Science Fiction Studies

#107 = Volume 36, Part 1 = March 2009

Stacy Takacs
Monsters, Monsters Everywhere: Spooky TV and the Politics of Fear in Post-9/11 America

The 2005 network television season featured the return to prime-time programming of the hybrid sf/horror genre known variously as “spooky” (Morris), “strange” (Booker), or “otherwordly” TV (Abele). Not one, but three new spooky series—Surface (NBC), Invasion (ABC), and Threshold (CBS)—premiered that year, leading one critic to describe the season as “the creepiest, most fear-mongering season of TV ever” (Havrilesky).1 Borrowing from series such as V (NBC, 1984-1985), The X-Files (Fox, 1993-2002), and Dark Skies (NBC, 1996-1997), these new programs featured invasive alien forces, shadowy government conspiracies, and a generalized mood of paranoia and dread. Also like these precursors, the new programs used their imaginative scenarios to explore very real concerns about national identity, power, and vulnerability in an age of rapid globalization (Booker, Strange TV 144). While none of these shows was directly concerned with the ongoing war on terrorism, for example, they were all clearly enabled by and responsive to the heightened sense of anxiety associated with life in the post-9/11 United States. They both contributed to and critiqued the “politics of fear” (re)structuring US social relations at that time.

The phrase “politics of fear” implies that fear is not a timeless and universal experience, but a socially constructed discourse that conditions behavior and belief in certain ways. According to historian Peter Stearns, the “American way of fear” is characterized by two relatively consistent features: “a tendency to link fear to concerns about racial others” and a tendency toward apocalypticism that links terror and destruction to hopes for social renewal (63). Both of these strands were clearly in play after 9/11. In his first speech to Congress after the attacks, for example, President Bush claimed that the US had been ordained by history to “rid the world of evil,” thereby likening a political conflict to an exorcism (“President Bush’s Remarks at National Day of Prayer”). He has repeatedly characterized terrorists as “evil-doers” and used pestilential metaphors to dehumanize the enemy—for example, describing Osama Bin Laden as a “parasite” who feeds off weakness and is determined to spread chaos like a plague throughout the world (“Press Conference”). Finally, he has described the War on Terrorism as a “clash of civilizations” in which the innocent West is under siege by an irrational, inherently violent Islamic “other.” While the “clash thesis” carefully mutes its racist subtext, its ahistorical understanding of Islam encourages the reduction of Muslim to Arab, and associates both with violent extremism (Waines 71-72).2 It thus reinforces the tendency among the American populace to interpret more free-floating anxieties in racial terms (Stearns 66). By offering a concrete, target-friendly “other,” the Arab menace alleviates insecurities engendered by otherwise abstract processes of globalization.               

While President Bush took the lead in framing 9/11 as a struggle between “civilization” and “savagery,” however, the frame resonated because it drew upon a history of both political and popular discourse in the United States (Ivie 55). From religious sermons to captivity narratives, frontier wars to western films, political speeches to the “popular theater of darkness” (Hariman 512), the conflation of difference and danger has been central to the formation and maintenance of “American” identity. The identification and persecution of alien “others” is a national ritual that gives disparate individuals a sense of themselves as a shared political community (Campbell 130). Fear is also routinely used to discipline and control domestic US populations. Fear of moral decay and economic insecurity, for example, have conditioned individuals to work hard, police themselves and their neighbors, and preserve the extant social order even when it fails to serve their interests.3 Indeed, fear is such a vital element of American national identity and politics that critics have begun to describe the US as a “culture of fear” defined by risk aversion and a paralyzing withdrawal from social life.4 Ironically, such critics often invoke the ritual of the jeremiad—a political sermon designed to provoke social anxiety—to make their cases. By identifying and lamenting the causes of excess fear, these critics seek to scare individuals into taking action. They promote a “fear of fear itself” (Glassner xv) that redirects, rather than dissipates, social anxiety.  

The centrality of fear to the maintenance of national identity and social order in the United States primed the public to accept the Bush administration’s call to war as a necessary and inevitable step in the process of national regeneration. “Americans know war,” as Stanley Hauerwas puts it. “We are all frightened, and ironically war makes us feel safe” (426). Popular culture has largely legitimated this response to terrorism by constructing terrorists as criminal psychopaths impervious to reasoning and therefore requiring extermination. On TV, military dramas (JAG, Over There, The Unit), political thrillers (24, The Agency, Threat Matrix, The Grid), crime dramas (Crossing Jordan, Missing, the Law and Order franchises), and forensics programs (Bones, the CSI franchises) have played an important role in clarifying the moral stakes of the war on terrorism. Relying on reflective standards of realism, these genres are loathe to exceed or challenge the established bounds of discourse and so usually reinforce the Bush administration’s depiction of the war on terrorism as a “monumental struggle between good and evil” (“President Meets with National Security Team”). Science fiction, on the other hand, works through displacement. The absorption of real-world issues into the realm of fantasy permits social problems to be examined more carefully and resolved in potentially unexpected ways. Because of its relatively marginal social status, the genre is freer to express ideas suppressed in the political public sphere. As Threshold’s executive producer David Goyer puts it, science fiction offers people “ways of talking about [social] issues” more openly and complexly (“Threshold Brain Trust”).                

Surface, Invasion, and Threshold specifically address anxieties about national identity and security in an age of accelerated globalization. While the programs clearly partake of and reproduce the paranoid mentality structuring post-9/11 US society, they also expose and deconstruct the dynamics of “othering” that made fear so available for political use. Surface and Invasion, for instance, demonstrate the personal and intimate nature of the experience of contemporary fear and interrogate the social consequences of this new dynamic. They show how the Bush administration’s construction of the family as a target of terror has helped to discipline the public to accept an increase in political and social repression for its own good. Threshold, which follows the exploits of a group of state agents responsible for suppressing public knowledge of alien-ness, demonstrates how this “personalization of fear” (Stearns 36) engenders a paranoid siege mentality that ends in the elimination of democratic freedoms. It shows how a freedom-loving people can become a “people for bondage” (de Tocqueville 444). All three shows call into question the symbolic boundaries between “inside” and “outside,” “us” and “them,” “good” and “evil” erected in the wake of 9/11 as a means of defining and policing the Homeland. They use their trangressive, hybrid, and hybridizing monsters to muddy the moral waters and return attention to the connections between self and other, human and alien, “American” and “foreigner” suppressed by the turn to war as a strategy to counter terror(ism). In short, they suggest that the siege mentality ruling US public discourse post-9/11 is inappropriate to the context of global integration and poses a threat to the nation’s own democratic ideals and institutions.                

