Monthly Archives: August 2016

Is it because I is a social insect? Horrific cinematic misrepresentation of insects

It is night, we are outside a typical mid-western suburban house; lights shine through the drawn drapes as the camera pans across the lawn and miraculously slides through the window glass into the living room.  There are four people, a middle-aged man, slightly greying, watching the TV, his wife, a blond attractive woman in her late thirties, is holding a glossy magazine, glancing from it to the glowing TV set and back again.  Two children, a teen-age girl with braces,  blond hair tied back in a pony-tail, her thumbs busy on the touch screen of an expensive looking cell ‘phone, sits opposite her brother  oblivious to the world around him, head phones clamped to his ears, hands moving almost too fast to see as he destroys the enemy forces ranged against him.  The camera changes angle and moves closer to the ceiling; we hear a faint scritching, scratching sound, and as we zoom in to the dangling light fitting we see a chitin clad leg push through the gap between the flex and the fitting, followed by another leg. Next two ferociously barbed mandibles attached to an alien-looking head with dead black eyes and twitching antennae appear and the rest of the body pushes through the gap, to stand quivering on six long legs.  It peers cautiously around, turns as if beckoning and is joined by first one, then two, then a whole swarm of identical creatures.  They spread out across the ceiling and gather in four swollen, evilly pulsating mounds, one above each unsuspecting human.  Then, in response to an invisible signal, they drop silently from the ceiling.  We hear frenzied screaming and the sound of tearing flesh as the giant mandibles of the evil mutant ants get to work.  The screaming stops and the camera zooms in to reveal four perfectly stripped skeletons, only identifiable by the phone and braces, the magazine, the skull wearing the headphones and the TV remote clutched in a bony hand.  Arghh, Hollywood strikes again!

Equally possibly we could have seen a blond toddler clutching a toy spade prodding a mound of soil in his garden, followed by a swarm of ants rushing up the handle of the spade, which engulfs him so quickly that he doesn’t even have time to scream.  Then the more and more anxious calls from his Mum and the screams that follow as she finds his skeleton in the garden clutching his little spade.  Sometimes these scenes of soon to be disrupted idyllic family life are preceded by a scene in a jungle/municipal dump/deserted field/derelict building somewhere as the evil/careless scientist/factory owner/farmer drops/dumps illegal chemical/genetic mutation/radiation source next to an ant/wasp/bee nest.

Insect horror films have been around for almost as long as the medium in which they appear [for a much more scholarly dissertation of the phenomenon I recommend Leskovsky (2006)], but it was in the 1950s that the cinema going audience became subjected to a plethora of movies* featuring scantily clad screaming females and evil arthropods swarming across their cinema screens.  Although the phenomenon of death by bug took off in the 1950s, films glorying in the ‘evilness ‘of the arthropod world can easily be found in every decade since.

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Just some examples of how insects have been depicted by Hollywood since the 1950s

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Spiders also get as much, if not more, bad press as insects

There have been many theories put forward as to why deadly giant bugs should have captured the minds of the movie makers and their audiences, ranging from the fear engendered by the Cold War and the image of the swarming communist hordes, the fears of radiation-induced mutations**  (Biskind, 1983),  the well-meaning scientist whose experiments go wrong (Sontag, 1965), UFO sightings and bizarrely, to worries about crops being eaten by pests and the growing awareness of the dangers of over-use of pesticides (Tsutsui, 2007).

This fear of agricultural pests running amok resulted in an insect species not often featured in Big Bug Movies, the locust.  In the Beginning of the End, (1951),

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Rampaging locusts and Peter Graves

an agricultural scientist, played by Peter Graves (more famous to my generation as the star of Mission Impossible), who, in trying to feed the world, uses radiation induced mutation to successfully grow gigantic vegetables. Unfortunately, the vegetables are then eaten by locusts (the swarming phase of short-horned grasshoppers), which, contaminated by their unnatural food source, also grow to a gigantic size (a theme addressed much earlier by H.G. Wells in his novel The Food of the Gods). The giant locusts then attack the nearby city of Chicago, apparently, or so the poster for the film implies, focusing their attention on scantily clad women.  According to Wikipedia, the film is generally recognized for its “atrocious” special effects and considered to be one of the most poorly written and acted science fiction motion pictures of the 1950s.  Mission Impossible indeed!

