László Sepsi is a Hungarian writer, editor, translator and freelance journalist. His main interests are trash culture and paracinema, the problems of cultural distinctions and genre theory. His essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Filmvilág, Prizma, Műút, Alföld, Pannonhalmi Szemle and Prae. He has published three novels: Holt istenek kora (Új Színházért Alapítvány, 2003), Pinky (Libri, 2016), Ördögcsapás (2017). Email:
“Mr. Beetle is restless and makes frequent trips to the city.” This sentence could be the tagline of one of the fifties’ infamous ‘big bug movies’, in which giant-sized arthropods make frequent trips to American cities – usually to tear down their buildings and devour their residents. The monsters of The Deadly Mantis (1957), Tarantula (1955) or Beginning of the End (1957) were truly restless, but Mr. Beetle, the hero of Wladyslaw Starewicz’s The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) was not as ambitious as his city-wrecking kin. He is an anthropomorphized rhinoceros beetle living a quiet, middle-class life with a boring marriage. He cannot resist the tempting city vices and the seduction of alluring dragonfly girls. The Cameraman’s Revenge reveals the insect beneath the mask of the ordinary citizen: a small, insignificant creature controlled by mechanical instincts such as lust, territoriality and permanent restlessness.
Beyond the Freudian association of animality and sexual desire, The Cameraman’s Revenge offers some important lessons about the role insects could play in a particular genre of motion pictures. At first, the Russian animator wanted to work with living insects, but the untrainable, restless bugs and beetles derailed his plans. He had to kill and prepare his arthropod actors and use them as puppets in his stop-motion animation. Besides proving the technical hardships of working with live insects in the motion picture industry, The Cameraman’s Revenge was one of the earliest movies that linked pictures about insects to low-brow cinema. Starewicz’s hero, Mr. Beetle, becomes embroiled in a conflict with a grasshopper over a desirable dragonfly showgirl. As the adulterous husband fornicates with his sweetheart, the grasshopper spies on them, and through the keyhole records with his camera the dragonfly’s erotic lap dance. In the penultimate scene, Mr. Beetle and his wife go to the movies, but they are unaware that the projectionist is the vengeful grasshopper, who, taking advantage of the situation, switches the reels and shows the record of Mr. Beetle’s lechery. The link is unequivocal between filmed insects and obscene, pornographic content: for one screening the switched reel makes a sleazy grindhouse out of a decent Russian movie theatre.
C. G. Jung wrote that “if man sometimes acted as certain insects do, he would possess a higher intelligence than at present” (189). In my article I try to demonstrate that, despite the negative connotations linked to insects, the Jungian thought and the valorization of existence as an insect is also present in arthropod-themed horror cinema, like in the big bug cycle in the 1950s and in the 1980s and 1990s genre films featuring insects. Firstly, I will introduce a general interpretative framework concerning insect-themed horror cinema and try to isolate arthropod features from other subgenres of animal horror. In the second half of my article, I will try to demonstrate that insects’ representation in horror cinema is more ambivalent than the genre’s general reception suggests. Movies like Earth vs. The Spider (1958) or Joe’s Apartment (1996) not only present arthropods as threatening and repulsive biological entities, but they link notions of rapture, escape, and ecstasy to human-insect encounters.
