LITERARY UNIVERSALS WEBLOG: A series of informal observations and conjectures aimed at fostering more reflection on and discussion about cross-cultural patterns in literature.
Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut
Invasion of the Body Snatchers:
Cultural Stories and Their Universal Constituents
Some stories appear to be deeply bound to the historical and cultural moment in which they were composed. An account of literary universals does not presuppose that such binding is impossible. On the other hand, it is not clear how such a work could be understood outside the historical moment and cultural milieu in which it was created or why we would care about such an alien piece of work. My own view is that, in such cases, we are simply mistaken; we over-attribute historical and cultural particularity to the work. In this month’s blog, I set out to consider what we might make of such cases in relation to literary universals. To clarify and illustrate the analysis, I will focus on a renowned horror film.
In How Authors’ Minds Make Stories, I argue that a common process in the creation of a literary work is devising new permutations on pre-existing genres. The most prominent among these pre-existing genres are probably the cross-culturally dominant ones. In the case of story genres, these would be heroic, romantic, and so on (see “Story”). While these story genres usually operate as full story sequences, they may also be analyzed into constituents. Indeed, these constituents often have striking similarities across genres and in any case commonly fall into related categories. For example, in all prototypical story genres, the hero or heroine is likely to fail in his or her goal pursuit initially. In romantic narratives, this regularly results in the lover being exiled from his or her beloved or imprisoned away from that beloved. In the heroic genre, it routinely leads to the exile or imprisonment of the legitimate leader. In both cases, then, there is a category of something like enforced isolation of the protagonist. This component recurs in part because it enhances the emotions of the story (e.g., the protagonist’s feeling of helplessness).
Structural parallels of this kind are relevant to “the mind making stories” because these parallels enable a simple form of creative narrative production. Specifically, they facilitate the synthesis of different genres. For example, one can readily integrate romantic and heroic stories at the point where the hero or heroine in the former is separated from his or her beloved and, simultaneously, from the homeland that he or she is struggling to defend in the heroic story.
Of course, the more specific a story component is, the more narrowly genre-bound it is likely to be. While all genre prototypes begin with the protagonist establishing some goal, the goal of countering a foreign invasion is heroic, while that of being united with a beloved is romantic. Even so, synthesis may occur through more specific levels of genre also. Indeed, synthesis in these cases, as perhaps less expected, may be more effective in engaging a reader or producing other desirable consequences. For example, this sort of synthesis may involve an unobtrusive recruitment of metaphor domains from a genre in which they figure prominently to a genre in which they do not usually appear.
Consider two cases. In romantic stories, seasonal imagery appears frequently, most often in the background of the story proper (as when the protagonists fall in love during springtime); as such, it helps to establish the emotional tone of the piece. In heroic stories, the characterization of the invading soldiers commonly relies on one or another of a few models for members of the relevant (enemy) out-group, models such as animals or demons. Such models serve to foster or intensify the reader’s antipathy toward such invaders. These genre-related techniques are different, but not necessarily incompatible. The imagery or model that is commonplace in one genre may be, so to speak, smuggled into the other genre due in part to it unobtrusive location in the background of the story or due to its metaphorical quality.
Of the preceding examples, the modeling of out-groups is the more consequential and is worth a little further elaboration. Models of out-groups commonly function to facilitate violence against other human beings in times of conflict. Admittedly, human beings commit plenty of violence without any apparent need for such facilitation. However, almost all of this is “hot” violence—violence undertaken when one is in the grip of anger–or at least derived from some (real or imagined) personal grievance that, when called to mind, can rekindle the hot anger that one felt initially. Without the blinding arousal of rage—as in the sorts of cases just mentioned–most people will feel some sort of spontaneous empathy with other people. This feeling may not be so strong as to produce genuine altruism. But it seems at least likely to give one qualms about killing or maiming the other person. For this reason, if a society or a dominant stratum within a society wishes to maintain a military force ready to harm some enemy, they may need to devote some effort to inhibiting spontaneous empathy with regard to that enemy.
One way of inhibiting empathy is to establish models for understanding and emotionally responding to the out-groups in question. Common models are derived from a small number of domains and include animals, demons, and the contagiously ill (see 107-110 of my What is Colonialism?). These models draw on and intensify in-group feelings that tend to enable violence, most often fear and disgust. (Unlike fear and disgust, anger appears to be based solely on acts, not on dispositional traits, which are crucial in the present context; thus, the promotion of anger is largely a function of events in particular stories, not of general models.) As Martha Nussbaum has argued, disgust appears to be a particularly potent emotion when one’s aim is to completely disregard the humanity of the target individual or group, as in the case of genocide (347-349). I would add two points to that argument. First, disgust for out-groups is particularly facilitated by models drawn from the health/illness domain (especially contagious illness). Second, in terms of the heroic and sacrificial genres, such disgust is most often directed more toward the disloyal part of the in-group (e.g., those who betray the nation to the invaders) than to members of the out-group (e.g., enemy soldiers) as such.
