Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Pod People, Pop Culture, and The Cold War

For the month of October I plan on joining the masses who are celebrating Halloween by watching a few great horror films. I suppose, then, it’s intriguing that I chose Invasion of the Body Snatchers as my first October movie. Am I becoming a pod person by celebrating with such conformity? I’ll never tell. What I will tell is that this month I’ll be reviewing “horror” films of yore, which let’s be honest is probably more my pace than horror films of…now. 

At first glance, everything looked the same. It wasn’t.
Something evil had taken possession of the town.” – Dr. Miles Bennell

In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a small-town doctor, Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), returns home to find people behaving extremely strange. On the surface everyone looks normal, but patients are making appointments with the doctor only to cancel or not show up at all. The people he does talk with claim their family members aren’t their family members, and as much as some of us (not me) might want that to be the case with some of our own family members, in this town it just might be true. Something altogether creepy is taking over, and Bennell and his old “friend” Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) are the only two left to fight off the invasion of well…the body snatchers.

You can watch the trailer here:

Based on the novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney, this Sci Fi/horror classic ranked number nine on AFI’s list of best science fiction films as well as making number 47 on their 100 Years…100 Thrills list. The film was also ranked on lists by Time magazine, The Chicago Film Critics Association, and on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments. Do I agree that it deserves these listings? Why yes, I do.

What first  struck me was the formality of it all; the doctor and his nurse casually remarking on the strangeness of the town, and Becky in her polka-dot skirt, full of hope, and the promise of a new beginning. Of course, that only lasts so long. Once the doctor’s friend Jack finds a mysterious body in his house, it goes from psychological thrill to full-on freaky pretty quickly. Yet, there’s still this fifties normalcy about it. It’s not a gruesome film by any means, nor is it violent, or even that scary. What is scary is the entire concept of the film. Having your body taken over by an alien look-alike growing in a giant pod — that’s terrifying. Good gracious is that terrifying! Whether by aliens, brainwashing, or some other means, the idea that someone could take you over at any moment is downright creepy.

 “Sick people who couldn’t wait to see me, then suddenly were perfectly all right. A boy who said his mother wasn’t his mother. A woman who said her uncle wasn’t her uncle.” – Dr. Miles Bennell

No wonder, then, that this film lives on and on… and on through the many pop culture references it’s acquired over the years. TV episode titles like“Invasion of the Mork Snatchers” from Mork and Mindy and “Invasion of the Psychologist Snatchers” from Family Ties pay obvious homage to the film. Heck, even the Muppet Babies cartoon referenced the movie with season four’s  episode, “Invasion of the Muppet Snackers.” However, clever titles aren’t the only way in which the film is referenced. I was first drawn to the movie based on an allusion made in my all-time favorite show Gilmore Girls. In this reference one of the main characters, Lorelai, calls her father “Pod Grandpa” because he’s in an unusually good mood. As it turns out, there was an earlier reference to the film in which Luke tells an annoying town member, “Guess my pod is defective.” In looking for these references I found a decent list of other pop culture shout-outs to the movie that spanned from Cheers to Seinfeld and Dharma and Greg to Golden Girls. Even recent episodes of The Big Bang Theory have alluded to the movie. In one scene Sheldon notes “the Body Snatchers Clause” of his friendship with Leonard. You can check out the full list of pop culture references here. I’m certain it’s not complete, but it’s definitely entertaining.

Why all of the references you might wonder? I mean as far as iconic pop culture films, only a few people I know have even seen it. Yet, there they are; allusion after allusion to pods, body snatching, and worst of all…the pod people themselves! I’d suggest that it’s partly tongue-in-cheek and partly based on a real fear of conformity, whether by mysterious soul-sucker, peer pressure, or some other means. I mean, is there any greater insult than being accused of being a pod person? I suppose amongst the artistic community, from which these references stem (not pod stems, mind you), then this really would be the worst thing to be called. Sound the alarms! I’ve turned into everyone else! The pod people must be to blame!

Ah yes, that fear of conformity. The fear of someone or something draining away all of our original thought, emotion, and belief and leaving a shell of something that cares for little beyond survival. Now what on earth would cause such a fear in 1956?

