Monday, April 4, 2011

The Fears

Godzilla is back. At least in the popular imagination. NPR reports that Wikipedia searches for the 1950’s horror film icon are up significantly. The reason? Perhaps, an exploration of fear. Godzilla, as you may remember, was created in the movies due to radioactivity caused by atomic bombs. The Godzilla searches are seen by some social scientists as a way for us to explore our fear about radiation leaks and, of course, those fears are now sky high, thanks to the nuclear crisis in Japan.

Grady Hendrix, co-director of the New York Asian Film Festival, had an interesting quote in the piece:

“Movies are where we rehearse our fears.”

So, what about fear of extraterrestrials? I think you can put most scary extraterrestrial movies into four general categories of fear:

Personal attack and violation: This is perhaps the scariest of scenarios, because it involves personal violation. The alien abduction movies would be the best examples. Abduction and experimentation are often done at night and when a person is asleep. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” certainly starts out this way. “Communion” is perhaps the classic tale of a family tormented by aliens. Hollywood upped the ante recently, with the “Fourth Kind”, which did not fare as well at the box office. The primary fears are a loss of free will and a loss of privacy. Aliens have powers beyond our imagining and they do with us as they want. We won’t even bother discussing the use of probes.

Corruption of the individual and society: In a sense, this is the broader version of the personal attack. My personal favorite was the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” There is an element of personal violation, but the trend is toward a subversion of human society. The TV series “V”, both in the original and remake, take this conspiracy to new levels and point to what could be the most profound fear for humans: the aliens will take over our society. Once again, the loss of free will is a major factor.

All-out attack: Hollywood loves this plot, probably because Hollywood loves to blow stuff up and alien invasion movies provide plenty of opportunities. In fact, it seems that directors spend a great deal of time deciding what well-known structures to explode. “Independence Day” blew up the White House. “Battle: L.A.” takes the whole city down, one building at a time. However, it’s interesting to note that in both of those examples the humans are able to fight back. And they all return to the same theme first popularized by H.G. Wells with “War of the Worlds”: we don’t know exactly why they’re out to get us, but they are, and we’d better do something about it. Often, extinction is the ultimate fear in these movies. However, loss of free will and enslavement are also motivators.

We’re not worthy: This is a slightly more esoteric fear, explored very nicely in the original “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (and not so well in the remake). The idea is that the aliens are worried about what we humans might do to ourselves, and the rest of the universe. Humans are basically bad, but with some redeeming characteristics. There is usually an ultimatum of some sort. The primary fear is that we are not worthy of hanging-out with the more developed extraterrestrials. Many of us like this plot, because it infers that we are probably our own worst enemy. And history tends to support that theory.

Film buffs will be quick to point out that most alien movies have an underlying fear that might have nothing to do with space aliens. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is thought to be an exploration of fears of communism. Godzilla was just one of many examples of how people worried about the nuclear age, both in the 1950’s, and apparently now. However, if you consider extraterrestrial First Contact in any form, you would want to explore the fears that would accompany such an event. They would grow in correlation to the amount of interaction involved in a First Contact event. If we merely intercept some far off message, it would be one level of fear. If the aliens land in Baltimore and take in a ballgame at Camden Yards, it would be a much greater degree of fear.

We would be naive to think that fear would not be an important issue After First Contact. While such an occurrence may not provoke open panic in the streets, it would certainly be a background worry, and one that could impact important decision making for world leaders, scientists and the general public.

How do we get over our fears? I suppose it can only come through facing reality. If we ever get the opportunity to meet members of an extraterrestrial civilization, we will need to explore these concerns. I would suggest that the best way would be to consider them openly. Caution is a pretty important characteristic of the human personality. It keeps us safe. Turning fear into reasonable caution would make sense. Fear isn’t entirely irrational. All of the previous scenarios could be plausible in the wake of First Contact. Talking about them openly, and forming a framework to protect ourselves, might be the best medicine of all. And hey, we’ve had plenty of rehearsal time to get ready for the big performance. Thanks Hollywood.

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