Fear on The Planet of the Apes

Planet of the Apes does not belong in the same category as Saw or Friday the 13th. It is not a horror movie. That being said, the Planet of the Apes franchise preys on our fears as relentlessly as Freddy Krueger haunts the dreams of unlucky teens. While society’s dread of a nuclear holocaust remained a central theme, Planet of the Apes movies successfully mined other anxieties prevalent in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The 1974 television series provided a brief interlude of positivity before the recent reboot went back to frightening audiences albeit in a way better suited to the 21st century.


Audience members watching Planet of the Apes in 1968 may have felt their pulse racing as mounted apes hunted humans in a cornfield, but the most chilling moment came at the very end. The ruined Statue of Liberty left little doubt that humanity itself was responsible for the world’s destruction and the ape supremacy that followed. At the time, the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a Cold War that threatened to escalate into nuclear hostilities at any time. Each sequel to Planet of the Apes built on an established fear that audiences easily identified with.

Writer Paul Dehn exploited this fear in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970). Audiences stared in abject horror as mutants worship the nuclear bomb that will ultimately destroy the Earth. The United States and the Soviet Union came closest to doing this in real life during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Disaster was averted when the Soviets backed down at the last minute. They agreed to dismantle their nuclear missiles in Cuba if the United States would do the same with their own missiles in Turkey. To some this proved that cooler heads would prevail in the face of mutually assured destruction. The ending to Beneath the Planet of the Apes stripped away this hope. It only takes one unbalanced individual to defy logic and push the nuclear button anyway.

Dehn’s writing was influenced by his reaction to America’s nuclear attack on Japan in 1945.1 The initial explosions were horrifying in their own right but subsequent radiation was even more insidious. American nuclear tests in the 1950s further reinforced anxieties about radiation. In the American controlled Marshall Islands, Bikini Atoll’s population was relocated in 1954 so that their land could be used in a nuclear test. The United States told them that they were a “chosen people” whose assistance in perfecting the bomb would prevent wars in the future.2 American policy makers’ obsession with developing the most powerful nuclear weapon provides an eerie parallel with the bomb worshipping mutants from Beneath the Planet of the Apes. The idea that radiation can mutate people may have been influenced by information coming out of the Marshall Islands. The Bikini Atoll tests covered surrounding islands with radioactive fallout. The implications of this became clear as people experienced a marked increase in tumors and birth defects including “jellyfish babies” (children born without bones).

Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971) kept the franchise alive by launching Cornelius, Zira, and Dr. Milo into space right before the planet exploded. Their landing in 1970s Earth cleverly flipped the original film’s premise. At the time, American audiences still worried about a potential world war. They were also concerned about a more immediate problem- government corruption.

In 1969 President Richard Nixon revealed his plan to end American involvement in the Vietnam War. He promised to gradually withdraw troops while simultaneously training and arming our South Vietnamese allies so that they could protect themselves from North Vietnam’s communist invasion. Protests broke out nationwide when it was discovered that Nixon had secretly expanded the war into neighboring Cambodia where many communists had sought shelter. The most notable protest occurred at Kent State in Ohio. It culminated with the National Guard firing into the crowd and killing several students.

Concerns about Nixon’s honesty increased when he tried to block publication of the Pentagon Papers, a government study of America’s role in the Vietnam War that had been leaked to The New York Times. If not for a Supreme Court decision in 1971 Nixon would have succeeded in suppressing the study (which was very critical of American decisions during the war).

The Nixon Administration’s tendency to suppress the truth is reflected in Escape From the Planet of the Apes. Nixon’s onscreen counterpart and his inner circle concealed information from citizens when they acted against Cornelius and Zira, the talking apes that had been warmly embraced by the public. Things seemed to get worse in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. The heavy hand of Governor Breck, backed by the constant presence of black-clad riot police, seemed unsettlingly familiar in the wake of Kent State. Would checks and balances continue to keep Nixon’s ambitions at bay, or was the United States destined to end up like the North American civilization depicted in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes?

