JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Positive cockroach images

Cockroach villain in Men in Black.

Starship Troopers Bad Bugs: Do your part to stamp them out!

Eating cockroaches on a reality show.

Cockroaches as electronic tools.

Cockroach adapt to become glucose-averse.

The first set of insect monsters in Damnation Alley (1975) are giant blue scorpions that surround a compound where ex-military personnel now live.

To emphasize their monstrous nature, roaches in Damnation Alley attack Keegan (Paul Winfield), who is overwhelmed and killed in seconds.

The Nest (1988) complicates construction of the cockroach by connecting their monstrous quality to a mad scientist figure.

 

 

 

“As beautiful as a butterfly”?
Monstrous cockroach nature
and the horror film

By Joseph Heumann and Robin Murray

A key scene in the middle of Guillermo del Toro’s 1993 horror debut, Cronos, typifies how fiction film uses conflicting views of insects. Attesting to insects’ power, dying industrialist de la Guardia (Claudio Brook) says a coveted device prolongs life because a cockroach trapped inside it functions like a “living filter.” He asks the film’s hero, Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi), who has activated the mechanism for himself, “Who says insects aren’t God’s favorite creatures?” They have survived from almost earth’s beginnings while other species have disappeared. More to the point, de la Guardia suggests that insects may have qualities that transform them from vile creatures into gods, declaring, “Christ walked on water—just like a mosquito.”

Animal studies scholar Marion W. Copeland provides a context for this kind of reaction in her essay, “Voices of the Least Loved: Cockroaches in the Contemporary American Novel,” in Insect Poetics, asserting, “The symbolic value of the cockroach to marginal literatures comes from the insect’s reputation as both survivor and victim” (155), characteristics that anthropomorphize the cockroach and imply both positive and negative perspectives on humanity. The suggestion that the cockroach will outlast all other life forms, including humans, permeates popular film, including positive appearances as the only friend of the hero in WALL-E (2008) and negative portrayals as villain in Men in Black (1997) and Starship Troopers (1997).[1] [open endnotes in new window]

 In the horror genre, such a symbolic value also sometimes leads to explorations of how we may transform cockroaches into both monsters and saviors when humanity intervenes “scientifically,” either deliberately or by accident. Copeland and evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff assert a usefulness to anthropomorphizing, and entomological consultant James W. Mertins declares that “almost all of the well-treated movie arthropods are at least somewhat anthropomorphized.” But in the cockroach horror film, as Stephen R. Kellert points out, representations of the cockroach highlight its characteristics so as to promote fear in humans while also drawing on traits we share with these insects in our most horrific versions of ourselves.

A definition of “anthropomorphism” put foreward by computer scientists Per Persson, Jarmo Laaksolahti, and Peter Lonnquist indicates how we might make these horrific connections. For Per Persson, et al, anthropomorphism serves as “a way of simplifying and thereby making sense of the environment by projecting a host of expectations about human life onto aspects of that environment.” They say we do this by referring to differing phenomena and schools of thought—primitive psychology, folk-psychology, traits, social roles, and emotional anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphized traits of the cockroach, then, underpin the narratives of cockroach horror films whether or not the films present cockroaches as survivors or victims, or as benefactors to humanity or destructive forces of nature.

When Gregor Samsa awoke to discover he had turned into a cockroach in Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka’s brilliant literary creation forever crystallized humankind’s eternal fear of and disgust with the common household insect. In the horror films Bug (1975), Damnation Alley (1977), The Nest (1988), Cronos, and Mimic (1997), however, their “villainy” is a product of transformation that differs from that described in Metamorphosis. In these horror films, such changes connect with themes about ecology, either through the films’ depicting experimental genetic alterations or chemical or nuclear environmental disasters. Mimic and Bug, for example, examine the destructive repercussions of genetic engineering originally meant to alter cockroaches for human benefit, and these representations even move beyond historian William M. Tsutsu’s suggestion that “these cinematic big bugs [represent] ambivalence about science and technocratic authority, and repressed Freudian impulses” (1). Cronos takes these points about a changed environment further, emphasizing insects’ symbolic survival value, In addition, the film explores the implications of humanity’s drive for immortality by transforming its hero into an insect not unlike the cockroach that was the source of his change. Despite this seemingly positive association, however, Cronos also projects a negative view of the cockroach and all it represents. In this regard, it is like most films about insects.As Mertins asserts, “arthropod features rarely project positive images of arthropods, entomologists, or science” (86).

Typically, then, altered and enhanced roaches are presented as horrific monsters that must be destroyed, perhaps because they too closely resemble the monstrous side of humanity. Damnation Alley illustrates how cockroaches might transform into killers after a nuclear holocaust, and The Nest explores the possible disastrous consequences of a biological experiment that turns roaches into flesh-eating fiends. Mimic and Bug, on the other hand, examine the destructive repercussions of genetic engineering meant to alter cockroaches for human benefit. Mimic explores the long-term effects after entomologist Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino) creates a mutant breed of cockroach, the Judas Breed, to offset an epidemic spread by the common cockroach. Bug also examines the ramifications of developing a new breed of cockroach, in this case showing the roaches’ growth both in intelligence and destructive force. Cronos more explicitly highlights the symbolic value of the cockroach as a seemingly immortal survivor. All these films, however, demonstrate a similar perspective on the cockroach, suggesting that manipulating nature, even for beneficial results, ultimately leads to destructive ends.

Damnation Alley and The Nest:
classic cockroach horror

Based on a novel by science fiction writer Roger Zelazny, Damnation Alley shows us Earth after a Third World War. The planet is tilted off its axis, covered in radioactive dust, and surrounded by bizarre red clouds and spasmodic flames. Like the iconic Big Bug movie Them (1954), one of Earth’s new realities is monstrously transformed insect life. Also, according to the film’s narrator, the climate has gone insane. Once the radiation settles down, the few humans that remain must struggle for survival and dominance, a struggle nearly thwarted by the monstrous insects created by the nuclear war. And the most horrific of these monstrous insects is the cockroach. Such a plot setup is sure to set off a predicitable response in viewers. As interdisciplinary scholar Eric C. Brown explains in his introduction to Insect Poetics,

“Cockroaches routinely outrank other animals as the most repulsive species, and reality television shows like Survivor and Fear Factor exploit disgust at protein-laden arthropods to draw ratings” (x).

Setting up the plot, the first set of insect monsters in the film, giant blue scorpions, surround a compound where ex-military personnel now live. The scorpions attempt to attack a motorcycle rider, Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent), who is returning from town with a stuffed life-size female doll. His roommate, Keegan (Paul Winfield) first believes Tanner has sacrificed a woman to the scorpions, but when he looks through his binoculars, he realizes it is a department store mannequin. In this post-apocalyptic setting, the mannequin rather than the giant blue scorpions attract Keegan’s attention.

Such a comic scene in some ways separates Damnation Alley from earlier insect horror films that had primarily serious tones. In an essay suggesting that those big bug movies were responding to “growing misgivings about the safety and effectiveness of modern insecticides,” historian William M. Tsutsui demonstrates this separation. According to Tsutsui,

“Critics and historians have invariably interpreted these cinematic big bugs as symbolic manifestations of Cold War era anxieties, including nuclear fear, concern over communist infiltration, ambivalence about science and technocratic authority, and repressed Freudian impulses” (1).

Damnation Alley takes a more comic approach to the big bug movie. Yet, here too giant scorpions are portrayed as monsters that must be avoided and destroyed, even though humanity’s addiction to war produced them.

A second set of insect monsters show up later in the film, after the military compound near Tanner and Keegan’s refuge explodes when a cigarette ignites a gas leak. Only two of the officers housed there survive—Major Eugene Denton (George Peppard) and Lt. Tom Perry (Kip Niven). The new insect monsters emerge in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the group encounters large formations of killer cockroaches while collecting supplies. The first evidence of the roaches appears when they find a human skeleton picked completely clean by radioactive cockroaches emerging from the sewers. The film emphasizes their monstrous nature by having the roaches attack Keegan, who is overwhelmed and killed in seconds. Tanner and Janice also encounter hordes of cockroaches in a department store, but they escape on their motorcycle. “The whole town is infested with killer cockroaches,” Tanner exclaims and then we see human skeletal remains throughout the town.

The film depicts cockroaches as monsters throughout these battles within the community with little attempt to anthropomorphize them. As the survivors head toward the hope of sanctuary in Albany, New York, insects are a monstrous enemy defying all natural laws. Radiation was the culprit causing changes in insect life, alterations that don’t appear in any other species in the film. Ultimately Tanner, Janice, and Denton successfully combat all the insect monsters they encounter and find fellowship in Albany with what we presume are the only remaining humans in the Unites States. The transformed cockroaches presumably live on as monstrous nature that must be eradicated or avoided.

At least in Western culture, cockroaches continue to promote fear and aversion in humans. In Hollywood films, insects—cockroaches in particular—embody characteristics that promote fear in humans, but those traits may also implicitly refer to aspects of humanity. For example, insects are “often associated with notions of mindlessness and an absence of feeling,” thus setting up a potential imaginary link between insects and madness. And they also possess a radical “autonomy… from human will and control” (Kellert 58), a disposition associated with humans who resist subjugation. Finally, according to Kellert, their incredible fecundity seems to generate the most fear in humans. In Damnation Alley, for example, such fecundity turns monstrous when it contrasts so vigorously with humanity’s self-destruction.

