Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the paranoia of suburbia/communism/ McCarthyism or all of the above.

Kevin Brianton

Strategic Communication Senior Lecturer, Melbourne: Australia.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) was the cinematic pinnacle of the paranoia about subversion. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) was the cinematic pinnacle of the paranoia about subversion.  It was a popular film at the time of its release and his remained one of the most critically acclaimed of the 1950s science fiction films.  Dr Miles Bennell, played by Kevin McCarthy, returned to Santa Mira, a small town in Southern Califiornia.  His nurse told him that there appeared to be a serious malady in the town and people were saying that their friends and relatives were lacking full emotion.  He saw a few cases with these symptoms and could not find a reason for the malady.  After further investigation, he found mysterious plants which began to resemble people and then take over them while they sleep.  Miles found that the police force had been taken over by these pods.  Eventually he escaped from Santa Mira with pod people following him.  He was found hysterically wandering along a highway screaming ‘You’re next.  They’re coming.  You’re next.’[1]  He finally alerted the authorities and the audience assumed that all will be well as Washington had been called.  For a low budget film, it received solid publicity form Allied Artists whose executives were shattered by the initial viewing.  Producer Walter Wanger insisted on a softer ending which explained the odd first and last scenes.  The ending was still strong, but there was a not of reassurance when a doctor decided to call the authorities.[2]  The changes probably helped the film’s success. The film originally ended with Kevin McCarthy running dazedly down the freeway, screaming ‘You’re next. You’re next.  The original ending in the script had Miles struck by a car.  Miles is found muttering ‘burn them. Burn them!  There’s no escape … No time to waste.  Unless you do, you’ll be next.’  The producers made Siegel tack on an introductory scene and a final scene where Washington is notified.  The ending of the novel has Becky and Miles facing the enemy and deciding to make a final stand against the pods despite certain capture.  They manage to burn some of the pod people by pouring petrol into a ditch.  They are captured but the pods decide that the planet is too inhospitable and fly off into space.  Santa Mira is saved. 

Interpretations differ wildly about the film, from the anti-McCarthyism to anti-communism to anti-conformism. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The pod people were regimented society and lacked any signs of individuality.  The vegetable metaphor had connotations with the growth of communism in fertile American soil, similar to the alien in The Thing.  The pod people were cold and emotionless with few personal feelings about life.  They do not even wince when a dog was run over in front of them.  Their way of life was extremely organised and authoritarian.

Interpretations differ wildly about the film, from the anti-McCarthyism to anti-communism to anti-conformism.  The anti-McCarthyist interpretation argues that it is American authorities which are being controlled by the pods.  The pods control the government, law enforcement agencies and communications and enforce the political line of the country.  The pods represented the McCarthyite forces in America attempting to strip away all political opposition.  And the film certainly does mirror the hysteria, the sense of paranoia, the authoritarian police and the witch-hunt atmosphere, but there are too many holes in the argument.  One critical scene was a speech by one of the pod people who talked to Miles about the world under the pod people.  The philosophy was that there will ne no feeling, no free will, no moral choice, no anger, no tears, no pain, no passion and no emotion.  It will mean being ‘reborn into an untroubled world, where everybody’s exactly the same.’[3]  In this world, there is no need for love or emotion.  ‘Love, ambition, desire, faith – without them, life is so simple.’ the alien explained.[4]  The alien of The Thing had resurfaced in human form.  In response, Miles said ‘only when we have to fight to stay human, do we realise how precious our humanity is.’[5]  From this speech it was difficult to see how the film could be read as anything other than fear of communism.  In the pod society, there were no emotions, and while that meant no love, it also ruled out hate, war, and crimes of passion.  It would be a world without discord.  To Americans in the late 1950s, a society which denied freedom of thought – or emotions – was a communist society.  The arguments about Invasion of the Body Snatchers being anti-McCarthyite are clever but not convincing.

Film historian Stuart Samuels’ view was that the pods represented the spectre of conformity in American life.  The popular books of the 1950s were Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd, Whyte’s The Organisational Man and Packard’s The Status Seekers which depicted a society that was moving away form rugged individualism to the security of the group.  The group demanded conformity in exchange for economic security.[6]  The film was against social conformity, but it was the conformity forced on a community by an invader.  Samuels’ argument that it was an attack on social conformity ignores one important scene which was almost a carbon copy from the anti-communist film Red Nightmare.  In the scene, the townspeople gathered in the central square to receive their orders for the day.  A jeep drove up and military official handed out orders and pods were distributed.  Noel Carroll in the Soho News described the scene in Invasion of the Body Snatchers as the ‘quintessential Fifties image of socialism.’[7]  People were not only stripped of personality, but regimented to take over the rest of the United States.  It was a vision of communism first subverting and then overthrowing the United States.


[1] Al LaValley, (ed.) Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Rutgers University Press, London, 1989.

[2] See LaValley, p. 122.

[3] Ibid p. 88.

[4] Ibid p. 88.

[5] Ibid p. 82.

[6] Stuart Samuels, The Age of Conspiracy and Conformity: Invasion of the Body Snatchers in John E. O’Connor, and Martin A. Jackson (ed.).  American History/ American Film: Interpreting the Hollywood Image, Continuum, New York, 1988, pp. 203 – 219.

[7] Danny Peary, Cult Movies, Vermillion, UK, 1982, p. 157.

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