The following is excerpted from Mutants & Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal, available from the University of Chicago Press.

 

We begin by invoking three “mythemes.” A mytheme is a mythical trope, a consistent theme that is employed by writers and artists to give structure, shape, and cultural plausibility to their stories of the fantastic.  The first mytheme, Orientation, is a play on “the Orient.”  It involves the notion that some sort of special wisdom or power is available “in the East,” or in some other land far, far away (Africa, Egypt, China, the polar region, inside an hollow earth, and so on).  The second mytheme, Alienation, was born in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the globe was thoroughly explored and the land of mystery had to be located in an even more radical elsewhere — outer space.  Hence the theme of the alien and the origins of the superhero genre in the figure of Superman, the crashed alien.  The third mytheme was born with the discovery of atomic energy and the atom bomb during World War II.  It would come to play a special role in the mythologies of the superhero in the early 1960s and the American counterculture.  

As I have explored the abduction phenomenon, it has become increasingly clear that virtually none of its elements can be appreciated without a consideration of the extraordinary energies involved. These include light or heat from UFOs themselves or transport to them, the means by which UFOs move and the powerful vibratory sensations experienced by the abductees. . . . Experiencers report various forms of interference with appliances in their vicinity (I have seen this frequently myself), whether or not an abduction experience is taking place, as if they were themselves emanating some sort of strange energy. –John E. Mack, Passport to the Cosmos

Although Orientation and Alienation were the first major mythical tropes of both early science fiction and the superhero comic, the later development of the two genres took place in what came to be known as the Atomic Age, that era of global anxiety, terror, and metaphysical awe initiated by the detonation of two atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. If cosmology had taught us that planet earth floats in an unimaginably vast sea of space and time, the Einsteinian physics behind the bomb now suggested, rather paradoxically, that everything is connected, that everything is One. Matter is frozen energy, the same energy, the same cosmic force that once issued from some unspeakable explosion that scientists wanted to call — in what must count as history’s greatest and dumbest understatement — “the Big Bang.” Enter the trope of the Atom and the mytheme of Radiation.

Alienation to Radiation: Cold War Scares and Subtle Bodies

The transition from Alienation to Radiation was not so much a transition as it was a series of fusions of the two mythemes. The very first UFO scares, for example, were essentially Cold War scares, and as the sightings continued into the 1950s and ’60s, numerous interpreters would note how the craft often appeared around atomic bomb installations or above military bases, as if the purported aliens had become aware of and concerned about our very recent nuclear technology. Moreover, the core message of “the Space Brothers” of the early contactee movement of the 1950s involved an attempt, however silly at times, to raise awareness around the very real issues of nuclear apocalypse and environmental collapse.

There is also the still-unexplained fact that reports of the mysterious objects often included elaborate descriptions of electromagnetic effects. Cars and tractors — really anything that runs on a battery or electricity — were reported to stop or go haywire in the presence of a UFO. Betty Hill, for example, originally contacted the air force after she and Barney “lost” two hours on a New Hampshire road because her car trunk had strange polished circles on it that made a compass go crazy and she was deeply concerned that they had been exposed to radioactivity. Witnesses have also developed strange skin rashes, eye infections, even alleged radioactive burns and cancers. Alienation sometimes is Radiation, it turns out.

And things are more complex still. Such energetic effects, after all, do not stop with the unidentified objects or alien presence. They extend to the bodies of the witnesses themselves, as if these bodies had been rendered super and become living UFOs. Perhaps one could speak more accurately here of the subtle bodies of the witnesses, as many of the reported experiences lie well outside anything conceivable with the physical body. We often hear, for example, of incredibly intense “vibrations,” sometimes connected to sexual intercourse with the interdimensional beings. We read of the individual cells of the body being transformed and transmuted, even of the very atoms of the radiated body vibrating at unimaginable speeds, speeds that allow the witnesses to float and fly, pass through walls, enter other dimensions, even sometimes realize a profound unity with the entire universe. Although couched, and no doubt experienced, in an astonishing sci-fi register, such reports are often indistinguishable from countless examples of extreme religious experience recorded in mystical literature from around the world.