One suggestion of these claims is that literary works, films, and so on, may be culturally specific in their precise thematic concerns or in the details of their emotional appeals. But this does not mean that they are composed of culturally specific parts. Indeed, it seems rather to be the case that they are to a great extent guided by the usual, cross-cultural and trans-historical models, genres, and associated emotions. We see this particularly when we look at the constituents of such stories and the categories of those constituents.
I recently had occasion to watch the 1978 horror classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The basic plot of the film is that some sort of pod creatures have come to earth to kill and duplicate the bodies of humans, then to live in or through the duplicated bodies. Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) first finds that her husband is a different person. Despite looking the same as always, he has become emotionless. She communicates this to Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), who begins to hear of many similar cases. Bennell and Driscoll investigate the problem, working with a small group of friends. The odds, however, are stacked against them as key governmental agencies from the local police to the federal Justice Department have been taken over by the pod-creature duplicates. Bennell and Driscoll eventually succumb also, though not before Bennell makes an astonishingly ill-timed declaration of his love to Driscoll.
This is the sort of film that many viewers might be inclined to take as highly culturally specific. For one thing, as a story, it does not fit obviously into one universal genre. In addition, its concern with the phenomenon of loved ones apparently being replaced by duplicates suggests the Capgras syndrome in which someone comes to believe that a relative or spouse has been replaced by an imposter. Though presumably a long-existing phenomenon, it was isolated and named as a syndrome only in the 20th Century. The film changes the etiology of the syndrome. As generally understood today, this delusion is not marked by a change in the target’s emotions. Rather, one no longer feels the same way about that target oneself, and therefore judges him or her to be an imposter (see Buonomano 91). Even in this change, however, the film expresses a culturally specific idea–the standard Romantic view that a loss of emotion is a loss of humanity, the replacement of what is vital in us by something cold and merely mechanical. This is to some extent elaborated elsewhere in the story. Parts of the film seem to implicate the rise of a sort of “feelgood” psychiatry, where our (human) problems are overcome by a pharmaceutically induced numbing of all emotion. Striking a rather different note, comments by the director appear to relate the film instead to the rise of fascism (see Insdorf 133); indeed, the obvious interpretation of the pod people is as fascists or communists who have rejected personal identity for a collective identity. Despite some differences among them, all these interpretive possibilities would seem to indicate that the film is narrowly defined by itsculture and social history.
But that conclusion is too hasty. Even based on the properties already noted, the work is not culturally insular. Stories with some spirit taking over someone else’s body (see, for example, “Sunset” in Pu Songling) or, more broadly, the appearance of a Doppelgänger (see, for example, Ferrara on the renowned Chinese novel, The Story of the Stone) are not unknown in other literary traditions. Moreover, the very possibility of such a story derives from the evidently universal distinction between an inner essence and an outer appearance (see chapter one of Bloom).
More significantly, the film not only draws on, but seems to be composed almost entirely from the constituents of universal genres. First, it has the broad structure of a heroic story. That structure has two parts—foreign invasion and internal usurpation of the (legitimate) in-group social hierarchy. Lacking battlefields, armies, assassinations, and so forth, the film does not look like a heroic story. But it is structured around the two key story events of the genre. This is more obvious in the case of the invasion sequence; indeed, the title tells us that this is the story of an invasion. However, the usurpation is just as clear, given that the police and the Justice Department come under the control of duplicates, who replace their legitimate, human originals.
The differences between the usual invasion or usurpation sequence and the parallel events in this film are, of course, significant. But they are largely a matter of intensification, and that intensification results from the implementation of cross-cultural techniques. This is particularly true of the usurpation. The pod creatures not only take over the government, they in effect take over the bodies and minds of all individual citizens. In other words, they usurp not only social hierarchy, but psychological hierarchy as well. Moreover, this intensification fits well with the emotional goals of heroic plots and the emotional character of horror movies. Some critics have noted that horror films particularly cultivate fear and disgust (see Carroll 38-4). These are, again, the key emotions underwriting the facilitation of violence against out-groups, which is often a central aim of heroic stories.