The Nest (1988) complicates horror film imagery by connecting the cockroach’s monstrous aspects to a mad scientist figure. With its focus on the connection between science and corporations, The Nest’s plot may copy that of the more famous Alien (1979). As in the Alien films, a conflict between humans and monsters they have created is resolved once a queen and her brood are discovered and destroyed. This time, though, the “nest” is deep in a cave outside an idyllic California coastal town. The plot then warns against genetic modifications of cockroaches, a transformation that turns bugs into horrifically anthropomorphized monsters. Negative associations with the insects grow as they take center stage from the film’s opening until its closing denouement. Entomologist Edward O. Wilson’s foreword to Cockroaches: Ecology, Behavior, and Natural History illustrates well a kind of revulsion and aversion that this film illustrates:

“Most of us, even the entomologists in whose ranks I belong, have a stereotype of revolting creatures that scatter from leftover food when you turn on the kitchen light and instantly disappear into inaccessible crevices. These particular cockroaches are a problem, and the only solution is blatticide, with spray, poison, or trap.” (Bell, et al ix)

The cockroaches in The Nest are first established as pests that must be eradicated but then transform into monsters that may ultimately destroy humanity instead. Theyare, as Eric C. Brown claims, “humanity’s Other” (xi). It is worth describing the plot in some detail to see how science is shown to create the horror.

The Nest opens in a small harbor town of North Port where Sheriff Richard Tarbell’s (Franc Luz) switchboard officer has been getting strange calls about missing animals, calls that are immediately connected to insects when Tarbell finds a cockroach in his coffee at a diner counter. The sense of a widespread presence of cockroaches is also reinforced when the librarian reveals that something—mice or insects—has eaten all of the bindings out of her library books. The central cockroach drama, however, intertwines with a subplot, a love triangle Tarbell creates between himself and two women, the diner’s owner Lillian (Nancy Morgan) and his previous girlfriend Elizabeth (Lisa Langlois). The re-igniting of Tarbell and Elizabeth’s romance leads to a clue about the insect problem. When Elizabeth takes a walk toward the hideout of their youth, she finds a “no trespassing” sign from “Intec Development.” A German shepherd’s cries of agony stop her; when she reaches the dog, she finds his flesh eaten down to the bone. Tarbell retrieves something that looks like insect droppings off of the dog, yet village Mayor Elias (Robert Lansing) urges Tarbell to hold off on searching the Intec property for more evidence. He claims Intec is building condominiums and will bring revenue to the island.

The Nest constructs scientists as monsters when Intec sends an entomologist, Dr. Morgan Hubbard (Terri Treas), to the island to examine the devoured dog. Dr. Morgan serves as a typical representative of the inhuman, perhaps “mad” scientist seen in most classic monster movies. Instead of experiencing the fear felt by the rest of the community, Dr. Hubbard seems enamored by the roaches and explicitly anthropomorphizes them. For example, when the cockroaches attack a trapped cat, she exclaims, “very brave, very strange creatures,” since few predators can threaten the cockroach.

Dr. Hubbard’s reactions to the insects reinforce studies of cockroaches that highlight their physical and intellectual strengths. Such studies also make explicit connections between cockroaches and humans. According to Copeland, for example, “as in humans, female cockroaches have stronger immune responses than males and the very young and very old have weaker responses than mature adults” (131). As early as 1912, studies at Summer Teacher’s College in St. Louis showed that cockroaches could learn to “overcome their innate aversion to light” (135). They were also found capable of running a maze, even without their heads (135). In The Nest, then, cockroaches join forces to trap and defeat a cat.

The film reveals that because they have been genetically modified in an Intec lab, the roaches have also developed new powers, more concretely illustrating the human and god-like qualities associated with them. The females now can reproduce without the contributions of their male counterparts, for example. Because she has produced these females, Dr. Hubbard embraces these new superior but deadly qualities, naming them nymph cockroaches. She lauds their abilities, but when she puts her gloved hand near them in a large lab container, they quickly bite it, highlighting their move from human prey to predator. As a “mad” scientist, however, Hubbard seems sexually excited by the mangling of her hand, refusing to remove it until Elias pulls it out. Despite these warning signs, Dr. Hubbard tells Elias she can control the roaches and asks for twenty-four hours to solve the problem.

Elizabeth’s examination of Elias’s papers begins to reveal the truth about these cockroaches’ genetic alterations. Instead of condominiums, Intec has built a research facility where, according to Hubbard, her experiments are benevolent rather than destructive and meant to create cockroaches that will destroy all other roaches and then die without reproducing. However, the cockroaches have grown so powerful that even a lethal pesticide can’t destroy them. A solution arises when the main characters realize the roaches have become social animals and must have a nest and a queen to guide them.

The final dark scenes of the movie emphasize a possible solution to rebalance the horror of this now monstrous nature. As Elizabeth explains, if they destroy the caves, they will destroy the nest, suggesting that if they destroy the horror’s setting, the monstrous insect horror will also disappear. The roaches all go toward the queen in the caves like “a collective unconscious,” the film thus making an overt connection to an anthropomorphized cockroach mythology. In the cave where the nest is hidden, Dr. Hubbard is destroyed by a roach figure constructed of multiple human skeletons. Tarbell and Elizabeth escape the cave before it explodes, and the two kiss. In The Nest, both science and the cockroach become monstrous, but since only the bugs and the mad scientist die, perhaps the plot implies we need only destroy our worst selves.

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