When Aliens Invade the Classroom: Notes on Teaching Invasion of the Body Snatchers

“But…showers of small frogs, tiny fish, and mysterious rains of pebbles sometimes fall from out of the skies. Here and there, with no possible explanation, men are burned to death inside their clothes. And once in a while, the orderly, immutable sequences of time itself are inexplicably shifted and altered. You read these occasional queer little stories, humorously written, tongue-in-cheek, most of the time; or you have vague distorted rumors of them. And this much I know. Some of them—some of them—are true” (Finney 216).

Articles on Jack Finney’s 1955 science fiction novel Invasion of the Body Snatchers often begin with the novel’s famous opening lines, but here I open with the novel’s conclusion (don’t worry—I’ll get to the opening later!). Perhaps it’s poor form to reveal the novel’s eerie closing lines to those who haven’t had the pleasure of reading it yet, but I do so because of allusions to topics students eagerly discussed when I taught the novel earlier this semester. While the first few lines address the hot topic of fake or sensational news, the final two lines ask readers to think about how we, as humans, attempt to understand true phenomena that appear completely “alien” to us.

invasion books

Before diving into these specific issues, however, we should address some relevant background context, including common interpretations of the novel:

Originally published serially in 1954 in Collier’s Magazine as The Body Snatchers, the title was changed the following year to Invasion of the Body Snatchers for paperback editions. Set in Mill Valley, California (a typical small “Anytown, USA”), the novel’s narrator Dr. Miles Bennell recounts his discovery of and struggle against aliens who invade the town by duplicating the residents’ bodies, mannerisms, and memories, making residents who’ve been “snatched” difficult to detect. As the ever-observant doctor, Miles eventually realizes that the aliens can only “perform” emotion, not genuinely feel emotion.

In classic sci fi protocol, the events of the novel take place in the not-too-distant future of 1976. It’s worth briefly noting a good question to ease students into discussion: Why would Finney set the novel only a few decades into the future as opposed to hundreds of years?

While the novel was initially criticized for its plot holes, it quickly managed to achieve, according to Maureen Corrigan, a mythic status: “Sometimes the stories that stay with us aren’t the classics or even all that polished. They’re what some critics call ‘good-bad’ stories: The writing may be workmanlike and the characters barely developed, but something about them is so potent that they’re unforgettable—so unforgettable that they can attain the status of myth” (“The Sad Lesson”).

We credit Finney with the “myth” of the alien “pod person.” Corrigan writes, “The term ‘pod,’ used to connote a blank person, has become so much a part of everyday speech that even people who’ve never…read Finney’s novel know the gist of the nightmare he gave to America” (“The Sad Lesson”). Indeed, when I ask, I find that most students are generally familiar with the concept prior to reading.

 

invasion duplicate

Corrigan adds, “Ever since Finney’s novel…critics have been generating theories about why this story has taken root, so to speak, in our collective imagination. The pods seem to mean all things to all critics; lately, a post-colonialist interpretation of the pods as imperialists is popular. But given the 1950s context, the pods are most commonly seen as either symbols of the ‘Communist Menace’ or, conversely, of McCarthy-ite group think” (“The Sad Lesson”).

Students generally jump on historical readings without my prompting, but this semester students also offered interesting feminist readings (the way the character Becky Driscoll tricks the aliens by acting against the gender stereotypes she seems to embody for most of the novel) and ecocritical readings (upon arriving to Earth, the pods initially and unsuccessfully attempt to replicate items of garbage).

Now we’re ready to tackle the issues that evoked the most energetic student discussion this semester. What follows is a breakdown of key points students identified in relation to relevant passages:

Fake and sensational news: One character who joins Miles Bennell in his fight against the aliens is fiction writer Jack Belicec, who saves newspaper clippings of weird and unbelievable occurrences. Several clippings (alluded to in novel’s closing lines) include “Frogs Fell on Alabama” and “Man Burned to Death: Clothes Unharmed” (Finney 81). Jack tells Miles, “These are lies, most of them for all I know. Some are most certainly hoaxes. And maybe the rest of them are distortions, exaggerations, or simple errors of judgement, or vision” (Finney 84-5).