Another possibility to explain the attraction of insects for the makers of horror films is the ability that insects have to reproduce rapidly and quickly achieve huge populations.  Leaving aside horror films, this characteristic causes concern to humans anyway.  Couple this with the often perceived super-mind of social insects and their demarcation into different castes and it is easy to understand why the concept of swarm intelligence and hive minds has captured the imaginations of film makers and horror and science-fiction writers.   A quick Google search for headlines about swarming bees and ants is enough to show the fear that the non-entomological public seem to have for these natural, and essentially harmless, phenomena e.g this story from last month about a grandmother being chased by bees, or this scare story from last year about flying ants. The use of negative imagery associated with social insects has not just been the prerogative of film-makers.   When Billy Graham opened the 1952 US Senate with a prayer he warned against the ‘barbarians beating at our gates from without and the moral termites from within” and Sir Winston Churchill also referred to the hive mind of the communist threat (Biskind,1983).

Whilst on the subject of horrific misrepresentations I can’t let the opportunity pass to mention two of what I consider to be the most unbelievable entomologists ever portrayed in film.  Michael Caine in The Swarm (1978) and Julian Sands*** in Arachnophobia (1990).  Neither of them does our profession any favours.

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Michael Caine attempting to mimic a serious entomologist

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Julian Sands as the stereotypical ‘mad’ obsessed entomologist

In marked contrast to the horror films aimed at adults, when it comes to the younger end of the market, insects are much more friendly and non-threatening,

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even crickets masquerading as grasshoppers, or vice versa  :-).

Insects for kids, even from more than a century ago, were portrayed as cute, lovable and anatomically and biologically incorrect and this has continued to the present day.

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The unbelievably cute and anatomically incorrect

On the other hand, I guess that as long as they make children less afraid of insects then I can’t really complain.  I have, however, no evidence, that children who enjoyed Antz and the Bee Movie, have grown up into adults less likely to run screaming when confronted at close quarters with bees and ants 🙂

Do let me know if you have evidence to the contrary.

 

References

Biskind, P. (1983) Seeing is Believing.  Henry Holt & Company, New York.

Leskovsky, R.J. (2006)  Size matters – Big bugs on the big screen. Pp 319-341 [In] Insect Poetics (ed. E.C. Brown), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Sontag, S. (1965) The imagination of disaster [In] Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Penguin Modern Classics (2009).

Tsutsui, W.M. (2007) Looking straight at Them! Understanding the big bug movies of the 195os.  Environmental History, 12, 237-253.

 

Post script

 

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This may have been the first film to feature insects; not a horror film per se, but the fly was apparently fixed very securely (and ultimately fatally) to the match head, so it was a pretty horrific experience for the poor fly.

 

*I of course, was brought up calling these films but I know that the majority of my audience, even those from the UK, use the word movie 🙂

** I particularity like the title of his hypothetical example of the genre, The Attack of the Giant Aphids 🙂

***Totally irrelevant, but I used to go drinking with his big brother Nick in my student days 🙂

 

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Creating space

Don’t worry,this is not an article about home improvement 🙂 I am one of those people, probably like many of you, that needs the right ambiance to be able to sit at my computer and produce deathless prose. Despite owning a laptop I am not able to write anywhere and any-when, the creative juices only seem to flow when I am surrounded by a suitable amount of office clutter.

Desk

So when at work but travelling, and even if equipped with my lap top, I find myself unable to write on the train or ferry, be it papers, books or blog posts. Although I can read papers or theses, or mark essays, I am unable to write the reviews or comments; I apparently need to be sat at an ‘office’ table/desk, with plenty of paperwork to hand.

As I write this, I am on holiday in our future retirement house in Vinca in the Languedoc-Roussillon, France.  At the moment, our French house is somewhat devoid of furniture, although the previous owner left behind several rooms full of clutter, including unopened DVDs of Jean Paul II and an armoire full of French versions of Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin et alia.

Armoire

As you can see, my office to be is nowhere near to being a suitable working environment yet,

future office

although as I have mentioned earlier, the view is fantastic.

