Terror in the Theater – Fifties Fears

Science fiction films of the 1950s commonly expressed several themes: fear of technology leading to unintended consequences; invasion of the planet by aliens; and the effects of atomic radiation. Because science fiction movies were not constrained by reality, more imaginative outcomes and plot lines could be addressed in creative ways.

Forbidden Planet, one of the best science fiction films of the Fifties, illustrates that if the advanced race, the “Krel,” could not control their technology, what hope did humans have of controlling theirs.


In 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Captain Nemo, hoping to abolish war among the world’s nations, realizes the world is not ready for his advanced technology, which he then destroys by what appears to be an atomic blast.

20000 leagues

The fear of the effects of radioactivity was a common science fiction movie theme during the Fifties. Strangely, the effects of exposure to radiation often did not include becoming radioactive, but might lead to the shrinking or enlarging of humans or the creation of monsters dangerous to human life.

The main character in The Incredible Shrinking Man is exposed to a radioactive cloud, which causes him to shrink.  The movie can be interpreted as an example of the paranoia of the Cold War era, as familiar surroundings, such as his wife, the neighbors, and the pet cat, become threatening to his existence.

Shrinking man

Lesser imitations of The Incredible Shrinking Man followed, such as The Amazing Colossal Man, which, instead of shrinking after being exposed to radiation, the main character grows to an immense size.  Unable to cope with his new reality, he goes on a destructive rampage which leads to his own destruction.

Colossal man

Godzilla, one of the more popular movie monsters, is awakened by an atomic explosion and then attacks Japan.


One of the most well-known science fiction films of the Fifties is Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  A story about an alien invasion, the movie is often seen as a commentary about the threat of Communism.  The pod people, which replace the humans of the movie, are emotionless with little ambition or desire, attributes Americans associated with Communists during the Cold War.  The film ends with the main character shouting: “Look you fools.  You’re in danger.  Can’t you see?  They’re after you.  They’re after all of us.  Our wives, our children, everyone.  They’re here already.  You’re next!”

Body Snatchers

The posters seen in this post are from the papers of Forrest Ackerman (1916-2008), a collector, editor, and writer of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. His collection at the AHC is full of memorabilia from many movies in this genre from the silent era through the late 1980s.


Forrest Ackerman, ca. 1955

Also called “Forry,” and “The Ackermonster,” Ackerman was central to the formation, organization, and spread of science fiction fandom, and a key figure in the wider cultural perception of science fiction as a literary, art and film genre. He’s also famous coining the nickname “sci-fi”. Now you can quiz your friends and family about who coined that famous phrase!

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2 Responses to Terror in the Theater – Fifties Fears

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