The essay begins by analyzing the moral and political effects of the Bush administration’s “personalization of fear” as illustrated in the programs Surface and Invasion. It concludes with an analysis of Threshold and its construction of fear itself as a contagion that threatens to colonize everyday life and destroy the social network from within.

Terror Invades the Home(land): Surface, Invasion, and the Personalization of Fear.

What this government has done is to take steps necessary to protect you and your family.... These are people that want to come and kill your family.—George W. Bush, defending US interrogation methods on The Today Show, NBC, 9/11/065

The Bush administration regularly used the personalization of fear to preempt criticism of its more illicit practices of counter-terrorism, such as extreme rendition, indefinite detention, and the use of “harsh” interrogation methods. This is not surprising given the influence of Thomas Hobbes (as translated by Leo Strauss) on the thinking of the neo-conservative architects of Bush’s foreign policy. Hobbes argued that fear was a powerful source of social unity and, therefore, the state should cultivate and direct public fear so as to persuade people that they had a common interest in maintaining the social order (Robin 33). The personalization of fear serves this project by encouraging the atomization of the individual and the family. Political scientist Corey Robin explains: “as much as familial loyalty strengthens the bonds between family members, so does it isolate the family from those outside its circle. The very exclusivity of familial bonds draws the family close and repels outsiders” (47). It also engenders a paranoia that encourages individuals to look to the state to ensure their security from enemies who now appear to be everywhere. Thus, the micropolitics of the family are not opposed to, but are actively supportive of the macropolitics of the state.6 A canny ruler recognizes and exploits the political consonance of fear and family life as a means of preempting popular discontent. Thus, the Bush administration was only doing what Hobbes suggests: magnifying and directing popular fear in politically useful ways.            

Surface and Invasion dramatize the Bush administration’s rhetoric of personal insecurity, allowing us to examine its operations and effects more closely. The family is the central target of the invasive alien forces in both programs, and both programs work toward the recuperation of the family as a sanctuary from public turmoil. The outcomes, however, are different in each program. Surface offers a Hobbesian vision of the social order as inherently conflicted and prone to discord. Fear of a common foe is presented as the only viable means of constructing social solidarity. Shared fear drives the protagonists to pursue the social good, even as those around them ridicule their belief in the watery menace lurking off the nation’s shores. Families literally dissolve without a shared ethic of fear, and are reconstituted only when fear is fully embraced. In short, Surface demonstrates how the Bush administration’s politics of fear worked. Invasion, on the other hand, acknowledges the politics of fear only to challenge the logical presuppositions of the Hobbesian world-view undergirding it. The title notwithstanding, Invasion offers a complex view of the family and society as interconnected and hybridized. Its vision is “post-Hobbesian” and attuned to the dynamics of global interchange denied by the Manichean logics of us and them, good and evil, used to rationalize the formation of a fortress America.

Surface follows the parallel exploits of three Americans who all separately encounter a new breed of mysterious sea creature. Dr. Laura Daughtery (Lake Bell), a marine biologist from California, Rich Connelly (Jay Ferguson), a concerned family man from Louisiana, and Miles Bennett (Carter Jenkins), a curious teen from North Carolina, all encounter the creatures by accident and are then driven, à la Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), to uncover the truth about them, even at the expense of their families. Of course, they are opposed in this pursuit by quasi-governmental and corporate agents who want to suppress all knowledge of the species and the threat that it poses to civilization. The promiscuous use of sf clichés by first-time producers Josh and Jonas Pate makes Surface an uneven and ultimately unsatisfying exploration of the unknown.7 Yet the program does capture something of the political dynamics of fear that embraced post-9/11 as a route to national regeneration. The sea monsters, which are dispersed throughout the world but seemingly fixated on the US, clearly offer a metaphor for global terrorism as constructed by the Bush administration. Having nested in the Pacific, the Atlantic, and the Gulf of Mexico, the creatures literally surround and beset the nation. Their destructive actions are unmotivated, except by an instinctive “evil” ingrained in their physical make-up. While Surface has been critiqued for lacking a “sentient” enemy (Bianco), these brutish creatures more closely approximate the Bush administration’s depiction of Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations as “evil people ... motivated by hate” and an ontological dislike of “our freedoms” (Bush, “President Rallies Troops”). Vengeful nature incarnate, the sea monsters seem to confirm the truth of the Hobbesian world-view embraced by Bush and his team, their belief that the “state of nature” is a “war of all against all.”8 The mutual fear of these apolitical monsters, on the other hand, can serve as an engine of social renewal. The President’s National Security Statement puts this plainly when it describes 9/11 as an “opportunity for America” to use its “unprecedented—and unequaled—strength and influence in the world” to remake the global order by spreading “freedom and democracy” (“National Security Strategy”).

The narrative progression of Surface illustrates this Hobbesian faith in the ability of fear, if wielded properly, to engender social unity and revitalization in two ways. First, Surface uses a parallel narrative structure literally to segregate the protagonists from each other until the finale. This narrative segregation evokes the divisive nature of modern society, which for Hobbes was a threat to social stability. The narrative/social divisions in Surface are healed through the intercession of fear, as the sea creatures quite literally create the conditions that drive the protagonists and their separate story-lines together. By instinctively boring into the Earth’s crust in search of heat, the creatures set off an underwater avalanche that results in a tsunami, which forces the protagonists into each other’s arms for protection.            