View

My current working space is in what we are jokingly calling the “Versailles Salon”

Workspace Vinca

and means that I am working standing up, great for emails and checking Twitter, but not ideal for someone with a bad knee and somewhat footsore from all the walking we have done on holiday so far 🙂

Although I am on holiday I feel a certain amount of self-inflicted pressure (guilt) about my blog schedule, a new post about every twelve days and so I stupidly promised myself that I would stick to this schedule despite being away from my desk. I even half-prepared a post on insects in horror films, hoping that I would be able to polish it off in between beers, walks in the hills, glasses of wine and dips in the swimming pool. As you may have guessed this did not work, hence the post that you are reading now. Big Bugs in Horror Movies will have to wait a few more weeks for its release 🙂

The sun is shining and the pool is a shimmering blue, and although we are temporarily cut off from the rest of France by a rather large scrub fire, I feel somewhat more relaxed having at least written something, albeit rather lacking in entomological content.

Fires near Vinca

I am on holiday after all 🙂

 

A bientot a

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Is there a dress code for scientists?

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A couple of weeks ago, Mathew Partridge*, who writes at Errant Science posted a blog about what to wear at an academic conference.

Dresscode 2I tweeted the link to his post, adding that I was one of the scruffy (comfortable) ones. This generated a few comments, the more thoughtful of which suggested that what to wear at a conference might be affected by more than comfort and one of my female Tweeps made a very good point about not adopting a too simplistic viewpoint to the matter.

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It was not necessarily all down to feeling comfortable, different rules may apply to different people. Amy Parachnowitsch over at Small Pond Science, has also written about this apparent dichotomy between male and female scientists’ approach to conference wear.

As I sat down to write this I logged on to Twitter to find the conversation shown above and came face to face with this photograph from the then curator of BioTweeps, zoologist, Dan Sankey who tweets as @inspiredanimals, which reinforces the stereotypic male academic ‘scruff factor’.

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Dan Sankey from Swansea University**, Biotweeps Curator July 11th – July 15th 2017

Part of my teaching involves a lecture to the MSc students about how to give a good talk, be it a job interview, a conference or as part of an outreach programme. As well as the usual tips about content and delivery, I also cover dress and ask “Is there a dress code?” The answer to which of course, is “yes and no, it depends”.   So what do I mean by this?  The secret to giving a good talk, leaving aside having good content and being well prepared, which gives you the confidence to stand in front of an audience, is to feel comfortable in yourself.  I am firmly convinced that unless you feel comfortable, your talk will not be as good as it could be.  There are two aspects to feeling comfortable, one is knowing your stuff and feeling that you can handle any questions that might be put to you.  The other is feeling that you are relaxed (as much as you can be when standing in front of an audience) and comfortable in yourself.  I firmly believe that as people, we should be accepting and not judge people by appearances, but rather on who they are inside.  Yes, I know this is difficult, because as humans, we all have some prejudices***, no matter how hard we try to overcome them.  As scientists, we should be even less swayed by appearances as we are trained to look at data impartially.

I mentioned in my original Tweet about the Errant Science post, that I was a comfortable scruff. I have always been somewhat cavalier about my dress and general appearance, even as a school

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Dressing not to impress, age 2, 8 and 18

I may have been lucky that I was a product of the 1960s and ‘70s when conformity was not the ‘in-thing’. I had long-hair until I was in my mid-thirties, despite working for the less than progressive Forestry Commission for ten years. I never found that my judgement as to the identity of a pest

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The long-haired undergraduate morphed into an equally long-haired research scientist

problem or ability to lead a research project was questioned by the foresters in the field or the Forestry Commission higher-ups, although my refusal to wear a tie or have my hair cut may have had something to do with not being put in charge of the entomology section on the retirement of my immediate boss 🙂

When I was being interviewed for academic jobs, I was faced with a bit of a dilemma. I was not just out of a post-doc or graduate school. I was an established scientist and was being interviewed by panels including people I knew quite well, who had seen me at conferences and knew how I dressed in a professional setting, in my case, jeans, shirt-sleeves and desert boots.  So, if I turned up for an interview in a suit (I don’t own one) and tie, they would know that I was pretending to be something I certainly wasn’t.  On the other hand, if I turned up in blue jeans and shirt-sleeves, they might assume that I wasn’t taking it seriously.  I thus compromised but salved my conscience at the same time; I wore black jeans, a new pair of desert boots and a crew-neck sweater, that way the panel could assume I was wearing a tie and if they didn’t look too closely, that I was wearing proper trousers and not jeans.