In the more extreme cases, such spiritualized superbodies even appear to have real effects in the physical world. Hence the bodies of witnesses — once radiated, empowered, or otherwise zapped by an alien encounter — do things like stop appliances, turn out street lights, and play havoc with electronic and computer equipment, as the late Harvard psychiatrist John Mack notes in our opening epigraph. Mack even recounts one reported case in which an entire neighborhood was blacked out during a visitation to two abductees.[1]

Weirder still, human encounters with UFOs often display a very clear, and very dramatic, psychical component. That is to say, the human being, once radiated, begins to display paranormal powers. This is one of the clearest and strongest links between the mytheme of Radiation and “superpowers.” Such psychical components range from telepathic transmissions, overwhelming states of creativity, and realizations of immortality, through mind-to-matter phenomena like telekinesis, implants, or symbolic scars, to completely fantastic scenes involving teleportation and storm-raising. We might say, then, that whereas Alienation is the privileged mytheme of altered states of consciousness, Radiation is the privileged mytheme of altered states of energy.

It was not Kenneth Arnold’s flying discs, much less the later abduction reports, however, that ushered in the mythology of Radiation. It was the bomb. The bomb changed everything, including American literature, film, fantasy, and popular culture. John Canaday has thus written of “the nuclear muse” in modern literature, and David Seed has explored the role the Cold War and the constant threat of nuclear annihilation played in the development of American science fiction.[2]

The impact, of course, was just as profound in Japan, where an entire industry was built up around the monstrous transformations the bomb effected there, both literally and culturally. Godzilla, who made his first debut as a sleeping dinosaur awakened and transmogrified by an exploding atomic bomb in Tana Tomoyuki’s Gojira (1954), was in his origins a serious meditation on the horrors of the bomb and environmental degradation. Here is how William Tsutsui describes his beloved “radioactive saurian”: “Well before the series degenerated into big-time wrestling in seedy latex suits, well before Godzilla had a laughably unlikely son, well before a giant technicolor moth was passed off as a gruesome monster, well before Tokyo was besieged by rapacious aliens or vengeful undersea civilizations (all fluent in Japanese, of course), Gojira was a solemn affair, an earnest attempt to grapple with compelling and timely issues, more meditative and elegiac than block busting and spine chilling.”[3]

We all grappled. Tsutsui and I are more or less the same age. In 1972, he was nine and living in Bryan, Texas. I was ten and living in Nebraska. As I approached and passed puberty, I realized that my home state was lined with nuclear missile silos, and that Omaha was home to the Strategic Air Command (SAC) air force base where, or so we were told on a grade school field trip, the president would be brought in case of a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. We were also told that if we approached a particular plane parked on the runway and ignored the warnings of the guard on duty, we would be shot.

I never saw that plane or that guard, but those underground missile silos and that air force base marked the End of Days for me. I was absolutely terrified, and I was certain that I would not live to see forty. It is indeed difficult to communicate the fear we felt then. Okay, the fear that I felt. We were not, after all, talking about a “dirty bomb” that would tragically kill a few hundred people and radiate a few thousand with what amounts to a bad dentist X-ray. We were talking about tens of thousands of nuclear missiles vaporizing every major city in the States, Europe, and the Soviet Union, pretty much the entire Northern Hemisphere, and taking hundreds of millions of people, not to mention the entire global ecosystem, down with them. We were talking about the end of life as we know it. And — and this is the truly scary part — this was no fantasy or sci-fi film. It was entirely, horrifyingly possible. We really had (and still have) the technological means to do it. This was the historical background that made all that talk of radioactive this and radioactive that in the science fiction and superhero comics so gripping, so compelling, so disturbingly familiar.

But this wasn’t the only story in town. There was also something else going on in the Silver Age myths I grew up with in the late 1960s and early ’70s, something ultimately positive and redeeming. These, after all, were energies that did not just blow things up. They also illuminated, inspired, awakened, and empowered people. Indeed, they transformed these individuals into superhumans or demigods. The radiation, then, was not simply radiation. It was also a kind of spiritual power or mystical energy. In the end, these guys didn’t get cancer. They got superpowers.

Notes

[1] John E. Mack, Passport to the Cosmos: Human Transformation and Alien Encounters (Largo: Kunati, 2008), 68.

[2] John Canaday, The Nuclear Muse: Literature, Physics, and the First Atomic Bombs (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2000; and David Seed, American Science Fiction and the Cold War: Literature and Film (Edinburgh: Edinburgh university Press, 1999).

[3] William Tsutsui, Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 13-14.