Look, you fools, you’re in danger! Can’t you see? They’re after you! They’re after all of us! Our wives, our children, everyone! They’re here already! You’re next!” – Dr. Miles Bennell

Sound like anyone you know? I sure hope not. Does it sound like Senator McCarthy, though? I’d say so. Perhaps, it was the Cold War film history course I took in college that caused my brain to automatically ding “Red Scare” when it heard the above quote. Perhaps, it was the documentary I watched with Forbidden Planet about early Sci Fi and the Cold War. Perhaps, I too am a pod person, who can no longer separate what I’ve been told from what I believe. Let’s toss out that last option for now, and contemplate the first two.

I was pleased that with a quick Google search I found others who’d written, often passionately, about the cold war and McCarthy references in the film. Look Mom, I did learn something in school! What’s interesting is there seems to be some debate as to whether the body snatchers represent the communists or McCarthy. Was the film telling us to be scared of those evil commies who’re coming to snatch our souls away and make us just like everyone else, or were we to be scared of McCarthy and the government who were filling us with the fear to conform or be accused of being a communist? The debate rolls on with that one. Of course, according to the director and writers, they weren’t making a statement at all.

In the film’s Wikipedia entry (I know, I’m quoting Wikipedia), the writer references an interview with actor Kevin McCarthy (no connection to the senator – I don’t think). McCarthy claims to have seen no political references in the film at all. McCarthy’s interviewer also claimed to have spoken with the original author Jack Finney, who also denied any political undertones. Riiiight…

In the article “Invasion of the Body Snatchers: A Tale of Our Times” by John W. Whitehead, director Don Siegel is also said to have denied the political undertones of the films. He sees the story more as a battle against technological advances that are leading people to become “pods”, then as a statement about McCarthyism. In a quote from the article he says:

People are pods. Many of my associates are certainly pods. They have no feelings. They exist, breathe, sleep. To be a pod means that you have no passion, no anger, the spark has left you..of course, there’s a very strong case for being a pod. These pods, who get rid of pain, ill-health and mental disturbances are, in a sense, doing good. It happens to leave you in a very dull world but that, by the way, is the world that most of us live in…People are becoming vegetables. I don’t know what the answer is except an awareness of it. That’s what makes a picture like Invasion of the Body Snatchers important.

Yes, and that is what keeps it important, is it not? McCarthyism or not, the film has a very clear theme about holding tight to your individualism. Perhaps, we should be careful. We’ve already become iPod people, how much longer until we turn full-on pod? Don’t fall asleep dear reader, or you just might wake up devoid of all emotion, and thought. You just might wake up and no longer wish to read my blog, and then what would I do? It’s not really that simple, though, is it? Fall asleep and become someone else? I suppose only if your town is invaded by alien pods. I think I’ll dress as a pod person for Halloween. It’s a great costume. I get to be myself, and act like someone else. No one will suspect a thing. Or…not.

In my practice, I’ve seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away. Only it happened slowly instead of all at once. They didn’t seem to mind… All of us – a little bit – we harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us, how dear.” – Dr. Miles Bennell –

Who’s to blame/thank for the film’s greatness or lack there of?
I think the relatively unknown actors really helped bring out the greatness in this film. Because we didn’t know them, they seemed like ordinary people, which helped us believe that they were. For the most part, they did a great job. The voiceover strung throughout by Dr. Bennell moves the story forward, and really creates a sympathy for his plight. It works.

Why I watched this film in the first place?
My reason is three-fold. 1. I found it on the shelf at the library and that reminded me of… 2. I’d heard so many pop culture references to it that I decided it was time to see what it was all about. Finally: 3. I decided to review horror movies for the month of October, thus, it fit the bill…at least mostly.

If you liked this, you might also like:
The cool thing about this flick is that it’s just as much horror as it is Sci Fi. If you liked the style of this, and can bear a bit of a more disturbing horror film, then check out the original Night of the Living creepy! If that seems like a bit much, and perhaps it will be, then stick to Hitchcock for horror. He has the same polite, slowly building, and obviously brilliant mannerism to his films. For a lesser known Hitchcock thrill I’d check out Shadow of a Doubt. If you haven’t seen Psycho, though, start there. I’m sure there are some other great Sci Fi films from this era as well, but I’m still finding them.

Final verdict – in claps
You may clap, then be thankful that you can still show your opinion through clapping. Thus, have not been transformed into a pod person…yet.

Related articles and a few lists of other people’s favorite classic horror films