Because of the aforementioned technical difficulties, before the fifties arthropods were rarely seen in live-action cinema. Although animal horror was an existing subgenre in the thirties, its monsters were usually mammals: primates (Murders in the Rue Morgue, 1932; The Monster Walks, 1932, King Kong, 1933), felines (The Cat People, 1942; Leopard Man, 1943) or bats (The Devil Bat, 1940). Arthropods turned up generally in short animations like Starewicz’s work and Winsor McCay-cartoons (How a Mosquito Operates, 1912) or got funny supporting roles as Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio (1940). Despite the growing numbers of big bugs and invasive insects in the fifties’ cinema, they were predominantly seen in weirdies, “offbeat science fiction, fantasy, monster, zombie, or shock films, usually of marginal financing, fantastic content, and ridiculous title” aimed at juvenile audiences (Doherty 119). Cinematic insects prosper on the fringes of the mainstream, in the “cultural detritus” called paracinema, the “elastic textual category” consisting of low-budget genre films and “just about every other historical manifestation of exploitation cinema from juvenile delinquency documentaries to soft-core pornography” (Sconce 372). Low cultural status became almost a pivotal feature of insectoid horror; James W. Mertins lists it as the second most important trait of this group of films (the first is the negative image these movies project about arthropods or entomologists). As Mertins writes:
A second generalization about arthropod features is that Hollywood’s use of arthropods is usually associated with the production of bad or mediocre movies. As a result, these films often play to limited audiences and many remain quite obscure. […] Despite some awards, most arthropod features are abysmal failures-artistically, critically, and financially. It is difficult to describe how poorly written, badly acted, and cheaply made some of these films are. (86)
However, all of this can be said about the films in the “animal horror” (a.k.a. revenge of nature or nature on a rampage) subgenre. Katarina Gregersdotter, Nicklas Hållén and Johan Höglund write that “with the exception of some notable classics, like King Kong (1933), Jaws (1975), and The Birds (1963), animal horror cinema has long been seen as a low-budget, low-quality form of entertainment that is largely disconnected from serious cultural debates” (5). But, unlike apes, sharks or birds, insects’ cinema does not even have a few canonized, time-honored classics. The Swarm (1978), a big budget, wannabe-blockbuster directed by Irwin Allen, the godfather of disaster movies, could have been regarded as the arthropods’ answer to Jaws but instead it became one of the biggest flops of the decade, and now is considered one of the worst films ever made. Before accounting for the possible differences between insectoid cinema and other subgenres of animal horror, we need a definition of the latter. The authors of Animal Horror Cinema proposed the following definition:
On a very basic level, animal horror cinema tells the story of how a particular animal or an animal species commits a transgression against humanity and then recounts the punishment the animal must suffer as a consequence. In this way, the horror that most animal horror cinema depicts turns on an attack on human beings by an animal. This is the case even in the many films where humans are to blame for this attack by first violating the territory of the animal or by controlling the animal. (3)
Animal horror is basically about the territorial struggle between human and animal. The animal breaches the borders of human space – this can be the habitat of humans as well as the very human body – and after the transgression, humans retaliate and punish the animal. There is no real difference between the nature of conflict in Jaws and The Naked Jungle (1954): in Spielberg’s movie the shark expands its hunting grounds to human territory (to Amity Island); in Byron Haskin’s adventure-thriller the army ants raid the jungle and threaten the hero’s cocoa plantation. The motif of external, territorial invasion in animal horror works the same way with arthropods (The Naked Jungle; The Swarm; Bug, 1975; The Nest, 1988) as with other species, like the rampaging rabbits in Night of the Lepus (1972) or the tough sewer rat in George P. Cosmatos’ Of Unknown Origin (1983). In the cases of inner invasion – man’s metamorphosis into animal – the victim’s mental struggle with his/her animalistic quality shows the same logic with werewolves, ape-men or insect-human hybrids (The Fly, 1958; The Wasp Woman, 1959; Earth vs the Spider, 2001). But the similarity of narrative and ideological schemes does not entail the interchangeability of the different animal-monsters. Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) would not be the same movie if its hero transformed into a giant kitten or an elephant instead of a house fly; the meaning of King Kong would be radically altered with a gigantic dung-beetle falling in love with Fay Wray. If we want to find the differentia specifica of insect horror, the only way is through focusing on the different ideologies, beliefs and interpretative frameworks concerning arthropods.
According to Noel Carroll, the two basic emotions induced by horror fiction are fear and disgust. The non-ordinary physical and emotional state of being under the influence of horror fiction “is caused by the thought of a monster, in terms of the details presented by a fiction or an image, which thought also includes the recognition that the monster is threatening and impure” (Carroll 35). Considering Carroll’s argument, insects are ready-made monsters. In The Infested Mind, entomologist Jeremy Lockwood tries to shed light on the reasons why humans are often irrationally frightened and disgusted by insects. Recalling Paul Rozin’s psychological research, Lockwood establishes seven causes of disgust and correlates them to common beliefs about insects. These are animalism (insects remind humans of their bestial origins), death (insects spread disease and thrive in dead or decayed matter), sex (insects swarm and copulate without restrictions), hygiene (insects live in filthy places), bodily products (some insects produce stinky slime or defecate when threatened), bodily violations (insects can breach the borders of the human body) (60-64). Lockwood delineates the reasons of exaggerated human fear of insects under the following six categories:
Insects can: (1) invade our homes and bodies; (2) evade us through quick, unpredictable movements, to which it might be added that the furtive skittering of a cockroach, for example, with its head lowered as if slinking out of the room, evokes a sense that the creature is guilty or ashamed; (3) undergo rapid population growth and reach staggeringly large numbers, threatening our sense of individuality; (4) harm us both directly (biting and stinging) and indirectly (transmitting disease as well as destroying woodwork, carpets, book bindings, electrical wiring, and food stores); (5) instill a disturbing sense of otherness with their alien bodies—they are real-world monsters associated with madness (e.g., “going bugs”); and (6) defy our will and control through a kind of radical mindless or amoral autonomy. (37)
Lockwood’s categories share some significant features with other dangerous animals. A lot of species can harm humans directly or indirectly, and even cute rodents like lemmings can undergo rapid population growth. The most distinctive sources of the fear and disgust induced by insects are the insects’ morphological features, high adaptability and uncontrollable nature. The insect’s victim loses control over his surroundings, over his own physical boundaries and emotions, and thus becomes exposed to an alien entity which does not recognize human authority in any way. This radical uncontrollability may be true in the case of other animals and horror monsters but it is the inalienable specificity of arthropods and other lower animals. The main difference between them and arthropods is the adaptability of the latter. “Radical mindless or amoral autonomy” is a trait of reptiles, amphibians, fish and all the other species in the lower strata of the animal kingdom, but unlike arthropods’ the threat of these beings is limited because of their special environmental needs. Spielberg’s shark cannot invade the homes of Amity’s people, sharks live in salt water, not on land, but a cockroach can stay alive almost anywhere where a human can. Insects’ morphological features separate them from other fictional monsters. Vampires or zombies can contaminate their victims or break their will but they are lacking the “disturbing sense of otherness with their alien bodies” (Lockwood). Undead evoke the experience of Freudian uncanny because they are similar to the normal human body. Of course, animal horror cinema per definitionem depicts the imagined terror of losing control over an animal. For example, the St Bernard dog in Stephen King’s Cujo (1983) is infected with rabies and starts killing humans, so the people living in Castle Rock cannot control him anymore. But this does not mean that St Bernards are uncontrollable by nature like arthropods.
The horrifying effects of the fifties’ arthropod features almost entirely fit in Lockwood’s categorization. The seething mass of ants in The Naked Jungle or the all-devouring giant locusts in Beginning of the End both act and destroy their surroundings with mindless automatisms. However, there is a contrast between The Naked Jungle’s realistic ant invasion and the movies in the big bug-cycle: thanks to the monster’s size in Tarantula or Them! (1954) disgust and the possibility of contagion are set aside; the real threats in these movies are getting eaten or being squashed by the gigantic arthropods. Due to the “disturbing sense of otherness” (Lockwood) the big bugs projected on the screens have a stunning variety of possible meanings. As the essential embodiments of threat and impurity, the depictions of giant insects are remarkably open to different interpretations. Before offering his own analysis of the big bug cycle, William M. Tsutsui names four interpretative traditions: (1) big bug films were “all about nuclear fear, the widespread anxiety about the threat of atomic annihilation”, (2) big bug flicks “were all about Cold War tensions and worries over the communist menace”, (3) big bug flicks “were really nuanced (and often ambivalent) musings on science, authority, and the place of the military in civil society”, (4) big bugs were symbols of the Freudian id and sexual tensions (240-244). Tsutui states that the homicidal insects in fifties cinema were not just metaphorical beings: the big bug movies mirrored the real life threat of an overpopulation of invasive arthropods like gypsy moths or fire ants, and the uneasiness about the pesticide industry in that decade.
Despite the negative emotions linked to insects, the relativization of the human-insect hierarchy and the valorization of existence as an insect appeared even in some of the early fifties horrors. The most important and frequent method of this relativization was the reversing of human-insect size ratios: in big bug movies humans lose their physical advantage against arthropods. One of the most sensible cinematic depictions of this mutable status quo was The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), based on Richard Matheson’s novel of the same name. In Jack Arnold’s movie, the insects did not grow but the hero lost his size gradually after drifting in a radioactive cloud by accident. Shrunk to the size of an insect, he must combat a spider in the basement of his house, and during the preparations for the duel he tries to redefine his humanity and his relationship with the arthropods’ world in a monologue.
I still had my weapons. With these bits of metal I was a man again. If I was to die, it would not be as a helpless insect in the jaws of the spider monster.
A strange calm possessed me. […] I no longer felt hatred for the spider. Like myself, it struggled blindly for the means to live. If I was to fight it, if I was to win the food then it must be now while strength remained while I was still of sufficient size to scale the wall. It was not decision that drove me to the crate, but reflex as instinctive as the spider’s. […]
My enemy seemed immortal. More than a spider, it was every unknown terror in the world, every fear fused into one hideous night-black horror. Still, whatever else had happened, my brain was a man’s brain, my intelligence still a man’s intelligence.
