The 67th Berlin International Film Festival is screening 27 science fiction films in its Retrospective section. In at least a third of these films, aliens invade. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, directed by Don Siegel in 1956, is about plant spores from outer space which take root in the small town of Santa Mira, California and grow into pods which hatch pod people; the pod people are doppelgangers of the townsfolk but with no emotions. These alien life forms start taking over the town person-by-person. Those who notice a difference in their loved ones are sent to a psychiatrist.
Science & Film interviewed Dr. Salman Hameed, an astronomer and professor of Cognitive Science at Hampshire College, about INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHES and why some people think they have been abducted by aliens.
Science & Film: Is any part of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS scientifically accurate?
Salman Hameed: The idea that spores fall onto the earth and turn into pods has a scientific basis, to a certain degree. There was an astronomer named Fred Hoyle working in the 1950s who was controversial, but also brilliant. He came up with the term “Big Bang,” but not because he was in favor of it–he was actually a critic. His idea is called panspermia. Life can survive in harsh conditions; we know of bacteria that can survive even gamma rays. Hoyle hypothesized that it is possible that there could be life forms created in gas clouds in the galaxy. Gas clouds have raw material for life: amino acids and sugars. He imagined that life was created in space and then these life forms seed planets. He thought, it is possible that on Earth life may have been seeded like that. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS was made in 1956 and talked about spores; I don’t know whether the director would have heard of the panspermia hypothesis, but Hoyle was alive then.
S&F: You specialize in the intersection of science and religion–how did you become interested in aliens?
SH: I teach a course called “Aliens: Close Encounters of a Multidisciplinary Kind,” and it is a course which deals with all aspects of depictions of aliens. The class starts with the first claims of UFO citings. The first mass citing was in 1896 and ’97. People saw ships that looked cigar-shaped, because at the time the design for air ships, which were about to be launched, were in that shape. Then, from 1947 onwards citings took the shape of flying saucers. The first citing of that kind was by an Air Force pilot whose name was Kenneth Arnold. However, he never said that he saw something like a flying saucer. Instead, he was describing the motion of the object. He said that he saw lights and they were moving. He said they were moving like a saucer that skips on water. But the headline the next day was, Pilot Sees a Flying Saucer. Then, fascinatingly, people actually started seeing flying saucers. You can look at the history of these claims to see what kind of cultural motifs play a role.
In the class, we also spend a lot of time on people who claim to have been abducted by aliens, such as in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. In reality, there is a physiological thing that happens to about 10% of the population repeatedly called sleep paralysis. This is when you think you are awake, but your body hasn’t sent the signal to your body which says that you are up, so you cannot move your limbs. This happens usually around three or four in the morning, and it has been noted for centuries. In the middle ages, there used to be demons that people saw. Now, because the cultural context is shaped by science fiction, people see aliens.
S&F: So people in a paralyzed state think that they have been awoken by an alien?
SH: When we go to sleep, the rationality-checking section of the brain is switched off. That is the reason why when we dream we are not startled by the fact that we are flying. In this state of sleep paralysis or what is called the hypnogogic state of consciousness or hypnogogia, you are awake. Typically, your brain sends a signal to the rest of your body that you are awake, now you can move your limbs, and the rationality-section of your brain is working. But sometimes, there is a miscommunication. When that happens you are aware but your brain has not sent a signal, so you cannot move your limbs and are still in a dream state in which you see things that are in violation of regular laws.
If you are looking for an explanation of what happened to you, you can use a cultural template which can be provided by television or movies. After the 1960s, the template that became popular was that of alien abduction. One thing I find most interesting with these encounters is that they are physiologically real and some people display signs of PTSD. Fascinatingly, many people who have experience this also say that it the best thing that happened to them, because it was a life-changing experience. Some of these people call themselves Experiencers. The experience takes on an importance in their life and it gives them community.
S&F: I would guess that community of alien abductees has become more prevalent with the internet where it is so easy to go online and find others with similar experiences.
SH: You can find people across the globe. Historically, this alien narrative is a 20th century phenomena because the 20th century was the space age, the technological age, and an age of mass communication. In the Muslim context, there are these species called Jinn, or Genies, and a lot of people believe these beings exist. In Medieval Times, there was an incubus and succubus. With the power of science fiction movies and television, now you can have similar types of cultural motifs around the world.
S&F: Aliens often symbolize the “Other” in science fiction films. What do you think about the idea that these plotlines can sometimes reinforce feelings of xenophobia which are there in the culture?
SH: If we look at the history of this type of science fiction, usually people point to either Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which dealt with the fear of taking technology too far. The other parallel people use is H.G. Wells–The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds were critiques of Victorian society. When Gene Roddenberry created STAR TREK, this was an opportunity to comment on race relations. Setting the show in space gave him a license. The character of Uhura became a cultural symbol. There is a fascinating back-story about the first interracial kiss on television between Captain Kirk and Uhura which almost didn’t happen.
S&F: What happened?
SH: Under alien influence, Captain Kirk was asked to kiss Uhura. They shot that particular scene and a week before it was to air in 1967, the filmmakers checked with the NBC executives about the scene who said that they could not show it. The team then had to reshoot the scene, but during the reshoot William Shatner looked at the camera and he crossed his eyes. Nobody knew while they were filming, and then it was too late. They realized Shatner had deliberately sabotaged the reshoot, so in the end they showed the original scene, and that is how the first interracial kiss made it on screen.
S&F: So in this case, using aliens in storytelling is a way of exploring society and its problems. What about INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS?
SH: INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS does the opposite. People have debated about what exactly it is commenting on. The most obvious allegory seems to be the Soviet Union and Communists because of the impression in the film that all the pod people are the same. They are emotionless but are more industrious. So, that is the threat of the Soviet Union and Communism, and the film was made at the height of the Cold War. Some people have also looked at it the opposite–maybe it was a commentary on McCarthyism. Your society can change and you may not even notice it, and it can turn into an authoritarian society.
It is tricky in how to read INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, but since this movie is going to be playing in the current environment [at the Berlinale], we have to be careful how we analyze the film. This threat of infiltration in the film, and there is this narrative of immigrants and refugees in current society. I think to a certain degree you can look at the film from that stance as well, but then you have the resultant authoritarian society that gets created. So that’s a good science fiction film which leaves you to think about all these different aspects. But, certainly it is a commentary on society.
Other people have also said that may be a commentary on post-war America. There is a key scene when the Doctor is recalling events, he finds out that his girlfriend who he leaves and comes back to has been taken over, and he says, “A moment's sleep, and the girl I loved...was an inhuman enemy bent on my destruction.” Some people have interpreted that as the feminist movement. In post-war America, men had come back from World War II and the women had taken jobs, the women’s movements were happening, so there was a fear and threat of feminism and of women. It is a rich film. Alien narratives have always played a role commenting upon society. In this context it is a political film.
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS is being projected in 35mm at the Berlin International Film Festival. The film is directed by Don Siegel, written by Daniel Mainwaring based on a 1954 serial by Jack Finney, and stars Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wytner, King Donovan, and Carolyn Jones.
Dr. Salman Hameed is the Charles Taylor Chair and associate professor of integrated science and humanities in the school of Cognitive Science at Hampshire College. He is also the director of Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies. His primary research interest focuses on understanding the reception of science in the Muslim world, and he has also studied star formations in spiral galaxies.