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Paranoia mutates into a new monster

Published July 9, 2006


I can't help it.

Every time I drive through the desert in New Mexico, that is the sound I wait for.

And a few days ago, I was doing it again.

It comes from growing up on an as-steady-as-possible diet of "B" science fiction movies in the 1950s.

The format, often, went like this:

Richard Carlson and an attractive woman whose father is head of something called "The Institute" are driving across the desert in a convertible in which, for some reason, nobody's hair gets mussed.

They stop for a cigarette, because nice girls smoked in movies then, and because nobody had caught on yet to what was happening with the fine art of product placement.

That's when the WHOOOOSH! BOOM! happened as a meteorite streaked across the sky, went over a volcanic hill and crashed into the desert.

Whatever came over the hill next was usually big, mean and meant a whole lot of trouble for mankind until Carlson, who was a civilian, somehow mustered troops, planes - It was the Flying Wing once, as I recall - and guns to destroy it/them.

Okay, maybe it wasn't always Carlson, and maybe it wasn't always The Institute, but those of you who are old enough remember the drill and recognize the Jungian achetypes.

Not only did the giant tarantulas, ants, crabs and, once, even rabbits scare the hell out of a 10-year-old boy gorging on popcorn in the first row, they scared the hell out of half of America.

You have to look at it in a historical context.

The world had just learned of the existence of the atom bomb and, along with the disturbing pictures coming out of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was just beginning to get information about radiation-caused mutations.

It gave sci-fi writers free rein for a whole host of unimaginable terrors, and, as McCarthyism and anticommunist hysteria grew to proportions you can't really explain to anyone who wasn't there, a whole new area of scary stuff opened up - alien enemies who looked just like the rest of us.

It is probably only coincidental that Carlson, while he was making the science fiction thrillers, was also cranking out the weekly TV series I Led Three Lives, which was based on the experiences of double agent Herbert Philbrick.

Every week, Philbrick was portrayed as infiltrating neighborhood communist cells full of people who looked like they were on their way to PTA meetings or the local VFW dance, but were really plotting the ultimate overthrow of the U.S. government and capitalism in general.

Add to that the execution of the Rosenbergs, a harmless-looking Jewish couple who were also Russian spies, and keep in mind that we schoolkids were being drilled weekly in what to do when the Russkies dropped the atom bomb, and you had the makings of full-blown paranoia.

Which takes me back to my recent drive across the desert, during which I mused that we now have an entirely different breed of bogeymen to contend with. They aren't communists any more (except in North Korea). We are more afraid of the dirty bomb than the type that makes mushroom clouds, and the days are over when we thought a radioactive meteorite was going to breed giant spiders, 50-foot women or incredible shrinking men (which was not back then a metaphor for the advent of feminism).

The bad guys, if we can believe what the feds say about a recently busted Miami terrorist cell, can still look like us, or like a lot of us, and we still have our national heebie-jeebie mood rings set at yellow.

I admit to being tired of the government's reminders to remain vigilant. But when I'm north of Albuquerque on a lonely road, you still don't want to sneak up on me and go:


[Last modified July 9, 2006, 05:58:13]

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