Released in 1956, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers spooked audiences with its story about people changed by pods. But did the tale have a deeper meaning?
In the 1950s, the threat and fear of communism infiltrating American society was affecting the nation, and Senator Joseph McCarthy led the charge that questioned the loyalty of many through the use of investigations and hearings.
Hundreds of people were subpoenaed and forced to testify, where they were scrutinized and asked to name secret Communists. Failure to do so even lead to jail time for some.
Hollywood wasn’t exempt either, as studios created and implemented blacklists to demonstrate their anti-communist sentiment. The careers and reputations of many were derailed or destroyed, including those of Lena Horne, Charlie Chaplin, Lee Grant, and Orson Welles. For a short period, even America’s favorite redhead Lucille Ball was under scrutiny.
While the movement peaked in 1954, its consequences continued afterward. So was The Body Snatchers tapping into something more?
Jack Finney wrote the work as a serialized story for Collier’s magazine in 1954. The original idea began with car accident that revealed that a dog was part stainless steel. Eventually, the character would begin to suspect that someone close to them was an imposter. When Finney came across a scientific theory about dormant life traveling through space, the idea found its hook.
While the basic idea seems to pair with the times, Finney didn’t intend it to. He said, “I have read explanations of the ‘meaning’ of this story, which amuse me, because there is no meaning at all; it was just a story meant to entertain.”
Case settled, right? Not so fast!
According to Dana Wynter, the deeper meaning to Body Snatchers developed in the making of the film.
“By the way, we realized – Walter [Wanger] and Kevin [McCarthy] and people who can think about things – that we were making an anti-‘ism’ picture. Anti-‘ism’ – fascism, communism, all that kind of thing," she said.
However, this was purposefully kept a secret from the studio.
“They were delicate times, and I think if Allied Artists had had the slightest idea that there was anything deeper to this film, that would have quickly been stopped,” she said.
McCarthy recalled a slightly different take. “I wouldn’t dispute it, although there was never any talk of it among any of us when we were making the film.”
Director Don Seigel suggested that the film was inspired by the Red Menace, though that wasn’t all it was about.
“The political reference to Senator McCarthy and totalitarianism was inescapable, but I tried not to emphasize it because I feel that motion pictures are primarily to entertain. I did not want to preach.”
Still, Seigel found inspiration in discussing a greater threat to society: lack of empathy.
“I think that the world is populated by pods, and I wanted to show them. I think so many people have no feeling about cultural things, no feeling of pain, of sorrow.”
Regardless of the intention, whether explicit or implicit, the film remains timeless by exploring the nature of humanity – or perhaps the lack of it.
As McCarthy’s character said, "Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is."