What's the origin of the nuclear radiation = big monsters sic-fi trope?
June 8, 2014 1:25 AM   Subscribe

With the recent reboot of Gozilla, I got to thinking about classic (and not-so-classic) 1950s era giant monster movies such as Them! or The Beginning of the End, which invariably involve giant monsters that are created through nuclear experiments or explosions.

Is there a specific movie or novel that started this whole idea? It's not exactly obvious. I'm not aware that "making things bigger" is a property of exposure to nuclear radiation; I'm more apt to think of burns, cancer, or death. I get that there was a lot of misinformation and misguided optimism about nuclear power in the 1950s, but was it ever a common notion--outside of bad sci-fi movies--that exposing something to radiation could make it larger or stronger? And if so, where did that idea come from?
posted by saslett to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Mutation Breeding?, Atomic Gardens.

Also Muller's 1927 paper, "Artificial Transmutation of the Gene,"?

Between that and novelty postcards of giant animals or vegetables collaged into everyday scenes, it's a very tiny leap of imagination to come up with giant earwigs marching out of an atomic garden.
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:39 AM on June 8, 2014

I doubt they were direct inspiration for 1950s giant monster movies, but a couple of cultural reference points come to mind. H. G. Wells's The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth (1904) was an early instance of the "science yields gigantism" motif. And in the 1920s, there were a bunch of radium cures that promised to revitalize and reinvigorate.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 2:54 AM on June 8, 2014

Even if you can't rationalize the idea that radiation makes animals grow unnaturally large, it makes plenty of sense as a metaphor. How better to dramatically illustrate the idea that man is playing with apocalyptic-scale forces it can't really control than with giant monsters?
posted by jon1270 at 2:57 AM on June 8, 2014

The first of the Atomic Age monster flicks, the one that first associated nuclear radiation with big monsters, was 1953's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. In brief: scientists set off a nuke in the Arctic Circle (in a somewhat tautologically-named "Operation Experiment") which disturbs the hibernation of a 30-foot-tall carnivorous dinosaur which then proceeds to do pretty much what you'd expect. In this case, the monster itself wasn't actually created or embiggened through radiation, it was just rudely awakened, but the ominous money quote from one of the project's scientists set the tone for the next several years of monster flicks: "What the cumulative effects of all these atomic explosions and tests will be, only time will tell."

Anyway The Beast made more than $5 million and kicked off a wave of imitators, the first of which were Them! and Godzilla in 1954, and the rest is history. It's interesting to note though that The Beast itself was created to cash in on a resurgence of popularity in monster movies and stories that sprang from the 1952 reissue of RKO's King Kong, originally released in 1933. So the answer to "why does radiation make things bigger" gets sort of reversed -- you could argue that the big monsters were already in demand, and their origins just got modernized in a ripped-from-todays-headlines kind of way.
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 2:59 AM on June 8, 2014 [11 favorites]

(Incidentally here's a nice piece in Slate from last year that digs further into the atomic monster zeitgeist of the 50s and 60s. Their link to a related Susan Sontag essay is behind a paywall but you can find the full text here. Doesn't speak directly to your question but it's interesting background on why these kinds of movies were so popular at the time and by extension why horror movies in general continue to be popular.)
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 3:11 AM on June 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Cell culture. There was a wave of stories in the early decades of the 20th C about developments in cell culture - e.g. the 'immortal chicken' claims by Alexis Carrel. These were taken up directly by scifi writers, especially in the USA, and there were a host of stories about immortal, ever growing cellular blobs, or tissue masses: for example, this 1926 'amazing stories' tale the malignant entity; this 1937 radio play Chicken Heart.

Not all of the science stories were about mutations caused by deliberate (or accidental) irradiation, but by the middle of the 20th C the link between 'mutation' and 'radiation' must've been pretty clear in the popular mind, so it's not surprising that the concomitant theme of 'immortal, giant' carried over to full animal rather than amorphous mass monsters. That, plus the human element of post-Hiroshima research and, of course, the development of the 'immortal' human HeLa cell strain in the early 1950s must've been a source of inspiration.
posted by AFII at 5:09 AM on June 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

In case anyone missed sebastienbailard's links, using radiation to alter physical traits—of a plant's descendants at least—is a real science thing. From the abstract of a journal article linked by Wikipedia:
During the past seventy years, [i.e. going back to the 1930s, from a 2004 article] worldwide more than 2250 varieties have been released that have been derived either as direct mutants or from their progenies. Induction of mutations with radiation has been the most frequently used method for directly developed mutant varieties. The prime strategy in mutation-based breeding has been to upgrade the well-adapted plant varieties by altering one or two major traits, which limit their productivity or enhance their quality value.
Most of the commercially cultivated plants mentioned are dwarf varieties of their forebears but IIRC larger-than-normal versions are frequently an outcome of the experiments too.

See also island gigantism and island dwarfism due to evolutionary mutation. For an even earlier version of the monsters-on-islands theme in science fiction, Burrough's 1918 The Land That Time Forgot.

So, these really were simply fictional extensions of current science. If I recall the Susan Sontag essay correctly, I must concur that it's a very good hypothesis for the psychological and social reasons behind why mid-twentieth-century science fiction dwelt on the themes it did.
posted by XMLicious at 5:45 AM on June 8, 2014

One more angle on this; the original Godzilla monster is best understood as an explicit embodiment of the horror of nuclear warfare in a movie made in the only country to ever have been nuked. I don't think Gojira was intended to be a mutant; he's a monster that already existed and was awakened by nuclear tests. This article claims the monster's skin was designed to look like Hiroshima burn victims.
posted by Nelson at 6:28 AM on June 8, 2014

Best answer: Enormous monstrous creatures have been a staple of stories since the Greek myths. Their existence is explained, if it needs explaining in the story genre, by whatever the culture finds a good fit, given the state of knowledge at the time.

When we didn't know what was there off the edge of the map, you could say "Here be dragons". We know there are no giant gorillas living in New York, it's not a plausible story that one just turned up. But maybe an expedition could find one on some obscure island in the Pacific?

Once people knew about evolution and dinosaurs, we got things like Conan Doyle's The Lost World. In the early nuclear age, radiation and mutation were handy explanations, as was the It-came-from-space scenario in the early space age. Nowadays, we'll go for genetic engineering gone wrong as well.

Some of the stories are using the monster to explore whatever technology issues people were worried about at the time, e.g. nukes, pollution, genetic engineering. Many of them are primarily using the tech speak of the time as a way to explain how the monster came to be, so they can have a monster story.
posted by philipy at 9:25 AM on June 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

AFII: "Cell culture. There was a wave of stories in the early decades of the 20th C about developments in cell culture - e.g. the 'immortal chicken' claims by Alexis Carrel. These were taken up directly by scifi writers, especially in the USA, and there were a host of stories about immortal, ever growing cellular blobs, or tissue masses: for example, this 1926 'amazing stories' tale the malignant entity; this 1937 radio play Chicken Heart .

A classic example of this is "Chicken Little" from Kornblut and Pohl's The Space Merchants.
posted by Chrysostom at 2:10 PM on June 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

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