Imagine this: You’re a happy post-war suburbanite, taking a leisurely afternoon stroll in the neighborhood. Your children, who you’ve named Jim and Bob so that they’re clearly not mistaken for anything other than American, are walking the dog, Skippy, right behind you. Lucy, your beautiful, attentive wife, locks her arm in yours and you bask in the glory that is your accomplished American dream. You could drive around the block in your brand-new Chrysler, but you’re walking simply because you don’t have to. All the sudden, you hear a noise. It’s not really a crash, but more of a “ccccrrruuuunnrcchhh” as glass, vinyl siding, and asbestos cave in. You turn around. What is that? It’s not a bird, probably not a plane… it’s… it’s… a hundred foot tall radioactive tarantula! Oh, God! What monstrosity of science is this? I bet this is the result of a mistreated lab technician with a clear Russian accent, or nuclear testing in the New Mexico desert! You don’t have long to ponder the horrible repercussions of unbridled science; before you can scream “God bless America!” the probably equally terrified tarantula has eliminated the existence of you and your happy little family. Sounds silly, right?
Now imagine this: Another happy suburban family, another walk down Persimmon Street with Sparky the sheepdog. Light hits the trees in a way that makes them a radiant gold as kids play hop scotch. Life in America is perfect. Suddenly, you hear a sound that is familiar to you from your time in the war– the sound of a low-flying military plane. What is going on? Before you have time to question whether or not there is a military base around, everything you know is decimated in a fiery windstorm. You no longer exist, and neither does the home you worked so hard for. The ideology of your community disappears with the fire. You are nothing but ash, and all it took was a couple of seconds of science and politics gone wrong to eliminate you.
This is the true terror of the cold war; through monster and military movies, that terror was expressed in a way that allowed Americans to project their fear onto the screen for a few minutes. The idea that total destruction due to bad science was inevitable gave way to a lot of the great monster movies in the 1950’s. If it wasn’t total destruction, it was creeping conformity or death through a slow but terrifying menace. In the 1958 film “The Blob,” the monster doesn’t even have a definite form but still somehow manages to plant a sort of dread into the mind of the audience. This gelatinous invader from outer space is so foreign to us because of it’s complete lack of humanity; it’s a mindless, creeping abstraction of form that consumes everything in its path and grows larger as it does so. Monsters like the Blob represent the fear that every American knew as an abstraction of an ideology and not an actual, human force: communism. The threats of both communism and nuclear war terrified the American public; to them, nothing seemed more apocalyptic or anti-American than these two things. The 1954 thriller “Them!” combined the two ideas in a way that made for the perfect monster flick. By taking an ant-like, worker bee mentality (communism) that is usually harmless on a small scale and combining it with the horrors of science (the bomb), a force that is both unstoppable and inhuman emerges. Giant killer ants hellbent on destroying human civilization and rising to the top of the food chain both make the viewer massively squeamish (giant furry pincers, anyone?) and give the viewer an idea of what society could look like if the Soviets won the cold war. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” creates a similar atmosphere; the loss of individuality, unstoppable force, and inhuman, foreign invasion point toward a caricature of Soviet society. The abstraction of a political ideology to the point where it can only be represented by a bastardization of “science” is central to many horror films of the 50’s.
The 1940’s didn’t need the monster movie– war was scary enough, and the government felt the need to use the film industry as a mode of encouragement rather than a way to terrify the public. By the 50’s, however, the pressing fear of imminent nuclear war with the Soviet Union and a complete destruction of American ideology turned society into a sort of pressure cooker of terror. When the nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, warfare as the world knew it changed forever. Along with it went the comfort of the American public; while World War II was so far away from the home front for Americans, nuclear bombs could be dropped without warning. There are no winners in a nuclear war, or so believed the public, and the monster will always come back to terrorize its victims for another day. With the cold war, the enemy was secretive and difficult to conceptualize. As the horror genre grew, Americans found a new way to put their fear of the unknown into concrete ideas.