Them!

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My dad told me once that the scariest movie he ever saw as a child was Them!.

According to IMDb,  "The earliest atomic tests in New Mexico cause common ants to mutate into giant man-eating monsters that threaten civilization." 

My dad saw it at a nickel matinee in a base theater when he was about nine years old and reportedly had trouble sleeping for weeks afterward. Besides my fascination with the notion of such freedom at such a tender age, I was appalled with the revelation that anything had ever scared my dad. While I could completely relate to being terrified by giant, man-eating ants, it was more terrifying to me that my hero had at some point shared my childish fears. 

With the advent of the BetaMax, we kids were initiated into the world of movies my dad had witnessed on the silver screen. I remember watching the movie with my jaded, post-Star Wars eyes and finding the special effects laughable and the dialogue melodramatic and stilted. This is what had scared my dad? At the time I chalked it up to one of those quaint 50s phenomena like pearls and shirtwaist dresses and watched Time Bandits instead. 

Last night as I was falling asleep, I was thinking about this - for that is the time when one thinks of such things. Snuggled into my grown-up, post-modern bed, in my grown-up post-modern head, it struck me that the title of that movie - Them! - is the scariest of all. We are all afraid of Them. It is Them that keeps us up at night worrying about what lurks beyond our vision. 

What do They think of me? They said the best thing I should do for my kids is... They say that high fructose corn syrup is bad for me... They might think I'm insane if I... They say the best jeans for my body shape is... They say things about haircuts, health problems, grieving, death, loving, diet, diapering, you name it. They name it. I don't want to disappoint Them. It's not even as tangible as large man-eating ants. It's something even more laughable, really. It's our perceived audience of judges, informants, advisers, expert witnesses, and admirers. Because, don't you know, They don't have anything better to do with Their time than to scrutinize my every thought and action and pass judgement. 

There's the other Them, too. The evil other half of Us and Them. They don't live like we do. They are a threat to me. They don't believe this. They are responsible for this mess. They don't get it. They are to be feared. We are not Them. I'm so glad I'm not like Them. It's our ability to turn people, with one large stroke of  a paintbrush, into two dimensional, larger than life man-eating ants. It's the sort of thinking that helps us sleep at night, comfortable in our own designated circle of Us that, thank our lucky stars, is nothing like Them.

The 1954 version of Them! is a Cold War movie. Remember that umbrella of fear we used to live under? The threat of nuclear annihilation? of Communism? of scary people who looked just like us only wore more utilitarian gray? The era that brought us such gems as Do The Russians Love Their Children, Too? (shame on you, Sting!) and Dr. Strangelove (thank you, Stanley Kubrik!) and that after-school special of doom, The Day After (what?! Just... what?!). We look back fondly and laugh. Such silliness. Such paranoia. Really?! Imagine... quaking in your bed because there might be a domino effect and the whole world might become Communist and there will be vaporization?! My dad shuddered in fear at age 9 under the threat of giant insects. I shuddered in fear at age 9 under the threat of giant bread lines. I'm so glad we've all grown past that sort of nonsense.

Imagine if the Cold War had internet access. Do we even know what wars We're fighting now? I'm not talking about the ones we fight with heavy machinery and tax dollars. Stay At Home Moms vs. Working Moms, Lefties vs. Conservatives, Breasts vs. Bottles, Beatles vs. Stones, Green vs. Guzzling, Luddites vs. Techno-Babies, Vegans vs. Carnivores, Locavores vs. WalMart Shoppers, Natural vs. Synthetic, Coke vs. Pepsi, Literacy vs. Reality TV, Cut vs. Uncut, Apple vs. PC, Christian vs. Athiest, Agnostic vs. Believers, American vs. Imported, Immigrated This Century vs. Descendant of Immigrants, Legalization vs. Prohibition. I've forgotten some on purpose.

We've all hidden in our ideological bomb shelters at one time or another. We've donned the tin foil hats and duct taped our mental windows to keep Them out. It's human nature to hang out with people who like us, who are like us, and who affirm what we believe. The unknown and the misunderstood are naturally a little scary. But when does it become childish fear of things laughable, melodramatic, and stilted? In a world that 1954 only dreamed of, we all have global information literally at our fingertips. How will we use this amazing tool? To erase dividing lines and realize that regardless of ideology most of us are just doing our thing and trying to do it the best way we know how? Or to further divide and categorize and demonize until we finally move from Us and Them to simply Me?

Me. Frozen in that cinematic silent scream, hands raised, backed in a corner and immobilized by a swarm of fictitious man-eating ants. Maybe that's what scared my dad.

This post was written for the GBE2 topic: Reviews. It sort of fits. I'm not sure what They'll think about it.


Originally published on Periphery.

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