and rare, big screen showing at the Barbican, as part of a
B movie season, can remind us of the
significance of the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The story of the 1955 novel, The Body Snatchers, by
Jack Finney, more or less faithfully transferred to the cinema
following year by director Don Siegel and screenwriter Daniel
Mainwaring, is a simple one.
Small town America in the mid-fifties. The local doctor,
Miles Bennell, played by Kevin McCarthy in the film, is visited
by a string of patients who assert that friends and close
relatives are impostors, despite the fact that they retain
the same appearance, mannerisms and memories. Against all
the evidence they insist that the person is not what he or
she appears to be.
As the tale unfolds it is revealed that spores floating through
space have settled outside the small Californian town of Santa
Mira and grown into pods which duplicate and then replace
the local residents. Perfect replicas in every respect except
that they lack the ambition, drive, determination and overall
humanity of those they have substituted for. At one point
the former psychiatrist pod person, Doctor Kaufman, explains
to Miles, "Think of the marvellous thing that has happened.
Seeds drifting through space for years, ... took root by chance
in a farmer's field, to offer us an untroubled world... There's
no need for love." When Miles responds that this means
no emotions, no feelings, only the instinct to survive, Kaufman
responds, "You say it as if it were terrible. Believe
me, it isn't. You've been in love before. It didn't last.
It never does. Love, desire, ambition, faith - without them
life's so simple believe me."
The replacement takes place as people sleep and Kevin McCarthy
suggested as the title for the film Sleep No More.
In the film, though not in the book, Becky, Miles' girlfriend,
slips into unconsciousness and has, in a sense, her soul stolen
while she sleeps. The climatic scene is when a panic stricken
and hysterical Miles runs amongst the traffic on the freeway
shouting, "They're here already! You're next! You're
next! You're next!".
The story works on several levels. The belief that the world
is against you and that friends and relatives are not who
they pretend to be would, of course, be evidence of paranoid
delusions. It also speaks to an uncertainty about what defines
us as human beings. This is also a theme in the Philip K.
Dick book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which
provided the inspiration for the film Blade Runner.
The unease resulting from the Dolly the sheep affair has the
same roots. Would a clone be a human or just a replica of
The film was widely seen as an anti-communist parable. The
pod people, with their lack of emotion and determination to
succeed in their plan to take over the town were a metaphor
for the communist conspiracy. The producer, Walter Wanger,
did seem to take this view but Siegel saw the movie as a satire
on the conformism of Eisenhower's America and Finney denied
any political intent behind the story. Clearly the world of
the pod people would be totalitarian in some sense and the
attraction of the film was, in part, that it meshed with the
Cold War fears and preoccupations of the time.
The film was remade in 1978 by Philip Kaufman. This time
the action was transferred, along the coast, from the claustrophobia
of small town America to San Francisco with the anonymity,
anomie and alienation of big city life. This is a post-Kennedy,
post-Watergate conception of the pod people. The leading characters
take conspiracies for granted as part of the everyday fabric
of modern American life. The fact that one of these conspiracies
is extraterrestrial in origin they can easily take in their
stride. The first film relied on the fact that people knew
their friends and neighbours so well they could suspect that
they were not who they claimed to be. In Kaufman's film the
impersonal and fractured nature of city life means that people
do not really know their neighbours or even their partners,
so they might just as well be aliens.
Kaufman has the pod people speak the language of psychology
and personal development. They are certainly not communists
but more like a West Coast religious cult such as Jim Jones'
Peoples' Temple, who committed mass suicide in the jungle
of Guyana (having fled San Francisco) in the same year as
the film was released. In 1997 Marshall Applewhite's Heaven's
Gate followed the same path down the coast in San Diego. This
religious cultist aspect of the film is highlighted in a scene
where psychiatrist turned pod person Doctor Kibner (Leonard
Nimoy) offers lead characters Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland)
and Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) the prospect that they
will be, "born again into an untroubled world".
More or less what the followers of Jones and Applewhite expected.
In 1994 Abel Ferrara turned Finney's story into a film for
the third time, this time with the title Body Snatchers.
The location was shifted again to a southern military camp.
Shots show US marines quick marching as they chant in monotonal
unison. The message is pretty clear. If these people were
taken over by aliens how would anyone know?
