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Beware of the Blob!

the blob 1958 title sequence

Sometimes in your life things happen which defy explanation.  If they happen at this time of year, it’s for the better:  October is a good month for the inexplicable, because as the warmth from the sun wanes, so too does our passionate belief in the realities of the physical world it enlivens.

We turn from the very real, very crisp green radiance of a cucumber or honeydew and towards a motley blend of spices we believe somehow appropriates the taste of a roasted pumpkin.  We then proceed to put that blend in everything, from coffee to beer, pies to ice cream, as a way of sublimating our belief in its pseudo-reality.  Sometimes it even tastes good!  Talk about defying explanation.

So, as the leaves outside slowly die away from the trees and the landscapes become sinister in their barrenness, we turn from the happiest sounds of water flowing free over rock in sylvan glades – the very deepest, realest things we have ever known – to . . . well, the plastic of Halloween followed by Santa Claus.

So, in short, we begin to go a little crazy in October and believe in things that otherwise we might not accept so readily.  It’s a process we only shake off when that giant, egg-laying rabbit comes around to mark the beginning of spring.

“The Blob” (1958) is very much like all that.

In it, a young Steve Andrews (played by a visibly too old for the role, 28-year-old Steve McQueen, in his inaugural performance) is pursuing a good time at a local make-out spot with Jane (Aneta Corsaut) when the two lovers witness a shooting-star streaking overhead.  Excitedly they rush to find the spot where it landed.  However, in order to delay the inevitable meeting, and subsequent conflict, of protagonist and antagonist, an old man (Olin Howland), living in a rustic cabin nearby, beats them to the scene.

At the impact site, Howland’s character discovers a gelatinous . . .  yes, blob . . . which becomes parasitically latched to his hand.  Seeking help, the old man stumbles upon Steve and Jane, who bring him back to civilization.  As it must in this type of film, chaos ensues.  The blob begins by consuming the old man, then a nurse, growing larger and a deeper color of red with each victim.

As it continues to wreak havoc, Steve and Jane are faced with one of those unreal moments mentioned earlier.  Monsters simply do not exist in the ultra-real summer days which define our world:  they are the sole purview of Halloween and its subsidiaries, or – as the film suggests in a tongue-in-cheek way – late-night creature-features.  Yet, the monster that McQueen and company encounter isn’t polite enough to wait around for the appropriate time of year; it is, in fact, rude enough to interrupt an entire movie theater of horror film aficionados, taking in the 1955 nightmare-film “Dementia” (about, fittingly, a series of horrible events that may or may not be real).

And therein lies the problem.  The blob shows up on a random summer day when the kids are out of school and there are still leaves on the trees and the terror of death comes only in the form of entertainment on a screen.  So no one believes Steve and Jane when they try to warn the town about their pending doom.  No one believes, really, until they sit on the eve of their own destruction.

In many ways “The Blob” is a film about the function of belief in society and the way that trust modifies that function.  While generally interpreted as a work warning a Cold War-era populous of the dangers of communism – in much the same, lackluster way that film criticism has interpreted nearly every Cold War horror film – it works more cleanly as a film warning us against our own distrust.  That’s a message rather the opposite of the prescriptive anti-Communism generally suggested and one which bears looking into.

Belief – all belief – is dialogical in nature, though that dialogue may take many forms.  In religion it comes in the form of dialogue between creator and created; in society it is the reciprocity described by Martin Buber’s “I and Thou.”  I recognize you – I speak with you.  In that speech is bound up the knowledge that I have of you – your hopes and aspirations; the filters through which you parse the world; and all the fledgling and myriad cries and whispers of the bit of god inside of you – however much of a construct that may be.  In that moment of dialogue you transcend my physical interaction with you, and I know that your blood, and all its immense struggle, is also mine.

Needless to say this dialogue is not one between strangers (and this is why we tend not to take strangers at their word).  And while in written form this system is poetic and describes us as deeply spiritual creatures capable of beautiful communion and symbiosis, it also means that we largely do not trust one another, for, as Buber suggests, those moments of dialogical transcendence are rare.  This lack of trust, more than our own human frailty, is what the blob exploits.

In the film Steve sees things to which no other character is privy (except the audience, because we can’t be allowed to question the reliability of a narrator as all-American as Steve McQueen).  These things are the cinematic equivalent of pumpkin spice – silly, over-the-top, and in no way analogous to reality.  Yet Jane’s subsequent belief in Steve’s retelling is never in question.  It is, in fact, stronger at times than Steve’s own belief in what he saw – exceptional proof of the dialogical nature of this system.

It is the amorous bond, the closeness established between Steve and Jane in the beginning of the film, that sealed their connection and allows us to understand why she believes things no one else does.  Yet, when the story must find its way to a larger audience, it crashes hopelessly against a series of older, far more trusted stories about the world and its creatures.  Stories that tell us that monsters may have existed on the august maps of the past, but there is no room for them in the present.  It sputters there and very nearly dies.  This is despite the town’s obvious fondness for Steve.

The failure of belief here is a far greater danger than the threat posed by communism for which the blob is traditionally analogous.  It posits that, faced with a threat outside of our rational understanding, we will be destroyed by our own lack of trust; thus, the real danger isn’t the blob, which is taken care of in short order once belief in it is forced, so much as it is the way we have organized the whole of human society.  Fittingly, at the end of the film the blob is airlifted to the arctic, where it will be harmless to humanity for as long as the arctic remains frozen.  At the time this would be a fitting metaphor for the stubbornness of humanity:  the ice caps being as long-lasting and unchanging as human belief.  In hindsight, however, recent events have shown that the distrust of humanity, and its tendency to believe old stories about the nature of the world, are more than capable of outlasting the ice caps.  Thus, any day now the blob’s prison might melt around it.

Will the blob return as a result?  If it does, we must hope that it does so now, while pumpkin spice lattes are still available to bolster our belief.  It’s our only hope of making it through a second onslaught and returning to our happy, oblivious summer days.

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