Second, Surface personalizes the nature of the threat, directing it against “flawed” families, in order to argue for the renewal of a more clearly patriarchal model of social organization. In that sense, Surface echoes certain aspects of the response to 9/11 in US public discourse. As Julie Drew has shown, the attacks were depicted in both official pronouncements and popular cultural representations as an act of “rape,” a “violation” from which only a remilitarized (i.e., remasculinized) state could save us (73).9 Surface literalizes the gendered dynamics of this discourse by explicitly gendering the “threat” to the US as feminine. Indeed, it depicts rampaging femininity—in the form of the sea creatures—as the central danger to both familial and national security. The menacing monsters in Surface are clearly associated with attributes and values assigned in US culture to women and femininity. The creatures lay eggs, nest, and are driven by an “instinctual” desire to reproduce. They also communicate with each other empathically and use their bodies, specifically an ambient electrical charge, to shock, kill, and devour men. Contact with these rampaging feminine creatures leaves most men either dead or symbolically emasculated. Rich Connelly, for instance, becomes obsessed with the sea creatures when his brother is dragged off by one while diving in the Gulf of Mexico. Unable to accept the loss of his brother, Rich suffers from stress-induced nightmares, in which he sees visions of vortices. His psychological and emotional weakness eventually alienates his wife and leads him to abandon his family to pursue information about the creatures. The visual symmetry between the vortex of his dreams and a female vagina makes the implicit connection between weakness and “unmanly” behavior explicit, marking his distress as a form of feminization. His over-the-top performance of masculine toughness in the remainder of the series should be viewed as compensatory.            

Surface also exhibits patriarchal anxieties through its depiction of “strong women.” Women in the series are systematically chided for attempting to gain familial and social authority; their efforts to control their lives are always depicted as coming at the expense of men and children. Miles’s mother (Louanne Cooper), for example, is portrayed as overbearing and self-absorbed. As a working woman, she both neglects her children and emasculates her husband, leading Miles to become confused and to “act out” (Mrs. Bennett blames the father’s weakness for Miles’s rebellion). The lead scientist, Dr. Daughtery, is similarly taken to task for preferring her career to her family. Though she is located at the center of the narrative and associated with “masculine” attributes such as intelligence, rationality, and “action,” she is also punished repeatedly for her gender insubordination. For example, the shady government agents make it appear that she has plagiarized her dissertation in order to discredit her (Episode 3). Later, when she captures video footage of the sea creatures and tries to air it on national television, the media frame her as a hysteric attempting to perpetrate a hoax on the American public. The consummate skeptical scientist, she tells the audience to trust what they see and not what they are told, but the MSNBC commentator (Keith Olbermann playing himself) recontains this sage advise by remarking, “I see an unemployed woman with flash animation” (Episode 11). While Dr. Daughtery is explicitly positioned as a hero within the narrative, her heroism is depicted as damaging to her career and her family. The program’s ambivalence with regard to the status of its heroine is a symptom of its larger investment in notions of social authority as properly patriarchal. Overall, Surface tends to present femininity and feminization as key threats to social stability and to offer masculinity and remasculinization as the solutions to social problems.            

As I have already suggested, the final episode naturalizes the reassertion of patriarchy by tying it to a fear of rampaging femininity. The shared experience of fear evoked by the sea creatures finally drives the parallel narratives together and produces a stark image of apocalyptic chaos. By literally undermining the nation’s foundation (the creatures bore through the Earth’s crust in search of warmth), the monsters set off a tsunami that wipes out the lower eastern seaboard, including the town of Wilmington, NC, where the Bennetts live. Miles jumps off the last ferry to search for his missing girlfriend and winds up trapped at tsunami ground zero. Rich, who has come to Wilmington to snoop around the headquarters of Iderdex, the corporation that created the new species, is captured and left for dead by the fleeing corporate security forces. Incarnating the virtues of manly action, Daughtery drives into Wilmington to rescue the captive (feminized) Rich, and all four wind up fleeing the tsunami together. When their family sedan runs out of gas, they take refuge in the bell tower of a nearby church, as the waves engulf the town.                  

The final shots metaphorically evoke the American experience of fear and chaos on 9/11. Both the creatures and the tsunami seem to target these individuals personally and for no apparent reason. They are apolitical forces of destruction created through the work of men, whose political motivations are actively suppressed by the narrative. The shared experience of fear unites these disparate characters into a cohesive unit and washes away the self-indulgence and pettiness that previously characterized their lives. Indeed, their separate encounters with the creatures have been personally revivifying, giving them something “worthwhile” to focus their energies on. Miles even says that it is “like having superpowers” (Episode 5). Fear gives them all a purpose, a calling. It also promises to revitalize the patriarchal nuclear family model, for the final image is of precisely such an atomized family (symbolically a Mother, Father, Son, and Daughter) facing the dawn of a “new world” alone. As the camera zooms out, the nuclear family appears as an island in a sea of troubles. It is an indelible image that condenses the connections between family, fear, and state power in the post-9/11 context, and it was made all the more indelible when NBC canceled the series shortly after this conclusion.            

Despite the program’s salutary critique of government secrecy and duplicity, then, Surface largely echoes the Bush administration’s apocalyptic framing of 9/11 as an “opportunity” for national renewal. Its concluding images promise that apocalyptic destruction can be regenerative, sweeping away historical conflict and leaving in its wake a stable community united through fear of a dangerous other. The personalized nature of this fear provokes a personalized response reminiscent of President Bush’s injunction to “live your lives and hug your children” as a means of combating terrorism (“President’s Remarks at National Day of Prayer”). Identifying personal security as the sine qua non of freedom, the administration has used the power of the state to quash both internal dissent and external challenges to US authority. Surface provides a vivid illustration of the chaotic “state of nature” that results from a loss of shared (family) values, and it offers the same counter-revolutionary antidotes to the crisis as neo-conservative politicians in the US: centralize authority, redefine security in personal terms, and make the family into an idol of worship to dissuade individuals from contesting the authority of the state.

The CBS drama Invasion also foregrounds the family as the target of terror, but it does not presume the family is coherent, self-contained, or properly isolated from “others.” Rather, it presents a view of the family as inescapably connected to others in the world. This is a “post-Hobbesian” world-view attuned to the dynamics of global interchange suppressed by the Bush administration’s depiction of the War on Terrorism as a “clash of civilizations.” The hybrid nature of the monsters in Invasion belies the Manichean logics separating “us” from “them” and dictating that “we” are good and “they” are evil. Indeed, it is possible to argue that Invasion constitutes an exploration of imperial guilt, designed to short-circuit the anti-democratic politics of fear embraced as the route to salvation post-9/11. Its sympathetic portrayal of the aliens, who are really just alienated humans, represents a rejection of the apocalyptic vision proffered by the Bush administration to legitimate its aggressive foreign policy and the remilitarization of US society. Its more ambiguous conclusion questions whether one can construct a democratic social order using authoritarian power.            