In the first sentence he tries to maintain the borderline between human and insect, but later this boundary becomes more and more blurred. He recognizes that the spider has the same basic drives as he and accepts the possibility of the spider’s triumph. In the final paragraph the spider becomes elevated to the level of metaphysical dread, and the hero tries to confirm that the token of his own superiority is his highly evolved mind and capability for complex thinking. Both notions fit in older philosophical traditions. The spider as a metaphor of a dreadful and word-spinner god was a recurrent image in Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings (Salmose 150), while René Descartes argued in his Discourse on the Method that that “animals not only have less reason than man, but that they have none at all” (47). Descartes’s conception about animals being mere automatons unable to think or feel was widely criticized, but it still holds regarding insects and other animals belonging to lower-species. Arthropods were left unaffected by the emancipatory endeavors of the animal liberation movement, because they lack a “mental level similar to humans” (Singer 21). Daniel C. Dennett places insects between viruses and trees as “unconscious, unreflective semi-agents” (253). There is no proof that insects, even social insects, are not automatons with hardwired behavioral patterns: but this very mindlessness is the source of their uncontrollable nature and their appeal.
Mark Jancovich argues that the invasion-themed science fiction films of the fifties not only mirrored the anxiety about the Soviet threat, but also showed the dark side of the Fordist rationalization of institutions and production in America using the anti-individualist invaders. He writes that the ant society seen in the big bug feature Them! (1954) “is almost the ideal image of Fordist rationality and its application to the military” (59). Although the most common symbols of depersonalization, anti-individualist conformity and totalitarian social order in fifties cinema were hive-minded aliens, the categories of extraterrestrials and insects share some significant common traits. According to Jancovich,
If the invaders are presented as natural they are carefully distinguished from associations with ’human nature’. They are vegetables, insects or reptiles. They are cold-blooded beings which lack what are generally understood to be human feelings or thought processes. They resist antropomorphism, and are usually presented as little more than biological machines. (27)
The continuation of this tradition can be found in later science fiction movies like the Alien-series, John McNaughton’s The Borrower (1991) or Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997) where the morphological features of extraterrestrials resemble certain insects. But besides fear, the depersonifed and emotionless insectoid invaders often generate awe and admiration in the human characters of these movies. As with the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), next to the perfection of a biological machine, emotion, morality and complex thinking feel like a burden. The temptation of insectual existence arises from the possibility that the individual can get rid of this encumbrance and dissolve in a collectivist, antihumanistic paradigm.
In Bert I. Gordon’s Earth vs. the Spider and William Castle’s The Tingler (1959), arthropods were also the catalysts of a release from the burdens of human existence, but the sensuous rapture incited by the monsters of these two movies were without the shadow of totalitarian depersonalization. In Earth vs. the Spider a giant prehistoric spider threatens a small rural town. After the local sheriff fills the cavern of the spider with DDT gas, the seemingly lifeless creature is transported to the gym of the town’s high school for safekeeping. But the spider is not dead, just rendered unconscious. When a group of students come to the gym to have a rehearsal with their rock band, the sounds of the careless improvised concert and the dancing teens wake up the spider. The ecstasy of rock and roll music intermingles with the rise of the primeval creature, as if the Dionysian joy and the ravaging of the spider had the same origin. In The Tingler, the insectoid monster dwells not outside the territory of human civilization (like Gordon’s cave-dweller spider), but in the very human body. According to the premise of the film, the “tingler”, a parasite reminiscent of a fusion of a lobster, a louse and a centipede, can be found in every human’s body attached to the lower section of the spinal column. If the host is frightened and cannot release the tension with a scream, the tingler will break his/her spine, causing “death by fear” in the unfortunate victim. To intensify viewer experience, the producer-director Castle used a special gimmick called “Percepto”: he hid small vibrating devices in some of the theatre chairs which released a brief electrical jolt at the culmination of the movie. This special technique as well as the chaotic rock concert in Earth vs. the Spider make the human-insect encounter a cathartic, liberating, yet intensely physical, bodily experience. Via the human body’s automatic response to the Percepto’s jolts, watching The Tingler reduces its viewers to screaming and jumping automatons. Writing about “body genres”, Linda Williams states that one of the pertinent features of these movies is the ecstatic excess, “a quality of uncontrollable convulsion or spasm.[…] Excess is marked by recourse not to the coded articulations of language but to inarticulate cries of pleasure in porn, screams of fear in horror, sobs of anguish in melodrama” (Williams 4). In insect-themed horrors the agents of this ecstatic excess are insects, forcing the often disgusted or frightened viewer to mimic their biological automatism by losing control over their own body. In her analysis of Castle’s movie, Mikita Brottman goes further, finding a connection between The Tingler and the viewers’ bodily functions.
