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Paranoia and Hysteria in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"
American anticommunism enjoyed its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, reverberating with anxieties of many kinds(18). Its impact was so deep that even today, the subject evokes a considerable emotional response. As Schrecker remarks, the concept of McCarthyism is often accompanied with nouns as “paranoia, delirium, frenzy, or hysteria” (19).
In Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), in the eyes of the returning doctor Miles Bennell, the town of Santa Mira has caught a bad case of mass hysteria. Even though the intent of the original writer of The Body Snatchers, the book on which the movie is based, was not to write anything politically loaded, many scholars see this movie as a perfect example of the mass hysteria of the postwar era(20).
After being away for almost a month, Miles returns to his hometown of Santa Mira, and while driving into town he almost hits Jimmy Grimaldi. Jimmy who runs into the road, fleeing from his mother. His mother claims that “he just doesn’t want to go to school”, but Miles is skeptical. He feels that he should have known something more was going on – ironically a particular attitude many postwar Americans had.
And indeed, some scenes later more light is shed on the case, when Wilma Lentz is truly convinced that her Uncle Ira is not her uncle. “There is no difference you can actually see. He looks, sounds, and remembers like Uncle Ira…but he isn’t, there is something missing.” The same goes for young Jimmy Grimaldi, who “has got the most crazy idea that (his mother) isn’t his mother”.
In consequence, Miles and the town psychiatrist, dr. Kauffman, come to the conclusion that the town is suffering from “A strange neurosis, evidently contagious. an epidemic of mass hysteria.” Katrina Mann explains that “Because of cultural developments in the postwar era, there was a growing belief that psychic contagion could spread”(21). The malady in Invasion is also approached this way. However, what happened to Santa Mira is no mere malady. Actually, the town has been invaded. Obviously, by body snatchers or, allegorically, by Communist subversives.
Invasion presents many challenges to contemporary society. Firstly, it does so by employing oppositions and presenting them together in many situations. The greatest challenges of the movie is the idea of conformity versus non-conformity. Within this spectrum of conformity, Becky and Miles present the non-conformist and are constantly on the run from conformist society. They are given emotions whereas the conformist aliens believe emotions are obsolete. Indeed, it is the entire idea of humanity versus ‘alienity’ that underscores the movie.
Secondly, the movie searches for the many losses of boundaries. During a neighborly barbecue between the four main characters, four pods are discovered in the greenhouse next to Miles’s house. Inside the pods are replica-bodies of the four main characters. This encounter is the direct opposition of human life and creation of Unhuman animation. Here, lines begin to blur. Indeed, as Miles remarks: “When the process is complete the original object is probably destroyed”. Note that he is referring to the human original as already being an “object” that is replicable and replaceable.
As a result, Miles hesitates in killing the bodies. Standing over Becky’s body, he starts to tremble, he starts to doubt himself. However, standing over his own body, he has no problem in ending its pre-life. The only thing he can be certain of is that his own body is human, that he has not yet become the posthuman. Yet, the similarities remain striking between the human and posthuman.
Rightfully, Theodora Belicec asked Miles: “When the change does take place, will there be any difference?” Indeed, will there be any difference between the human and that unknown entity they become? According to Miles, there is. When Becky and Miles are hiding in the cave, a change comes over Becky the moment she falls asleep for a second. During Miles’s last kiss with real-Becky, she had fallen asleep, if only for a brief moment, and changed. Indeed, there is a thin line between being human and being alien, the boundaries are almost negligible.
These losses of boundaries have their reflections in the posthumanist perspective, and looking at this movie through this perspective gives an interesting argument that the aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers are representational for the posthumanist perspective.
Thinking along the lines of conformism versus non-conformism, the humans, specifically Becky and Miles, struggle to keep the liberal humanist idea alive that “the human essence is freedom from the wills of others” (22). On the one hand, the non-conformist idea that agency and autonomy lie within human individuality is embodied by Becky and Miles, who struggle to keep it alive.
Whereas, on the other hand, the idea that there agency, desire or will that belongs to the self and is clearly distinguishable from the “wills of others” is undercut in the posthuman (23). For, as Hayles argues, the posthuman’s quality of collectivity and heterogeneity implies an allocated cognition located in different parts but that are in connection with one another. As is clear, the alien community is a collective with the goal of assimilating all humankind in its ranks. Their intelligence is shared as fast as possible, through either personal communication or over the ether, just like in the scene where all police are called to look out for Becky and Miles leaving Santa Mira.
Thacker might argue that the aliens in Invasion represent a kind of zombielike initiative; an emotionless, almost mindless collective with the sole purpose of assimilating humanity into their ranks (and in the meantime feed themselves)(24). He analyzes the concept of a zombie as life-after-life. In his analysis of modalities of change he assigned the zombie both a passing-away and a coming-to-be, a modification of substance(25). The same happens to humanity in Invasion, their substance is inherently changed to serve a greater purpose.
Moreover, Thacker notes that in popular culture zombies are portrayed as either a contagion or in legion(26). How at first the malady of Santa Mira is ascribed to a manageable mass hysteria, which was considered contagious in the postwar era, the threat becomes legion once the contagion is consciously being spread.
Indeed, the threat only becomes legion the moment Miles wants to inform the authorities, the F.B.I. – coincidentally the ones performing most of the Communist witch-hunt investigations – that an alien force is taking over. Only when the operator keeps Miles on hold and repetitively informs him that all lines to any F.B.I.-office in the entire United States are busy or unreachable, that it dawns on him that the external threat has become legion. It is no longer a case of individuals, the threat has taken over key positions in society.
By using a zombielike motif to portray the aliens, the idea of consciousness is undermined. The implication is that consciousness is a significant aspect of the human condition.
And yet, a point may be made how both humans and aliens preserve their consciousness. Becky and Miles choose to run away from the aliens, they choose to protect their humanity rather than fall prey to the legion and conform. In their turn, the aliens consciously wish to persuade, verbally or forcefully, the human to join them. “It’s not so bad once you go through it” Becky tells Miles.
Nonetheless, Hayles would argue that neither of them need consciousness to prove that they are alive. In Hayles’s perspective, consciousness is an epiphenomenon, it’s “cheap trick” that is an emergent property that adds functionality to the entire system but is not a prerequisite for the system’s architecture(27). The posthumanist perspective once again reinforces the idea that boundaries are blurred in Invasion and that is how the movie greatly appealed to the fear and interest of postwar era Americans.