There are two primary ways in which Invasion challenges the Bush administration’s politics of fear. First, it offers a complex depiction of the family that suggests its atomization leads not to salvation, but to a debilitating alienation. Second, it demonstrates the catastrophic effects on domestic society caused by the centralization and militarization of state power. By blurring the generic boundaries between family melodrama and science fiction, Invasion also blurs the boundaries between us/them, inside/outside, that provide the warrant for the vision of America as a coherent and stable “Homeland.”10 The narrative centers on a Body Snatchers-like “invasion” and reconstruction of the aptly named town of Homestead, Florida. Of course, Homestead is a real town that has had its own intimate experience of apocalyptic devastation (it was wiped out by Hurricane Andrew in 1992); but it is also a microcosm of the larger social landscape of the American Homeland (“Invading the Mind”). Its central characters are accorded centrality based on their relationship to standard small-town social types—the sheriff, the priest, the doctor, the journalist, and so on. Because most of these figures are relatives, Homestead becomes an enlarged image of the family. Co-executive producer Thomas Schlamme claims that the hybrid aliens are really just metaphors for the blended families at the center of the narrative (“Invading the Mind”). Just as blended families, who lack the naturalized ties of blood and history, must consciously define their connections and learn to get along, so the town of Homestead must renegotiate its communal relations when half its citizens become hybridized during a hurricane.            

Though the name of the hurricane, “Hurricane Eve,” indicates the dawn of a new fallen age of human society (caused by female betrayal, no less), Homestead and its families have, in fact, already been hybridized. Sheriff Tom Underlay (William Fichtner), who was cloned following a plane crash nine years earlier, is the snake in this garden. Viewing his new body as an improvement over the old, he has actively hybridized others in the community and begun training a hybrid army to maintain order following subsequent invasions. This narrative innovation undermines arguments about the extremity or novelty of the conditions of terror that threaten families; it also argues against the use of drastic measures to contain the aliens, who in any case are indistinguishable from humans. As the hybrids integrate into normal society, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell who is and is not an alien and, more importantly, who is and is not a threat. The hybrids are often sympathetic characters. For example, Sheriff Underlay and his wife Mariel (Kari Matchett) may be aliens, but they are also devoted parents struggling to blend their families and nurture their children. Mariel’s ex-husband Russell (Eddie Cibrian), who is the central hero figure and resident voice of reason, empathizes with and tries to understand the predicament of the hybrids, perhaps because he is a hybrid himself—a second-generation Cuban-American who speaks both English and Spanish. And, most obviously, Russell’s conspiracy-loving brother-in-law, Dave (Tyler Labine), who has previously been attacked by the aliens but rescued before he could be fully hybridized, meets his misshapen clone and discovers that the “monster” shares his love of Buddy Holly and his sister, Larkin (Lisa Sheridan). Dave, Russell, and Larkin lovingly attend to the creature while it dies of its malformations (Episode 14: “All God’s Creatures”). As others begin to choose sides and to advocate the extermination of the hybrids, who are likewise choosing sides and advocating extermination, Russell steadfastly refuses to believe that biological and cultural differences determine moral destiny. As he says to his new wife Larkin: “These people have changed, ok, but what have they done? Until we know they are a threat to us, I’m not going to start hating everybody.” At first an active participant in the hybridization of others, Sheriff Underlay eventually reveals himself to be a moderate voice of reason. This moderation belies the depiction of politics as a “clash of civilizations” in which participants must align themselves with one side or another. In fact, Invasion suggests that this Manichean logic of opposition, with its absolutist moral valuation, instantiates a type of fascist behavior that cannot possibly be used to serve democratic ends.            

As the series builds to its climax, the portraits of “us” and “them,” “good” and “evil,” become increasingly complicated. Not only are the aliens more complex and less threatening than they first appear, but the humans become increasingly more cruel and despotic. For example, when Russell’s son Jesse (Evan Peters) realizes his mother is an alien hybrid, he lashes out at random aliens. With a group of friends, he helps kidnap and brutally assault the deputy sheriff (Nathan Baesel) simply for being “one of them.” Though it is the hybrids who are rumored to be self-cannibalizing, it is the human society that seems to “[turn] in on itself” in an orgy of violence, sacrificing its morality for a fleeting illusion of security (Episode 10: “Origin of Species”). Not content to stop with this intimate indictment of militarized violence, the program concludes by staging a second “invasion” that clarifies the stakes involved in the conception of collective fear and security.            

In the finale, Sheriff Underlay sees his authority over the aliens challenged by an armed faction of hybrid-zealots directed by charismatic ex-CIA operative Eli Szura (James Frain). Szura believes the aliens are a superior race destined to “win” the Darwinian struggle for survival. To hasten the process of evolution, he decides to eliminate the humans entirely by rounding them up and throwing them into the sea, where they will become hybridized. Szura’s view of the world is fundamentally Hobbesian, admitting of no remedy to social conflict other than increased militarism and authoritarianism. Invasion clearly uses this character to explore the logical results of the Bush administration’s own politics of fear. Through Szura, the program shows how rampant fear and paranoia can lead individuals to embrace fascism as a solution to social problems. Writer, director, and co-executive producer Lawrence Trilling admits that the character of Szura is designed to show how “moving forward in a visionary way” can sometimes lead to blindness and brutality (“Invading the Mind”). A charismatic leader, Szura virtually channels President Bush when he says that “I believe we are the seed of a future that no man could ever imagine. But this future is not guaranteed. There are those who will oppose it, oppose us. To reach this future, we will need the strength that comes from our sticking together. Our very survival depends upon our unity” (Episode 18: “Re-Evolution”).            

The conflict between Szura and the duo of Underlay and Russell is a struggle between competing models of social organization that serves as a sort of imaginary referendum on the Bush administration’s visionary global politics. Szura presumes difference is deficiency and therefore seeks to eliminate difference by engineering a global monoculture. The invocation of eugenics raises the specter of Nazism, suggesting that the centralization of authority under a charismatic leader (no matter how “righteous” that leader’s actions may seem) leads inevitably to fascism. Underlay and Russell, on the other hand, work together to preserve human difference, rescuing the remnants of the human community from Szura’s henchmen. The struggle to preserve biodiversity in Invasion is really a parable about the necessity of pluralism and tolerance in an interconnected global society. “Just because someone is different,” as Underlay says, “[this] doesn’t make them [sic] a monster.”           

