Revisiting THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, and it still holds up after 65 years

Arachnophobia at the Movies

It’s 1957, and Sputnik is orbiting the earth. The launch of the first artificial Earth Satellite triggers a crisis in the United States, leading to a Space Race that intensifies Cold War antagonisms. Schoolchildren are learning about the “Duck and Cover” strategy, a slogan meant to remind them to seek shelter from radiation by hiding under their desks. There is much talk, and some action, about building fallout shelters. Yellow and black civil defense shelter signs become ubiquitous. Growing up in that era, I felt the impact of all those anxieties, especially when trekking, at age twelve, to our town’s high school at seven in the morning to take algebra, as part of a program to accelerate math and science learning. We were losing educational ground, and the Russians were getting ahead of us in the space race, a race tainted by fears about a nuclear holocaust.

1957 was also the year that I watched The Incredible Shrinking Man, a film directed by Jack Arnold, whose earlier credits included Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and Tarantula (1955). What was Arnold capturing? Was the film, based on Richard Matheson’s 1956 novel The Shrinking Man, what one critic called the “quintessential Fifties movie,” fueled by anxieties about the fallout from hydrogen bomb tests in the early 1950s? Documentary footage of a test carried out in 1952 showed destruction so devastating that government officials kept it secret for a time. Or did the film reach back to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the chilling descriptions of the dead as well as of survivors exposed to high doses of radiation? Fear of nuclear weapons and radiation was so intense that the U.S. government developed a program called Atoms for Peace to counter fears about what was called the “atomic plague” or “atomic bomb disease.”

While Godzilla was being awakened at the movies by the explosion of an atomic bomb in the Pacific and gigantic genetically modified killer ants were devouring humans on screen in Them! Scott Carey, the advertising executive in The Incredible Shrinking Man, is standing on the deck of a small yacht, suddenly engulfed by what is described in the novel as a “warm glittering spray.” Before long, he begins to lose weight, his shirtsleeves droop over his hands, and his wife no longer goes on tiptoe to kiss him. The loss of stature is both literal and figurative. As Carey shrinks in size, he also loses his status as husband and provider, becoming not just childlike but also childish, taking up residence, before long, in a dollhouse.

There is more to Scott’s shrinking than meets the eye. The story of his vanishing act turns fears beyond radioactive forces and geopolitical disarray. These are the years when women are beginning to enter the labor force, rising in numbers there by four million in the decade spanning 1950 to 1960. 1963 will be the year when Betty Friedan shatters the “myth of the housewife heroine” and identifies the “problem that has no name.” Friedan argued that the “feminine mystique” was a powerful force that led women to marry young and embrace the role of wife and mother, all the while abandoning aspirations for work that could provide a meaningful dimension to their lives.

Arnold’s film begins with a scene that captures the trouble brewing in the 1950s institution of marriage. “I’m thirsty,” Scott tells his wife. Louise responds by saying, “Interesting.” After some good-humored banter about which of the two managed to secure the boat on which they are vacationing, Scott agrees to spring for dinner if his wife gets the beer. “To the galley, wench,” he commands. It’s all perfectly agreeable, with a dose of good humor, but amid the teasing it becomes clear that there is an undercurrent of conflict about the gendered division of labor in caring and feeding on the one hand and earning and providing on the other.

As Scott shrinks, Louise turns from wife into mother, and, in the novel, into wage earner. She hires a babysitter to care for their child, Beth, and prepares lunch for her husband and repurposes a suitcase into a bed where he can take naps. But she is unable to shield her husband from the perils of nature red in tooth and claw. The family cat, tellingly named “Butch,” replaces Scott in the bedroom and mistakes the tiny man in the house for a mouse. Later, confined to the basement, Scott engages in combat with a tarantula (in the novel it is a black widow spider that threatens him). “Black widow. Men called it that because the female destroyed and ate the male, if she got the chance after the mating act.” As the favorites of goddesses and the familiars of witches, cats have a long history of being associated with the domain of the feminine. And spiders, those expert spinners who weave their webs in solitude, have long been gendered female.

The incredible shrinking man loses more than height. Doomed to perish in the basement after a narrow escape from “Butch,” he is trapped in Louise’s sewing box, a container that, ironically, holds the very tools he will use to reclaim his masculinity. It is in that underground space—representing the abject, grimy underside of the sterile, antiseptic domestic space upstairs—that Scott will regain his masculinity, mimicking the hero’s journey as defined by Joseph Campbell.  “I still had my weapons,” Scott maintains. For a good part of the remaining film, we see Scott enduring all the ordeals of the hero’s journey as he defeats the monsters in the dark underground space to which he is confined. Using ropes to climb a paint can and building a bridge with a paint stick, he uses his ingenuity, his “human brain” as he calls it, to improvise and engineer his way to more than survival. His resourcefulness (building a house from a match box and securing food from a mouse trap) pays off and presto! “I was a man again.”

How does Scott reclaim his masculinity and join the ranks of cultural heroes? Certainly not by declaring victory over nuclear weapons or beating the Soviet Union in an arms race. Instead he foils the house cat and defeats the spider in the basement, in ways that are surely symbolic of his triumph over the threat of being diminished by feminization. Outsmarting the cat is one thing, but killing the tarantula proves even more significant in its staging of the need to destroy an enemy that is larger than life and twice as unnatural. In a scene that prefigures the visceral horrors in the Netflix series Stranger Things, the camera zooms toward the arachnid’s gooey, hairy mouth and captures the flood of blood gushing from the monster’s pierced belly. In its creepy sexualization of the tarantula, The Incredible Shrinking Man reveals the real stakes in the struggle to avoid social diminution.

The shrinking man has finally grown in stature, Size no longer matters. The infinitesimal and the infinite converge: “The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet like the closing of a gigantic circle.” Undiminished and triumphant, Scott recognizes that he is “no zero” and declares “I still exist.”