The Incredible Shrinking Man and the Importance of Human Dignity

When most people think about 1950s horror, they probably think of alien invasions and giant monsters, and rightly so. Those were hands down the most popular kinds of films in the 1950s horror world, but they weren’t the only ones being made at that time. The decade also gave us a whole bunch of other, more unique genre movies, and one of the best was a gem from the latter half of the decade called The Incredible Shrinking Man.

Originally released in 1957, The Incredible Shrinking Man bucked the giant-sized trend embodied in classic films like Them!, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and The Amazing Colossal Man. While it still played on contemporary audiences’ fears of nuclear technology, it didn’t feature a monster that grows to gigantic proportions. Instead, it centers around a man who begins to shrink after being exposed to a mysterious mist.

It’s a really cool twist on one of the decade’s most famous tropes, and the movie uses that unique premise to tell a surprisingly meaningful story about the inalienability of human dignity. It’s one of the best and most moving sci-fi horror films of the 1950s, so without further ado, let’s take a deep dive into The Incredible Shrinking Man and see what important lessons it has in store for us.

The Basic Plot

But before we get into the nitty-gritty of The Incredible Shrinking Man, let’s take a brief look at the basic plot of the movie. It starts out with the main character, a man named Scott Carey, on a boat with his wife Louise. They’re just drifting along and enjoying their time together when all of a sudden a mysterious mist envelops the boat. Louise is inside getting some drinks, so the mist doesn’t touch her, but Scott gets soaked with the unknown substance.

At first, the couple doesn’t pay much attention to this bizarre happening, but six months later, Scott notices that his clothes seem much looser than he remembers. He soon realizes that he’s shrinking, and after a bunch of medical tests, his doctors theorize that his condition was caused by a combination of the mysterious mist and a pesticide Scott was exposed to sometime afterward.

Scott and Louise on a boat

Eventually, they find a way to stop the shrinking, but it proves to be only temporary. A few weeks later, Scott begins to shrink once again, and this time, he doesn’t stop. Understandably, this weighs very heavily on the poor guy, and he becomes really ashamed of his small stature. It’s pretty heartbreaking, and around the midway point of The Incredible Shrinking Man, he falls into the basement of his house.

He’s too small to escape on his own or get Louise’s attention when she’s down there, so he stays in the basement for the rest of the film. As you can probably guess, this place is very dangerous for a man of his size, and the biggest threat of all is a (normal-sized) tarantula that looks monstrous next to him. Eventually, Scott faces off against the creature in an epic third-act battle that features some amazing special effects (for the 1950s, of course), and after Scott finally vanquishes his foe, he comes to terms with his condition and accepts that he’ll never live in the “normal-sized” human world again.

“Essential Worth”

Now that we have the basic plot down, let’s take a closer look at The Incredible Shrinking Man to see what it has to say about human dignity. For starters, there’s a scene in the middle of the film where Scott narrates some of his thoughts to us, and those thoughts are very telling. He explains:

I felt puny and absurd, a ludicrous midget. Easy enough to talk of soul and spirit and essential worth, but not when you’re three feet tall. I loathed myself, our home, the caricature my life with Lou had become. I had to get out. I had to get away.

The first time you watch The Incredible Shrinking Man, it’s easy to just gloss over these words without giving them much thought, but they’re actually really important. Remember, Scott’s condition causes him a lot of pain and heartache, and these lines let us know exactly why it’s so hard for him.

The poor guy hates himself, and he feels like he no longer has the “essential worth” all human beings are commonly said to possess. In other words, he thinks that by shrinking, he’s lost the dignity and value we should all have simply by virtue of being human, and that’s really the core of his problem.

Scott looking anxious

See, if you think you’ve lost your essential human dignity, your value now has to come from something else, like your abilities or exceptional characteristics. However, in his current state, Scott has neither. Sure, he may have been a great guy before he began to shrink, but now that he’s only three feet tall, he’s quite literally less of a man than just about everybody else in the world. He feels feeble and worthless compared to the rest of humanity, so it’s only natural that he would loathe and be ashamed of himself.

“I Still Exist”

And in case there’s any doubt that this really is the main theme of The Incredible Shrinking Man, let’s fast forward to the very last scene of the film for confirmation. After defeating the tarantula and shrinking even more, he finally comes to terms with his condition, and once again, the movie lets us hear what he’s thinking. He says:

So close, the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens, the universe, worlds beyond number. God’s silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite…And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away, and in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist.

On their own, these words may seem a bit strange. Scott appears to be saying that his worth is grounded in the mere fact that he exists, but that can’t be right. After all, specks of dust exist too, but I don’t think he’d say that they’re just as valuable as he is.

To really grasp what he means, we have to understand these thoughts in the context of The Incredible Shrinking Man as a whole. Remember, Scott’s problem was that he thought he had lost his human dignity, so this resolution at the end of the film has to relate to that problem in some way.