The concluding image of Invasion, whose impact is again heightened by the subsequent cancellation of the series, contrasts explicitly with the finale of Surface. Rather than an apocalyptic image of inexorable destruction, Invasion presents a hopeful image of hybridity saving human life. Russell’s pregnant wife Larkin is accidentally shot in an exchange of gunfire between the warring factions on the dock. To save her, Underlay brings her to the sea to be cloned, or hybridized. Whereas the concluding image of Surface evokes disconnection and isolation—a fortress America distilled down to the paranoid nuclear family—this image presents interconnection and communal exchange (of DNA, at least) as the source of social renewal. Personal and national regeneration evolves, the program suggests, from transcultural communication, not fear. A recognition of and respect for others in the world provides a better guide to ethical action in an inescapably global context. The cyclical story-arc of Invasion, which begins and ends with a hurricane, reinforces this message by demonstrating that crises and conflicts are endemic to social life. They do not necessarily “change everything” or create a “new world.” Rather, they change our perspective on the old world, its institutions and relations. Crises should cause us to reassess our values, but not to abandon them out of paranoia and despair.            

Finally, Invasion works against the politics of fear by actively destabilizing distinctions between inside and outside, Us and Them. Its “monsters” are neither wholly alien nor wholly alienated from society. Indeed, many of the humans, especially the teens, are far more alienated from society than the hybrids. Both human and alien, but not quite either, the hybrids collapse the physical and psychological distance between social groups that makes genocidal violence possible. Surface uses the family melodrama not to exacerbate fear or call for an apocalyptic social renewal, but to undermine the processes of disavowal structuring the public response to terrorism in the US. It brings the horror and anxiety displaced onto an exterior “evil” after 9/11 back into the “American home,” seeking to de-ontologize terror by connecting it (metaphorically, of course) to US modes of being in the world.11 In a nutshell, Invasion reminds us that “horror is not something from out there, something strange, marginal, ex-centric, the mark of a force from elsewhere, the in-human” but rather “part of us, caused by us” (Polan 143). By relocating “monstrosity” within a social context, Surface seeks to challenge the abstract politics of fear used to justify the US’s militarized response to 9/11.

The New World of Monsters: Humanity Confronts Its Future in Threshold.12 The CBS program Threshold addresses the social contexts of fear more explicitly by inviting viewers to identify with the defense analysts, intelligence officers, and covert military operatives responsible for containing security threats. Whereas references to Homeland security are oblique in Surface and Invasion, they are direct in Threshold, which sets its action behind the closed doors and blackened windows of the national security state apparatus. Its protagonists are the famed “Men in Black” of conspiracy theory—those shadowy government agents responsible for controlling popular knowledge of alien life by any means necessary. Unlike the famed Men in Black comics and films, however, Threshold treats its “men in black” with deadly seriousness. It asks us to sympathize with these representatives of repressive state power and their mission to contain information. This unusual perspective enables the program to delve more deeply into the connections between enemy construction and the operations of state power.13 Specifically, it shows how the production of the enemy (the monster) in security discourse also produces a particular conception of “normality,” or proper citizen-subjectivity. The amorphous and omnipresent alien-enemies of Threshold induce a form of paranoia that makes repressive social authority appear necessary and inevitable. By depicting the extreme measures of interdiction adopted to combat this contagion of fear, Threshold vividly illustrates the costs of such a world-view—how it transforms a democratic public into “a people for bondage,” who not only “let their freedom be taken from them, but often actually hand it over themselves” (de Tocqueville 444).            

Threshold’s invasion scenario connects the Bush administration’s politics of fear not just to 9/11 but also to the processes of globalization that have undermined cherished illusions of national integrity and inviolability. Its alien enemies embody features of a networked sociality that defy national boundaries and evade hierarchical mechanisms of control. Its alien others literalize the monster metaphors structuring post-Cold War security discourse. A key facet of the new threats to US security is their inscrutability. President Bush put it this way: “When I was coming up, with what was a dangerous world, we knew exactly who they were. It was us versus them, and it was clear who ‘them’ were. Today, we’re not so sure who the they are, but we know they’re there” (qtd in Fitzgerald 84). Threshold’s creators admit their intention to tap public fears related to the indeterminacy of “enemy-ness” in this new global context. As co-executive producer and writer Anne McGrail explains, “the show picked up those 9/11 fears that we had that you don’t know [whether] the person next to you would have a bomb with them, you don’t know [whether] the person next to you wants to kill you.” It exploited the paranoia engendered by the presence of the enemy in our midst: “one thing that freaked people out about 9/11,” McGrail notes, “is those men who were responsible for that were living and working and mingling in the American population” (“Threshold Brain Trust”). To maximize this terror, Threshold presents an alien-other with a capacity to blend into society and use our technologies against us: “[the aliens] can be any age post-puberty, rich, poor, from all walks of life,” as one of the analysts explains (Episode 11: “Outbreak”). A series of successively more distant crowd shots, implying that anyone, anywhere, could be a threat, illustrates how this invisibility confers power. The aliens are not only indistinguishable from the population, their motives are unclear and their actions are unpredictable. This illegibility engenders a paranoia that is out of all proportion to the threat, which is initially confined to a handful of sailors from a US Navy vessel. This paranoia, in turn, legitimates the deployment of extreme measures of interdiction to combat the threat.

