Remembering The Incredible Shrinking Man

Do you remember movies you saw as a kid that had a deep and lasting impact on you? For me, one of the first and foremost of these was 1957's The Incredible Shrinking Man. I first saw the film when I was barely out of trapdoor jammies. My babysitter didn't want to watch scary movies alone, so she let me stay up with her and watch Chiller Cinema.

The Incredible Shrinking Man terrified me. But it also captivated me. I was obviously too young to grasp the profundities of the ending, but I could feel something moving within it.

It wasn't until I was a young teen and saw it again that it delivered its full impact. Once more, I found the movie entertaining, scary, and a bit goofy around the edges, with clever and cool practical effects. But, again, it was the ending that really blew my neck bolts. The ideas that "the unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet, like the closing of a gigantic circle" and that every bit of the universe has meaning by its very existence (or "All that lives is holy," as William Blake put it), have never left me.

The Jack Arnold film is based on Richard Matheson's 1956 novel The Shrinking Man. The book was apparently a thinly veiled reflection of the anxieties of middle class white suburban males of the 1950s who could feel the beginning-of-the-end of their social dominance; the shrinking of their status. While the main character, Scott Carey, tries to cling to this stature in the beginning, even as he uncontrollably keeps shrinking, by the end, he embraces his fate.

The deeper message of the book and the film appears to be that, by letting go of your fixed societal identification, you have the freedom to become anything you like. This idea is symbolically portrayed in the film when Carey finally leaves his home through the prison-like bars of the basement window screen that have now become small enough for him to easily slip through. From there, he walks across his suburban lawn, and into infinity itself.

Like a lot of sci-fi/horror films from the 1950s and early 60s, the story of The Incredible Shrinking Man reflects the post-WWII fears and magical thinking around radiation. Carey's shrinking starts while he and his wife are on vacation and a cloud of radioactive gas engulfs him. In the final scene of the film, he wonders whether others have been subjected to a similar fate and whether this isn't the beginnings of some new type of cosmic humanity.

It certainly wasn't any science in The Incredible Shrinking Man that had such a profound and lasting impact on me. It was the poetry of it; the sense of wonder in trying to grasp the infinite and the infinitesimal. Whenever I hear of some new astronomical discovery about the near-infinite vastness of the Universe (or the possible existence of a multiverse), it doesn't make me feel small or insignificant. It makes me feel expansive myself, part of that unimaginable vastness, because "the idea that existence begins and ends is man's conception, not nature's" and that "the vast majesty of creation… it has to mean something… and that I mean something, too. Even as the smallest of the smallest, that I mean something, too."

Here's director director Jack Arnold talking about some of the practical effects in the film and how they were choreographed.

So, what are the films that had a lasting impact on you, especially the ones that helped wire up your worldview? Chime in on the BB BBS.

Image: Screengrab