U.S. Markets open in 8 hrs 47 mins

Our obsession with insects in horror films says a lot about our fear of destroying the planet

Elizabeth Horkley

Twice a year, members of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists meet to reset the Doomsday Clock, which tracks time based on the probability of a man-made apocalypse with the twelfth hour representing an imminent end of the world as we know it. Since it was introduced in 1947, the closest the clock has ever come to 12:00 has been two minutes prior: in 1953, 2018, and 2019.

For entertainment purposes, let’s ignore those last two years for a minute, and focus on the first. In 1953, the Soviet Union had just tested its first hydrogen bomb. It was also the year that Warner Brothers’ horror film Them! entered production.

The 1954 blockbuster starred stegosaurus-sized ants as the greatest threat to humanity since the atomic bomb.

In Them!, nuclear radiation from the 1945 atomic Trinity tests begets giant, bloodthirsty ants who make their way to Los Angeles following a freight train full of sugar.

Sound ludicrous? Wait until the hirsute, halting ant-agonists actually appear. They plow into human adversaries with the finesse of unmanned construction equipment. Actors perform balletic feats maneuvering their way into their crushing mandibles.

“If you’re willing to let your imagination off its leash, you may have a fairly good time at Them!,” the late New Yorker critic John McCarten wrote in a review, hinting that even by 1950s standards, Them! wasn’t particularly scary.

It was everything else that was.

The film marks a genre of socially-conscious horror; one that comments on real-world fears such as climate change, social injustice, and the consequences of modern society’s actions, rather than gratuitous fright and gore of the traditional pulp horror genre.

Dr. Robert Medford, the film’s sagacious scientist, articulates this feeling in the film’s final line: “When man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.”

Susan Sontag characterized movies like Them! as the effect of “a mass trauma that exists over the use of nuclear weapons and the possibility of future nuclear wars.” Science fiction films, she wrote in her 1965 book of essays Against Interpretation, “bear witness to this trauma” and “attempt to exorcise it.”

Even mutated to outsize proportions, ants could be eradicated by (non-nuclear) bombs. Harmless and commonplace, they could also act as dutiful symbols: projections of a collective, domestic anxiety steeped with guilt.

In Them! an escalating series of murders and home invasions in the New Mexico desert attract the attention of the Department of Agriculture. Dr. Robert Medford and his daughter, Pat Medford, arrive without explanation and are received by local authorities with suspicion. (When Pat describes her father as a myrmecologist, an FBI agent barks: “Talk English!”) But once the giant ants appear, the old, eccentric Dr. Medford is thrust into a position of command. Officers of law enforcement are clueless as to how to fight these foes.

Science takes precedent amid chaos.

This again marks a social awareness of the time, in which science and technology is pitted against the ignorance of the uninformed, unremorseful masses.

The ants go marching toward imminent planetary destruction

Historian William M. Tsutsui, in a 2007 article for Oxford’s Environmental History, gave us a more straightforward explanation than Sontag for the popularity of insects on the silver screen: “I would like to suggest that the giant insect films in the 1950s were, in fact … about giant insects.” He elaborates that creature features like Them! (with titles like Tarantula!, Cosmic Monsters, and The Black Scorpion) “reflected an abstract unease about insect infestation and humankind’s ability to control it during the 1950s and early 1960s.”

The decline of big bug releases in the late 1960s substantiates both theories, but Tsuitsui’s argument lays the groundwork for the next wave of natural horror movies that hit cinemas in the 1970s.

Concern over the toll of atomic radiation helped kickstart the modern environmentalist movement in the US, as did Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which exposed the dangers of pesticides and accused chemical companies and the government of putting public health at risk. Four years after the first Earth Day was held in 1970, revered graphic designer Saul Bass (known for his work in films like Vertigo and Anatomy of a Murder) introduced his only directed film, Phase IV.

At the beginning of Phase IV, A narrator describes a mysterious cosmic event, experienced through the appearance of psychedelic visuals, that took place the previous spring.

