Speculative Fiction Tropes: Body Snatcher
Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on Body Snatchers.
It has a seemingly permanent home in many sci-fi "all time" lists, and was eventually selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
Though it was certainly not a new concept at the time, the 1950s saw the release of many stories with a similar premise, in both film and print. While trends are nothing new in fiction (indeed, this blog series wouldn't exist otherwise), I can't help but wonder if the political atmosphere of the time had something to do with it. These stories might be one of the best indirect cultural representations we have of an era in history when many Americans were being led to believe their own friends and neighbors might be hiding behind a malevolent facade.
The trope itself was probably born of a much older mythology however, that of the doppelgänger (literally German for "double walker"). In folklore, doppelgängers were sinister copies of living people, usually of paranormal origin. They were often portrayed as harbingers of misfortune and death, and many cultures have their own myths of ghostly doubles, including the Norse vardøgr and the Egyptian ka. Even in more recent history, there are legends and rumors that evoke these old folk tales. American president Abraham Lincoln was said to have seen an eerie double reflection of himself in a mirror on the night of his election, one pale and deathly. Purveyors of this claim say his wife, upon being told, believed the strange vision was a portent for her husband's future reelection, but that he would not live through his second term.
My first encounter with the trope, and probably still my favorite example, is the 1982 John Carpenter film, The Thing. Ostensibly a remake of the 1951 movie The Thing from Another World, Carpenter's version is a much more faithful adaptation of John W. Campbell's excellent novella, Who Goes There?.
It still holds up today, and modern horror filmmakers (including those behind the prequel) could learn a thing or two from the escalating dread and tension viewers experience as we watch the inhabitants of an Antarctic research station deal with a monstrous alien infiltrator that can take on the appearance of its victims.
I must say, this is one trope that seems to come back from the dead every time you think it's on its last legs. I've never done any body snatching in my fiction, of the parasitic kind or the ethereal kind, but it's one of those science fiction story archetypes that can really raise your hackles when done well, no matter how many times you've seen it before.
Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell
Solaris by Stanisław Lem
The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein
Resident Evil 4