Fear of dehumanisation (Night of the Living Dead and Invasion of the Body Snatchers

This essay will explore how Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Siegel, 1956) and Night of the Living Dead (Romero, 1968) tap into the viewer’s fears of dehumanisation. The essay will focus on the films within the social contexts of which they were originally viewed and will explore how Invasion of the Body Snatchersengages with the audience’s anxieties about social, political and technological developments.  In doing so, the film taps into the audience’s fear of dehumanisation through the loss of essential human qualities.  The essay will also explore how Night of the Living Deadtaps into the audience’s fears of dehumanisation in its portrayal of the living dead and narrative progression.

Invasion of the Body Snatcherswas released to audiences in 1956, a time when American society was filled with a myriad of fears such as homogenization of American life (Booker 357), the increasing power and reach of communism as well as scientific and technological advances. 

The first way that Invasion of the Body Snatchers taps into the audience fear of dehumanisation is by engaging with the viewers’ fear of communist infiltration into the American suburban neighbourhoods.   The Communist Scare, which had surfaced after the United States of American’s victory in World War II, was coexistent with the release of the film.   There was a prevalent concern within the community that anyone could be a communist spy or communist sympathiser and from the outside look like everyone else.  This fear is allegorical in Invasion of the Body Snatchers; the portrayal of aliens taking over the bodies of American citizens and carrying on their everyday life as normal, virtually unrecognisable to the non-alien community.   Badmington discusses how “the difference between the human and the inhuman … comes to occupy a central position within the narrative” (7).  Badmington elaborates the “distinction between human and inhuman moves from the physical to the metaphysical:  humans have feelings; aliens do not” (7). The alien invaded humans in Invasion of the Body Snatchers succumb to the same dehumanised fate as a supposed communist spy, losing individuality and becoming “mere functionaries of the social whole” (Jancovich 26).

Another way in which Invasion of the Body Snatchers taps into the viewer’s fears of dehumanisation is by harnessing the audience’s dissatisfaction with the effects Fordism was having on American society.  The post-war industrialisation of the manufacturing and processing sector and subsequent mass production and consumption that followed were new technological and economic advances for the audiences of the 1950’s.  Jancovich states the aliens “lack of feelings” and “absence of individual characteristics” are the same effects that Fordism was producing within American society (26).   Jancovich elaborates that scientific-technical rationality “was impersonal, and it oppressed human feelings and emotions” (26).  The aliens are alsoaligned with science as their very existence is the result of an unknown planets technology (Jancovich 26).  In representing the aliens as conformist human beings without human emotions or individuality Invasion of the Body Snatchersuses the contemporary audiences suspicion of science and technological advances to tap into to an overarching fear of dehumanisation that is occurring within American society as a result of technological and economic advances.

A further way in which Invasion of the Body Snatcherstaps into viewers’ fears of dehumanisation is by presenting the rapidly expanding alien invasion as immune to resistance.  The opening sequence of Invasion of the Body Snatchersbegins with title credits over a close up of rapidly moving clouds while increasingly dramatic orchestral music builds.  The opening music creates a significant sense of horror and foreboding by containing multiple drum rolls punctuated by sustained suspenseful orchestral notes, slowly increasing the number instruments, melodies and rhythm with the inevitable inclusion of suspenseful high-pitched stringed instruments. When Miles first enters the screen, being held back by two uniformed police officers, the opening music returns with extended drum rolls and erratic orchestral sounds.  A dishevelled and unclean Miles begins to tell the doctor what happened to him last Thursday.  This opening scene is actually closer to the end of the narrative, the rest of the story developing as Miles recalls it to the doctor. By framing the narrative in this way, the audience is conscious of the inevitable as the story unfolds.  As the film continues there are several reminders that the invasion is spreading quickly and is inevitable.  As Miles continues to resist the invasion he is told, “You’re forgetting something Miles, you have no choice”.  The most dramatic foreboding of inevitability is Miles shouting directly to the audience moments before the end of the film “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.  They’re here already.  You’re next!  You’re next!!”  This sense of inevitability taps into fears of dehumanisation by taking away power, control and decision making from the characters.  The spreading of the alien invasion is prolific; creating a sense of horror, but the characters ability to resist it is almost non-existent, robbing them of the essence of being human and living in a free society.

Jancovich (22) states that 1950’s America consisted of a “deep-seated anxiety about social, political, economic and cultural developments” and “the basis of individualism was being eroded”.  It is these fears that Invasion of the Body Snatchersengages with us to tap into what is ultimately the viewers’ fear of dehumanisation.   

Night of the Living Dead explores more than the horror of death, it touches on themes of family, religion, community and government all while creating an apocalyptic sense of futility.  It is the narrative exploration of these themes that tap into viewers’ fear of dehumanisation.  Clark and Senn discuss how in spite of Night of the Living Dead’s apocalyptic backdrop, it “owes much of it’s durability to a similar emphasis on evergreen human weaknesses” (308).  Clark and Senn elaborate by claiming that the scariest part of the film is the way the characters treat each other, succumbing to selfishness, bigotry and fear, humankind represented by the characters of Ben and Harry, shun cooperation in favour of self-destruction (308).  It is ultimately not the countless numbers of living dead swarming the farmhouse that threatens the survival of the characters but instead the growing tension inside.  The breakdown of the group inside the farmhouse occupies the central narrative, exposing the failure of family, struggles for dominance, conflict and violence.   Kendall notes that it is “Ben’s violence that becomes increasingly disturbing” and his excessive reactions to Barbara and continuing conflict with Harry “exacerbates the growing tension in the house” (96).  Each character loses their human qualities as the narrative continues, or in the case of Harry is introduced without esteemed human qualities.  It is through the disintegration of family and community that Night of the Living Deadtaps into viewers’ fear of dehumanisation by representing social order, community and family as something that can no longer be relied upon to restore a return to order.  

