The Vance Packard Death Trip

I went to see Don’t Worry Darling. The film is excellent. All the background saga around its creation and promotion simply adds a further ironic layer to the story, about unreal worlds being manipulated by male protagonists who are never a crucial creative force.

Even before it became a story in itself I wanted to see it simply because the trailers made it look as though it would be a story about inmates in an illusory world coming to realise they are in an illusion. This is a very well-worn scifi idea, it turns up in old anthology series like Out Of The Unknown. Like with all the other standard scifi ideas, the fun is in seeing how the game is played, how the parameters are set and how any surprises are contrived by the writers and directors who know that at least a section of the audience know how it’s been done before.

In Don’t Worry Darling we have an idealised version of 1950s suburban US life as the living quarters of “the Victory Project”, some sort of secret technical project out in a desert landscape. Presumably we are not far from the nuclear test ranges of the 50s. The fixtures and fittings of these homes are what modern viewers would expect them to be, though it is a little unclear what music is on the shelves full of phonograph records next to the player. TV sets only play a loop of inspirational messaging linked to the Project; the cars that the husbands drive away in every morning fit general images of saloons and sports cars of the period. Right from the start we have a new couple joining up. So what brings these strangers to paradise, and what’s the danger in the apple?

The obvious inauthentic detail is that this is a community in which different races mix together, there is at least one inter-racial couple, and no one ever remarks on it. No one ever politely expresses liberal approval in public, or conservative disapproval in private. It’s as if race really is invisible, in a way that it certainly wasn’t any time before 1960. This is despite the fact that gender roles are being maintained, with the wives staying at home and doing the housework all day.

Even before Alice Chambers starts to wonder what is really going on, and being afflicted by sensations of unreality or repressed memory, it has been signalled this is not the real 50s. Jack Chambers has a British accent that is getting a slight mid-Atlantic edge, but that would fit if he was some sort of scientist brought who migrated in the early stages of “the Brain Drain”, which started in the late 40s. We do finally get someone mentioning it, in a giveaway line: “what is it you Brits say – ‘Keep Calm And Carry On.”?” … which is of course not an authentic British saying of that period. It was created for a poster campaign that was not used, and only rediscovered 60 years later.

So the questions are: where, and when? Is it a psychological experiment occurring in the period, or staged later on? Is it a physical environment, or a virtual or spiritual realm, perhaps a purgatory for lost souls who have been granted amnesia of their earthly transgressions? Artificial worlds are usually indicated by having abrupt boundaries (as in The Thirteenth Floor), or wrapping around inscrutably in a infinite return to the same small place (as in Vivarium). Are these people being studied, or exploited, perhaps prepared for a cruel and terrible fate, as in The Island? The victims in those worlds usually have some marker or brand which they have been misled about, and we have nothing like that here. We do have a quasi-messianic leader, who tells his community they are a great and special people who are making great progress, though he can’t explain what it is. The benign world of Tales From The Loop had a mastermind who seemed happy to get old and die in his creation.

The secret memories and repressed details of hypnosis and conditioning are revealed in the usual way, with flash-cuts to significant moments and phrases elsewhere. Alice has many trances and visions. There is also a great use of circling shots, mirrors and reflections in windows, aerial views, which create a generalised strangeness without drawing attention too much to any detail.

The weakness in the plot is on the metaphysics of this world, once we get the quick reveal of what lies behind and before the veil of illusion. If it is fully virtual, why are the baddies constrained by technical limitations, having to move about in space and chase over time? Surely they could have added some overrides to the simulations, so they can suspend troublemakers or instantly turn up anywhere to halt them? If material objects in this world have to algorithmically replicate the real ones, why can’t Alice’s sports car stay ahead of the chunky family saloon pursuing it? When she is captured and brainwashed, which realm is the ECT occurring in?

But those sort of questions only bother me when nothing much interesting is happening, and we’re supposed to find the mind games daringly clever and original. Don’t Worry Darling is using the artificial world model to illuminate a feminist message about women brought under control of the male imagination, and being put as pretty caged birds in a decorated prison. The Nice Guy On The Internet turns out to be another controlling creep, even though he’s happy to play at being a dancing human marionette for his boss. This fantasy world is for the boy-men of the alt-Right Dark Web, venerating hollow idols like Jordan Peterson and yearning for a cartoon of the 1950s. The only person with any real brains here is the only one who had a real job and wasn’t listening to stupid podcasts and videos all day. But we do get a moment where a trapped woman admits she knows the truth of this world, but chooses to stay in the relationship for the sake of the children.

Mind-control and manipulation was already a topic in the 50s. Nowadays newsagents have a big stock of pop-psychology and pop-sociology books that include Peterson and other chancers with big ideas about what’s gone wrong and how we can fix the world to make men feel special.

