The voice and the void: the scream in 1950s American science fiction film
In the United States, science fiction film rose to prominence as a critically recognized genre in the 1950s, a decade fraught with cultural complications and contradictions and also inspired by optimism and upward trajectory. Warren Susman characterizes the period as one marked by a "dual consciousness," a time when "the fulfillment of our sweetest desires [led] inevitably to the brink of danger and damnation"; the fifties, he writes, was an age of anxiety as much as it was a time of abundance, freedom, and possibility (30). For historian David Halberstam, while a retrospective examination of the decade suggests to some a "slower, almost languid" pace, social ferment "was beginning just beneath this placid surface" (ix). Throughout the decade, notions of national security played out in conflicting ways that traversed both the public and private spheres. Science fiction, a genre that coincided with massive industry changes that saw the development of a sizable low-budget, teen-oriented independent sector, resonated deeply with such opposing and anxiety-laden articulations of both public and private security. While most previous discussions of the genre tend to focus on such concerns in their public dimension (particularly as related to political unease during the Cold War), what follows will address sci-fi' s depiction of anxieties in that other, more private realm of American society, particularly in relation to the expression of gender, sexuality, and desire.
Cold War politics, the postwar consumer boom, re-entrenchment of family values and suburban home life, and industry upheavals in Hollywood are all important for understanding what is now thought of as the golden age of American science fiction film. These socio-political factors contextualize the genre's rise to prominence, its defining stylistic and thematic characteristics, and its treatment of gendered subjectivity. As we will see, while some science fiction films of the 1950s engaged or challenged cultural rhetoric related to expected norms of gendered behaviour, for the most part these films upheld the era's return to more traditional gender roles for men and women, an observation which has been taken up in the critical literature, particularly within feminist film scholarship. However, within this body of films exists a common and recurring convention that has been largely neglected by science fiction film scholars, one that warrants further study due to its implications for understanding the return to domesticity in the American postwar period. This filmic convention is the scream, a visual and aural articulation of fear expressed mostly by women (but also, and just as importantly, by men). Far from being a mere cheap gimmick employed by filmmakers alongside special effects and insatiable monsters, the scream provides valuable insight into the domestic ideologies that prevailed during the 1950s.