This film was designed to explain how humanity came to be dominated by talking apes. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) was meant to close the circular continuity established by the franchise. This film has a less fearful tone than its predecessors. In contrast to the fearmongering of the previous films, this one suggests that fear of a nuclear apocalypse can be faced and successfully surmounted.

While the film was being written, President Nixon’s foreign policies seemed to be making the world a safer place. While his previous transgressions were not forgotten, few could argue with his efforts to reduce the chances of a nuclear war. In 1972 Nixon became the first American president to visit communist and nuclear-armed China. In the same year he signed an agreement with the Soviet Union in which each side agreed to limit certain types of nuclear weapons. While Nixon strived for peaceful coexistence with the communist world, Battle for the Planet of the Apes writers penned a script that concludes with humans and apes living together in peace and friendship.3


The television series was forged in this same spirit of optimism. It focuses on Alan Virdon and Peter Burke, two astronauts that have inadvertently travelled through time to the Planet of the Apes. Their adventures are ostensibly about finding a way back to their own time while staying one step ahead of the apes, but their story is also about redemption. The astronauts use their advanced knowledge to help both humans and apes. They are trying to make up for the cataclysmic mistake of their ancestors. Virdon and Burke’s worst fear of a nuclear holocaust has come to pass but that realization does not break them. Instead they are inspired to fight back by bringing reason and progress to a planet desperately in need of both.

By the time the Planet of the Apes television series debuted in September 1974, American society was embarking on a similar mission of redemption. In June 1972 a group of burglars had been caught trying to break into the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. In 1973 Nixon officially denied any knowledge of the incident but evidence against him continued to mount. This all played out at the same time that scripts for the series were being written and continued into the actual production of the show. Ron Harper, who played astronaut Alan Virdon, remembered being on set when producers said that Nixon was about to make an important announcement. It turned out to be his resignation speech. “I was delighted that S.O.B. was finally out of office because I didn’t care for him at all,” said Harper in a 1997 interview.4 A few months later, Harper was unemployed as well. Planet of the Apes was cancelled in December 1974 but not before Virdon and Burke did their utmost to rebuild the world that humanity had destroyed. Ratings suggested that not many Americans watched Planet of the Apes on TV, but just like Virdon and Burke, the United States in 1974 was committed to rebuilding. The country’s worst fears about Nixon had been confirmed, but people still believed in America. Nixon’s resignation was proof that the system of checks and balances worked. As the executive branch’s power waned, the people pressed their representatives in Congress to make government reflect the values espoused by the country. Slowly the people repaired their relationship with government.


The 1975 cartoon and 2001 Tim Burton film came and went. Not until 2011 did the franchise get a sustainable reboot. This new version may have sported CGI apes in lieu of John Chambers’ famous makeup, but the use of fear in driving the narrative remained. 21st century fears, however, are very different from their 20th century predecessors. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 were the death knell of communism and the Cold War. So long as nuclear missiles exist they will always elicit some degree of anxiety but in the 21st century fear of a nuclear holocaust has been supplanted by new terrors.

In the years leading up to Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)a disturbing trend unfolded. Previously treatable sicknesses were becoming resistant to medication. The idea of “superbugs” that could not be treated with traditional antibiotics was concerning in its own right but it became even more frightening in light of another trend- viruses spreading faster than ever before. The SARS virus began in China in 2008 but quickly struck 8,000 people worldwide. The death toll of 800 seemed low by comparison but many were alarmed that it spread so rapidly via air travel. The 2009 swine flu pandemic spread to over 70 countries in just a few months.5 Most estimates indicate that it caused more than 200,000 people to perish worldwide.6 Had the virus mutated further, the damage could have been far worse. Pigs are susceptible to both the avian and human influenza viruses. New and deadlier strains can incubate inside pigs and then be transferred to humans. At that point, they spread just as easily as more common strains. Rise of the Planet of the Apes effectively used fear of just such a catastrophe to explain how apes came to dominate the planet. The fact that the doomsday virus originated as an attempt to find a cure for Alzheimer’s also served to show the limits of modern medicine and the dangers of using science to interfere with nature.

