Bradbury’s metaphoric paranoias are timely reminders of how far we haven’t come.
Ray Bradbury passed away in 2012, but he left behind a literary legacy that spanned over half a century. His novels, from “The Martian Chronicles” and “The Illustrated Man” to his greatest achievement in literature and popular culture “Fahrenheit 451″, are still paragons of science fiction literature, pointed to by high school teachers and Hollywood executives alike as timeless stories rife for continued reevaluation and interpretation. Unlike many of his authorial predecessors though, Bradbury didn’t shy away from rooting his fantasies in modern societal problems. Rather than use his fiction to create a blanket for his audiences to hide away from the world, he used it as a mirror to reflect the ugly truths of society back on itself. He posited the question: is this the world you want for the coming generations? These headier philosophical questions though he didn’t just relegate to the metaphors of his narratives, which was never more evident than in 1952 when he took out an advertisement in the trade publication The Daily Variety:
“I have seen too much fear in a country that has no right to be afraid. I have seen too many campaigns in California, as well as in other states won on the issue of fear itself, and not on the facts[…] I do not want any more lies, any more prejudice…”
A year later, Hollywood would finally come calling for Bradbury, and his story treatment “The Meteor” would be adapted by Harry Essex and retitled It Came From Outer Space, coinciding the same summer with Bradbury’s second story credit on a film, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms from his short story “The Fog Horn”. Six years later though? The FBI would open an official investigation of Bradbury, fearing him to be a sympathizer to the Communist Party, as the first Cold War raged on. What made Bradbury a target of McCarthy era tactics? His philosophical treatment of the cultural consciousness’ perception of the ultimate “other,” the invader: the space alien. In a political era where the dissemination of misinformation, “alternative facts,” and fear mongering have become staples of political campaigns, Bradbury’s story of man’s reckoning with his own fears in the face of an unknown perceived threat has never felt more urgent.
In It Came From Outer Space, our story begins on a picturesque town, a gorgeous soundstage that mimics but never quite matches the landscape of this imagined New Mexico. Like a production still set in motion. John Putnam (Richard Carlson) is an author who has recently moved to the desert to get away from the bustle of city life with his girlfriend, Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush). While common today, an unmarried man and woman living together would have been seen as scandalous in 1953, a prelude to the progressivism that Bradbury would continue to explore. As they go for a stroll in the crisp night air, a large glowing orb streaks across the night sky, crashing nearby Putnam and Fields’ home. Fortunately for us, Putnam is also an amateur astronomer and is equipped with a large mounted outdoors telescope where he can spy the whereabouts of the nearby meteorite. But upon closer inspection, Putnam discovers this is no meteorite; it’s a spaceship, and its crew may still be on board. But before anyone else can witness this, the crater caves in, covering any evidence of alien life, and any proof Putnam would need for anyone to believe what he saw. Though all that changes when townspeople begin to go missing, returning as husks of their former selves, and a collective paranoia begins to spread at the behest of the local sheriff Matt Warren played by Charles Drake.
Bradbury agreed to write the treatment for “The Meteor” when the studios afforded him the opportunity to make the alien invaders benign rather than malevolent, antithetical to what audiences were accustomed to in the early 1950s. This is because a major theme in Bradbury’s early career-defining work can be boiled down to explorations of human decency and how we can strip ourselves of that which makes us human when made fearful. He also played within ideas of American Exceptionalism, a brand of collective identity that can suitably surmise the Americana of 1950s literature and cinema. A time removed from the atrocities of Nazism and reeling from the victories of World War II, but on the cusp of societal fears after the advent of the Hydrogen Bomb. It was a twilight hour that the United States hasn’t come down from, as our country is still touted as being “the best.” By juxtaposing Americans fear of global nuclear warfare with this supreme Exceptionalism, Bradbury was able to explore the vulnerabilities in our country’s armor, especially as they related to the ongoing Cold War and the threat du jour: communism.
