Why bugs are the proper horror-movie villain


The video is best described as a horror film. Though it’s less than 10 seconds in total, the TikTok posted by best.mom.ever79 has a jump fright – in the form of an unexpected screech that practically made me jump out of my skin with my headphones on – and even its own red-eyed monster.

Or, well, a lot of them. The cicadas are there, explains the neon text overlay.

Similar cicada videos can be found all over TikTok as Brood X nears the end of its two month showing. In part, it is the unrivaled size of the swarm that makes it such an object of our fascination and disgust: The formation spans at least 15 states and could run into the trillions. The beetles outnumber the human population by up to 20,000 to 1. There are so many of them that their swarm popped up on weather radar earlier this month like a massive, living rain cloud. You are responsible for at least one crashed car and one plane that has landed. You attacked our leader.

Fortunately, they don’t have the mental capacity to actually organize against us. But the thrill we get from watching and filming and sharing videos of the cicadas speaks to a greater, almost primal obsession we have with insects in general. The visibility of their deaths all around us – when we crush them under our feet, hit them with a rolled-up magazine, or raid them with the ease of a thumb on a can – is distilled in our creation of such entomological horror films in which clearly becomes that their brutally short life may be more durable than our own.

Our earliest art forms show our species’ longstanding association with beetle life. Our ancestors found scorpions in the stars and copied their images in cave drawings 12,000 to 40,000 years ago; they used the image of bees for antique jewelry and turned to insects as a remedy. We have woven six-legged creatures into our stories and mythologies, from the ancient Greek poets who wrote odes to cicadas, to the story of Gregor Samsa, whose metamorphosis into a vermin – most often translated from German as “a giant insect” – Teaching takes place in the high school English classes every year.

And when we finally invented film cameras, we also started filming bugs: alive, like in The Acrobatic Fly (1910), which marveled at the physical abilities of a housefly, and dead, like the stop-motion characters in The Insects Christmas unintentionally macabre film from 1913. Since immobile beetles were easier to film, we soon began making models and animations of insects for films rather than relying on living subjects.

And these models eventually got bigger. Much larger.

Atomic fear brought Godzilla to Japan. In America this fear manifested itself in “giant beetle” films like Tarantula, Earth vs. the Spider, The Deadly Mantis and 1954 Them! In the latter film, ants mutate to enormous sizes near an atomic bomb testing site in New Mexico; of course they are starting to terrorize cities in the southwest. Although the two large-format ants built for the film may look a little cheesy to our modern eyes, the Beetles were a hit with contemporary audiences as they single-handedly rejuvenated the science fiction genre and Warner Bros the year.

You! ends with a particularly intrusive warning: “When man entered the atomic age, he opened a door to a new world. What we will ultimately find in this world, no one can predict.” But while the film is easy to read as a cautionary tale of how easy it has become to wipe people out, just as we once did with six-legged vermin, as scientist W. Tsutsui wrote in his article Looking Straight at Them! Also, if one understands the Big Bug films of the 1950s, the film could very well be based on our “real fears of insect invasion and growing concerns about the safety and effectiveness of modern insecticides in the US in the 1950s and early 1960s”.

Yes, but really, ants? While they may not seem like the obvious monster to turn to when we live in a world full of lions and sharks, it is precisely the mundane nature of this monster that makes them stand out! work so well. “After all, a fire-breathing dinosaur is unlucky,” explains Syfy. “But a mutated ant? That could happen anywhere.”

Insects are the perfect bad guys, after all. Their faces are opaque and reveal no trace of emotions or thoughts. They operate out of pure instinct, almost robotic. So are you – as a scientist in Them! reminds us – “the only creatures on earth other than humans who wage war.”

The more we learn about insects, the more terrifying our tiny, numerous neighbors actually appear. As Jonathan Meiburg writes in his new book A Most Remarkable Creature (which is both entomological and ornithological reading equally satisfying), “looking into the world of ant communities” can, for example, “trigger a kind of cognitive dizziness”. , if not a full blown identity crisis, as it is difficult to find complex human behavior that ants do not pursue with equal force – including architecture, agriculture, division of labor, and warfare. Even the “us” in them! finally becomes clear in the way in which the human soldiers, as soon as their gas masks are put on, appear as machine-like and illegible as the ants that crawl through the underground sewers below Los Angeles as if it were their nest.

Hellstrom Chronicle, a 1971 non-fiction book disguised as a fictional prophecy of the end of the world in 1971, raises the same question among audiences. “Is it possible”, asks her fictional scientist Nils Hellstrom, “that these creatures are us?”

The Hellstrom Chronicle is an immensely strange film, written by The Omen writer David Seltzer, with many similar philosophies in voice-over; The New York Times dismissed the narrative as “silly,” even though the film won an Oscar documentary. And while the film touches upon the nuclear fear of the 1950s big bug films by focusing on insects’ apparent insensitivity to our most terrifying tools of death, it also suggests something much more biblical and predetermined: insects had a 300 -Millions- “heads”. Start with humans, “says Dr. Hellstrom, and” if a living species is to inherit the earth, “we won’t be. A decade after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, he continued to insist to the audience that” we kill ourselves when we fight the insect. “

The entomological horror has shifted as that reveal has become clearer in the face of insights into climate change and our current mass extinctions. While Dr. Hellstrom pointed out in 1971 that humans and the insect are the only two creatures on this planet that are growing in number, this is no longer the case: the apocalypse did not come for us, at least not initially – but for the insect. With a few caveats, beetles are believed to die out eight times faster than birds, mammals, or reptiles. “If we don’t change the way we produce food, insects as a whole will take the path of extinction in a few decades,” warned a group of scientists in 2019. “The impact on the planet’s ecosystems is the least catastrophic.”

That’s at least partly the main preoccupation of Syfy’s Locusts: The 8th Although the movie itself is intentionally bellicose, the underlying memory today is the same as it was when Hollywood made movies about oversized ants: Don’t mess with nature, or it will lead to our own downfall.

At the same time, Locusts sums up a decidedly less existential fear that everyone knows who has ever struggled with the domestic horror of an infestation by ants or cockroaches or fleas or bed bugs or termites or fruit flies: only masters of our domains symbolic. Once insects decide to invade our rooms, it is almost impossible to tell them otherwise.

After all, insects don’t have to be enlarged or attached to an end-time message to scare us. On closer inspection, an ant moves with the same monstrous rigidity as the models in Them !, and you don’t need David Attenborough to describe cicadas as “zombies” cooled from the ground by their appearance.

Also on TikTok there is the same implicit reminder every time an iPhone cameraman expresses surprise or disgust at the extent of Brood X numerically threatening the individualized imagination of a unique and unified human … [and] indicate the insignificance of us as individuals. “It is true that there is something terrifying about the realization that such creatures have slept under our feet for the past 17 years, unaffected by our trivial dramas, our fleeting lives. (Or our births: “I was not alive the last time the cicadas showed up” is a constant refrain among the young filmmakers at TikTok).

It may seem foolish to fear the cicada, so defenseless that its only protection is its mere number, but it would also be foolish not to respect it. Shakespeare famously wrote “like flies to wanton boys we are to the gods,” but perhaps he had it the other way around. Willing boys eventually grow old and die – but as our ancestors realized, how Hollywood prospected for thrills and how every new generation discovers 17 years after being forgotten – the real horror of insects realizes with admiration and the gentle little thrill of a memento mori, so that they may be more like the gods than we are.