the body snatchers

When I was twelve or thirteen, we got cable TV for the first time. Our house was up on a hill, bordered on three sides by cow or tobacco fields. When we first moved in, it was far enough from the road that the cable company wouldn’t foot the bill of putting in an underground connection. And my parents were not willing to pay the cost of installing cable, much less a satellite dish.

But then another family built a house beside ours and I guess that was enough to change the cable company’s mind. There was money to be made. So we got cable and, along with it, HBO. We didn’t pay for HBO, but we got it somehow. And in 1994 having HBO was a major middle-school status symbol, so I watched it all the time, if for no other reason than to be able to say at the lunch table, “So I was watching HBO yesterday, but then my dad made me go outside to see if the groundhog he shot from the upstairs window was dead or not.” (This is something my dad did actually try to make my sister and me do. But only once, because he hadn’t yet learned that such a request would make his adolescent daughters burst into panicked tears.)

For six months I watched the same movies over and over and the one I remember the best was the 1993 movie Body Snatchers. It was scary enough that I wouldn’t watch it right before bed, but on a Saturday afternoon, I’d put down whatever book I was reading and tune right in. I didn’t know then that the movie was based on a book, or perhaps more accurately, that the movie was a remake of two other movies (1956, 1978) that were based on a book by Jack Finney. In this particular version, the main character is a teenager, Marti, who begins to discover that everyone on the military base where she lives with her family is slowly being possessed by a race of pod people. This is most horrifyingly conveyed when Marti’s step-brother sees his mother’s body disintegrate as her pod-replacement steps from the bedroom closet. I vividly remember her naked body: half in shadow, half in light, beautiful but no longer human.

I haven’t exactly forgotten this movie, but I also haven’t given it much thought in intervening years. That is until I read a great article about the original Finney novel on NPR yesterday. And, to get back around to this idea of love stories, it got me thinking about love. Maureen Corrigan writes:

Like so many other great genre writers […] Finney had a knack for unearthing shallowly buried psychological anxieties. People we love can change, Invasion of the Body Snatchers tells us, and sometimes that change is terrifying.

I think she nails it here. It’s terrifying to see someone you love become cold, unrecognizable, without affect. Maybe it’s the product of dementia or illness or alcoholism, but, as Corrigan goes on to point out, it also happens in love. People who bring us unbearable joy can, without warning or explanation, become distant and strange. They look like the people we have always known, but they are not. They are doubles, aliens, immune to our heartache and petty human desire.

I remember once saying to my mother as she was putting her make up on, “You and Dad would never get divorced.” It was a statement hiding a question. “I don’t know,” she’d said, casually applying mascara. “Sometimes people fall out of love.” I think I argued with her that day. Sure people could fall out of love, but she and my father weren’t those people. They wouldn’t. But we are all those people.

I like writing and reading nonfiction because, when it’s done well, there’s a sense of intimacy with another living person. There’s an authenticity, a pliable realness, that fiction can’t quite touch. But I love fiction for it’s ability to reach under our skin and tweak a nerve, giving rise to a response that we can’t–or haven’t yet–put into words. I think in love, this pod person embodies our deepest fears. We invest ourselves in someone while not knowing, or being able to control, whether the person we love will always be the version of themselves that we fell in love with. Or if they might simply decide one day we are not what they wanted after all. And sometimes it’s this risk that makes love seem like it might not be worth the trouble.