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October 8, 2005

Kristin Hawley on Pods and Blobs

The great Kristin Hawley tops the Boomerang Formica paper with one on Pods and Blobs!!!!! Share and Enjoy (tm).

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Pods and Blobs in 1950s American Popular Culture

In America during the 1950s, postwar anxieties were frequently channeled into popular culture, ranging from the realm of the humorous to that of the terrifying. In particular, these anxieties were manifested in a surge of monster movies, in which, rather than technological threats such as robots, the monsters took the form of living creatures, often amorphous blobs, that continued to mutate and expand, consuming everything in their paths. The 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a particularly telling example of these villainous blobs, which when examined in their context, reveal postwar anxieties concerning the spread of Communism, atomic radiation, and the loss of individualism due to corporate liberalism.
The monsters in Invasion of the Body Snatchers are at first shapeless blobs that develop inside of what appear to be large seed pods and which “have the power to reproduce themselves in the exact likeness of any form of life.” They eventually grow to resemble each individual human being on earth, “taking them over cell for cell, atom for atom,” until, “while you’re asleep, they’ll absorb your minds, your memories, and you’re reborn into an untroubled world” where there is no need for love, desire, ambition, or faith and “life is simple.”
The natural forms of the pod and the blob correspond with the prevailing biomorphic aesthetic of 1950s America. This preoccupation for fluid, amorphous, organic forms in art, product design, and architecture in the 1950s, while in part suggesting the optimism of people looking to a renewed life of peace and a future of progress and prosperity, also had a dark side, as the forms appeared prone to mutation or melt down as well as the ability to multiply and expand out of control.
This threat of unstoppable expansion and ultimate takeover makes pods and blobs a fitting monster for 1950s audiences who were consumed with the real-life fear of the seemingly immanent spread of Communism, both at home and abroad. The fear induced in the populace by the take-over of the pods is referred to in the movie as “an epidemic of mass-hysteria,” and the pods are called a “malignant disease that’s spreading through the whole country,” much like actual reaction of Americans to McCarthyism and the ensuing climate of suspicion. Also, in the film, when the pod people eventually become the majority, obedience is socially enforced and the dissenters are rounded up and turned in by the masses—an outcome not at all unlike the way McCarthyism was largely enforced by the American public’s willingness, if not eagerness, to participate.
In addition, the capacity of blobs to mutate likely reminded Americans of the all too real threat of atomic warfare and the effects of radiation. Interestingly, in the movie, the first pod is discovered growing in a greenhouse, a device by which man artificially controls nature; this is perhaps a commentary on the danger that accompanies this new scientific power. However, in the movie, as well as in the minds of the American public, this power was regarded with a kind of fearful fascination: “Maybe they’re the result of atomic radiation on plant life or animal life. Some weird alien organism--a mutation of some kind…Whatever it is, whatever intelligence or instinct it is that governs the forming of human flesh and blood out of thin air, is fantastically powerful.”
Another important characteristic of the blob in Invasion of the Body Snatchers is its lack of individuality and lack of a soul. In the film, a still-growing body is described as having “all the features but no details, no character, no lines.” At their core, they are all the same nondescript body that only assumes the likeness of individual humans. Even after the transformation is complete, something important is missing. All the facts are right: the physical appearance, the memories, but not the soul. And those who knew these individuals before the take-over feel the loss.
This inevitably calls to mind not only America’s valorization of its citizens’ individual freedoms (in reality jeopardized by McCarthyism), which were put on display to the world to counter the rise of Communism, but also, ironically, the crisis of the individual taking place on their own soil due to postwar corporate liberalism. In addition to the personal and intellectual freedom lost to McCarthyism, the depersonalization caused by industrialized society gradually left Americans feeling anxious and empty, and as society came under bureaucratic control, individual thought was devalued and mental attitude rationalized: “Corporations instituted a system of homogenization that rewarded rule-following and attitude management as good in themselves” (Belgrad, 4). Like those unsuspecting citizens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers who have already suffered a take-over, the working-man in bureaucratic society is stripped of his individuality and freedom, and just as their blob captors are soulless, so too are corporations. According to Schlesinger, the impersonality of corporations meant that no one had to feel a direct responsibility for his actions, and thus, they became the instrument through which “moral man could indulge his natural weakness for immoral deeds” (5). This crisis of individuality is articulated by the doctor in Invasion of the Body Snatchers when he says, “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.”
It is precisely this fight to stay human, taking place so fearfully and urgently in the hearts, minds, and actions of many 1950s Americans, which gave rise to the blob. The fight against the blob was the fight to protect the basic American and human values of democracy and individual freedom, as well as quite literally, to protect humanity from extinction through atomic warfare—a fight that we could simply not afford to lose.

Posted by pedalboy at October 8, 2005 1:07 AM | TrackBack