Academic

Queering the Bodysnatchers: McCarthyism and Moral Panic in the 1950s.

Written by Jess Womack. Queer identities and communism were viewed as inextricably linked in the eyes of many Americans. Although not a direct metaphor, Jack Finney's 1954 horror novel, The Body Snatchers, can be understood as a warning against the general 'un-american undesirable' and reflected the anxieties of its time.

‘At first glance, everything looked the same. It wasn’t. Something evil had taken possession of the town.’ (Mainwaring, 1956) 

It is widely accepted that Jack Finney’s 1954 horror novel The Body Snatchers and its 1956 film adaptation (written by Daniel Mainwaring) are highly representative of, if not a direct allegory for, US anti-communism in the 1950s. The story follows a small American town that is slowly taken over by alien duplicates, and the struggle to identify friend from evil invader. It is not challenging to decipher the metaphor of hidden enemies who destroy American communities from the inside in the context of national panic over communist espionage. 

However, this anti-communism must be understood within a wider context of a moral panic. An often-overlooked element of McCarthyism (itself a narrow misnomer of a much wider phenomenon) were efforts to identify homosexuals within US government and society. In April 1950, Nebraskan Senator Kenneth Wherry asked his colleagues ‘Can you think of a person who could be more dangerous to the United States of America than a pervert?’, and, by November, Max Lerner of The New York Post was writing articles about ‘the homosexual panic’ in Washington, DC. The same year, the Deputy Undersecretary of the State department announced that 91 staff members had been fired for homosexuality. Under Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10450 in 1953, gays and lesbians were banned from working in any federal government agency or serving in the army, leading to around 5000 firings. 

Queer identities and communism were viewed as inextricably linked in the eyes of many Americans. Homosexuals in government were fired due to their perceived nature as ‘security risks’, argued by David Johnson, author of The Lavender Scare, to have functioned as a euphemism for ‘sexual deviancy’. It was believed that homosexuals were vulnerable to blackmail and could compromise state secrets. Ironically, the US Communist Party expelled all suspected homosexual members in 1946 under the same logic. However, there is no evidence of US homosexuals ever being targeted for information. By contrast, for all the communist threat was exaggerated, it rested on elements of truth; The espionage trials of Alger Hess, David Greenglass, and the Rosenbergs were all highly publicized, which intensified public anxiety over communism. There was no equivalent galvaniser for homophobic anxieties, yet the idea that the two were connected remained prevalent.  

Further rhetorical links were made between communism and homosexuality. Both were considered ‘un-American’, anti-Christian, and a threat to the traditional American family. These elements were vital in the context of the emerging Cold War, in which a moral victory was widely deemed equally as important as a military one, as well as the context of a growing Evangelical influence on society. For example, prominent televangelist Billy Graham praised the work of congressmen who revealed ‘the Pinks, the Lavenders, and the Reds who have sought refuge between the wings of the American Eagle’. Both groups also functioned within a subculture not acknowledged in their day-to-day lives, and, according to Judith Atkins, both ‘were thought to be morally weak or psychologically disturbed’. Homosexuality was thus viewed as a moral failure rather than as a coherent state of being, and simultaneously as a hidden force capable of great harm to American communities. These contradicting ideas worked in tandem to intensify the paranoid homophobia of the 1950s. 

Furthermore, as Wherry’s statement above suggests, homosexuality was synonymous with perversion and pedophilia in the general American imagination. The queer man was thus vilified and presented as dangerous in all levels of life from national security to the household. In this light, the alien Spores of The Body Snatchers can be viewed convincingly within the tradition of using horror to express queer themes. Along with euphemisms, horror fiction has been a vocabulary available to discuss taboo and queer identity for as long as the genre has existed. If Frankenstein’s Creature is the child rejected by their parent for their ‘unnatural identity’, the spores in The Body Snatchers are the insidious predator lurking within the community. It is not by accident that the Spores are unable to reproduce naturally and must rely on the conversion of innocents to further their agenda. Protagonist Dr Bennell’s warning to filmgoers that the aliens were ‘coming for their children’ would have struck a chord with many a parent in the midst of the moral panic of the 1950s. 

The Body Snatchers is not, of course, a direct metaphor for homosexuality. However, it was understood as a warning against the general ‘un-American undesirable’ by its audience and reflected the anxieties of its time. Chief among these fears can be seen in the first scene of the film adaptation. It opens on Dr. Bennell locked in a psychiatric ward and ranting about the coming alien threat to a disbelieving audience. In 1948, Congress had passed an act for the ‘Treatment of Sexual Psychopaths’, enabling the arrest of those who committed homosexual acts and their labelling as mentally ill. The 1956 film offers an inversion; the moral US citizen deemed mad while the subversive threat roams free to threaten American society. The novel similarly plays on the terror of being the only ‘normal’ person left in a world of monsters. For many Americans, this fear would have been at the heart of the horror that The Body Snatchers could provoke.  

‘Where you gonna go, where you gonna run, where you gonna hide? Nowhere… ‘cus there’s no one like you left.’ (Jack Finney, 1954) 

Written by Jess Womack.

BIBLIOGRAPHY 

Atkins, Judith. “These People Are Frightened To Death: Congressional Investigations and the Lavender Scare”. Prologue Magazine 48, no. 2 (2016). 

Blakemore, Erin. “How LGBT Public Servants Became Public Enemy No.1 In the 1950s”. 2018. Accessed 13 October, 2020. www.history.com/news/state-department-gay-employees-outed-fired-lavender-scare 

Johnson, David. The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004.  

Kazin, Michael. The Populist Persuasion: An American History. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998. 

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