As part of a series of posts on the relatively neglected horror films of the 1950s, I want to begin with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, directed by Eugène Lourié, and released in 1953 by Warner Brothers Studios. It was the first of the “monster” films that have come to define the decade—before Godzilla, before Creature from the Black Lagoon. The monster is a rhedosaurus, long buried in the ice north of the Arctic Circle and released during a routine test of an atomic bomb. It then tracks a path down to its former home, now New York City, and wreaks havoc on lower Manhattan before being taken down by a radioactive isotope shot into its neck in the midst of its rampage through Coney Island Amusement Park.
Horror films from the 1950s in general, and Beast in particular, are accruing, I think, an increasing importance in the current moment because they so directly address environmental crisis. The atomic explosion that opens Beast causes sheets of ice to cascade into the ocean. The shots of catastrophic glacial melting reminded me of a documentary I just watched, Chasing Ice, released in 2012 and documenting the effects of climate change on the glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, and Alaska: like Beast, the centerpiece of Chasing Ice was glacial ice sliding into the ocean.
In both films, sudden climate change, the direct result of our technological, modern society, releases a monster. The damage that the rhedosaurus does, moreover, is not confined to its own physical destructiveness. After it’s been shot and starts bleeding, anyone who comes close to it sickens. Upon analyzing the blood of one of the victims, a doctor declares: “The monster’s a giant germ carrier of a horrible virulent disease. Contact with the animal’s blood can be fatal!” On the one hand, this speaks to mid-twentieth-century fears of radiation sickness: has the beast’s biology been rendered toxic by its exposure to the nuclear blast? It also happens to resonate, though, with early 21st-century fears of viral pandemics—and, in fact, the recent eco-horror film The Thaw (Mark A. Lewis, 2009), follows in Beast’s tracks in featuring a woolly mammoth thawed in the Canadian Arctic by global warning that then spreads a deadly parasite.
Like many sci-fi horror films of the 1950s, then, Beast expresses intense anxiety about the unintended ecological consequences of scientific and technological advancement. The scientists and military personnel in the opening Arctic scenes are dwarfed—overcome—by the mushroom cloud of the atomic blast, the cataclysmic cascading ice, and the terrifying rhedosaurus, “the monster!” as they call it. In these and all the scenes of the monster raging through Manhattan, humans look puny, ineffectual; they have unleashed the fruit of their labor and intelligence and are helpless to control it.
If Beast expresses deep anxiety about human helplessness in the face of global environmental and epidemic catastrophe that we (inadvertently) released ourselves, it then goes on, I suggest, to layer those anxieties on top of more local, socio-political anxieties—and then to resolve them (accounting for the “happy” ending—i.e., the death of the Beast).
What is notable throughout Beast, and not necessarily surprising if you’re at all familiar with 1950s film (or with the prevailing racial segregation of most of the US at the time), is that every single character—every police officer, every scientist, every national guardsman, every telephone operator, even every extra running screaming from the Beast—is white.
In the face of the unremitting whiteness of, well, everyone, you can’t help but think that the darkness of the Beast means something. It’s June 1953, less than a year before the decision in Brown v. Board of Education sparked the simmering civil rights movement and the white supremacist backlash. Could the Beast be a surreal incarnation of a feared racial uprising, a nightmarish harbinger of the impending violent integration of white America? A radio announcer intones that “New York is like a city besieged” and, later, that lower Manhattan has become a “no-man’s land, where the Beast at present lies hidden.” Thomas Jefferson once famously said of slavery, “we have the wolf by the ear.” Could the Beast—at bay, lying hidden—represent the increasingly tenuous grip of white privilege, built of Jim Crow laws, voting exclusions, and the wholesale segregation of property and education?
The suggestion that the Beast is a monstrous embodiment of the vengeful return of the racially oppressed was made stunningly clear to me in the climactic scene at Coney Island, when the hero—scientist Tom Nesbitt, with the help of a practical sharpshooter—takes down the Beast. He does so with a radioactive isotope that requires he and his gunman suit up: “Put your hood on,” Nesbitt tells the marksman—and they adopt a cloak and hood that seems unambiguously evocative of the Ku Klux Klan. (The Klan gains renewed power and numbers in the 1950s, profiting from the groundswell of resistance to judicially-mandated desegregation.) The Beast eventually goes down in flames, and the burning roller coaster struts starkly resemble a cross.
In its translation of anxieties from the global and environmental to the local and racial, Beast is able to allay the Beast it brought to life. Critic Cyndy Hendershot has pointed out the irony, if that’s what it is, of having the same by-product (radiation) of the same technology (atomic) initiate the devastation wrought by the Beast and end it.[i] It only works, though, because the film switches allegorical meanings in the middle, erasing the problem of environmental catastrophe and substituting the “problem” of race. And as much trepidation as many white Americans may have felt in 1953 about the sleeping “beast” of oppressed African Americans, there were tools at hand to address it, tools forged in the crucible of American’s past of ongoing racial injustice. These tools prove effective in the film, allaying the maelstrom of anxieties that are distilled and exorcised through the Beast in the final scene. While the white military and scientific establishment (with a little help from the Klan) may have put down the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, though, the oncoming “beast” of racial integration and racial justice would not, in the end, be so easily put down by those determined to resist it.
[i] Cyndy Hendershot, “Darwin and the Atom: Evolution/Devolution Fantasies in “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” “Them!”, and “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” Science-Fiction Studies 25.2 (July 1998).