranoia and fear constantly change with the times, the uniqueness of this story’s staying power is that it is so easily updated for every generation of audience for which it has been produced.

Although “The Body Snatchers,” the 1955 novel based on the Collier’s serial, was based around a theme of survival in a post World War II world, and more specifically the effect technology had on man’s humanity, traditional morals, and values, the cinematic versions of the story actually brought other ideas more to the fore. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” the film released the following year and still considered to be the apex of all horror and science fiction classics produced in the fifties, originates with the arrival of interplanetary “seeds” invading the Earth. The seeds take over human bodies and supplant them with exact copies grown from plantlike pods, who then kill and replace their originals. The film’s main character, Miles, the doctor of Santa Mira, a rural California town, begins to notice strange new attitudes among the townspeople. People are changing. Wives complain their husbands aren’t their husbands, family members aren’t family members, and friends aren’t friends. One by one people are replaced until Miles and three of his friends witness the transformation for themselves. The struggle of the few humans remaining who understand the threat and who try not only to alert the rest of the population, but also to avoid becoming one of the “pod people” themselves is what makes up the rest of the story, with the cold and emotionless aliens methodically spreading their progeny throughout the countryside while continuing to root out the remaining humans. At the end, Miles realizes the extent of the invasion and, raving like a lunatic, is taken to a hospital where he tells his story. As unbelieving doctors and staff debate whether or not he belongs in the psychiatric ward, Miles’ story proves to be true and as the film fades out, the fate of the human race is left undetermined.

In 1978, the story was updated and revised for the remake, also titled “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” For this version, the locale was moved from Finney’s small California town to urban San Francisco. Matthew Bennell is a public health inspector whose assistant, Elizabeth Driscoll, declares one morning that her husband is no longer her husband and has somehow changed. After dismissing her observance he begins to notice that others in town are making similar statements. After taking her to a “pop culture” therapist who convinces her it’s all in her mind, he is summoned to a friend’s spa, where a strange, developing body is discovered growing in a mud bath. Before long, pods seem to be germinating all over the city and its inhabitants are being transformed into emotionless replicas dedicated only to increasing their population. While trying to escape, Mathew and Elizabeth become separated and disappear into the night. Eventually, it appears that Nancy, the spa owner, is the only remaining human as “pod- San Franciscans” are busy exporting seeds to the rest of America. The film comes to an end as one day she happens to see Bennell on the street. She cautiously approaches him, hoping to find him still human, but he releases a high-pitched howl, alerting the other “pod people” of her presence and possibly signaling the end of the human race.

Titled after the original Collier’s magazine serial, 1994’s “Body Snatchers” again revised and updated the story, and this time the setting was an Army base located in the southern part of the United States. Marti is a teenager traveling to the base with her little brother, stepmother, and father, an Environmental Protection Agency official sent to inspect a possible toxic spill. She begins to have suspicions of strange happenings when her brother won’t go to school because the other children in his class all think alike, act alike, and color their pictures in the exact same way. While the base doctor muses about chemical spills causing mass psychosis and the military police seal off the complex, it soon becomes evident that a conspiracy is afoot as her “pod-stepmother” tries to replace not only her, but her brother and father with pods. Eventually, with the help of a soldier she met earlier, Marti escapes in a helicopter to warn the authorities, although by the film’s conclusion, it is questionable whether or not success is achieved.

Although the first film version is faithful to much of the original story, some subtle differences should be noted. Unlike the first three cinematic versions of the story, the novel had an upbeat, optimistic ending. Survivors discover the field where the pods are grown, set fire to it, and when it seems that all hope is lost the pods suddenly uproot themselves and escape once more into space. The theory is that they were not alone in battling the pods and that the aliens decided that it was better to continue to another planet to colonize. The other difference is that in serialized version the alien lifespan is but five years and that reproduction without another host is impossible, hence their parasitic life cycle of drifting through space to planet after planet in search of new hosts, leaving each planet visited barren after five years. In the serial, after the aliens depart, life slowly returns to normal as the “pod people” die off one by one. One could surmise that to include these pieces of information in the film versions would serve to lessen the terror and thereby defeat the purpose of each.

But perhaps what makes these films so frightening is the fact that the human body itself is attacked. With everything going on around them, moviegoers could—at least until 1956—take solace in the knowledge they could to certain degree control their own bodies. But after “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” they couldn’t, and to make things worse, the invading organisms attacked while each person slept. The one constant in all these versions is the fear of personal invasion and bodily infection. By 2007, in the newest remake, “The Invasion,” an alien fungus, virus, or spore (and for the first time, not a pod), clings to the space shuttle as it burns and crashes to Earth, spreading debris in a large swath of the United States from Texas to Washington DC. One of the first people at the crash site is a government official who gets infected while investigating the scene. Once he is taken over, the spread of the infection accelerates in two ways. Not only do bystanders collect souvenirs from the ill-fated shuttle, even selling bits of the wreckage on Ebay, but the government official gains influence and control of the Center for Disease Control and under the guise of a flu epidemic manages to spread the disease, disguising the virus in mandatory public inoculations. Thus begins the rapid assimilation of the population turning into “pod people” as they sleep.

It has long been possible to make the most grandiose political statements within the context of science fiction, and the fantastical aspects of the filmic versions of Finney’s story have sometimes obscured the political sentiments of the original story. In fact, although the original film version, and arguably the 1978 version as well, has gone on to classic sci-fi status, Finney claimed he didn’t read, write, or even like science fiction. As stated earlier, the original story’s theme concentrated more on the effect technology had to disengage and fragment man, resulting in a loss not only to control his surroundings but also the loss of his basic morals and values rather than the most common anti-communist/anti-conformist political themes since tied to it. The effect of these technologies on the individual are indeed important, but perhaps it is more fascinating to take the frightening idea of the invasion of an individual body and turn it around to where the individual is a nation.

The invasion of the body from within and from without is a constant theme throughout all of these films. The idea of an invading force from somewhere else attacking and invading our individual bodies is frightening enough. However, on another larger scale, the context of invasion of the body politick by these same forces can also be seen. The analogy of the human body also representing a country is not a new one, nor is the demonizing or representation of another culture or the representation of one’s own citizens as an invading force or virus unique. One example, recognized as but one part in Adolph Hitler’s overall ideology revolved around the metaphor of the German nation as an actual body or “living organism” with the Jewish people identified as a force within this body working toward its destruction. In his writings and speeches, Hitler continually referred to the Jews as a force of disintegration or decomposition, as the cause of Germany’s disease, and as a “parasite on the body of the people” (Koenigsberg 2007). But what is the goal of this virus? What is the goal of any virus? What is the goal of any living thing, and how can this be assimilated into the defense of a nation? With any living organism, the goal is to propagate its genetic material. Obviously then, the metaphor is of a disease attacking a body, or a government, or a nation, to continue to survive as an organism and grow. Nazis considered the Jews to be vermin and a plague to Europe, but it did not end there, or with them. It is interesting to consider that the allies used the same rhetoric when defending themselves against the “evils” of Fascism. When Winston Churchill (1940) exhorted his country to “. . . fight them in the fields, and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender,” he was using the metaphor of an antibiotic, fighting the infection until it was dead. It is somewhat ironic then to know that Finney used the same quote in his story when exhorting humans to fight off the alien invaders.

Much closer to home, the same appeal was used again soon after Hitler’s defeat. As America entered into the beginning of the Cold War, a new threat was emerging. Fascism had been “cured,” but now Communism became the newest menace to the health of the free world and the United States. American diplomat George Keenan (1946), in his famous “Long Telegram” to President Harry S. Truman in 1946, stated “World communism is like a malignant parasite which feeds only on diseased tissue.” J. Edgar Hoover (1947), accentuated this when he stated, “Communism, in reality, is not a political party, it is a way of life, an evil and malignant way of life. It reveals a condition akin to disease that spreads like an epidemic. And like an epidemic, quarantine is necessary to keep it from infecting this nation.”

The headlines of the day also show a change in the thinking of the masses. In the years before the “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” film first appeared, in 1954 and 1955, the first mass vaccinations of children against polio began; the first kidney transplant was performed; the first Church of Scientology and the Unification Church were founded; the words “Under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegience; Illinois’s Govenor William Stratton signed the Loyalty Oath Act that mandated all public employees to take a loyalty oath or lose their jobs; and in Sylacauga, Alabama, a 4 kg meteorite crashed through the roof of a house hitting Ann Hodges, the first documented case of an object from outer space hitting a person. By 1956, the efforts of Senator Joseph McCarthy, as well as the House Un- American Activities committee among others, were at a full boil and the “Red Menace,” along with the paranoia produced through the media, had produced “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and the “dangers” of taking this threat lightly. In contrast, the film could also be said to be a satirical warning to those who would subjugate civil rights for safety.

A look at the headlines prior to the 1978 remake might also serve to illustrate that the more things change, the more they remain the same. For example, a few of the headlines of the time reported that scientists had identified a previously unknown bacterium as the cause of the mysterious and sometimes fatal Legionnaire’s Disease; the conservative organization Focus on the Family was founded by Dr. James Dobson to preach a return to traditional family values; Miami-Dade County, Florida voters overwhelmingly voted to repeal the county’s gay rights ordinance after a campaign by Anita Bryant and her anti-gay “Save Our Children” crusade; United States Senate hearings on MKULTRA, the CIA’s study of mind control research were held; the British television broadcast of the fictional documentary “Alternative 3” dealing with governmental plans in the event of a terminal environmental catastrophe on Earth and since entered into the annals of conspiracy theories and banned forever from their public airwaves; and the Big Ear, a radio telescope operated by Ohio State University as part of the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) project, received a radio signal from deep space. In addition, economic woes and gas lines had replaced the monolithic Communist menace, but the symptoms were still the same, triggering these remarks by President Jimmy Carter (1979) in a televised speech to the nation: “I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy. The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. . . .” and “The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.” It later became famous as his “malaise” speech, virtually portraying America as being infected with an illness.2 Consequently, suspicion and paranoia in the loss of traditional moral values, governmental control, new diseases, and unknown creatures from outer space continued to fuel and propegate a revival of Finney’s story.

Prior to the third version of the film, more parallels to the groundwork of the past were offered up to the public through the means of media. While celebrating the first World Ocean Day, a commemoration to honor the oceans and everything they provide during the Earth Summit, the Chief Judicial Magistrate of the Bhopal Court declared Warren Anderson, ex-CEO of Union Carbide, a fugitive under Indian law for failing to appear in the Bhopal Disaster case, where a Union Carbide subsidiary company’s pesticide plant released forty tons of methyl-isocyanate (MIC) gas, killing between three and fifteen thousand people. Los Angeles Laker basketball star Magic Johnson announced he had the deadly HIV virus, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested for his involvement in seventeen murders and his subsequent cannibalism, and a twenty-nine pound meteorite landed in the driveway of a home in Peekskill, New York, destroying the family car. But perhaps most interesting of all is how fictional television program “The X-Files” continued in the vein of “Body Snatchers.” The events of the X-Files pilot episode took place in 1992. The first case for FBI agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder had them traveling to Oregon to investigate a series of deaths within a single high-school class, which later appeared to be alien abductions. The aliens tracked the students through small metal devices planted up their noses, one of which Mulder and Scully recovered. After gathering evidence proving the abductions as well as government complicity and reporting to their superiors, their superiors, in an effort to hide the incident, burn Mulder’s motel to the ground, destroying all of his evidence. Later however, Scully shows them the metal device they recovered, which she kept with her rather than in the motel. They authorities take it and promise to look into it; however, the episode ends with a mysterious Cigarette Smoking Man placing the device in a box inside a warehouse within the Pentagon, with other devices of the same kind. By the 1993 version of the “Body Snatchers” film, the only real reference to a disease is the almost paranoid obsession by the chief medical officer of the southern army base that somehow toxic chemicals are the reason some of the people and families on the base “aren’t right,” and even he ends up killing his own body rather than be absorbed into the emotionless world the infection represents.

The illness in all three of these films is basically the same, a loss of all emotion and personal identity. In short, the “pod people” have become an altered version of humanity: one without conflict, without hate or fear or love, free from turmoil and war, and completely interconnected with each other, thinking as a unit. Obviously, in the fifties, this represented Socialism in general and Communism in particular. In the seventies the psychological revolution of self-help and pop psychology groupthink replaced the individual, at least in terms of the mass popularity of the books and lectures spawned. The nineties brought the nascent beginnings of a revival of militaristic thinking and warrior culture, which now in the twenty-first century has not only taken root but arguably is in full bloom.

Fourteen years after the third remake of the film, with worldwide terrorism and global warming topping an ever widening agenda, a new version has been released to a new generation of fearful Americans, and regrettably the United States has come full circle back to the fear of the 1950s. Global terrorism and Jihad has replaced Communism. Perhaps groping for a way to rally the American public into fear, the retro term “Islamo-fascists” was even tried. However, the analogy of disease was conjured up again when Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said during a television interview in 2002 that “The al Qaeda terrorist network isn’t like a snake that you can kill by cutting off its head. Rather, it’s like a disease that has infected a healthy body…you’ve got to fight all of the various different sources of infection” (quoted in Williams 2002). Journalist Pepe Escobar in the August 7, 2003 issue of Asia Times stated “…that jihad—this worldwide anti-American jihad—is not an enterprise. Jihad is based on individual commitment. It operates as a nebula. It spreads like a virus.” But the rhetoric hasn’t stopped there. The invasion of the body politick is now at one with the body of the ordinary citizen once again. The difference is that where deadly viruses endangering the population once occurred in nature, now those viruses are manufactured specifically to infect large populations, and the fusion of nature and science and malevolence is now complete. Fluoridation, which in the fifties, was once epitomized as a communist plot to infect us and keep us impure, has grown up and evolved, now including Anthrax, Ebola, Smallpox, plague, and “dirty bombs.” These are now no longer metaphor; they are real weapons and real humans are being held hostage.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the current version of “Body Snatchers” is what this one boldly proposes that the others never did. What are the consequences of becoming infected by the alien spores? Who is the enemy? Is the new menace New Age spirituality and its mantra claiming “we are all directly connected to the Source of Everything. We are part of the Higher Self Matrix. We are connected as one being, all humans are connected as one being, we are actually the same being, different aspects of the same being” (Benedict 2005)? Or is the menace the New World Order and its ultimate goal of bringing about a “single global marketplace, controlled by a world government, policed by a world army, financially regulated by a world bank via a single global currency, and populated by a micro-chipped population connected to a global computer, a computer that both monitors and updates our personal location and financial status, and regulates our emotional state via transmitted electrical signals-a technology that already exists” (Sandberg 2001). Is it the Islamic terrorists; is it Christian fascists? Aliens? Is it something, or someone else?

“The Invasion” steps out to confront the “evil” of becoming an emotionless, interconnected, single body. In one telling scene, a television set drones in the background as a newsman reports that Korea’s Kim Jong-Il is the last leader to sign the nuclear disarmament treaty, Pakistan and India reach a peace accord, China releases its political prisoners, there were no suicide attacks near American embassies for the third week in a row, the U.S. congress approves universal healthcare, peace is achieved in Darfur, the United States and Venezuela strengthen their political ties, pharmaceutical companies start issuing free AIDS vaccines, and the U.S. occupation of Iraq ends. How many people would welcome such a world? If you need medical care, it’s no problem. If you need an education and can’t get to college without $40,000 in student loans, don’t worry. If you’re worried about downsizing and the possible loss of your job, now you don’t have to. If your taxes are too heavy, your credit cards maxed out, and you have no savings, don’t worry. Worried about Social Security or a pension? Don’t. And if you worry about the end of the world, now you don’t need to.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t follow up on its own questions. Does the enemy within, the parasites in our bodies, “save” us from ourselves by making us less human? It merely answers by rote . . . no, no, no . . . individuality and all the problems and horror it brings is good and any alternative is bad. It refuses to ask, “What does it mean to be human? It won’t confront the nature of identity? What is the value of emotion, ambition, love, or hate? How can each of us balance a need to conform to society with the need to retain an individual personality?” Perhaps it is best summed up in a quote from the classic 1956 version of the film where Miles describes to Becky, the woman he loves, how people allow their humanity to gradually wither away:

In my practice, I’ve seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away. Only it happened slowly instead of all at once. They didn’t seem to mind…All of us – a little bit – we harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us, how dear.
(“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” 1956)

Notes

1 For more on this, see the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases web site at www.niaid.nih.gov/publications/dateline/full/0997. htm.

2 According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, malaise is “an indefinite feeling of debility or lack of health often indicative of or accompanying the onset of an illness” (www.merriam-websterunabridged. com).

References

Benedict, Mellen-Thomas. 2005. “Journey Through the Light and Back.” Journey Through the Light and Back. Accessed November 12, 2007. Available online at http://www.mellen-thomas.com/stories.html.

Carter, Jimmy. 1979. “Crisis of Confidence” speech. July 15. May 16, 2008. Bussiness Week. Accessed June 23, 2008. Available online at http://www.businessweek.com/investor/content/may2008/pi20080516_ 431297.htm?campaign_id=rss_topStories.

The Churchill Centre. 1940. “We Shall Fight on the Beaches.” June 4. Winston S. Churchill Speeches and Quotes. Accessed November 12, 2007. Available online at http://www.winstonchurchill.org/i4a/pages/ index.cfm?pageid=393.

Escobar, Pepe. 2003. “The Roving Eye: Jihad Virus Attacks Pentagon Logic.” August 7. Asia Times Online. Accessed November 6, 2007. Available online at http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/ EH07Ae03.html.

Hoover, J. Edgar. 1947. “Who’s the Enemy Now?” Film Transcript, Produced by the Center for Defense Information, Scriptwriter: Daniel Sagalyn. Show Number: 651. Produced September 5, 1993. Center For Defense Information Accessed November 11, 2007. Available online at http://www.cdi.org/adm/651/.

Keenan, George. 1946. “The Charge in the Soviet Union to the Secretary of State.” September 27, 1998. The National Security Archive, George Washington University. Accessed November 11, 2007. Available online at http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/coldwar/documents/episode- 1/kennan.htm.

Koenigsberg, Richard. 2005. “Ideology, Perception, And Genocide: How Fantasy Generates History.” October 17. Ideologies of War, Genocide and Terror. Accessed November 11, 2007. Available online at http://ideologiesofwar.com/docs/rk_ipg.htm.

Sandberg, Nick. 2001. “Blueprint for a Prison Planet.” 2d edition. Nick Sandberg’s Homepage. Accessed November 14, 2007. Available online at http://www.nick2211.yage.net/chips.htm.

Williams, Rudi. 2002. “Al Qaeda Is No Snake, But Like a Disease.” July 10. American Forces Press Service. Accessed November 12, 2007. Available online at http://www.defenselink.mil/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=43673.

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