Big Bugs, Big Problems

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In the 1950s era of over-the-top science-fiction and horror films, the giant insect film invaded theaters with a bug-eyed, tentacled fury. Beginning with Them! in 1954, movies like Tarantula (1955), The Black Scorpion (1957), Beginning of the End (1957), The Monster That Challenged the World (1957), Deadly Mantis (1957), Earth v. The Spider (1958), and The Wasp Woman (1959) placed small-town Americans at the mercy of enormous creepy-crawlies that could only be vanquished with the use of military force.

Part of the allure, of course, was the bugs themselves. We are both repulsed and fascinated  by insects because of their distinct appearances – so different from ours! – as well as by their sheer numbers and remarkable survival skills. To experience them up close and personal gave audiences a chance to both shiver in delight and marvel at the special effects technology that birthed these ugly monstrosities. The filmmakers’ methods varied: in Them!, the giant ants were constructed and manipulated by technicians, but in Tarantula and Beginning of the End, actual insects (tarantulas and grasshoppers) were filmed and magnified to create the desired effects.

Some of the films had “teachable” moments that explained to characters and the audience how special the insects actually were. In Them!,  entomologist Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) shows military personnel a short film that explains the “nature of the creatures we are up against.” The film is a mini nature documentary that instructs us about the history of ants, their incredible strength and resilience, and their variety as a species – there is even a special appearance by Camponotus Vicinus, the specific type of ant terrorizing the residents of the New Mexico town.

The bugs of the 1950s represented particular fears of the era, specifically of nuclear bombs and their after effects; professor of history William M. Tsutsui noted that big bug movies of the 1950s might actually have mirrored fears about increasingly sophisticated insecticide and pest removal formulas like DDT . Regardless of what specific anxieties the films tapped into, the swift responses by law enforcement, military, and scientists in the films reflected audiences’ need to see law and order restore the status quo. After the 1950s, bugs continued to squirm their way into popular culture. They remained a staple in horror and science fiction with films like Arachnophobia (1990), Tremors (1990), Starship Troopers (1997), and Bug (2006) but also migrated to other genres, including children’s films like A Bug’s Life (1998) and Bee Movie (2007). It seems that whatever their size or dispositions, our multi-legged arthropod friends continue to both repulse and fascinate us.

Janani Subramanian is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Southern California. Her research interests include science fiction, fantasy, and horror. She will be joining Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis as an Assistant Professor of Film Studies in Fall 2012.

Photo credit: Warner Brothers

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.