NOVEMBER
2002

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

11-14-02

Big Bugs on the Big Screen

The movie moguls are at it again. Giant mutated spiders are crawling across the big screen in a theater near you! "Eight Legged Freaks" is the latest in a long line of big bug movies that have infested the silver screen since the 1950s.

The big bug movies share a common theme. Arthropods, usually insects or spiders, grow to gigantic proportions after being exposed to toxic wastes. These giant creatures terrorize the human population and threaten to destroy civilization, as we know it.

Not all of the arthropod fear films depend on giant creatures. Some of these films achieve the desired hysteria with numbers, not size, of arthropods. That is the case for "Arachnophobia," the 1990 Stephen Spielberg film that used spiders, and a number of other films based on bees.

The media frenzy over the movement of Africanized honey bees from Mexico into the United States no doubt fueled interest in bee fright films. "The Swarm" in 1977 and "The Bees" in 1978 use multitudes of honey bees to create horror. With descriptions such as "swarm of death" and "an unstoppable menace with a killer sting," who could doubt the threat posed by these insects?

In some films, life-sized insects create fear and disgust in bit roles, for instance, when beetles in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" become a human food item. In "The Mummy Returns," beetles provide a memorable moment when they crawl through the body of a human. Cockroaches make an appearance in "Men in Black."

Normal-size insects do play major roles in a few movies. In "Joe's Apartment," Joe discovers that he is sharing his New York apartment with 50,000 or so cockroaches. No ordinary cockroaches, these six-legged creatures sing, dance and talk! In a more sinister role, flies and their maggot offspring help solve murders in "Creepers." A few thousand friendly bees also aid the human star of "Creepers" when she finds herself in difficult circumstances.

But when it comes to arthropods in horror films, big bugs are the rule. The big bug films got their start with the monster movie classic, "THEM!" This movie arrived on movie screens in 1954. It was a time when anxiety about the atomic age had us all on the edge of our seats, including theater seats. Science fiction themes frequently featured radioactive mutations. 

"THEM!" featured giant mutated ants. The ants were discovered in the desert of New Mexico near atomic bomb testing sites. The nest was destroyed; however, two ants capable of multiplying escaped. Ultimately, one of the new nests is found aboard a freighter and destroyed. The final colony was established in the storm drains of Los Angeles. It took the combined efforts of the FBI and the U.S. military to finally subdue the monster ants and again make Earth safe for humans.

The success of "THEM!" resulted in a spate of imitations. Some of the more notable titles included "Tarantula" in 1955 and "Deadly Mantis" in 1957. In 1962, Japan entered the big bug movie scene with "Mothra," a giant moth. Mothra was teamed up with Godzilla and Rodan to produce multi-monster science fiction films.

For some people, it isn't necessary to go to the theater to see a movie about giant monster insects. The little ones that pester us at home are monstrous enough, thank you very much!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox