Reader Response to Samuels’ “The Age of Conspiracy and Conformity: Invasion of the Body Snatchers”

Film is one of the languages through which the world communicates with itself, because films contain the values, fears, myths, assumptions, and point of view of the culture in which they are produced.

Stuart Samuels’ contention is that one can get insight into the mindset of a subjective population through analysis of a film. In this article, he juxtaposes movies with the cultural ideology of post World War II America, citing twenty-four examples of films that span the 1950’s, giving one or two explicit correlations with each movie. In particular, Samuels carefully dissects the 1956 horror flick, Invasion of the Body Snatchers utilizing three specific parallels to the decade in which it was produced. These are the “three concepts [that] dominated the decade: (1) conformity, (2) paranoia, (3) alienation” (207). He thoroughly analyzes Invasion’s usage of filmic devices to convey these thought-provoking similarities in a way that stimulates contemplation into one’s own interpretation of cinematic art; not merely restricted to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but of the limitless allegories interpolated within each and every movie ever made.
America is a country founded on principles of individuality. Outcasts of all backgrounds emigrated to this unfamiliar land to embrace that individualism, and bloody wars were fought to preserve and maintain it. How, then, did such a rebellious society submit so easily to conformity? Atrocities of WWII, such as the extermination of the Jewish people at Nazi concentration camps, the fear of utter destruction by new nuclear technology, and the threat of communism infiltrating the American way of life, are among many reasons that evoked the united disposition. According to Samuels, the unopposed solution to mass trepidation was “Consensus mentality… [that] represented an attempt to shift the burden of individual responsibility for one’s fate to an impersonal monolithic whole” (208). This is mirrored in Invasion as Dr. Bennell is fiercely trying to perpetuate his identity, while the ‘pods’ relentlessly cultivate a zombie-like, emotionless monotony.
During this epoch of widespread social conformity, an undesired side effect was fostering the second concept of 1950’s America: paranoia. To illustrate this, Samuels explains that “Schools named after American heroes… were rumored to be fronts for communists, calls for free speech were seen as pleas for communism…” were typical notions contemplated by many, but spoken of by few (209). Again, this is objectified in Invasion. There is no physical difference between a ‘normal’ townsperson and their analogue. However, Dr. Bennell and Becky recognized that the people they once knew were not the same anymore, even if they couldn’t pinpoint the difference. The ‘pod people’ attempted to placate the situation by explaining the confusion as an epidemic of neurosis, but Dr. Bennell is not satisfied with such a simple explanation, given the extent of the bizarre occurrences. Consequently, at paranoia’s apex, the next rational step is to coalesce.
So far, fear has lead to conformity, and conformity has lead to paranoia. Now that the population is paranoid and indistinguishable, little voices of selfishness begin to emote, quietly at first, but become increasingly vociferous. In the 1950’s, increasing technology was causing “The fear of man becoming a machinelike organism, losing his humanity” (212). In Invasion, this fear becomes a reality to the inhabitants of Santa Mira, because the ‘pod people’ are devoid of emotion-human frames on autopilot.
Mr. Samuels makes very good arguments for his thesis. His reasoning is clear and it’s not hard to imagine what you would do if you were put in a similar situation. Without any further research of that time period, I speculate that the symbolism of the movie has elements of critiquing both communism and 1950’s American conformity, but moreso a jab at the conformity part. The portrayal of Santa Mira as ‘Anytown, America’ is satirical, and Dr. Bennell’s regression from ‘All-American Doctor’ to insane seems ironic in the light of ideologies of the time. I found this article very interesting because I have never analyzed a movie in such detail. I have also never lived in fear for my life as did the citizens of America during the 1950’s, so it is difficult to definitively support one view of the movie over another.