And when we view Scott’s final thoughts in that light, their true meaning becomes clear. He’s not saying that he’s just as valuable as a speck of dust. Rather, his point is that because he still exists, he still has the same “essential worth” he had before he started shrinking. Yes, he comes to realize that everything that exists has some value or meaning, but this doesn’t mean that everything in the universe is equally valuable. Different kinds of things have different kinds of worth, and as a human being, Scott is much more valuable than a speck of dust. As long as he exists, he will always have his human dignity, the “essential worth” he had before he encountered that mysterious mist, and that’s something a speck of dust can never possess.

“I Meant What I Said”

That’s the basic point of The Incredible Shrinking Man, but it’s not all the movie has to say. If we look at a few other scenes, we’ll see that the story also fleshes out this basic message a bit and tells us a little more about what human dignity entails. For instance, after Scott finds out what probably caused his condition, he tells his wife Louise that she can leave him if she wants, and his reasoning fits right in with everything we’ve seen so far. He says, “You love Scott Carey. He has a size and a shape and a way of thinking. All that’s changing now.”

The Incredible Shrinking Man poster

In other words, he doesn’t think he’s the same person he used to be. He believes that his identity, and hence his value, is tied up in his external characteristics like his “size,” “shape,” and “way of thinking,” so he’s simply not the man Louise married. 

But Louise will have none of that. She tells Scott in no uncertain terms that he’s wrong, and she’s going to stick with him no matter what. She explains, “Not a darn thing’s changed. I know I haven’t. When I married you, I meant what I said, and as long as you’ve got this wedding ring on, you’ve got me.”

From this strong statement, it’s clear that Louise already knows what Scott will only learn at the end of The Incredible Shrinking Man. It doesn’t matter that his “size,” “shape,” or “way of thinking” has changed. All that matters is that he still exists, and as long as he does, he will always have the same value and worth he had before he began to shrink. He will always be deserving of his wife’s love, and nothing that happens to him can ever change that.

Now, on the surface, this may seem like it’s just rehashing the same ideas we’ve already gone over, but there’s actually a bit more to it than that. See, up until now, we’ve been exploring what The Incredible Shrinking Man says about human dignity in itself, but in this scene, the film tells us a bit about how we should treat others.

It’s saying that the people in our lives deserve our love no matter what happens to them, and that applies to everybody we love, not just our spouses. To take just one example, if one of our parents gets Alzheimer’s, we shouldn’t just stick them in a nursing home and abandon them simply because their mental capacities have diminished. No matter what happens to them, our parents (and everybody else in our lives) deserve our love as long as they’re alive, just like Scott Carey deserves Louise’s love no matter how much he shrinks.

A Man Without a Job

A little while later, The Incredible Shrinking Man highlights another important element of human dignity, but it does so in a much more subtle way. At one point in the movie, we learn that Scott no longer has a job, and that just adds to his distress and humiliation. Now, we never actually learn why he lost his job, but it’s safe to assume that it had something to do with his condition. He was presumably just unable to continue performing his work duties, so his employer probably felt like they had no choice but to fire him.

Admittedly, the film doesn’t explicitly link this unfortunate occurrence to the theme of human dignity, but it’s not hard to make the connection ourselves. Remember, Scott hates himself and thinks he’s worthless because he’s shrinking, so losing his job must’ve contributed to that feeling. He must’ve felt even worse knowing that he was now unable to provide for his family or contribute to society, and I don’t think I need to explain why that would make him (or anybody, for that matter!) feel pretty worthless.

Scott and Louise talking

That being said, we also need to remember that by the end of The Incredible Shrinking Man, Scott realizes he was wrong. Despite how he felt, he was never worthless, and as long as he’s alive, he will never be worthless. He will always possess immense dignity and value no matter what may happen to him, and now, we can also say that he will always have this dignity no matter how “useless” he may seem to the world around him.

In other words, human dignity isn’t dependent on utilitarian considerations like how much we can work or contribute to society. Rather, it’s rooted in the simple fact that we’re human beings, and that has tremendous implications for the way we treat people. For instance, much like I said in the previous section, it means that we can’t just throw people to the curb when they become too old to work or if they have a debilitating disease like Alzheimer’s or ALS. Along similar lines, it also means that we can’t just abandon intellectually disabled people who are unable to provide for themselves. In a word, the weakest and most vulnerable members of society have the exact same dignity as the strongest and most able-bodied among us, so we have to value and care for them just as much as we value and care for anybody else.

The Message of The Incredible Shrinking Man

There’s a lot more we could say about the theme of human dignity in The Incredible Shrinking Man, but I think we’ve gone over enough to make my point. This isn’t just one of the best and most enduring horror films of the 1950s. As I said before, it’s also incredibly meaningful, and its message is just as relevant in 2023 as it was when the movie first came out over 65 years ago.

Way too many people in our world today treat human life as little more than a disposable inconvenience, and that needs to stop. Every human being, regardless of their size, age, ability level, race, gender, or anything else, has an intrinsic dignity that can never be lost or taken away, so we all deserve to be loved and to live a life free from violence and oppression. That’s the lesson Scott Carey learned at the end of The Incredible Shrinking Man, and it’s a lesson we should all take to heart every day of our lives.

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Written by JP Nunez

JP Nunez is a lifelong horror fan. From a very early age, he learned to love monsters, ghosts, and all things spooky, and it's still his favorite genre today.

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