The reliability of sources: One of the most seemingly sensational of Jack’s clippings cites L. Bernard Budlong, a biology and botany professor at a local college who claimed that “mysterious” pod-like “objects” found on a pasture outside of Mill Valley had “come from outer space” only to later retract his comment (Finney 84). Students noted that they recognize college professors as reliable sources of information and initially felt relief when Budlong himself (or at least the man who claims to be Budlong) explains how the reporter took his words out of context in order to “create” a more exciting story.

invasion pod

Students discussed how they were inclined to perceive information presented by characters as “reliable” based on profession. Miles and his colleague Mannie Kaufman, a psychiatrist, are presumably good sources of information because they’re doctors.

Generally speaking, I certainly agree that college professors and doctors are reliable sources, but Finney’s novel complicates matters since some of the professional sources we are inclined to trust have been “body snatched,” such as the professor and the psychiatrist. This led students to critically consider the dangers of blind trust.

Inexplicable truth: While Jack acknowledges that most of his clippings are likely fake, he resists writing them all off as fake. Students described the difficulty of distinguishing fake news from real. Jack says, “Strange things happen, really do happen…. Things that simply don’t fit in with the great body of knowledge that the human race has gradually acquired over thousands of years. Things in direct contradiction to what we know to be true” (Finney 82). Students acknowledged how people often dismiss or resist, sometimes with hostility, information that seems too unbelievable, sometimes despite evidence. As Jack says, it took “hundreds of years to accept the fact that the world is round” (Finney 83).

Explaining the unexplainable: Multiple residents in Mill Valley arrive at Miles Bennell’s office, claiming that a friend or loved one has been replaced by an imposter. In each scenario, Miles recommends psychiatric counseling for what he assumes must be delusions. Mannie Kaufman (or at least the man who claims to be Kaufman) explains the occurrences away as a case of “collective psychosis.” Miles is also inclined to seek a more rational explanation than “alien invasion” even after he sees an alien “pod” duplicating a body first-hand in Jack’s basement. Jack asks, “Should they [unbelievable occurrences] always be explained away? Or laughed away? Or simply ignored?” (Finney 83). Jack goes on to question the “objectivity” of science, claiming there is “no such thing” as “impartiality without prejudice” (Finney 83). Jack concludes, “We hate facing new facts or evidence, because we might have to revise our conceptions of what’s possible, and that’s always uncomfortable” (Finney 83).

Understanding the unfamiliar through the familiar: Once Miles is finally convinced that his town is under invasion, he next must figure out how to fight beings so completely “alien” to humankind. Based on textual evidence, students concluded that characters attempt to understand the unfamiliar through the familiar. Budlong explains it as follows: “What do imaginary men from Mars, in our comic strips and fiction, resemble? Think about it. They resemble grotesque versions of ourselves—we can’t imagine anything different! Oh, they may have six legs, three arms, and antennae sprouting from their heads…like insects we’re familiar with. But they are nothing fundamentally different from what we know” (Finney 173-4).

miles and becky 2.jpg

Students also noticed the frequent use of analogy throughout the novel. For example, Jack compares the process of the alien body duplication by comparing it to “medallion” making: “First, they take a die and make impression number one, giving the blank metal its first rough shape. Then they stamp it with die number two, and it’s the second die that gives it the details” (Finney 36). Miles attempts to understand the duplication process by comparing it to photo developing: “Then, underneath that colorless fluid, the image [on the photo] began to reveal itself—dimly and vaguely—yet unmistakably recognizable just the same. This thing [the transforming alien pod]…was an unfinished, underdeveloped, vague and indefinite Becky Driscoll” (Finney 59).

To wrap up, students recognized that knowledge is often limited and uncertain. As promised, here’s where the novel’s famous opening words come into play: “I warn you that what you’re starting to read is full of loose ends and unanswered questions. It will not be neatly tied up at the end, everything resolved and satisfactorily explained. Not by me it won’t anyway. Because I can’t say I really know exactly what happened, or why, or just how it began, how it ended, or if it has ended” (Finney 7).

donald sutherland duplicate

 

Ultimately, I think Miles’s warning, to which students respond with a fair mix of curiosity and frustration, is an important closing note because it suggests both uncertainty and continuation—even after Miles’s first-hand experiences with the aliens, he admits his understanding of the invasion is still a work-in-progress.

 

Works Cited

Corrigan, Maureen. “The Sad Lesson of ‘Body Snatcher’: People Change.” NPR, 17 Oct. 2011, npr.org/2011/10/17/141416427/the-sad-lesson-of-body-snatchers-people-change.

