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Robot-like Obedience, Communism, and a State of Trance
The Manchurian Candidate plays upon the motif of zombies in relation to the robotlike obedience of Communists, which, according to Schrecker, was an all too familiar commonality(28).
Just like a contagion on a physical level, Katrina Mann explains, during the postwar era, there was a viable belief that a psychic contagion could spread to others as well(29). Like the common cold, brainwashing was seen as a contagious disease during the postwar era. Indeed, Mann continues, “Just as communists and other minorities were perceived to be experts at deception and infiltration, national enemies showed evidence of expertise in witch-doctoring or, more pointedly, alienation of the mind. Most alarming, this perceived mental manipulation was successfully accomplished in American men, soldiers at that”(30).
This idea was exacerbated by the continuous revelations of POWs who brought back reports and news from the Korean front(31). In particular, several POWs – some fairly high-ranked as well – confessed that germ warfare had taken place. Indeed, something had been done to the American boys that edged on contagion. Exactly that was what Americans supposed had happened. Communist sympathies could only have been pathological; nothing less than Pavlovian conditioning could have changed these American troops.
Nevertheless, the idea of brainwashing as an irresistible process was reinforced by the 21 Americans who refused to accept repatriation of the Ops. ‘Little Switch’ (April 1953) and ‘Big Switch’ (August-September 1953)(32). These soldiers refused to accept repatriation into a country with ‘the highest standard of living that the earth had ever seen’ in favor of ‘an extremely backward, dreadfully impoverished country, supposedly out of preference for its way of life’.
In The Manchurian Candidate, it is this Pavlovian conditioning, not the pod inhabitation, that destroys an individual’s autonomy and in turn the liberal humanist subject. By means of certain cues, a zombielike state is triggered in which the subject is completely open to any order of any kind, much like the robot-like obedience characteristic of Communist party members.
In Candidate, Raymond Shaw, one of the POWs, has been subjected to brainwashing in the truest sense of the word. After their capture in battle during the Korean War, Shaw and his patrol are subjected to a fair amount of brainwashing. In a series of nightmares, details are shown of a Chinese Communist explaining to a room full of “comrades” how he has “conditioned them”.
As Yen Lo exhibits his work to his Chinese and Russian colleagues, he explains how a ‘Normally conditioned American, having killed and then unable to remember’ is quite easily brainwashed. The created image here reflects the exact fear that the Communists had decoded the workings of the mind, likened to some, as Carruthers notes, to the splitting of the atom.
The heightened tension of this scene comes to a conclusion when Shaw is ordered to kill two of his fellow patrolmen. He does so without hesitation, refuting any belief by other present Communists that no man ‘shall act so against his nature’. Arguably, this is the point by which most fear is induced: A man mindlessly following orders that go against his nature, never questioning, never doubting. The true American has become the true Communist.
How, then, is this state of total control established? Shaw’s zombielike state is induced when it is suggested to him that he should “play a game of solitaire”. During the game, whenever he stumbles upon the queen of diamonds, he is able to receive instructions, which he will then execute without question.
Even though the zombie-state of Manchurian share some similarities with that of Invasion, the philosophical background differs greatly. For instance, Thacker’s theory of different modes of change suggests that zombies change through passing-away and coming-to-be(33). Yet, in Manchurian there is no sign change of physical substance. Indeed, in Shaw’s case one must consider the idea of alteration, the constancy of physicality but change of properties. In Shaw’s case, he is altered to have an internal system of zombielike obedience.
Furthermore, Shaw’s trance-state is a perfect example of the concept of consciousness as an epiphenomenon. Rather than being the whole system, consciousness is a mere part of it. In Manchurian, the Communists found a way to turn this specific system off for a certain period of time. Moreover, they believe they found a way to turn off every form of humanity in the subject. There are three significant scenes to illustrate this.
First, it seems as though Shaw loses all memories of his act after fulfilling his task. When he is randomly assigned to “go to Central Park and go jump in the lake” he does so immediately. But when asked “what the hell are you doing”, he does not know. Moreover, he does not even remember playing the game of solitaire. In short, his state of full hypnosis implies a temporary amnesia, a complete loss of his brain function.
Second, it is the complete loss of emotion that comes over Shaw when he is in the zombielike state. A scene of significant importance is that in which Shaw has to kill his father-in-law and “all other witnesses of the crime”, which is his wife. Just like Yen Lo promised, the American veteran kills both of them in cold blood without even blinking.
However, his blood is not so cold as one might initially suspect. When leaving the scene of the crime, the viewer is shown that Shaw has been crying the entire time. This implies that even though he fulfilled his purpose, he knew what he did and experienced the emotions along with the act.
Third, he fully remembers this gruesome act when he is once again induced into a zombielike state, this time by Major Bennett Marco. When he first calls Marco to ask him for help, in total despair, Shaw cannot fathom why anyone would do such a thing. However, when Marco puts him into the state of trance, he is able to completely explain what happened. In other words, his American persona and his ‘Communist’ persona are to entirely different entities.
And even then, his consciousness is not fully turned off. he fully remembers this gruesome act when he is once again induced into a zombielike state, this time by Major Bennett Marco. When he first calls Marco to ask him for help, in total despair, Shaw cannot fathom why anyone would do such a thing. However, when Marco puts him into the state of trance, he is able to completely explain what happened. In other words, his American persona and his ‘Communist’ persona are two entirely different entities.
And these postwar era fears and uncertainties, that someone can have an American persona and a Communist persona and be a sleeper cell as well, are captured in Manchurian wonderfully.