We are the Martians now. - Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley)
One of my favorite horror movies is Quatermass and the Pit (1967), released in the United States as Five Million Years to Earth. IMDb synopsizes its plot thus: “An ancient Martian spaceship is unearthed in London, and proves to have powerful psychic effects on the people around.” If you’ve seen the movie you already know that doesn’t remotely do it justice, and if you haven’t (but would like to) you might want to skip today’s column for now because it uses the film’s plot as a metaphor for human behavior, and that necessarily involves major spoilers. If you’ve already seen the movie, or don’t like science fiction-style horror (or horror-tinged sci-fi), or you just don’t mind knowing the end of a flick you might someday watch, stick around. And even if you know it well, please have patience while I describe those plot elements crucial to the comparison.
The synopsis says the ship is “unearthed”; that happens during the excavation of a new Underground station at Hobbs End, a locale long associated with ghostly goings-on. Of course the immediate assumption is that the find is an unexploded bomb left over from the Blitz, but tests quickly prove that the thing has been there for a hell of a lot longer…five million years, give or take. It is also, needless to say, not of this Earth. Further investigation by Professor Quatermass and his associates reveals that its origin is Mars, and it contains the mummified bodies of its crew (who were killed on impact) and several hominids who appear to have been artificially altered. Research and various incidents reveal the full truth: though the Martians knew their world was dying, they could not colonize the Earth because the gravity was too heavy and the air too dense for their fragile, locust-like bodies. They therefore decided to re-engineer the brains of Earth’s primitive inhabitants so that they would think and act like Martians; in other words, they would essentially make Martians in human bodies to survive on Earth. But the experiment was only in its early stages when the Martian civilization collapsed; they were never able to reprogram enough members of our race for the experiment to fully succeed. It did, however, introduce certain elements into the human gene pool.
The Martians had what we would call psychic abilities, and though the plan was incomplete it did result in some humans displaying such abilities in latent form…abilities which could be awakened by the artificial psychic presence which served the function of a ship’s computer. Over the millennia, sensitive individuals living in the area above the buried ship received signals from it and saw ghostly apparitions of Martians (which they perceived as horned goblins or devils, hence the name of the place). As the movie approaches its climax, an accident fully re-awakens the ship’s damaged consciousness, which immediately sets about fulfilling its original mission: to create a Martian colony out of the area’s humans. The Martians, as previously mentioned, were insect-like creatures who lived in tremendous hives; as one might expect of insects, they had little individuality and no tolerance for deviation from the norm. They therefore underwent periodic purges, events in which mass hysteria raced through the hives and caused them to exterminate all whom they sensed were too different to be allowed to live. And they intended us to live the same way, undergoing occasional periods in which those more like our Martian creators – unimaginative, conformist and easily driven by the hive-mind – would gather in mobs to seek out and destroy those who were too different, using the psychic technology at their command. Until he is shaken out of it by the more-purely-human Dr. Roney, even the brilliant Professor Quatermass is swallowed up in the hysteria, unable to use his critical thinking abilities while in the grip of the blind drive to destroy everyone who is different.
Of course, this is all a mere fantasy; we know humans don’t carry any hidden bombs in our unconscious minds. We know there aren’t any evolutionary relics, behaviors designed to advance some greater biological purpose with a complete disregard for what individuals might want. We know that humans don’t behave differently when they’re in mobs, and that such mobs don’t really engage in horrible acts their members would condemn if they were committed by individuals. We know that people don’t allow themselves to be guided by sinister “authorities” about whom they actually know nothing, and that they don’t blindly obey laws they had no part in creating. We know that people are never terrified of imaginary devils which exist only in their minds, and that they aren’t subject to periods of irrational hysteria in which they discard millennia of moral development in a blind, monstrous quest to purge all Outsiders from society.