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This week Labragirl Resident Blogger Eric Winter takes a reflective look at the Cold War period and how during this time Hollywood channeled American society’s fears and paranoia into effective cinematic villains.


Which do you fear more: the Soviet Union or machines bent on waging war and enslaving mankind?

What would someone living in America at the height of the Cold War have thought?

Eric Winter

Fear is an emotion everyone feels to some degree. The most realistic and effective movies find a way to connect villains with society’s fears. Screenwriters and directors create and alter villains so that they play on people’s worst fears. As a result, the villains and the movie-going experience appears that much more real to audience members.

Society’s fears and worries are based on the collective history of each generation. Once upon a time, the Soviet Union and the United States battled for global power. Americans viewed the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire” – the ultimate villain.  However, young people today were not even born when the Soviet Union was around. People who did not experience life during the Cold War cannot quite understand the grip that the fear of the Soviet Union and Communism had over Americans.

During the Cold War, fear and paranoia about Communism and the Soviet Union were pervasive in American culture. [Source: http://www.designer-daily.com/10-amazing-cold-war-propaganda-posters-2901]

Although a Russian satellite launch may be relatively common today, a Soviet satellite launch in the 1950’s was seen as a prelude to nuclear war. Throughout the Cold War, filmmakers used Americans’ fear of Communism to shape their idea of the perfect villain.

[Source: http://reviewingsciencefiction.blogspot.com/2010/07/invasion-of-body-snatchers-1956.html]

Imagine a science fiction movie where aliens from another planet secretly infiltrate a small town in California. The aliens end up replacing the humans in the town with alien duplicates.  These copies look the same as the original individuals, but they act without emotion, display a lack of individuality, and have a hive or collective type mentality.

What was scary about this to a 1956 audience?  Is it the fact that aliens were secretly invading our planet? Or, was it that Marxist Aliens were secretly invading our planet and attempting to turn us all into Communists?

The plot described above is the actual plot from the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). [Editorial Note: this movie was later remade in 1978] It’s important that we pay attention to the release date. The movie was released during the Cold War, when a lack of individuality and conformity were associated with Communism. To the viewers in 1956, the Aliens were not only invading their planet, they were taking away their individuality and replacing it with Communism.

In today’s world, where the threat from the Soviet Union is non-existent and the danger of Communism is long gone, people do not fear these Aliens or their Marxist ideas the same way people did in 1956.  Moviegoers from today and the 1950s come from different cultures and have different historical memories. Therefore, people today and in 1956 have a different type of fear from the same villains. Moviegoers today might see the aliens as invaders that are seeking to take our planet right under our noses and need to be destroyed with prejudice. People seeing the film during the 1950s and 1960s not only saw aliens attempting to destroy the human race, but they also saw an entity, much like the Soviet Union, trying to crush their individuality and indoctrinate them with a false ideology.

Today, society does not have the same fear of Communism as people did during the Cold War.  We worry about other things. Now some people are scared or wary of using computers and smart phones. Can you blame them? Many people have seen a Terminator or Matrix movie.

Modern Villains

The Matrix [Source: http://matrix.wikia.com/wiki/Sentinel]

The Terminator

[Source: http://blessedarethegeeks.blogspot.com/2011/02/arnold-schwarzenegger-career_18.html]

Hypothetically, the person right next to you could be a computer program created to make sure that you are producing your electric allotment for the day. If you showed the movie The Terminator to people during the 1950s, they would not have the same response as people do today. The thought that machines could fight and win a war with mankind would not be a rational fear for people in the 1950s. People of the 1950s were worrying about nuclear holocaust from the Soviet Union rather than an artificial intelligence. Today, we have remote controlled Predator drones and viruses that can wipe out millions of personal computers. The thought of a war with machines might not be that far off in the minds of moviegoers’  today. The effect villains have over their audiences depends in large part upon the moviegoers’  historical knowledge and experiences. Different generations react to different villains based on the cultural and historical events they are experiencing.

So, what type of villain are we going to see in our next movie viewing experience? We only have to look at our own personal fears and current history to answer that question.


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