Them! And Us

Feeding Our Fears Through Film

Posted Feb 13, 2018

Wikimedia Commons, Klapi
Insect-like creature from "Starship Troopers"
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Klapi

We can inadvertently cultivate entomophobic tendencies through learning—and film is a potent medium for inculcating fear.  While there are positive portrayals of insects and their kin, for every screening of Microcosmos there are a dozen showings of The Fly.  Horror films portray insects as monstrous.  But of all the ways in which insects can infest our lives, perhaps none is more insidious than the capacity of these creatures to invade our homes, bodies and minds.

Insects were the featured invaders of the big screen in the 1950s, with giant ants (Them!, 1954), spiders (Tarantula, 1955), grasshoppers (Beginning of the End, 1957), and even a praying mantis (Deadly Mantis, 1957).  The conventional view is that these creatures were Cold War metaphors for our anxieties about communists and technology (radiation triggered the insectan incursions).  However, sometimes a mantis is just a mantis, so perhaps these films simply reflected a fear of insects invading our homes. This might explain Hollywood’s featuring insects insinuating themselves into our lives well after the Soviet Union collapsed (e.g., Mimic, 1991, and its sequels; Spiders, 2000, and its sequel; Breeding Ground, 2001; Sentinel, 2003; and Tail Sting, 2001—a predecessor of Snakes on a Plane, 2006, but with bioengineered scorpions). 

Insects are even scarier when they enter our bodies.  The old wives tale of earwigs tunneling into our heads was vividly exploited in Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn (1982).  The villain used what looked like alien antlion larvae to crawl into the ears of his prisoners, enter their brains, and render the victims “extremely susceptible to suggestion”—as if that was the worst part of a six-legged creature wedged into your cerebrum.

Once insects get into our skulls, it’s a small step to infesting our minds.  In the original and remake of The Fly (1958, 1986), the hero’s body is melded with that of a fly when the insect inadvertently enters a teleportation machine.  The anatomical invasion becomes increasingly psychological as the chimeric character begins to exhibit the amoral tendencies of an insect.  In the remake, the fellow becomes a sexual dynamo and impregnates his girlfriend who, when she figures out that he’s slowly metamorphosing into a fly, seeks an abortion declaring, “I don’t want it in my body.” 

For my money, the most terrifying cinematic portrayal of entomogenic madness is Bug (2006).  In the film, a honky-tonk waitress shacks up with a drifter who suffers from the delusion that he’s infested with insects, and she is inexorably drawn into his madness.  At first he feels a tiny insect bite him, next he’s spraying the apartment—and then she feels something under her skin.  By the final scene, the pair has draped their apartment with mosquito netting, hung dozens of bug zappers, and slashed their bodies to extract the imaginary insects.  As the authorities arrive to end the insanity, the couple splashes gasoline over themselves, babbles insanely about bugs, and... strikes a match. 

So it goes when insects infest the human mind.


Jeffrey A. Lockwood (2013) The Infested Mind: Why Humans Fear, Loathe, and Love Insects, New York, NY: Oxford University Press.