What We Fear From the ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’
In 1954, it was a novel. Now it’s a handful of films. Still scary?
Jack Finney was an American novelist, and his famous story, The Body Snatchers, is archetypally American. In a culture that so heavily promotes individualism, the ultimate terror is losing one’s own personality.
In Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatchers, alien seed pods fall to earth and sprout plants that quickly mature. While a human is asleep, the plant produces an emotionless clone of the human body and then destroys the original body. It is impossible to distinguish a clone from the original, except that something is behaviorally amiss: a clone shows no facial expressions and takes no interest in anything other than the task in front of it. The clones seem to have no purpose except to cultivate more seed pods to grow more of their kind. They communicate with each other swiftly and ruthlessly through unseen channels. Their goal is world domination. Occasionally, they attempt to verbally justify this by explaining that they are relieving humanity of its suffering.
In Robert Eberwein’s essay published in Play It Again, Sam: Retakes on Remakes (1998), he points out the different cultural contexts for Americans who saw the first and second films. The “pod people” in the 1956 film, he points out, represent people swept up by some diabolical mass movement who have lost their free moral agency. Many interpreted the story as a social or political commentary, particularly in the wake of McCarthyism (Americans baselessly suspecting and accusing each other of treasonous Communist affiliations). The 1978 film, by contrast, “concentrated on conformity and surrendering the capacity to feel.”
Another film version, “Body Snatchers,” came out in 1993. In that one, too, plants clone humans empty of emotion; the film is set on a military base.
The cultural importance of this tale inspired an anthology, Invasion of the Body Snatchers: A Tribute (2006).
When I Saw the 2007 Film
Yet another film remake, “The Invasion,” arrived in 2007. “Body Snatchers” was dropped from the title because there are no pods or “pod people” anymore in this version. Instead, the alien pandemic strikes in the form of an illness that renders its victim unconscious to his or her former self while still walking, talking, and ruthlessly coordinating the infection of more humans. The political situation has been updated: suicide bombs are exploding in the Middle East, there are diplomatic standoffs in North Korea, and a Russian and Czech diplomat snipe at each other at a dinner party. Meanwhile, the well-to-do, white American protagonists have relatively peaceful, domestic lives.
In real life, normal humans are vulnerable and must endure daily life with a measure of fear. In the 2007 film, infected humans lack this fear. Here’s how the threat is presented: We (humans) are unique, special, emotive; they (infected half-aliens) are uncanny and doll-like. Ironically, the humans fear losing their fear. They realize that their vulnerability defines them; because of it, they exist and have identity.
This vulnerability is also a peculiarly American theme, where, in Americans’ expected order of things, they are expected to feel vulnerable (to help rationalize imperialism; it is practically an American civic duty to be anxious about “others”) while everyone else is expected to actually be vulnerable (so American imperialism can win). The film “otherizes” non-Americans: We (Americans) eat breakfast with our families in nice clean kitchens; they (foreigners in the Eastern hemisphere) blow each other up. But the arrival of the alien sickness flips that global situation. The U.S. city portrayed in the film riots as the infected (including the police) pursue the uninfected. Everywhere else on Earth—if the television reports are to be trusted — by contrast becomes suddenly peaceful as infected people install an instantaneous and permanent ceasefire. The Middle East becomes “quiet”; Asia makes peace treaties. Yet as the United States makes the same biological conversion, it expresses itself violently. A violent West and a peaceful East is portrayed as an unacceptable, unnatural flip of the natural order.
The idea that a supernatural force can steal your mind or soul has been common in legends for a long time. McCarthyism was an interpretation for the 1950s, social conformism was an interpretation for the 1970s, and xenophobia was an interpretation for 2007 (given the six years that had elapsed since an era-defining terrorist attack). The idea of a permanent peace itself is interpreted as offending American identity. The idea is so alien, it is literally brought by aliens.
All of us want to be able to hold on to our core sense of identity. We don’t want our sense of who we are supernaturally annihilated or forcibly taken from us. But what is the identity we are trying to save, and what is the mission in which we believe? That is a question that every iteration of Invasion of the Body Snatchers asks anew.
Who knows what Jack Finney, who died in 1995, would say today?
If there is yet another remake — and there might be — it might tap into any of a number of 2020s anxieties. The source material is so rich.