Having watched two episodes of AMC’s intriguing new series, Humans (on Sunday nights at 9), I have been struck with how eerily similar it is to the 1975 horror-thriller, The Stepford Wives (Bryan Forbes). Humans is a British-American co-production, running for eight episodes, and based on the award-winning Swedish drama, Real Humans. It is, on the one hand, obviously sci-fi, yet it also partakes of horror, I argue, in that is fundamentally about the dread of an uncertain identity and the terrifyingly tenuous boundaries of the human. Who are we? Who are those around us? Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956) famously took up these questions—and, more recently, so did The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2012). As Marty (Fran Kranz) says, “We are not who we are.” The larger question horror asks is: Are we ever?
Ira Levin (author of Rosemary’s Baby) published The Stepford Wives in 1972; it’s a story about how (and why) men in a small town in Stepford, Connecticut, decide to create the “perfect” woman. She loves nothing but housework: social plans always fall to the necessity of waxing the floor (again). She dedicates herself wholly to husband and children, anticipating their every desire—including their apparent need that she have large breasts, a tiny waist, and immaculate hair and make-up. (Levin presciently predicted the current boom in breast implants: there were almost 300,000 procedures in 2013, triple the number in 1997.[i]) The novel was in short order, three years later, turned into a successful film.
Levin made it crystal clear that it was male desire driving the creation of this “perfect” woman, and his novel subtly implicates male resentment about having to share in any of the domestic labor or childcare. The men of Stepford are driven to kill their wives and replace them with robots simply because they have to do the dishes occasionally, or look after their own children, or perhaps their wives might be too busy to fix their hair or have sex on demand. Tellingly, the fact that Betty Friedan spoke at the Stepford Women’s Club seems to have galvanized this male backlash against the smallest signs of women’s independence.
One of the brilliant things about the novel is that Levin makes it almost clear that the men of Stepford are cooking up replacement wives in the Men’s Association—inspired by their leader who used to work in “audioanimatronics” at Disneyland. In this reading, the novel (and film) certainly follow the narrative of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, although they replace the impersonal motivation of the aliens (who simply want to survive) with the very personal desires of men.
There is a shadow of doubt though (also raised, at least initially in Invasion), that the protagonists of the novel and film—Joanna Eberhart (Katherine Ross) and Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss)—are misconstruing as robots what are actually real women who simply enjoy housework, that they are experiencing some sort of hysterical over-reaction to their own ambivalence about femininity. When Joanna eventually transforms at the end, we aren’t quite sure if she was actually killed by the men of Stepford and replaced by an animatronic figure—or if she gave up resisting what was expected of her as wife and mother.
Humans is, perhaps fittingly, running on the fortieth anniversary of The Stepford Wives’ release. It too offers up the perfect homemaker as robot—the “synth”—an eerily human-looking android that anyone can purchase to perform an array of caretaking duties.
One interesting thing about Humans so far is that while it is clearly supposed to be set in a post-male-chauvinist, post-feminist London (women unremarkably work outside the home), the people we see who are buying and using synths seem mostly to be men. The story centers on Joe and Laura Hawkins (Tom Goodman-Hill and Katherine Parkinson)—and one day when Laura is out of town ostensibly on a business trip, Joe realizes he’s overcome by all the domestic responsibility and so goes out and buys a family synth—Anita (Gemma Chan). While the males in the family adore her—and immediately learn to rely on her supreme efficiency and enjoy her good looks—the women aren’t so sure. Both Laura and her teenage daughter regard Anita with suspicion. Among other things, she seems to be not quite as perfectly robotic as she seems. As in The Stepford Wives, we wonder if Laura is right to be paranoid (I’m leaning toward yes!)—or if she’s just displacing anxiety about her own domestic and marital “failures.”
Unlike The Stepford Wives, though, where we had a fairly dichotomous world of animatronic robots versus real women, the synths take us into a realm where the borders between the human and the android, the “real” and the fabricated, are clearly getting blurred. Anita does seem to have “human” feelings, “human” memories—and there is a group (family?) of synths who seem unambiguously to partake of both human and android.
Humans is definitely a series worth watching: its central conceit of the “stranger in the home” hearkens back not only to Invasion of the Body Snatchers but also to such 90’s interloper horror fare as Single White Female (Barbet Schroeder, 1992) and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (Curtis Hanson, 1992). And its exploration of who we are—where the lines are that separate us from nonhumans forms (whether it be demon, animal or machine)—is a staple of horror.