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Scared to death

Mars has doctors

It’s been said that death is a foreign country, and we might expand the metaphor to say that in the realm of death, everything will be strange and everyone will be speaking an unknown language.

In an article in “Science Times,” a New York Times supplement, Dennis Overbye pays homage to a movie he never saw, “Invaders from Mars,” which came out in 1953. He never saw it because his parents wouldn’t let him, but he remembers how just the trailers terrified him.

“Invaders from Mars” was my favorite movie for a while when I was a kid, and is still one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen. (It wasn’t a hide-your-eyes type of terror that it evoked, more like a mounting feeling of dread.) In the movie, a wide-eyed lad named Davy wakes up one night in a storm, looks out his bedroom window and sees a flying saucer flash across the sky and land nearby. The next day he goes looking for it, but it’s burrowed underground and can’t be seen. No one believes him when he tells his tale, but soon people begin to get sucked underground, and he realizes that almost everyone around him is changed – their bodies have been taken over by aliens. The story is a precursor to “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956), but instead of using pods, the aliens here operate on their victims, altering their personalities while leaving telltale scars on the back of their necks. (I remember getting the cold chills when Davy sees the incision on his dad’s neck.)

What makes the movie so spooky – besides the fantastic, twist ending – is its representation of every kid’s nightmare, that the people all around him, even those he is closest to, not only can’t be trusted but are actively in league against him. In this regard the film could be said to be a meditation on death, or, to be more precise, on the afterlife – for, to paraphrase Sartre, what is hell but other people?

But if death is terrifying, it also has its fascinations. Who hasn’t wished, at one time or another, for a radical transformation of his or her life – maybe not death, after all, maybe not even an alien abduction – but something, exhilarating and Earth-shattering.

Overbye recalls standing on the neighborhood ball diamond at twilight, in the thrall of the movie he hadn’t seen, and scanning the horizon, to see if he would see something coming.

“Sometimes, I was scared I would,” he says. “Sometimes, I was scared I wouldn’t.”

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