Another way in which Night of the Living Dead taps into the audiences’ fear of dehumanisation through it’s narrative unfolding is the end scene in which Ben is killed.  The initial viewer assumption that Ben was spared the transformation from human to undead is shattered as Ben is shot at long range by a state trooper, dehumanised in the state troopers gaze.  This is emphasised by the juxtaposition of what the audience sees as Ben wakes in the morning, the camera lingering on him emerging cautiously from the cellar and making his way to the window; a mixture of hope and trepidation.  The state troopers don’t pause before shooting Ben, despite the fact they are under no immediate threat, they fail to recognise Ben as human.  Harper establishes that “on a superficial level, narrative equilibrium is restored in the final scene by the state troopers, who … reinstate order and authority” (4).  Harper continues to outline how the audience is acutely aware that the “apparent order” occurred at the expense of Ben’s life and there has been a despicable “violation of social justice”.  This engages with viewers’ fears by portraying the authorities, who are inherently expected to protect citizens, so quick to dismiss Ben that they don’t see the human qualities the audience has been privy to.  

The manner in which Night of the Living Deadportrays the undead as liminal beings taps into the audiences’ fear of dehumanisation.  The portrayal of the undead as human like beings that are devoid of any real human like qualities engages with these fears. The film blurs the boundaries between life and death and the undead threaten dehumanisation by reducing humans to a source of food or transforming them into a living dead.   Dillard asserts that the film looks within the depths of human consciousnesses to find its source of horror and elaborates, “this is a fear of the dead and particularly of the known dead” (15). Dillard explains that Johnny and Barbara’s early graveyard scene is “based purely on the fear the living have of the dead”.  This taps into viewers primordial fear of dehumanisation of loved ones through death and as Dillard notes offers the audience “neither rational nor religious relief”.   

One of the more nihilistic ways in which the film engages with audiences’ fear is through the introduction of zombie cannibalism. According to Clark and Senn, Night of the Living Dead, was the first horror film to escalate gore to the realm of cannibalism and “went far beyond anything shown before” (308).  It is the portrayal of zombies as human-like monsters eating the flesh of actual humans that engages with audience fear in an overt sense, yet the humans within the film are figuratively cannibalised in that they almost all meet an untimely end at the hands of their fellow humans.  The earliest scene of overt cannibalism occurs late in the film.  Namely, the scene in which Tom and Judy’s freshly cooked entrails are systematically taken from the burnt out pickup truck by the zombie cannibals who then in turn sit down to eat their offerings almost peacefully.  As calm settles over the scene through a rhythmic, pulse-like electronic score and a lack of dialogue, the film’s zombies appear almost human.  Here, Romero draws our focus to the horrific implication of people eating people.  However, it is largely the events that led to this sequence from which we may draw that cannibalism is a major theme of the film.  That is, Tom and Judy are not killed by the zombies directly but are instead victims of a tragic accident involving the well-intentioned Ben and an exploding fuel pump.  Furthermore, all but two of the film’s characters meet their death at the hands of the living. 

In conclusion, both Invasion of the Body Snatchersand Night of the Living Deadtap into viewers’ fears of dehumanisation by portraying their monsters as human-like beings devoid of human qualities.  While both films explore different themes of dehumanisation from Invasion of the Body Snatchersharnessing of the audiences anxieties of technological developments to Night of the Living Dead’s more overt reduction of human beings to a source of meat for the undead, they each tap deep into the psyche of the contemporary audience.  Universal themes of identity, family and death are present in both films, engaging with audiences’ fear of dehumanisation through a loss of self, community and ultimately, life.

Works Cited

Badmington, Neil.  “Pod almighty!; or humanism, posthumanism, and the strange case of Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. Textual Practice 15. 1. (2001). 5-22. Web. 10 November 2014.

Booker, M. Keith.  Alternate Americas: Science Fiction Film and American Culture. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2006. Ebooks Corporation. Web. 6 November 2014. 

Clark, Mark, and Bryan Senn.  Sixties Shockers: A Critical Filmography of Horror Cinema, 1960 – 1969.  Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2011. 307 – 310. Web. 9 November 2014.

Dillard, R. H. W.  “Night of the Living Dead:  It’s Not Like Just a Wind That’s Passing Through.”  American Horrors:  Essays on the Modern American Horror Film.  Ed. Gregory A. Waller. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987. 14 – 29. Print.

Harper, Steven.  Night of the Living Dead:  Reappraising an Undead Classic.  Bright Lights Film Journal. 50. (2005). Web. 10 November 2014. 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Dir. Don Siegel. Writ. Daniel Mainwaring and Jack Finney. Perf. Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter and Larry Gates. 1956. Artisan Home Entertainment, 2002. DVD.

Jancovich, Mark.  Rational Fears:  American horror in the 1950’s. Manchester, NY:  Manchester University Press, 1996.  8-31.  PDF File.

Night of the Living Dead. Dir. George A. Romero. 1968.  The Video Cellar, 2009.  DVD. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s