This is very much a product of the loss of faith in government
which has overtaken American society since 1956. The last
words in Siegel's original are a psychiatrist ringing the
FBI to alert them to the alien menace; in Ferrara's version
the military, the bureaucrats and the government are the aliens.
When Siegel made his film public opinion polls showed that
sixty per cent of Americans considered that the federal government
did more good than harm and forty per cent thought the government
did more harm than good. By the time Ferrara made his film
the proportions were almost exactly reversed.
Negative attitudes towards government, particularly the federal
government, have grown apace, particularly since the Watergate
Affair of 1973/74. Ronald Reagan was able to tell the American
people that the ten most feared words in the English language
were, "Hello, I'm from the government and I'm here to
help" and this was whilst he was chief executive of that
In 1964, when arch-conservative Barry Goldwater, was running
for the White House, American historian Richard Hofstadter
identified what he called the "paranoid style in American
politics". A tradition which he saw stretching backwards
from the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s and 1960s to
similar movements in the 19th century. Politicians convinced
that Illuminati, Free Masons, gold bankers or Catholics were
seeking to overthrow the United States. Such politicians (mainly
of the extreme right) see conspiracies everywhere. Nothing
happens by accident or as a result of long term and largely
impersonal processes, the hand of the conspirators is seen
in all things.
The John Birch Society, for example, argued that President
Eisenhower was a conscious tool of the communist conspiracy.
The fact that there was no evidence for this showed just how
devious, deeply laid and dangerous the conspiracy was.
When Hofstadter was writing conspiracy theories were niche
market providers but by the 1990s they had become a mass market.
The success of a television series such as the X-Files
is indicative of the zeitgeist of modern America. The real
enemy is not the aliens but the government engaged in a conspiracy
against its own people. A cursory visit to the Internet shows
conspiracy theories to be everywhere. Many Americans fantasise
that their problems (individual or collective) are the product
of malicious plots against them by invisible powers. Gavin
Esler has recently reported an anti-abortionist saying to
him, in a church in Minneapolis, "the pro-aborts have
dead eyes. Look in their eyes. They are dead. They have no
souls." Political opponents are seen as not truly human,
in this case, literally, the agents of Satan.
For hate groups like Aryan Nations, Christian Identity or
the various militias the idea that the government is an alien
entity controlled by Israel and the United Nations is a fact
taken for granted. Even some more mainstream Republican politicians
are attracted to ideas of government inspired conspiracies.
For example Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth of Idaho accepts
the reports of unmarked black helicopters spying on citizens.
She calls on the federal government to stop the flights instead
of seeing the black helicopters as something between a fantasy
and a hallucination. She probably had lunch with Elvis last
Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam grabs the headlines with
its extreme rhetoric against whites and Jews but few people
understand the elaborate conspiracy theory which underlies
the message. White people are the product of a seven thousand
year old genetic experiment initiated by the evil scientist
Yacub. There are even space ships which minister Farrakhan
has, of course, travelled on. The Nation of Islam exactly
fits Hofstadter's concept of the "paranoid style".
The movement, for all its would-be outsider status, is as
American as apple pie.
A belief in malevolent conspiracies may make harmless or
even entertaining television of the X-Files or Dark
Skies variety but combined with politics it is a dangerous
and combustible formula. Timothy McVeigh bought into conspiracy
theory when he bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building
in Oklahoma City in April 1995, killing 168 people, including
19 children. A former friend of McVeigh's put it like this,
"He considered all those people to be as if they were
the stormtroopers in the movie Star Wars. They may
be individually innocent. But because they are part of the
evil empire, they were guilty by association." It is
as if McVeigh saw his victims as pod people, not really people
at all and a threat to his, authentic, humanity.
Finney's novel is a powerful tale and it has inspired one
brilliant film (Siegel's) and two very good ones. It is story
which can be reinvented and reworked as times change and so
too do our preoccupations and concerns. The pod people are
just like us, exactly like us, but the meaning has been removed
from their lives. They offer the same jobs, the same cars,
the same houses but a materialism emptied of any spiritual
or emotional content. They offer, in short, the kind of normless,
homogenised, secularised and globalised society which threatens
to be our fate.
As Kevin McCarthy put it "They're here already!"
Perhaps the real problem is that the depersonalised pod people
are already here. They're us.
All three versions of the film are available on video.
Astonishingly Finney's book is out of print in Britain but
can be ordered over the Internet from Amazon.