Finney, Jack. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Simon & Schuster, 1955.

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Frankenstudents: Experimenting with Horror Narratives

Warning: Students may have a hard time grappling with the difficult emotions that horror evokes.

This is a warning that I frequently hear when I ask other instructors about their experiences teaching horror narratives. Horror often strikes a deeply personal, intimate chord that can make students feel uncomfortable when reading, discussing, and writing about horror. Strong feelings of discomfort, as we all know, can potentially poison a course.

This semester, I’m teaching an upper level class on the horror novel. Like many of my fellow instructors, I work to make my classroom a safe environment, but the nature of horror challenges that safety, sometimes resulting in student pushback. While I have a number of students who consider themselves “fans” of the genre, I also have students who don’t. Furthermore, even some of my self-proclaimed “fans,” especially those whose fandom is grounded in popular horror tv series like The Walking Dead or The Strain, find themselves unprepared, at times, to deal with the graphic nature of certain texts like Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (1983) or Clive Barker’s The Hellbound Heart (1986).

Pet SemataryThe Hellbound Heart

Therefore, it’s important to find a methodology that allows students to engage with difficult emotions that they otherwise wouldn’t want to discuss in ways that are productive and non-alienating.

Developing My Methodology

According to Allison Whitney, “[Student] resistance is particularly strong when dealing with a genre like horror, one that trades in the baser emotions of fear, disgust, shock, and arousal, and which many perceive (sometimes justifiably) as exploitative, sadistic, or motivated by prurient interest” (38). Of course, we can’t just ignore or avoid discussing these difficult emotions because they are, as Whitney asserts, “central to human experience” (38). Focusing on such emotions, she argues, is “crucial to understanding [a horror narrative’s] rhetorical, social, political, and aesthetic properties” (38), and I agree.

I find that the best method to help students meaningfully work through their emotional reactions to horror narratives is initially to put some objective distance between themselves and their emotions. In other words, students should step back from their emotions and examine them “clinically”—as if they were analyzing someone else’s emotions and not their own.

Instead of treating emotions as subjective and personal, my students are the observers of an “experiment” in which emotions are “lab specimens” to be dissected and analyzed. As weird as it sounds—this method really works.

To get students thinking “clinically” about their emotional responses to horror narratives, they read several critical essays by Noël Carroll, a foundational horror scholar who pulled the genre out of the trash and into the realm of academia. According to Carroll, horror texts “cue” the audience’s emotional responses. More specifically, the emotional reactions of audience members generally run parallel to the emotional reactions of the character(s) the audience members identify with.

Carroll writes, “This mirroring-effect…is a key feature of the horror genre. For it is not the case for every genre that the audience response is supposed to repeat certain of the elements of the emotional state of characters” (18). For example, Carroll explains, “When a comic character takes a pratfall, he hardly feels joyous, though we do. And though we feel suspense when the hero rushes to save the heroine tied to the railroad tracks he cannot afford to indulge in such an emotion” (18). On the contrary, in horror, “emotions of the characters and those of the audience are synchronized in certain pertinent respects” (18).

The parallel between character emotions and audience emotions thus, according to Carroll, “suggests a way in which we can formulate an objective, as opposed to an introspective, picture of emotion…rather than characterizing art-horror solely on the basis of our own subjective responses, we can ground our conjectures on observations of the way in which characters respond to the monsters in works of horror” (18).

By studying the emotional responses of characters, Carroll concludes, “Works of horror…teach us, in large measure, the appropriate way to respond to them. Unearthing those cues or instructions is an empirical matter, not an exercise in subjective projection” (31).

To facilitate “clinically” reading, discussing, and writing about horror, I use Allison Whitney’s “Segmentation and Emotional Analysis” assignment. A “segmentation,” Whitney explains, “provides a scene-by-scene outline of [a] film, noting its major narrative events” (51). Although Whitney’s assignment is intended for the analysis of horror films, it is highly adaptable to horror literature. A literary segmentation still requires a unit-by-unit breakdown of a text in which the beginning and end of a unit is marked by a shift in space, time, and/or action. Whitney also has her students read Carroll’s commentary on horror cuing audience emotions, which serves as the assignment’s theoretical foundation.

The Assignment

The “Segmentation and Emotional Analysis” consists of three stages. I explain these stages as I have adapted them for literary analysis:

Stage 1: The Narrative Segmentation. In the form of a chart, students break down a text (either a complete short story or a chapter from a novel) into its major narrative units. In their brief descriptions of narrative events, students must identify the emotional states of characters. This segmentation anticipates how character emotions may cue reader response in the next stage.

