Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Pod People Syndrome

Friend or foe?

They look like you. They act like you. But some of them are anti-you.

That creeping paranoia is the set-up of the SF novel, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, by Jack Finney. It's a powerful basis for a story, so powerful that the novel has been adapted as a movie four different times.

The term "pod people" has become part of our language, referring to individuals who are only emotionless copies of real human beings.

In Invasion Of The Body Snatchers alien seed pods land on our planet and covertly invade by duplication and replacement. While a human victim sleeps, a nearby pod telepathically links to the victim, stealing his memories. The pod hatches and a duplicate of the victim is formed.

The duplicate replaces the victim, pretending to be him. But the physical and mental copying leaves out one important human factor: emotion. The alien has to fake his feelings; those closest to the invader can sense the difference.

The term pod people can also connote an enemy lurking among the "normals," someone who looks like you but is secretly plotting your destruction.

What I define as the Pod People Syndrome is when the public overreacts, suddenly seeing a particular group as the lurking enemy because of a dramatic incident by a few individuals identified with that group. Everyone in the group is tarred by the actions of aberrants who belong -- or appear to belong -- to their circle.

In the book, Geeks, by Jon Katz, the author describes the paranoia and overreaction to outsider teens after two students went on a shooting spree at Columbine High School in April 1999. He describes the hysteria, some of it whipped up by the mainstream media looking for sensational headlines, as "geek profiling."

A kid wears a trench coat? He might be carrying hidden weaponry. Better search him.

Those kids who spend a lot of time on computers instead of trying to fit into the popular crowd at school? Instead of going to dances and attending sporting events, they must be plotting online, getting ready to strike at another school. Just like those shooters in Columbine.

Those kids who don't dress the right way, who don't act normal: pod people. Hiding among us, growing, spreading. Don't trust any of them. They look human but they're actually inhuman.

Humans are wired for pattern-seeking. At times they see patterns that don't exist.

One way to deal with abrupt uncertainty is to quickly categorize an entire group as a problem. It's easier to class everyone as the same instead of doing the work of figuring out friend or foe with each individual in the group. Example: the Japanese American internment camps during World War II.

Round them all up.

Us or them.

This convenient labeling and unreasoning persecution reveals who are the real pod people.

It's the persecutors, not the persecuted.

[Invasion Of The Body Snatchers cover from]


X. Dell said...

I tend to think that if you see a pattern, the pattern exists. It's just that oft times patterns are meaningless, representing nothing more than the order you or I would like to impose.

I only saw the Donald Sutherland version of this tale (I saw the Kevin McCarthy version once as a preteen, but I don't remember it all that well). The thing about the pod people in that movies is that they weren't the outsiders. The resisters were the outsiders. The pod people actually became the mainstream.

Of course, the references to the McCarthy era are inescapable, and it truly is a fear of the outsider, just as you have said. Of course, the fear was always that the outsider would seize power from within critical institutions (i.e., government, media, etc.) and pervert society until the individual became as mindless a clone as we imagined Ivan Ivonovich to be.

Interesting post. Now that I think of it, how close is any of the movies to the book?

(You might want to look at your second sentence)

Ray said...

ThanX for mentioning the typo in the second sentence. It's amazing that I kept reading over the mistake, seeing "the" as "they". I cleaned up all my copies so that when I slap together my next zine, it won't confuse my readers.

I haven't seen the fourth version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, "The Invasion" with Nicole Kidman. I heard that it was generally panned.

The first version I saw was the 1956 film with Kevin McCarthy. I would like to see it without the studio imposed time frame, the prologue and epilogue. I can imagine is more effective as originally envision, Kevin wandering in the traffic, madly shouting, everyone ignoring him, fade to black.

Even with the tacked on time frame with its "happy ending," I was still impressed by it. That's why I was disappointed with the Donald Sutherland version; it didn't compare for me.

But the third version, simply titled "Body Snatchers" (1993) I thought did a better job, especially with the creeping paranoia angle.

What's interesting is that the three versions I've seen, none of them have used the novel's ending which I think is great. All I can say is if you have time to read it, please do. I did find parts of Finney's writing too melodramatic but the mood he establishes, especially in the end, works. That image of the loners hanging around, just passing time, is classic. I won't say more or I'll spoil it.

Doug said...

Ahh! A nuanced argument! Stone him!