The program focuses on the covert government task force empowered to hunt down and contain the alien menace. At the head of the task force is a contingency analyst named Molly Caffery (Carla Gugino). Like Dr. Daughtery in Surface, Caffrey is a strong, capable woman struggling to combine her work with a personal life. A stereotypical career-woman, Caffrey lives alone with her dog, dines on take-out food, and cannot be bothered to unpack her personal belongings or to furnish her new home. All she does is work. Unlike Daughtery, however, she is not censured for this. Rather, her ascetic existence and absolute subjection to the dictates of the state define the proper mode of citizenship in an age of terror. Personal lives make it impossible to maintain the necessary vigilance, as the experiences of Caffrey’s male colleagues indicate. Comparative biologist Nigel Fenway (Star Trek veteran Brent Spiner), linguist Arthur Ramsey (Peter Dinklage), and aeronautics expert Lucas Pegg (Robert Patrick Benedict), all have romantic entanglements (fiancées, ex-wives, lovers) and personal vices (alcohol, gambling, prostitution) that make them vulnerable to manipulation and repeatedly threaten the Threshold project with public exposure. Caffrey’s total dedication, on the other hand, guarantees the project’s success (or so we are told in the final episode). Thus, while she may be female, and even occasionally feminized in the narrative (often rendered a victim of violence, for example), Dr. Caffrey’s complete alignment with a masculinized version of (repressive) state authority makes her unambivalently the “hero” of the tale. Indeed, Caffrey can be read as a displaced version of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. She is, at least, the contingency analyst of Rumsfeld’s dreams, charged with anticipating “the unknown, the uncertain, the unseen, and the unexpected” (Rumsfeld). Her job, as she explains to a class of FBI trainees in the pilot episode, “is to scare [people].” By imagining “worst-case scenarios,” she helps prepare government agents to “stare into the face of the unknown and make damn sure we don’t blink” (Episode 1/2: “Trees Made of Glass”). Like Rumsfeld’s “Twenty-First Century Transformation” of the nation’s security apparatus, Caffrey’s contingency plans are not designed to redress or eliminate social fear, but to multiply and disseminate it in the form of paranoia.            

The action of Threshold illustrates how the indeterminate nature of “enemy-ness” in the new global context creates strategic and tactical challenges for the state and its security apparatuses. Here, it is important to notice how the monsters imagined by all of these spooky TV programs share certain features—features that seem indicative of social anxieties unique to the age. For example, all of the creatures are hybrids and seek to hybridize others. They are all capable of operating alone but are more effective when they combine forces, or “swarm.” Finally, they adapt easily to the conditions around them and move with a quantum indeterminateness, which makes them appear to be both everywhere and nowhere at once. They operate, in other words, like a networked social movement, and they illustrate the problems that such networked groups pose for a hierarchical social system. The aliens in Threshold are an almost perfect embodiment of the features and challenges of networked sociality. Like a virus, they are a self-propagating contagion that works by piggy-backing “legitimate” information systems, beginning with the “code of life.” Using a fractal pattern embedded in an audio signal, the aliens “unzip” human DNA and reassemble it as a triple-helix. Humans who survive the transformation develop super strength and endurance (hybrid vigor) and the ability to appear and disappear seemingly at will. Not only do the aliens use human information systems (networks) to coordinate their movements and reproduce themselves, their organizational structure resembles a distributed network system. That is, they have no leader or center, and they do not mobilize en masse. Their coherence as a group is guaranteed by a shared goal—to “bioform” the earth. Because they are limited by the knowledge and experience of their human hosts, however, they all pursue this goal in different ways and strike at different times (a point emphasized by the more episodic structure of the program).14 As the habitually reactive posture of the Threshold agents indicates, the actions of such networked social movements are hard to anticipate, preempt, or contain. Moving targets are hard to hit. More importantly, the elimination of one alien enemy does not prevent the group from achieving its goals.            

Threshold understands how important communication has become to the coordination of social movements, both movements of power and of resistance. Thus, it depicts the control over information technologies as a key objective of both the aliens and the Threshold agents. The methods adopted by both sides are quite different, however. The aliens operate virally, using extant communication systems to transmit their genetic ideology, often under cover of another, more innocent signal. In the pilot, for example, Caffrey and two of her team members are almost infected by a videotape of the signal. In a later episode called “Pulse,” the alien signal is sampled and broadcast by a local DJ at a rave. In that case, the signal is likened to a “self-propagating computer virus,” or “malware,” because it spreads copies of itself to anything with a computer chip, including cell phones, ATM cards, palm pilots, and other digital technologies. The rave itself—a coordinated movement of individuals en masse, but not as a mass—testifies to the pervasiveness of networking as a social morphology (Castells 469). The difficulties the authorities have tracking the source of the call to the rave demonstrates the difficulties such networking poses for hierarchical modes of social authority, for redundancy is built into the network structure. This makes the network flexible, efficient, and incredibly resilient. As Caffrey and her team put it, the networked organization will enable the aliens to spread their message “exponentially from city to city, network to network. In a matter of days, millions of people will be exposed.” They can kill the source of the signal, but the signal itself, once it’s “out there,” will be unstoppable.    

To control the spread of this signal, the Threshold agents adopt a strategy of total informational awareness and control, a strategy not unlike that advocated by many US military analysts to combat networked terrorist movements (Arquilla and Ronfeldt 15). Caffrey’s plan calls for the exercise of totalitarian control over the flow of information “for the public’s own protection,” a phrase often repeated in the series. To ensure information containment, Threshold agents monitor civilian phone conversations, arrest civilians who gain access to information about the threat, turn high-tech weaponry against US citizens to stop the signal’s transmission, and engage in a coordinated disinformation campaign to deflect public attention from the project. For example, in an episode called “The Order,” a liberal Senator threatens to pull funding for Threshold if he is not let in on the secret. When he learns that young alien infectees are being detained in the basement of the facility, he likens their treatment to the abuses of Abu Ghraib and wonders if detainment is necessary: “You said yourself all they’re trying to do is convert others. We could say the same thing about Jehovah’s Witnesses, but we don’t lock them up.” Caffrey responds, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” Her contempt for and suspicion of civilians, especially liberals, is later proved correct when the Senator steals the signal, broadcasts it on the National Security Advisor’s plane, and infects everyone on board. The steely Caffrey orders the plane to be shot down. In “Pulse,” Caffrey uses an electro-magnetic pulse weapon to wipe out all electronic devices within a 70-mile radius of Miami to stop the signal released during the rave. Finally, “for their own protection,” the Threshold agents are themselves subjected to invasive surveillance measures, including having their movements policed, their email censored, their homes bugged, and their bodies implanted with tracking devices. The violation of individual privacy rights is justified in the name of ensuring the security of the team, which it does successfully on several occasions. The monetary, moral, and social costs of these measures are clearly shown to be high, however.

