THE MEDIA ON MY MIND
Monsters of every stripe have stalked across world screens since the birth of cinema. The first Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was released in 1908. Universal Studios’ “gothics” of the 1930s and 1940s reflected the brooding expression of German silent-era horror classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Universal’s sovereign children of the night included the eponymous Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), and The Wolf Man (1941).
The late 1940s and early 1950s featured monstrously mutated creatures, living and prehistoric—the giant ants of THEM! (1954) and Godzilla (1954)—who eventually became a Japanese national treasure. Malevolent aliens also saucered across the celluloid firmament in The Thing From Another World (1951), War of the Worlds (1953), etc.
The “otherness” of these monsters was curiously comforting. One was safely scared, ensconced in the battered seat of the local Bijou, popcorn and Mars bar in sweaty hands. After all, the mayhem was being wrought onscreen, not on the audience; the Man From Mars was obviously a big galoot in a monster suit—and, hey, it was only a movie!
The late 1950s brought doubts about America’s prosperity at home, and power abroad. As the Cold War heated up, the Red Menace spurred a tidal wave of dread across the nation. Hollywood suffered the blacklists, but the dream factory also reaped profit from processing McCarthyite paranoia in one of the genre’s finest shockers—Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
Previously, the movie monster had been safely confined to Transylvania or outer space. In Body Snatchers the creature assumed human form and stepped across your threshold. Thereafter he could be anyone—your postman, neighbor, family member—even yourself!
Loss of identity by supernatural or pseudoscientific means is a perennial theme of the horror genre, particularly in zombie and vampire pictures. I’ve speculated elsewhere that the vampire’s depredations evoke the lure—and dread—of submersion in the blissful “oceanic consciousness” of early infancy that Freud inferred.
In Body Snatcher’s spin on this fatal urge to merge, residents of a California town are transformed into replicants by an unidentified alien menace. While sleeping, victims are replaced by simulacra growing in an eerie “pod,” secretly placed nearby by earlier recruits. Those yet unzombified are mercilessly hunted down by the “pod people” for conversion worse than death.
Dr. Greenberg practices psychiatry in Manhattan, New York. He continues to publish frequently on film, media, and popular culture. For many years, his cinema column appeared in Psychiatric Times. He has appeared frequently on national and international network and cable television programs including Good Morning America, Today, CBS Evening and Sunday News, PBS, CNN, Showtime, and BBC-TV. Please address communications to Dr. Greenberg at [email protected].
1. Shakespeare W. Hamlet. http://shakespeare.mit.edu/hamlet/full.html. Accessed April 11, 2017.