Cult Films as a Social Phenomenon in the 1950s
© Julia Weinmann
The decade of the 1950s predominantly recalls ideas of conventionalism, conformity and gender boundaries. The home played an important role as an oasis of peace, retreat and security, thus the era is shaped by the widespread ideal of the suburban family. However, the notion of conformity and the idyll of the so-called ‘nuclear family’ served as points of attack for filmmakers as society’s indifferent and passive life was seen as the basis for their loss of individuality and free will. As a result, movies put emphasis on the fragility of society and the reversal of moral ideals, and filmmakers called for a more active participation in social and political life. Above all, people who lived in the idyll of peaceful suburb communities were afraid of an infiltration of their own individuality and of the dissolving of their integrity, a process which could in their opinion be provoked both physically, for example by the nuclear bomb, and mentally, that is by the spread of Communism. Consequently, the period following World War II was predominantly shaped by the influence of the Cold War which presented a seemingly peaceful situation but created great paranoia among people, such as the fear of the attack of hidden evil. The filmmakers’ way of dealing with the new situation was the introduction of science fiction horror movies which responded to the existing fear of an offensive by an external enemy. The enemy generally embodied the Communist threat and found its common representation in alien invasions. In the following, I will analyze the significance of cult films as a social phenomenon in the 1950s and thereby draw on films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Invaders from Mars, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and Glen or Glenda?. In doing so, I will examine Cold War paranoia and the fear of the loss of integrity which dominated both people and film industry in the fifties.
Due to the rising boom of the science fiction and horror genre, the 1950s can be referred to as the “decade of the monster movie”. The establishment of drive-in theaters increased people’s paranoia as outdoor cinemas reinforced the threat of an invasion by lacking the domestic security found indoors. Moreover, they responded to the demands of a new teenage culture of rebellion that praised their independence and lived out their adventures. One of the classic monster movies that was a huge success in drive-in theaters was Don Siegel‘s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, produced in 1956. Its main theme is the alien dehumanization and take-over of an entire community by large seed pods that replicate and replace human beings by emotionless duplicates. The threat appears to be omnipresent as the pods are found in basements, a greenhouse, or even on a pool table. Siegel’s presentation agrees with the attitude of his times as people believed that a Communist, nuclear or otherwise unknown threat could linger everywhere, and America’s universal suspicion pursued the motto “Watch the skies, everywhere, keep looking – keep watching the skies!”. The movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers emphasizes the inevitability of the transformation and the complete absorption of humanity; for people are deprived of their most valuable soul, their memories and their emotions, as the following remark states.
“They’re taking you over cell for cell, atom for atom. [...] they’ll absorb your minds, your memories and you’re reborn into an untroubled world. [...] Love, desire, ambition, faith - without them life is so simple.”
The film can be interpreted as a means of showing what Communism can do to society by demonstrating people’s indifferent attitude after being brainwashed. More important, however, the director is deeply concerned with the creeping conformity that was submerging 1950s’ America, thus he appeals both for fighting against any foreign infiltration and for staying integer human beings. The fact that the creation of the pods takes place while people are sleeping both underlines the director’s criticism of society’s inactive and cold attitude and his appeal to active participation in life. The required fight for humanity is underlined by the doctor in the following remark:
“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... [...] Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us, how dear.”
Beside the fear of Communism and conformity, many partly politicized films of the decade were also concerned with McCarthyism. In Siegel’s movie, the determined doctor fighting the deadly threat could be compared to the politician McCarthy. Interestingly enough (but assumingly coincidentally) the doctor is played by Kevin McCarthy, bearing the same name. Like the actor in the movie, the politician also pursued a policy of communist subversion and criticized Eisenhower’s America of conformity. On the other hand, a highly negative connotation about McCarthyism can be traced in the movie, which is the mob’s mass hysteria, the fascist police and the paranoid fear of Communism and the unknown.
The Thing from Another World; Warner Home Video 1951
Invasion of the Body Snatchers; Republic Studios 1956
 Peary, Danny: Cult Movies – The Classics, the Sleepers, the Weird, and the Wonderful; Delacorte Press; New York 1981; p. 158
- Quote paper
- Julia Deitermann (Author), 2004, Cult Films as a Social Phenomenon in the 1950s, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/61097