In terms of the story emotions, the main difference here is that, in standard heroic plots, fear and anger tend to be the central emotional concerns, not disgust. But the threat of the invading out-group is only intensified by their disgust-provoking nature, by the fact that they kill humans from inside, through a mechanism that is as subtle and covert as those by which one contracts a virus. The pod creatures are not literally contagiously ill humans, but it seems clear that their invasion is modeled on contagion or pollution, rather than on the more expected physical combat.
Additionally, as already noted, in the usual versions of the heroic structure, disgust occurs most clearly in relation to in-group betrayal. (This is moral disgust, rather than the physical or pathogen-related disgust that characterizes our response to sickness and decay; however, the two types of disgust appear to be closely connected [see Rozin, Haidt, and McCauley].) Though it does not fit the events logically, the sense of betrayal from the in-group is in effect generalized by putting the invaders into the duplicated bodies of humans. When Driscoll is attacked by the duplicate of her boyfriend and Bennell is attacked by the duplicate of his close friend, Jack (Jeff Goldblum), these feel like betrayals, though we know that the seeming traitors are actually dead; they only appear to be involved as they are externally indistinguishable from the duplicates.
The ending of the film is particularly noteworthy in this regard. It faces us with the Bennell duplicate signaling to the other pod creatures that his friend’s wife remains alive—or at least that is the more obvious interpretation. Bennell had learned earlier that one could save oneself by acting like an emotionless pod creature. Perhaps, then, this really is Bennell and he is just saving himself. I do not mean that this is a likely interpretation. It is, in fact, highly unlikely. But it is just plausible enough to facilitate our sense that the ending involves betrayal (of Jack’s girlfriend by Bennell) and thus is an appropriate target of our (moral) disgust. This final cuing of disgust fits with the general violence-facilitating function of the heroic genre.
Once this modified, heroic structure is set out with some degree of particularization, however, a difficulty arises. Late in the film it becomes possible to have some violent confrontations, parallel with battle scenes in the more common version of heroic conflict. But the very concealment of the “enemy” in the duplicated bodies of in-group members would appear to make violent clashes difficult to justify, at least early on. Put differently, the unaffected characters need to figure out exactly what is happening, to whom it is happening, and why. Otherwise, they risk harming loved ones and befriending enemy invaders. To resolve this dilemma, the film draws on the criminal investigation genre. In effect, the broad structure of the narrative is heroic, but the event-by-event development constitutes a type of criminal investigation. Finally, this is all further integrated with a (rather poorly developed) love story.
In short, Invasion of the Body Snatchers initially appears to be a clear case of a story rooted firmly in the culturally and historically local soil of the United States in the 1970s. It is, of course, true that many of its individuating features are “local” in this way, as is probably the case for any literary work. However, even the most cursory consideration of Invasion’s generic structure and constituents shows that it is not solely local. At an only slightly more abstract level, the film derives from the filmmakers’ synthesis of heroic, criminal investigation, and romantic genres. It does alter the prototypical forms of these genres. But, in doing so, it draws on cross-cultural domains for developing metaphors and imagery to orient our response to out-groups. Moreover, these alterations in the prototypical forms fit well with the—again, cross-cultural—function that the structure-defining, heroic genre commonly serves (here, facilitating violence against out-groups).
Bloom, Paul. How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like. New York: Norton, 2010.
Buonomano, Dean. Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives. New York: Norton, 2011.
Carroll, Noël. “Film, Emotion, and Genre.” In Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion. Ed. Carl Plantinga and Greg Smith. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999, 21-47.
Ferrara, Mark. “Bao-yu and the Second Self: Pairing, Mirroring, and Utopia in Honglou meng.” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies 17.3 (2015): 371-395.
Hogan, Patrick Colm. How Authors’ Minds Make Stories. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013.
Hogan, Patrick Colm. What is Colonialism? New York: Routledge, 2024.
Insdorf, Annette. Philip Kaufman. Urbana, IL: U of Illinois P, 2012.
Kaufman, Philip, dir. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Los Angeles, CA: United Artists, 1978.
Nussbaum, Martha. Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001.
Pu Songling. Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. Trans. John Minford. New York: Penguin, 2006.
Rozin, Paul, Jonathan Haidt, and Clark McCauley. “Disgust.” In Handbook of Emotions. Ed Lisa Feldman Barrett, Michael Lewis, and Jeannette Haviland-Jones. 4th ed. New York: Guilford P, 2016, 815-834.