2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes showed the outcome of the Alzheimer’s drug gone wrong. The movie focused on a small group of humans surviving in the ruins of San Francisco. Low on fuel, they are about to lose access to heat, light, and electricity. After seeing extensive news coverage of the damage wrought by Superstorm Sandy on the East Coast, audiences easily identified with the fear of living without electricity.

War for the Planet of the Apes was released in the summer of 2017. It tweaked the fears that had worked so well in its immediate predecessors. The virus mutated and caused humans to lose their cognition and become mindless beasts. It is a nod to the Alzheimer’s cure attempted in the first film of the reboot. It triggers fear in all those who have seen their own loved ones slowly deteriorate as a result of Alzheimer’s. It also plays well with a 21st century audience that has become enamored with zombies. The Walking Dead, a zombie-themed television show, induces terror by showing characters that were friends and relatives transform into flesh-eating monsters devoid of any cognition. Fans of The Walking Dead (many of whom are also interested in Planet of the Apes) are quick to point out that the show is not so much about the zombies but about the humans. Few have come through the apocalypse unscathed and many have become so depraved that they are scarier than the zombies.

War for the Planet of the Apes follows this same premise. It is perhaps best exemplified by the Colonel who thinks his mass murders can save the human race. The comic book prequel to War for the Planet of the Apes delves further into this idea. It examines the remains of human society in several states across the country. Rather than help each other in the face of hard times, most humans have gone into a survival mode where killing each other over scarce resources is the norm.

With humans losing their intellect, the reboot has come full circle to the Planet of the Apes encountered by Charlton Heston’s Taylor in the 1968 original. Director Matt Reeves has suggested that the franchise has more stories to tell. It is unclear how closely they will line up with the originals. It is likely, however, that whatever story they choose to tell will be built on a strong foundation of fear.


1. Moxham, Neil. “The Mis-shape of Things to Come: Paul Dehn’s Planet of the Apes.” Bright Eyes, Ape City. Ed. Rich Handley and Joseph F. Berenato. Edwardsville: Sequart Organization, 2017. pp.78-100. Print.

2. Zak, Dan. “A Ground Zero Forgotten,” Washington Post. 27 November 2015. Online. http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/2015/11/27/a-ground-zero-forgotten/?utm_term=.9937edf0690b

3. Some may argue that the tear shed by the Caesar statue in that final scene is an indication that he knows the harmonious relationship between humans and apes is destined to fail. Others view it as a tear of joy at having changed history for the better on the Planet of the Apes.

4. Harper, Ron. Interview by Jeff Krueger. Planet of the Apes: The Television Series. http://potatv.kassidyrae.com/articles.html. Accessed 28 November 2017.

5. “The 2009 H1N1 Pandemic: Summary Highlights, April 2009-pril 2010.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last modified 16 June 2010. https://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/cdcresponse.htm

6. Roos, Robert. “CDC estimate of global H1N1 pandemic deaths: 284,000.” Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. University of Minnesota. Last modified 27 June 2012. http://www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2012/06/cdc-estimate-global-h1n1-pandemic-deaths-284000

7.Rottenberg, Josh. “’War for the Planet of the Apes’director Matt Reeves on that emotional ending — and where the story goes now.” LA Times. 17 July 2017. Online. http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-planet-of-the-apes-caesar-ending-20170717-story.html

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Steven Ronai grew up reading comic books and watching kung fu movies in New York. He earned his undergraduate degree in History at Ithaca College and received a master's degree from Stony Brook University. He also developed a healthy appetite for science fiction. His appreciation for comics, movies, and martial arts has stayed with him to this very day. His articles on martial arts history and movies have been published in Black Belt Magazine and Tae Kwon Do Times. Steven continues to write while teaching history to high school students in New York.

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