Like his stories in “The Martian Chronicles”, Bradbury crafted It Came From Outer Space to directly parallel the nations current societal paranoia. That lurking in our neighborhoods, civic clubs, and VFW halls were outliers hiding in plain sight. In the 1950s, the fear was that these outliers were communists or communists sympathizers. As the Roswell UFO incident had occurred a few years before, Bradbury used an inspired choice by making the invaders hiding in plain sight peaceful aliens, using the visage of man to shape-shift into local townspeople. These invaders were the perfect substitute for the perceived threat of communism in the 1950s, when neighbors were turning on neighbors for fear of their own safety. Bradbury though wasn’t the only one drawing these correlations. Around the time the FBI opened their investigation into Bradbury, his contemporary, Rod Serling, would touch on these same paranoias in The Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street”, where a street in Anytown, USA turns on their neighbors as their modern technology begins to fail. Invasion of the Body Snatchers had the communist infiltration metaphor manifest as pod people body swapping the citizens of a small California town. Film studies professor William Lorenzo argues that Forbidden Planet’s Id Monster represented the nightmarish control Joseph McCarthy had over the country in his pursuit of those suspect of communist ties, whether there was any wrongdoing or not. Bradbury, albeit on the nose, succinctly made his metaphor apparent in an exchange between Putnam and Sheriff Matt Warren:
“I couldn’t even be sure if you were John Putnam standing beside me.”
“That’s right you couldn’t. And wouldn’t it be a fine trick if I weren’t really John Putnam at all. Something from another world, come here to give you false leads”
But the crux to Bradbury’s argument is that these aliens are not invaders or evil creatures from beyond the stars. They crash-landed on Earth by accident, only taking the form of humans so that they can gather the supplies they need to repair their ship. And even though the humans they encounter are frightened, they constantly attempt to assuage their fears. The aliens impress on Putnam “We have souls. We have minds. We are good.” Bradbury points out that while the aliens must take the form of a human to acclimate to society, that doesn’t mean they were not humane before. “We cannot, we would not, take your souls, your minds, or your bodies. Don’t be afraid”. This metaphor is even more striking when you apply it to what many see as the progression of McCarthy-era delusions: modern Islamophobia.
Our paranoia of the other didn’t melt away as the Cold War defrosted, it just took new shape. And in 2018 as the national fervor over “radical Islam” escalated with vandalized mosques and racist harassment in public, stoked by firebrands like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, many are pointing to this paranoia as a 21st century brand of McCarthyism. The aliens of Bradbury’s story, “hiding in plain sight” is mimicked in today’s xenophobia around immigrants, the falsehoods spread by those who proclaim “all Mexicans are rapists” and that any illegal immigrant is potentially a violent gang member. The fear now that terrorists and gang members are invading our country, “disguised” as immigrants (many merely families escaping political and gang violence), paints the alien invaders in a much more urgent light. Not every person coming into this country wants to do us harm, as much as certain politicians push this narrative. Like the aliens in It Came from Outer Space, many coming into this country are seeking help and asylum from tyrannical governments or, in a miserably ironic instance, exactly who they are accused of being: violent gangs. And rather than showing basic human decency, offering help to those who need it, our Exceptionalism morphs into a frightened resistance. Our national fears begin dictating our national identity. And this mistrust is an ultimate failure of understanding. The aliens disguise themselves as a human to show the humans that they share the same humanistic qualities. “We too have souls” the alien leader repeats. Those coming into this country are pleading the same thing.
“I guess that takes care of them.” the Sheriff mutters. Putnam replies, “Yeah.” he pauses in thought. “That takes care of them.” But in Putnam’s eyes, he wonders, “But what takes care of us?” He was able to stop the mob from lynching these perceived invaders, but who will stop them if he’s not there? Who will right our wrongs? “They’ll be back,” Putnam says as the music swells triumphantly. The happy ending is Bradbury’s hope that one day we’ll live in harmony. But until we can change the conversations around immigrants, that day feels further away than ever in 2018.