Stage 2: The Emotional Segmentation. In a second chart, students document the various emotional responses they felt in relation to material on the narrative segmentation.

For this segmentation, my student scientists—even the mad scientists!—need effective tools of analysis. Students work with Carl Plantinga’s classification of “spectator emotions,” developed in Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator’s Experience. Again, although Plantinga developed his taxonomy for film, I find six of the emotional categories he presents applicable to literature. Here’s how I have adapted Plantinga’s classification system (69) for literary application:

1) Global Emotions: Emotions that span all or much of a text’s duration, such as anticipation or suspense.
2) Direct Emotions: Emotions that concern narrative events and the unfolding of the story, such as curiosity about what will happen or confusion after an unexpected turn of events.
3) Local Emotions: Emotions that are typically brief, such as being startled by a graphic image or surprised by something a character says.
4) Sympathetic/Antipathetic Emotions: Emotions that take as their object the condition of characters, such as worrying about a character in danger or feeling disdain for a villain.
5) Meta-Emotions: Responses to one’s own emotions, such as feeling guilty for misjudging a character or feeling proud that you anticipated a plot twist.
6) Artifact Emotions: Responses to the text as a “constructed artifact.” These emotions are not preoccupied with elements of the fiction, but rather with the text as a product of creative activity. For example, one might feel admiration for a writer’s use of various literary devices or annoyance at a writer’s use of a cliché.

Stage 3: The Emotional Analysis Essay: Based on the narrative and emotional segmentations, students must develop an argument about a text’s emotional structure. In the analysis, students must comment on how the text cues their emotional responses and explain how these emotional responses contribute to the text’s overall meaning.

Important questions students must consider when writing the emotional analysis include:

How do your emotional reactions influence your interpretations? What are the similarities and differences between character emotions and your emotions? Are you surprised by any of your emotional reactions? How does the author solicit emotional states to build suspense, encourage or discourage character identification, or produce reactions of fright, shock, and/or disgust? Are there any moments in the text where you experience multiple emotions or conflicting emotions?

Students’ Work

The Birds

For the first “Segmentation and Emotional Analysis” assignment, my students wrote about Daphne Du Maurier’s short story “The Birds” (1952). I was impressed with the diverse range of arguments they developed for the emotional structure of the text. Here are some of my students’ intriguing thesis claims:

“While the characters must fight through fear and prioritize their survival, readers have the ability to scrutinize the actions of characters and revisit character responses with judgement. It is this ability to reflect which helped form my emotional response as I am more empathetic when the characters involuntarily experience trauma and less compassionate when they voluntarily place themselves in jeopardy.”

“Throughout ‘The Birds,’ I found myself wanting to have Nat Hocken’s logical mindset, but I struggled because I identified with Nat’s unnamed wife who is more emotional. Since Nat remains calm and rational, I found him more trustworthy and reliable than his emotional wife, which means that under the same circumstances, I might be unreliable.”

“In ‘The Birds,’ the main character Nat Hocken champions the idea that the avian enemy is motivated by hunger and changes in the season. During my segmentation, I was surprised at the number of emotions I had dedicated to an alternate answer: that, in fact, the birds were more nefarious than Nat presumes. Certain passages contrast emotion and reasoning to challenge the idea that the birds are motivated by pure instinct, and, in some cases, suggest a self-awareness or sentience in the birds. This conflict creates an uncomfortable air of anxiety.”

“Once I reread the ending of ‘The Birds’ for the emotional segmentation, I realized that Nat demonstrates how using intelligence and rationality in uncontrollable circumstances is sometimes just as futile as acting on emotion and not thinking at all.”

For those interested in Whitney’s “Segmentation and Emotional Analysis” assignment, she discusses it thoroughly, including the assignment prompt itself and a sample segmentation in the article “Thinking/Feeling: Emotion, Spectatorship, and the Pedagogy of Horror.”

Works Cited

Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart. Routledge, 1990.

Plantinga, Carl. Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator’s Experience. U of
California P, 2009.

Whitney, Allison. “Thinking/Feeling: Emotion, Spectatorship, and the Pedagogy of Horror.” The CEA Forum, Winter/Spring 2014, pp. 37-61.