The draconian measures adopted to control information in Threshold are designed to transform thresholds, or gateways, back into police-able boundaries. By ensuring the integrity of the boundaries between inside and outside, us and them, they are supposed to alleviate social anxiety by locating danger in concrete, targetable bodies. These efforts are doomed to failure, however, because the aliens are not susceptible to re-territorialization in this way. Their method of propagation, bioforming, ensures that “they” will look just like “us.” Indeed, Caffrey and two members of her team are themselves infected by the signal. Though the “dose” was measured and the effects are minimal (they only have “elevated theta waves” in their brains), the aliens treat them as fellow travelers throughout the series. In the pilot, for example, Caffrey is targeted by one of the infectees, who tells her “You’re one of us.” Later this alien appears in a dream had by one of the other Red Team members, claiming that “We’re connected, you and I. Did you know that? All of us are. We’re drawn to each other. We can’t help it.” The concept of human bioforming radically destabilizes the boundaries between the “us” and the “them” in this series and reminds the agents of their interconnection to others in the world. A later episode (“Outbreak”) suggests the aliens may even be attempting to save humanity. Captain Manning, one of the original infectees, tells Caffrey that her plan is dangerous: “if you win, you’ll sentence everyone on this planet to death.” He tells her that two neutron stars have collided out in space, and the radiation will reach Earth within six years, destroying humanity unless “we alter our physiology.” “Believe it or not,” he says, “every life is precious to us too. That’s why we came.... what’s happening is a gift. It’s the next step in your evolution.... You need us. Without our help, all human life will be extinguished.” While Caffrey is rightly skeptical about this story, the introduction of this possibility alters the perception of the aliens just enough to disallow an absolute identification of “us” with “good” and “them” with “evil.” More importantly, the exchange suggests that hybrid intermixture may be beneficial to society. Metaphorically, this exchange warns against a rigid re-territorialization of global social life. Boundaries may ensure purity, but purity may not equal vigor.            

Threshold’s amorphous, interstitial, unpredictable monsters provide “images for thinking about” the political uses of fear in the post-9/11 context (Carroll 208). The Bush administration clearly mystified the nature of the enemy— depicting terrorists as inscrutable monsters motivated by “evil” rather than politics—in order to magnify social anxiety and turn it to its own advantage. By insisting that we live in a dangerous world filled with shadowy, unpredictable enemies, it convinced us to accept the centralization of authority and the abdication of the rule of law. Threshold, more than the other spooky TV programs, confronts this monstrous configuration of power with the truth of its effects. It shows how this nightmare vision of the enemy instantiates a social order dedicated to the pursuit of total war. Such war knows no boundaries and makes no distinctions between “us” and “them.” It “reaches into the finest details of daily life” and re-engineers our behaviors to maximize social control (Agre). Every “outbreak” of terror legitimates additional measures of repression directed at both the terrorists and those who are terrified. The process, as Caffrey warns, is potentially endless: “As of today, we’ll have agents on the streets 24/7. We’ll also begin a city-wide wiretap. The public will be under strict surveillance. Their civil rights curtailed until we regain control. As the threat escalates, so does our response.” By inviting us to identify with the agents of our own subjection, Threshold induces a Brechtian alienation effect whereby we confront the consequences of our own fear. To say the least, the program articulates misgivings about the Bush administration’s determination to make the Homeland more secure by making it less open, transparent, democratic, and peaceful.

Conclusion. The clash thesis adopted by the Bush administration to frame public understandings of the “terrorist menace” reduces a complex historical reality to a simplistic Manichean formula whose prevalence in popular culture makes it all the more convincing. This thesis combines racism and apocalypticism to code political terrorism as an ontological threat requiring violent counter-measures. If terrorists are “evil others” who “can’t be reasoned with, can’t be educated, can’t be reformed,” they must, like horror movie monsters, be eradicated (Dickstein 59). The power of such nightmares has convinced the US populace that militarism is a requirement of security in a neo-Hobbesian world, and it has deflected attention from the problematic outcomes of such policies by displacing conflict beyond the bounds of the US nation-state. Security for some is not the same as peace, however, and the viral monsters of these spooky TV programs return this repressed reality to the surface so as to counteract the return of repression accompanying the proliferation of terror.            

In that sense, spooky TV programs such as Surface, Invasion, and Threshold function as “portents of the real” (Willis 110), exposing the social antagonisms displaced and denied by this nightmare vision of civilization under siege. The monsters in these programs are more than just metaphors for terrorists or terrorism. They are symptoms that point to a growing sense of cultural guilt about the state’s methods for pursuing security.15 The invasion motif enacts a reversal that allows powerful US subjects to imagine themselves as victims of (metaphorically) those they have victimized. This reversal betrays a deeper fear that our self-identified “others” will do unto us as we have done onto them, and, more importantly, that we will deserve everything we get. In short, the fantasy of reverse colonization enables US culture to recognize the monstrous shape of its imperial ambitions. It reconnects American fear to a broader historical context—namely, global capitalism’s unequal distribution of income, resources, and rights. It reminds us that “American social fear derives ultimately from fear of the global poor and dispossessed, those with causes for anger” and suggests that “a homeland defense that fails to recognize global fears and anger is no defense at all” (Lockard 231).            

Consciously or unconsciously, Surface, Invasion, and Threshold acknowledge this repressed reality and beg for a new strategy of Homeland defense. All three programs failed to garner sufficient audience numbers to warrant a second-season pick-up (Surface and Threshold were canceled even before the first season was complete). This failure could be explained in many ways. Maybe audiences did not respond to the counter-narratives of US identity and power, or maybe they just did not want to be terrified anymore. Maybe audiences enjoyed the shows, but the sponsors did not. Maybe the networks decided the costs of production were too high. Likely, it was a combination of all of these factors, so it would be unwise to read too much into the cancellations. One thing we can say is that the very existence of these counter-narratives on US television confirms how difficult it has become for social authorities to contain and control the flow of information in a networked society. Since “the power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging” is vital to the reproduction of culture and empire (Said, Culture and Imperialism xiii), this “difficulty” does not bode well for the pursuit of security via a militarized extension of US hegemony. As the agents of Threshold discovered, signals can easily become self-propagating, and once they are “out there,” who knows what damage they can do.