On becoming a university academic and having kids in school, I did get my hair cut, although my dress style remained stubbornly, desert boots, shirt sleeves, jeans and corduroy jacket. I must confess that in my first term of teaching, I did wear chinos, but soon reverted to jeans as I just did not feel comfortable.

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The New academic, short-lived chinos and shortish hair.

But I digress, back to being comfortable and giving a talk. I tell my students that the dress code is up to them. How comfortable do they feel? If they feel that the expectation of the audience or interview panel is that they should be dressed more formally than their every-day dress, then they, as the interviewee, will feel more comfortable and more confident if they make some compromise in that direction. As a prospective employer or supervisor, it doesn’t make a difference either way as I hope that I always judge by qualifications and ability and not by appearance. As a presenter at a conference or as advisor on a government committee, I always assume that I have been asked along for my expertise and not for my fashion sense so even for my inaugural lecture I adopted my usual relaxed style.

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My inaugural lecture – sans tie

I freely admit that I am somewhat privileged, I am white, male, older than a lot of people and a senior academic, I am at that place in my career, where I can, if I wanted to, pretty much ignore convention, but there are certain situations where that would make me and my audience feel uncomfortable or discombobulated. There are thus occasions when I do wear a tie, some are one-offs, such as my eldest daughter’s wedding (she hired a suit for me and her brothers) and when we launched the Centre for Integrated Pest Management at the European Parliament in Brussels.

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Suited and booted for my daughter’s wedding and wearing a tie in Brussels

Although I firmly believe that I do not judge conference presenters and attendees by their appearance, there are obviously people out there who do and apparently, as shown above and below, female scientists**** feel that they are judged in this way.

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As someone who is happily married to a lady who eschews make-up and revels in her natural highlights (she is going grey) I am perfectly at ease with the concept of dressing to please yourself and not the audience. On the other hand I do not think that a presenter who dresses more formally for their talk, than when listening to others talk, should be looked down upon or indeed judged in any way.  If that makes them feel more comfortable, then that is their choice.  And if you are unsure about what your prospective employer or audience expect, being smart rather than scruffy is to err on the safe side.  I would like to think that male ecologists and entomologists have similar views to me, but perhaps we should be asking ourselves, why it is that female scientists in particular, feel that they are being judged by how they look and if it is caused by male bias and/or female peer pressure.   I suspect that it is a bit of both, but welcome all comments.

 

Post script

I have to confess that there are annual occasions when I also wear a tie. I always wear a tie and shiny black trousers and shiny shoes for the annual graduation ceremony. The tie helps the medieval dress stay in place and it is not my day, it is the student’s and their family’s day and they expect something a bit special, so feeling uncomfortable for a few hours is a small price to pay. The other

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Very formal dress and ‘smart casual’ for the Verrall Supper. The drink helps.

annual outing of the tie is the Verrall Supper of which I have written on more than one occasion.  For many years I boycotted this event as the invitation specified lounge suit, something I refused to own let alone wear.  I finally accepted the invitation but did not wear a suit, although I did compromise and wore shiny shoes and proper trousers and the obligatory tie.  Now that I am the Verrall Supper organiser, the dress code is smart casual, whatever that means, and I turn a blind eye to those younger than myself who turn up in jeans J

 

*you can also find him on Twitter @MCeeP

**for those of you not familiar with the Swansea University campus, it is almost on the beach.

***in my case, I find tattoos and other examples of self-mutilation, e.g. body piercings (including ear rings), cosmetic surgery, high heels, and even hair dying, very hard to understand, but I hope I do not let it interfere with my judgement of the quality or worth of the work of that person as a scientist or a human being.

****and possibly those from other disciplines too, but I have no evidence, anecdotal or otherwise.

 

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