Hollywood produced some 500 science fiction movies during the 1950s, and the stars of many of them were colossal mutant insects. Why were people in the mid-twentieth century obsessed with giant bugs? One economist sums up the dominant theories.
In some ways, this debate echoes the current discussion over what makes the zombie genre so popular. (A statement on consumerism? Distrust of government? The growing fear of pandemics?) But, the bug films were a product of the Cold War, and many of the interpretations are based upon the events of that era. Some of the movies were box office hits. The classic film Them! (which still creeps me out) was Warner Brothers' highest grossing movie in 1954, earning more money than A Star is Born or Dial M for Murder.
William Tsutsui, a prominent historian and economist, writing in the journal Environmental History, offers an excellent overview of the giant arthropod debate—as well as his own surprising theory of why Americans never seemed to tire of oversized ants, tarantulas and locusts.
He breaks down the debate into several categories:
1) We were terrified by The Bomb
"Susan Sontag made just this argument in her seminal 1965 essay 'The Imagination of Disaster.' Surveying the giant monster movies that flourished in the years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Sontag concluded that 'a mass trauma exists over the use of nuclear weapons and the possibility of future nuclear wars. Most of the science fiction films bear witness to this trauma, and, in a way, attempt to exorcise it.'"
"A few authors have been yet more skeptical, dismissing the nuclear aspect of American Cold War cinema as nothing more than an expedient plot device. Bill Warren observed that 'In the 1930s the equivalent gimmick was electricity; in the 1920s, it was surgery and often gland operations. In the 1950s, it was radiation that got the monster going.'"
2) We were terrified by the Red Menace
"In the mindset of the time, insect invasions became 'a code for fears of Soviet aggression.' Michael Rogin, among other commentators, has argued that the ant kingdom depicted in Them! represented communism, an 'aggressive collectivist society' that had to be eradicated in order to preserve the American way of life."
"But as one unconvinced critic has protested, 'To claim that the ants represent the Communist threat is to make a mountain out of an anthill.'"
3) We were being programmed to trust authority
"As Andrew Tudor put it, 'In this xenophobic universe we can do nothing but rely on the state, in the form of military, scientific and governmental elites. Only they have the recourse to the technical knowledge and coercive resources necessary for our defense. In this respect, then, fifties [sci-fi] movies teach us not so much to stop worrying and love the bomb as to keep worrying and love the state.'"
4) Sometimes a giant mutant insect is just a giant mutant insect
Tsutsui however has his own theory. Americans were terrified by bugs because…Americans were terrified by bugs:
In the two decades following World War II, the rhetoric of the insect threat to America, as well as the technological arsenal available to control six-legged pests, both reached new levels of intensity. The sense of public fear of destructive insects, stoked by entomologists, government officials, agricultural interests, and the pesticide industry, reached a fever pitch in the 1950s, at the very same time that giant bugs were swarming over movie screens across America.
Books and magazines spoke of the insidious efficiency of insects, relentlessly consuming our crops, infiltrating our homes, and undermining our health; the arthropods, one entomologist direly warned, would "inherit the earth unless man abandons war and turns his martial interests to killing pests."…. Commentators regularly wrote of the "war on insects," the invasions of pests, and the battles to exterminate unwanted species. …. "Would it not be funny," one U.S. representative observed, "to spend all these billions of dollars fighting communism and building the atomic bomb and then be eaten by the Argentine ant."
Such concern with real-life insects on the loose was refracted, in Hollywood's hands, through a cultural lens colored by the Cold War, nuclear proliferation, and ambivalent attitudes toward the promise of science and the trustworthiness of elite expertise. In other words, the symbolism, metaphors, codes, and allegories cherished by generations of critics and scholars are all present in the fifties big bug classics, but we should never lose sight of those great, huge, and murderous creepy crawlies.
Read the full article in Environmental History.