“When the effect came, it was almost unnoticed, because it happened to such a small and insignificant form of life.”

A sequence follows showing ants of disparate species converging. Together, they build thin towers, otherworldly yet vaguely familiar, like organ pipes, or choir boys with their heads a-tip, mid-song.

In Arizona, a veteran scientist and his assistant establish a research base in a geodesic dome, next to a cluster of ant structures three times their height. Succumbing to pressure from the investors who fund their research, the men make the fatal mistake of meddling.

Shortly after demolishing the ants’ constructions, they wake up to new designs: ground-level plates that mirror their fortress’ tiles, reflecting the sun’s light. By cranking up the heat on the dome, the ants force the scientists to crank up their AC. Human survival becomes dependent on electrical wires small enough for an ant to chew through.

Phase IV ends on a bleak note for humanity, with the junior scientist and a young woman who took refuge in the dome lured into captivity. “We knew then we were being changed and made part of their world,” the scientist says. “We didn’t know for what purpose, but we knew we would be told.”

Cult beasts

In the years since its uneventful release, Phase IV has bred a cult fanbase, gaining recognition as a chillingly plausible thriller that depicts the slow dismantlement of scientific process and the human mind.

Like a Velvet Underground concert, the film could have attracted and influenced an industry audience tuning in for Bass’s debut.

Bert I. Gordon’s 1977 film Empire of the Ants (1977), in particular, seems to pick up exactly where Phase IV left off. A loose adaptation of H.G. Wells’ short story of the same name, Empire is an uninspired entry to the natural horror genre that exploded with Jaws in1975. Like the big bug movies that followed Them!, these nature-attacks releases were mostly low-budget and low-quality.

But unlike big bug movies, these films featured adversaries that preyed on primal fears: sharks, grizzlies, bees, etc.

In Empire, a ruthless real estate agent coaxes a gaggle of losers, free-loaders, and down-on-their-luck opportunists to Dreamland Shores, a still-under-construction community in Florida’s Everglades.

For the most part, these people aren’t here to buy property (“overpriced swampland,” as one character puts it). But two single women are the exception: one dreams of gaining financial independence with her own home, another wants to start her own business. They’re representative of a new generation of homeowners granted rights with the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in 1974. The bill, which made it illegal for lenders to discriminate based on gender and marital status, was initially opposed by the National Association of Realtors.

Yet Empire tosses the tension between corporate interest and prospective buyers like litter when the ants attack a couple who were last seen tallying expenses to invoice after the trip. The survivors are picked up by sheriffs of a neighboring town, who reveal to the audience through their discovery that the community has already been conquered. They’re sent to a local sugar refinery where, one by one, townsfolk enter an ant queen’s chamber to receive a dose of brainwashing pheromones. “Once you feel her energy, then you’ll understand that we can all work together,” a sheriff says, sans affectation.

Ants-ploitation

The 1970s features follow a precedent set by Them!: Ants in themselves aren’t scary. The household variety are non-venomous and small enough to squish with a single finger. We co-exist with them, these movies posit—until we don’t. Ants-ploitation movies begged audiences to consider their symbolic might: a metaphor for the potential of insignificant matters and small actions to swell and become unmanageable threats.

“This year’s Doomsday Clock statement draws attention to the devolving state of nuclear and climate security,” Rachel Bronson, president and CEO of the Board of Atomic Scientists, explained in 2019 a statement. “It also points to a qualitative change in information warfare and a steady misrepresentation of fact that is undermining confidence in political structures and scientific inquiry.”

The last time the clock was this close to midnight, Hollywood responded to the dire circumstances. Them! portrays the defeat of a man-made environmental problem by an army led by a scientist.

In the aftermath of the 2018 climatology report, which effectively gave the general public permission to panic, and the current US administration’s promise to withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, perhaps the question we should ask isn’t why ants were cast as monsters in creature features.

It’s why they seem to have gone extinct from the genre.

 

Sign up for the Quartz Daily Brief, our free daily newsletter with the world’s most important and interesting news.

More stories from Quartz: