Sunday, September 7, 2014

A Survey of Monsters-Part Thirteen

Vampires and Body Snatchers

On Friday I wrote about a few science fiction movies from the 1950s. I could hardly do justice to them all. For instance, I didn't mention Forbidden Planet, a 1956 extravaganza from MGM and a forerunner to Star Trek. Like other science fiction movies of the 1950s, Forbidden Planet includes a robot, a flying saucer, the attractive daughter of a widowed scientist, the exploration of another planet, a man-made monster (in the form of Morbius' embodied id), and of course out-of-control technology, which is really just shorthand for an out-of-control humanity. Forbidden Planet is in color, like the TV show Police Squad! from later in Leslie Nielsen's career. The special effects are very good and the monster truly frightening. It's also an intelligent and literate film--more or less The Tempest in outer space--and definitely worth a look.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), one of the best and most significant of 1950s science fiction films, is also conspicuously absent from my posting on Friday. That's for good reason. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a big enough topic for a book. I'm forced here to limit my discussion to a blog entry or two. But I have reached a point where, if I am going to suggest a monster for the twenty-first century, I'll have to talk about Pod People and the movie that made their name a household term. First another digression.

A couple of weeks ago, I read two books in two days, first I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, then The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney. Both stories were first published in 1954, Matheson's work as a paperback original, Finney's as a serial in Collier's magazine. I Am Legend has been adapted to film four times since then, as The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price in 1964, as The Omega Man with Charlton Heston in 1971, as I Am Legend with Will Smith in 2007, and as I Am Omega, a direct-to-video quickie, also in 2007. Richard Matheson was still in his twenties when I Am Legend was published. I haven't read enough of his early work to say, but even in 1954, he had hit upon a theme that would continue in his work for decades to come, that of providing a scientific explanation for what would previously have been in the realm of the supernatural. (1) The monsters in I Am Legend are like the supernatural monsters of the past--the narrator, Robert Neville, calls them vampires--but their condition is explained by bacterial spores carried upon the wind. Little by little, Neville uncovers the chain of events that has led to the current plague and recounts it in his narrative, concluding:
Process complete. 
And all without blood-eyed vampires hovering over the heroines' beds. All without bats fluttering against estate windows, all without the supernatural. (2)
Like Fritz Leiber, Jr. in his stories of the early forties, Richard Matheson had struck upon the problem of the weird tale, namely, how to keep it relevant in an age of science. His solution was to have human beings transformed into monsters by the actions of mere microbes. (3) 

The scientific explanation for a phenomenon previously thought supernatural was not necessarily an innovation. However, there was something new in I Am Legend--or at least I think it was new. In the movie It Came from Outer Space (1953), monsters from outer space disguise themselves as human. They pass among us, but they are unable to duplicate the human personality. They are without emotion; their voices are without inflection. They are also limited in that they don't readily increase in number. In other words, they can't recruit new members. In I Am Legend, the process is reversed. In that book, human beings have become monsters, leaving behind everything that makes them human. There is no love or emotion, only the desire to feed upon living things. What's worse, their numbers increase in the way that a rampant disease increases. In other words, the vampires in I Am Legend are capable of recruiting new members, potentially at an exponential rate. Their numbers are limited only by the number of living, breathing human beings who remain. Sound familiar?

Like I Am LegendThe Body Snatchers has been adapted to film four times, in 1956, 1978, 1993, and 2007. The first two adaptations came under the title Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The book is somewhat different from the first movie. At the end of the book (spoiler alert), the pod creatures leave "a fierce and inhospitable planet," i.e., Earth. That fierceness is in the human beings who have resisted them, those "who had fought, struggled, and simply refused to give up." The narrator, Miles Bennell continues:
. . . a fragment of a wartime speech moved through my mind: We shall fight them in the fields, and in the streets, we shall fight them in the hills; we shall never surrender. True then for one race, it was always true for the whole human race, and I understood that nothing in the whole vast universe could ever defeat us. (4)
That is clearly an expression not only of fierceness, courage, and strength, but also of hope and confidence. It reminds me of so many episodes of Star Trek, which was made of course in an age of confidence and before science fiction began to give way to something else.

The movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers is not as clearly and unambiguously hopeful. For one, the heroine becomes a Pod Person. For another, the original ending has Miles (Kevin McCarthy) in the roadway, trying to warn humanity of the menace. I have never seen that version of the movie, but I presume that it ends with Miles looking directly into the camera, yelling, "You're next! You're next!" The more conventional ending is part of a framing device added after the main filming was completed. Though still somewhat ambiguous, it is far more hopeful.

Like I Am Legend, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a story of the great masses of humanity being turned into monsters--not bloodsucking, flesh-eating monsters, but monsters nonetheless. The movie emphasizes more the loss of humanity brought about by being podified versus the book. I think that was a good move on the part of the moviemakers. Also like I Am Legend, the Pod People are capable of increasing their numbers, again at an exponential rate. In short, both stories share certain themes:
  • In both books, there is the threat of a loss of humanity or of human identity, including a loss of emotion, personality, and most importantly a capacity for love.
  • In the novel The Body Snatchers, the Pod People also lose human drive and initiative. Their world begins to decay for lack of any effort to keep things going. Projects go unfinished; streets fall into disrepair; everything becomes seedy and run-down. I Am Legend is of course set in a rapidly decaying, post-apocolyptic world. In a word, there is decadence in both.
  • In both books, there is a struggle among those who remain to survive, to resist, to assert their humanity and their individual identities in the face of monsters that would subsume them.
  • Similarly, in both books, human beings must face the threat of becoming just one among the undifferentiated masses, all equally soulless, all equally without individuality or identity.
  • Finally, in both books, those masses are able to recruit new members at ever-increasing rates: "'. . . those who were changed recruited others, usually their own families . . . .'" and "'. . . it's an accelerating process, ever faster, always more of us, fewer of you . . . .'"  (5)
In short, in I Am Legend and The Body Snatchers, the fear is that the individual will lose his humanity and his individual identity, thereby becoming one among a mass of monsters that look like human beings but clearly are not.

Apologists for socialism, communism, and other forms of statism like to say that the book 1984 is a satire of a gray and economically austere postwar Britain. Likewise, they spout that Invasion of the Body Snatchers is about conformity and McCarthyism in 1950s America. I'll say this: it should be clear to any thinking person that 1984, first published in 1948, is a piercing description, critique, and warning of totalitarianism. (6) It's less clear to me that Invasion of the Body Snatchers is allegorical in any particular way. Rather, I think it's about something larger than conformity, McCarthyism, the 1950s "organization man," Cold War paranoia, Stalinism, or communism. In 1953, when the story was first serialized, World War II was only eight years past and the Cold War was on. Although nazism and fascism had been defeated, communism, in which the individual is reduced to a cipher, undifferentiated among the masses, was still a very real threat. It was expanding as well, into China, Eastern Europe, and other places, all at alarming rates. "Always more of us, fewer of you" would have been a very real fear among the free people of the world, those who had not yet been podified or zombified. In North Korea, perhaps for the first time, American soldiers encountered a mass enemy in the Chinese. I'm not sure that at any time before or since we saw anything as much like masses of advancing zombies, vampires, or aliens as we saw in the Chinese offensive of 1951-1952. In 1951, Eric Hoffer described and diagnosed the problem of mass man and mass movements in The True Believer. To read it, and to read history and now contemporary events, you can't help but see that there is a desire among men to give up their identities, to lose themselves among the masses, and to recruit still more men to be their co-religionists. And when they do, as in Iraq and Syria today, they almost always make themselves into monsters.

Notes
(2) From the Berkeley Medallion edition (1971), p. 86.
(3) A far cry from The War of the Worlds (1953), in which bacteria save humanity from the invading Martians.
(4) From the Dell edition (1967), pp. 188-189.
(5) Pp. 159-160 and 163.
(6) Invasion of the Body Snatchers ends with a warning as well: "You're next! You're next!" The original role of the monster was to serve as a warning, to let us know that something has gone wrong, that the universe is out of order.

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

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