Ominous vendetta mask in a forest

Published in 1955, Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers captures a community – and country – gripped by fear and mistrust. Contains spoilers.

When Becky Driscoll turns up at his surgery, Dr Miles Bennell is drawn into a bizarre mystery. Becky’s cousin Wilma is convinced that her uncle isn’t really her uncle – he’s been replaced by someone or something else.

Then Miles hears of other patients in Santa Mira, California, who also think friends and family aren’t who they say they are. It sounds like a mass delusion until Miles sees one of the ‘imposters’ for himself – a discovery that drags him in mortal danger.

Whether it’s a political allegory or about an alien invasion, The Body Snatchers drips with paranoia. What makes it particularly effective are the layers of delusion and mistrust that intertwine throughout the book.

1. Paranoia in the plot of The Body Snatchers

What do we mean by paranoia? At the broadest level, we’re talking about delusion, typically underpinned by a sense of persecution; or a deep sense of fear, particularly in the motivations of others. Both of these encapsulate the spirit of Finney’s novel, though to be fair, Miles and Becky have much to be mistrustful about.

Alien spores have drifted through space and landed in Santa Mira. Now the spores – or the bacteria they contain – are taking over the bodies of local residents. Friends and family members are slowly replaced by carbon copies that are almost – yet not quite – indistinguishable from their former selves. [This kind of surreptitious replacement will be familiar to those who’ve read The Stepford Wives.]

Once Miles and Becky suspect this is what’s happening in Santa Mira, they can trust no one. What’s worse, friends and family who have been cloned by the alien spores are in turn driven to capture and clone any remaining humans: their aim is to colonise and consume the entire country, then the world.

Ironically, as the invasion is taking place, the first people who speak out are themselves dismissed as delusional. Miles tells cousin Wilma:

‘I don’t expect you to stop feeling emotionally that this isn’t your uncle. But I do want you to realize he’s your uncle, no matter what you feel, and that the trouble is inside you.’

The supporting cast of the story are medical men who understand or specialise in psychiatry. This comes full circle later on, when psychiatrist Mannie Kaufmann – who is no longer really Mannie Kaufmann – suggests it’s Miles who is imagining something that isn’t there:

‘You saw nothing, Miles.’ He shrugged. ‘Except a rolled-up rug, maybe on a shelf in Becky’s basement. Or a pile of sheets or laundry; almost anything at all, or nothing at all, would do.’

These are the main drivers of fear and terror in the book. But at a more intimate level, the characters are already motivated by paranoid feelings. For example, Miles is in love with Becky but is convinced a relationship would be pointless (and would end in a second divorce). He won’t even let himself acknowledge how he feels about her until it’s almost too late.

Until that point, Miles is convinced that all stories – that is, human experience – have fixed outcomes. It’s only by standing up to the aliens that he realises things aren’t always set in stone.

2. Cold War tensions and the threat of modernity

Both Finney’s book and the 1956 film adaptation, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, are often referred to as political allegories, though this isn’t always entirely clear-cut (see this article). Still, whether Finney or the film’s producers intended to mirror Cold War paranoia or not, the book does reflect the tensions of the time.

Fears about Communism are there in the slow but almost deliberate decay of commerce in Santa Mira:

‘You can’t get an order any more.’ The Salesman shrugged. ‘Not to amount to anything, anyway.’

Rubbish piles up. People disappear. Nothing is maintained – nobody cares. Buildings fall into disrepair, and the town that Miles Bennell grew up in grows strange and unkempt. This is the associated consequence of an alien invasion: the end of the American way of life.

Moreover, of course, the way the aliens pretend to be just like their hosts is very much how we’ve come to think of spies (a subject that was on everyone’s minds in 1950s America).

It’s interesting that the alien invasion happens in Santa Mira, and not a bustling city or metropolitan area. In Santa Mira, people know each other, and have grown up together. Arguably, city dwellers already live more aloof, disconnected lives – but for Finney’s tale to have impact, it has to be set in a place where people still live a ‘golden’, unspoilt life.

In this sense, it’s not just Communism that’s a threat; it’s modernity itself. With or without aliens or Communists, the small-town American life Finney describes was already changing. This is something Bennell voices when he bemoans the loss of telephone operators:

But now we have dial phones, marvellously efficient, saving you a full second or more every time you call, inhumanly perfect, and utterly brainless; and none of them will ever remember where the doctor is at night, when a child is sick and needs him. Sometimes I think we’re refining all humanity out of our lives.

3. Guilty echoes in Western society

‘History has lessons to teach us about first encounters between civilizations. As a rule the less advanced civilization is either exterminated or enslaved.’

Regina Jackson, The Day the Earth Stood Still

In the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, US Secretary of Defence Regina Jackson explains why humans are right to fear alien contact. History, she says, is awash with examples of less advanced civilisations being exterminated by more advanced societies – often for resources, sometimes just for kicks and bigotry.

What Jackon’s polemic overlooks is that – as far as we know – these are purely human traits. We wipe out other species and societies, or enslave them, or take their land and resources; often this is followed by State-led hysteria that sees the dominant culture convinced they’re the real victim, or somehow at risk of annihilation.

Finney turns the spotlight onto this kind of doublethink in The Body Snatchers, though there’s an ambiguity in whether it’s an ironic or deliberate comment.

In Chapter 13, Miles recalls that a ‘middle-aged Negro had a shoeshine stand’. This man, Billy, is considered a character – someone who loves cleaning shoes and playing up to white people. It’s only by accident that one day Miles witnesses the real Billy; a man filled with bitterness and anger at the role he’s trapped in.

Perhaps it’s psychologically easier for those who collude in or help to create slavery (or the continued racial discrimination which has followed) to believe that conquered races somehow ‘enjoy’ being subjugated. With hindsight, it doesn’t take much empathy to realise that of course Billy would have hated having to perform his blackness and poverty to his white masters.

Miles has some recognition of this when he hears the aliens mocking him: he hears their real, unadorned opinions, the kind that can only be aired in private. Miles also recognises – fleetingly – that he shares a responsibility for Billy’s fate:

I turned away and walked on, ashamed of him, of Billy, of myself, and of the whole human race.

This is as far as Miles is willing to travel into collective guilt, yet the projection of that guilt is writ large in The Body Snatchers. Aliens come to Earth, overcome a community, destroy their way of life, and murder them en mass. It’s a familiar history turned into future speculation. By turning the residents of Santa Mira into the victims, Finney’s story is part of a social mythology that overlooks atrocity, excuses it, then turns it into entertainment for people who – typically – have far less to fear in reality.

Read as an unmasking of our true nature, the novel ends with a chilling prediction. The aliens intend to suck the Earth dry to support their own species. Once the Earth is used up, the spores will move on to some other planet, and repeat the cycle.

[P]arasites. Parasites of the universe, and they’ll be the last and final survivors in it.

Now, 60 years later, humans are only just beginning to face the consequences of this attitude to the Earth. At the same time, we yet hold onto the idea that our species will jettison this planet when the time is right, and find another world to destroy.

Jack Finney, The Body Snatchers (1955). Gollancz, 2010

Other books like The Body Snatchers
  • The Stepford Wives, by Ira Levin (invasion from within)
  • I am Legend, by Richard Matheson (invasion from within)
  • The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham (alien invasion)
  • War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells (alien invasion)

Picture credit: Javardh