Psychiatry Films from AMHF: “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956)

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The psychiatrist-as-social-commentator meets science fiction

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the fourth of twenty-one films under review by AMHF in relation to its mission. Of all the films covered or to be covered, it is unique. One, it is pure science fiction with a wholly supernatural element. Two, the psychiatrist is a minor character and himself winds up a victim of alien mind-body control. Yet, the film is a significant study of “mass hysteria,” a term used by psychiatrist Dr. Danny Kauffman.

Dr. Bennell, a GP, arrives home to hilly and tranquil Santa Mira from a conference to find that his former flame—she with the Twain-like (first) name of Becky Driscoll—is likewise recently divorced in Reno. Already, things are not what they had seemed only yesterday. More to the point, the town is gripped in some sort of contagious emotional or psychological “illness” involving family identity issues. Ultimately, the plot shifts from strange human behavior to alien soul-control.

The premise is everyday-implausible of course. But that’s SF, and this is a good one. Relevant to this blog is the concept articulated to Dr. Bennell by Dr. Kauffman: that is, before the aliens control Kauffman. The insanity and mass pathology of Nazi Germany were fresh in the storyteller’s mind as well as in the minds of the scriptwriters and filmmakers. Fresher still in most everyone’s (Western) minds was Soviet expansionism, Communist world domination, and fears of what is known as Groupthink on the individualist freedoms enjoyed in the United States and much of the West. The cold war was fanned by the likes of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy.

The psychiatrist can only diagnose the strange behavior he or she witnesses—that is, until he or she exhibits, or becomes part of, that very mode of behavior—by resorting to the diagnosis mass hysteria brought on by the general problems of the world. Does the psychiatrist or psychoanalyst also act as sociologist?

What ought professionals do when confronted by delusion and acts of inhumanity on a grand scale? How ought and can professionals—observing and diagnosing from within the societies (that is, social constructs) that they are trained to help—react? How could/should they be expected to function?

It has been said that the last element of his environment a fish would recognize is water.

These are the difficult questions asked by the makers of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which was remade in 1978.

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