                1. These programs were designed to capitalize on the ratings success of CBS’s eerie ensemble drama Lost, which is best characterized as a version of the “fantastic.” Lost’s overlapping plots and obscure symbols, along with its narrative disjunction and open-ended seriality, force its viewers to “hesitate” to resolve the program’s enigmas. Is there a rational explanation for the events on this spooky island, or should events be attributed to supernatural forces? This hesitation is the essence of the fantastic, according to  Todorov (15). Science fiction and horror are both similar to the fantastic, but they tend to resolve any enigmas more quickly and consistently (sf usually in favor of the naturalistic explanation, horror in favor of the supernatural).
                2. The “clash thesis” was originally articulated and popularized by Samuel Huntington in his post-Cold War reconceptualization of international relations, The Clash of Civilizations. Huntington argues that cultural identities and differences, not nationalities, will “[shape] the patterns of cohesion, disintegration and conflict in the Post-Cold War world” (20). While he explicitly says cultural “civilizations” are not reducible to race, his list of key “civilizations” is still over-determined by racial factors. For example, he lumps African societies into a single civilization despite the linguistic, ethnic, and religious diversity that characterizes the African continent. What basis other than race (and Western racism) would justify such such categorization? Likewise, he describes Islam as a central “civilization” but speaks only of Arab societies (and a militant faction within these societies, to boot) when defining this group as a threat. As Edward Said notes, Huntington’s thesis is a gross oversimplification of geopolitics based on Bernard Lewis’s Orientalist conception of the Arab world as a monoculture with radical Islam at its heart. Like other racist discourses, Huntington’s thesis attempts “to make ‘civilizations’ and ‘identities’ into what they are not: shut-down, sealed-off entities that have been purged of the myriad currents and countercurrents that animate human history” (Said, “The Clash of Ignorance”). My own analysis of how this clash thesis plays out in sf television owes much to Said’s conclusion that “The ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis is a gimmick like ‘The War of the Worlds,’ better for reinforcing defensive self-pride than for critical understanding of the bewildering interdependence of our time.”
                3. According to Sacvan Bercovitch, for example, the vaunted Puritan work ethic was not a spontaneous expression of Puritan values but a controlled response to the social anxiety provoked by Puritan elders through the political sermon-style known as the jeremiad. He describes the jeremiad as the perfect “vehicle of middle-class ideology ... a system of sacred-secular symbols for a laissez-faire creed” (28). Barbara Ehrenreich and Joe Lockard have also linked economic anxiety to social discipline and control. “Fear of impoverishment,” as Lockard puts it, “keeps people working and buying and leaves them with little time or inclination to be protesting their conditions” (222).
                4. Much of this literature precedes the events of 9/11, and, as I have suggested, explains the appeal of the Bush administration’s particular politics of fear. For sociological treatments, see Altheide, Furedi, Glassner, and Massumi. For historical treatments, see Bourke, Robin, and Stearns.
                5. A copy of the complete interview is available at: < watch?v=G2JGTFI2PPM>.
                6. The bug-eyed-monster movies of the 1950s accomplished a similar articulation of fear and family life for the Cold War era. Elaine Tyler May has detailed how fears of atomic war and Soviet imperialism seeped into and reconfigured the private lives of Americans in innumerable ways, from the embrace of domesticity as solace and comfort to the building of bomb shelters and the incorporation of ordinary Americans into the work of “civil defense.”
                7. As one critic put it, “There isn’t a moment of wonder or suspense in Surface, or a single performance or character that is even remotely involving—and that includes the slimy, electrically charged, amphibious monsters” (Bianco).
                8. It also reinforces their belief that Hobbes’s theories about the state of nature apply to state interactions, which, as David Runciman notes, is a violation of Hobbes’s views of the state as a force of stability. States are not like individuals and, therefore, not susceptible to slipping into chaotic confrontations when there is no central authority.
                9. The highly sexual nature of the revenge fantasies that emerged in popular discourse as a response to the terrorist attacks attest most directly to the gendered dynamics of interpretation. Jokes and “internet lore” following the attacks were full of images of Osama Bin Laden being sodomized by US weaponry, for example, and Toby Keith’s popular country song “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” talks about putting a “boot” in Bin Laden’s “ass.” Such references were designed to humiliate Bin Laden by placing him in a passive and implicitly feminized position of sexual reception; the United States, by contrast, assumed the active and masculine role of (sexual) aggressor. These images attest more to the social equation between power and sexual aggression in US society than to homosexual desire. As a revenge fantasy, they seek to reverse the terms of power and powerlessness established by the 9/11 attacks, which only suggests how important gendered logics were to the interpretation of national vulnerability. For an elaboration of these dynamics, see Frank, and Couch and Wade.
                10. As Amy Kaplan argues, this metaphor of the nation is a new and troubling development because it replaces the more fluid and mobile conceptions of citizenship embodied, for example, in the metaphor of the “melting pot” with a static conception of citizenship based on ties of blood and soil. This is a far more exclusive and exclusionary conception of the nation that runs counter to the realities of increased global and social mobility (59).
                11. Vivian Sobchak first diagnosed this generic hybridization and located its development in the breakdown of the boundaries separating the private sphere from the public realm in US culture (190). I have drawn on her essay but extrapolated from it to explain the breakdown of geopolitical barriers caused by globalization. The revisiting of horror on the American home in Invasion is metaphoric, I would argue, and relates to the breakdown of the boundaries surrounding the Homeland.
                12. This subtitle is an abbreviated version of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s observation that “the new world of monsters is where humanity has to confront its future” (196).
                13. Even The X-Files drew a clear distinction between its FBI Men in Black and the “real” Men in Black—those agents of the shadow government working to assist (and sometimes undermine) the aliens seeking to take over earth. Threshold completely collapses distinctions between official and unofficial state power—“real” government and “shadow” government—by aligning its viewers completely with the “Men in Black.”
                14. By episodic structure, I mean that Threshold tends to address one particular threat in each episode, and to provide closure in that episode. Surface and Invasion, by contrast, are more serialized narratives featuring multiple plot lines in each episode and story arcs that carry over from episode to episode.
                15. On these themes of “reverse colonization” and cultural guilt, see Arata and Brantlinger.

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