In the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a distraught Dr. Miles Bennell shows up at the local hospital and frantically tells the psychiatrist on duty that giant seed pods have mysteriously appeared in his greenhouse in the dead of night – containing exact physical duplicates of himself and his friends.
Local townsfolk are being snatched away one by one by extraterrestrial invaders and replaced with pod-grown clones, or “pod people.” In a frantic effort to alert federal authorities, Bennell discovers all phone lines are jammed and all hope is lost. His only chance to escape the fate of his neighbors is to keep watch through the night – and not fall asleep.
Our families’ hometown, Front Royal, Virginia, population 15,000, is a bleeding-red dot in the Blue Ridge Mountains of a complicated, purple state. When community organizers reached out to us warning that 53 local radical traditionalist Catholics had filled out some 600 reconsideration requests to remove 139 LGBTQ+ books from Samuels Public Library – we knew the body snatchers had arrived.
As alumnae of Front Royal’s Christendom College, whose founder Warren Carroll expressly hoped to institute “a society, a culture, a government in which Christ the King reigns” – and defectors from the same high-control religious group submitting the book-banning requests, we expected a fight.
But none of us were prepared for a June 6 meeting of the Warren County Board of Supervisors in which 250 county residents were forced to listen to more than four hours of homophobia and transphobia by supporters of “Clean Up Samuels,” a hate group comprised of far-right provocateurs and extremist Catholic theocrats. Their aim? To defund the local public library unless it removed books with LGBTQ+ themes and content from its shelves. Surely, some thought, this couldn’t happen here.
One week later, the GOP-dominated Warren County Board of Supervisors voted 4 to 1 to withhold 75% of the library’s budget appropriation until September. Instead of the $1.02 million dollars allocated to the library for the fiscal year, Republican Chairwoman Vicky L. Cook and fellow Republican Superviors Jay Butler, Delores Oates, along with Independent Walter Mabe, voted to hold $768,000 hostage and disburse just $256,000. Their goal was to force a compromise between the library’s civic duty and CUS’s discriminatory demands. Only one brave Republican – Vice Chairwoman Cheryl Cullers – took a stand against the mob for intellectual freedom and rights enshrined in the First Amendment.
On Aug. 3, library director Michelle Ross resigned.
How did this happen? Very carefully. The people who staged and executed this hostile takeover of Front Royal’s local government have ideological roots in McCarthyism and Francisco Franco’s fascist Spain. Our alma mater, Christendom College, was founded in 1977 with the explicitly stated mission of “contributing … to the re-Christianizing of the temporal order.” Many of the extremists submitting forms are Christendom alumni. Tom McFadden Sr., a self-avowed supporter of CUS and submitter of many requests to remove LGBTQ+ books, helped facilitate the college’s first President to found the extremist Catholic school in the heart of Front Royal.
Now his son, Tom McFadden Jr., is Vice President for Enrollment and Student Success at Christendom College – and on the ballot unopposed for an open Warren County school board seat this fall. Local library supporter Amber Mabie has launched a write-in campaign as a Hail Mary pass in a county where elections are often decided by 200 votes.
Another long-time Christendom College employee, Leslie Mathews, serves as chair of the Warren County Moms for Liberty chapter – a hate group designated as an “antigovernment” extremist organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center – and has her sights on another school board seat, vying against independent challenger Kristen Pence.
The Front Royal extremists’ tactics were first developed by GOP consultants for activating right-wing religious voting blocs by leveraging antiabortion sentiment to create the not-so-mythical “single-issue evangelical voter” who would vote down ballot for Republicans endorsed by the antiabortion movement with little regard for the rest of their platform.
More recently, Front Royal conservatives tackled the “critical race theory” bogeyman in Warren County Public Schools. This was the topic that helped launch Moms for Liberty into national notoriety for its efforts to take over local school boards – and propelled Republican Glenn Youngkin to victory in the recent Virginia governor’s race. The juggernaut’s next stop is attacks on LGBTQ+ representation in school and public libraries under the guise of “protecting children from pornography.”
It’s all part of the same playbook, with the goal of installing minority-rule Christian theocracy in place of pluralistic democracy – leaving most voters to wonder what the hell just happened. In Body Snatchers, Bennell’s on-duty psychiatrist is convinced he’s psychotic – until an attendant wheels in a car accident victim with a strange story: He claims he was buried under a load of pods coming from Bennell’s hometown.
In a surprise agreement signed Tuesday, Oct. 3 between the library and the Board of Supervisors, we got a brief reprieve: County officials voted to disburse the library’s funding in full through 2025 with no meaningful changes made to the existing agreement and no LGBTQ+ books removed. We breathed a collective sigh of relief – but keep watch for the next attack on our liberties.
For those of us fleeing the body snatchers, time stands still yet moves much too quickly. Meanwhile, the fate of other institutions like Samuels Public Library – and the rights of gay and trans kids and LGBTQ+-affirming parents nationwide to access library books of their choosing – hangs in the balance.
The pods arrived in our sleepy little college town while the locals snored soundly. And the transport trucks they are a-coming: to Jamestown Township, Michigan; to Craighead County, Arkansas; to Llano County, Texas; to true-blue Montgomery County, Maryland; and maybe to you, too. The same blueprint is being executed all over the country: Residents get complacent and stop voting in local elections. Radical religious conservatives install their own appointees in unopposed races for school board and other local government seats. Where democracy dies in darkness, theocracy grows in the night.
“They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next!” those of us who survived the radical traditionalist sect that dominates Front Royal’s Catholic scene cry out in dismay. Our Cassandra-like croakings go mostly unnoticed – much like Bennell’s in Body Snatchers as he shouts warnings to big-city drivers that transport trucks of pods are headed their way.
We will fight, but we are tired. The pods have hatched and we need you to stand guard – because if it happened to us, it could happen to you.
Don’t fall asleep.