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.
Just some examples of how insects have been depicted by Hollywood since the 1950s
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),
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.
Michael Caine attempting to mimic a serious entomologist
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,
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.
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.
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.
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 🙂