Vance Packard was an American journalist who made a successful career writing books about the great changes in US society in the post-war years. The first and most influential was The Hidden Persuaders (1957), about the new trend for using “depth psychology” probing techniques to study consumer preferences, and ideas from psychiatry to gear marketing and advertising techniques to get better results. I read an extract from it at school, in a textbook for English comprehension, and so remember the story of how prune merchants called in the psych guys to fix their public image problem – ie. get the customers to associate the product with nicer things than constipation. I got a trio of Packards in Pelican editions long ago from a second-hand stall, a quid each.

Reading the full text, The Hidden Persuaders now seems to be the story of how a small number of men very successfully sold the idea of using “depth methods” to the marketing industry, and then got fat on questionable results. Most of the stories collected within relate to Ernest Dichter, a Viennese emigre who quickly built a new career with his Institute for Motivational Research. The use of psychoanalytic terms to “explain” mass behaviour is no more convincing than with individuals, yet Freud was cited to solve the problem of why people continued buying cigarettes even after the cancer risks were exposed to the public. The possibility that most consumers just don’t understand how to reason about probability (which has been shown to be the case by later psychological researchers) is not considered.

The most controversial of the eye-stoppers… was the ‘I Dreamed I Stopped The Traffic In My Maidenform Bra’ campaign. The situations varied but always the girl involved, dressed fully except that she only wore a bra above the waist, was wandering about among normally-dressed people. The theory was that since she was dreaming, her undressed state was permissible. The ad-men themselves argued about the wisdom of this ad and the deep-down effect it had on the women seeing it. Some were convinced, after talking with their psychological consultants, that the scene depicted would simply produce an anxiety state in women since it represented a common oneiric, or dream, expression of the neurotic anxieties experienced by many women. Others in the trade, however, became convinced after checking with their psychologists that the ad was sound because …[it] ‘represents a beautiful example of wish fulfilment’.

So even the male experts on female minds aren’t sure what’s going on in them. Actually men and women are quite a problem in general:

The motivational analysts began finding that a major sexual need of both men and women in America at mid century was sexual reassurance. Women by the millions were yearning for evidence that they were still basically feminine; and men by the millions were yearning for evidence they were still indisputably and virulently masculine.

But those interpretations were being made by interviewers “analysing” with a theory allowing enormous plasticity in shaping the alleged hidden structure to fit any eventuality.

The Freudian notion of subconscious symbolism does no explanatory work here, as distinct from the concrete objects of status symbols, whose importance we don’t need depth psychiatry to identify. Whether the depth interview presents how the subjects respond in the wild is also a methodological problem. Packard notes it was raised by objectors. He also notes the research that shows consumers preferred supermarkets to small stores as it was easier to hide their ignorance of what they needed and what was available. But that would serve as a better explanation for the general irrationality of impulse-buying and consumer-behaviour, rather than any of the suggestions the depth researchers offer, fishing in the dark. Herd psychology would explain how they managed to establish a grip on sober-minded business execs.

The importance of status symbols gets a fuller exploration in The Status Seekers (1959), which contains no psychoanalysis but does add endnotes and brings in some interesting details of how America was changing in the final years before Civil Rights forced its way to the top of the agenda. The dynamics of “white flight” are explored, and a study cited that suggests it was stoked up by the real estate agents who earned fat commissions spreading groundless fears that property values always went down when the races mixed. The social divisions between the different Protestant churches are explored, and there is an interesting chapter on “The Special Status Problems Of Jews”.

It turns out that “The Wife” can be a major factor in how an individual can advance in American business culture, a topic taken up again in The Pyramid Climbers (1962), which focuses on aspirants for success in the newly-dominant corporate culture:

We are about to enter a veiled and curious world. The object of this exploration is to bring back relevant information about the breed of people who climb modern pyramids.

The Times Literary Supplement thought the result was “Factual, not written in sociological verbiage, realistic and sensible.” The world it describes is one where unions are powerful and foreign competition limited, whilst “computers” are hugely expensive and far away from the desktop. So more of a period piece now, though the section on how minorities and women were screened out of consideration (and the justifications offered) is still of interest, since of course the process would not be so obvious these days, but still operating. I notice that the Pelican edition cover price increased by a shilling from Status Seekers (1962) to Pyramid Climbers (1965) even though they are the same size in the paperback edition. That would still be more than £1 was worth when I bought them.

2 thoughts on “The Vance Packard Death Trip

  1. There is a clue that things aren’t real in the trailer – when Alice submerges in the bath, her reflection in the mirror doesn’t change in sync. It doesn’t make sense in the world-logic, but it’s a signal to the viewer, if they spot it.

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