The escaped tingler embodies not only the link between oral and anal expulsiveness, but also the basic notion that there are anal feelings at the movies, and that these feelings are specifically activated by this film. Put in its most simple terms, the human fear of losing control of one’s defecatory functions – embodied by the sight of an enormous, swollen faecal animal, alive and on the loose – is cathected into the socially legitimate chaos of mass ritual screaming (itself inspired by the screams of the on-screen cinema audience). As I suggested earlier, uncontrolled defecation and an ungovernable vocal spasm are essentially different manifestations of the same bodily impulse, the significant difference being that chaotic defecation is considered horrific and polluting, whereas ungovernable screaming – especially when participating in the public viewing of a horror movie – fits into a legitimate social category and has a communally accepted social function. To view The Tingler as it was originally screened is therefore to take part in a socially-endorsed ritual of mass cathexis, where the threat of contamination is faced head on, displaced, and, at least temporarily, “overcome.” (9)
The “ecstatic excess” of this “socially endorsed ritual” concerning encounters with cinematic insects is akin to the notion of “becoming animal”, the key concept of Deleuze and Guattari’s reading of Kafka. In Toward a Minor Literature, they explain that becoming animal in Kafka’s work is also some kind of rapture, an escape from the symbolic order.
To become animal is to participate in movement, to stake out the path of escape in all its positivity, to cross a threshold, to reach a continuum of intensities that are valuable only in themselves, to find a world of pure intensities where all forms come undone, as do all the significations, signifiers, and signifieds, to the benefit of an unformed matter of deterritorialized flux, of nonsignifying signs. (13)
After the exhaustion of the fifties’ big bug cycle, the theme of killer insects resurfaced in the seventies’ eco-horror, but these movies mostly lack the “lines of escape” (Deleuze-Guattari 6) linked to encounters with arthropods. In Phase IV (1974), Szwarc’s Bug (1975), The Swarm or the peculiar documentary The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971), the primary source of dread is the vision of a total interspecies war between humans and insects and the possibility that insects are capable of conquering and eradicating human civilization. These movies offer the “imagination of disaster” (Sontag 215) in line with The Naked Jungle or Beginning of the End, without any trace of inhuman ecstasy. The ambivalent notions of The Tingler and Earth vs. the Spider reemerged decades later in the works of David Cronenberg (The Fly, Naked Lunch, 1991; Spider, 2002) and Guillermo Del Toro (Cronos, 1993; Mimic, 1997) and at the same time insects got a foothold in mainstream cinematic culture with family-oriented feature films like Arachnophobia (1990) and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989), or blockbusters like Starship Troopers.
Regardless of their directors’ fascination with insectoid life, Cronenberg’s The Fly and Del Toro’s Cronos are both stories of failure. Their heroes are looking for ecstasy and escape by becoming insect, but their metamorphoses rarely demonstrate the overwhelming joy of the dance scene in Earth vs. the Spider or The Tingler’s voluntary and collective submission to insect-like automatisms. In Cronenberg’s The Fly a botched teleportation experiment causes the hero to merge with a house fly. In the slow process of changing into a man-insect hybrid, he starts to admire the insect’s physical potential and enjoys his newfound abilities, like increased stamina and sexual potency. At the same time he idolizes the insect’s scrupulousness and in a monologue makes the following declaration: “Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects don’t have politics. They’re very brutal. No compassion. No compromise. We can’t trust the insect. I’d like to become the first insect politician. Y’see, I’d like to, but… I’m afraid.” (Cronenberg 1986) The valorization of “the politics of insects” follows the same logic as Marc Jancovich’s observation about the mutant ant society being an “ideal image of Fordist rationality” (Jancovich 27). The cause of “Brundlefly’s” demise in Cronenberg’s movie is that he cannot fully free himself from a humanist worldview: he fears the total loss of his human identity and, after another flawed teleportation, in the end begs his girlfriend to shoot him in the head with a shotgun with the final fragments of his humanity. As Steven Shaviro writes:
He is finally compelled to admit that he suffers from “a disease with a purpose” of its own, one to which he cannot himself be privy. He is in effect excluded from the scene of his own metamorphosis. Human subjectivity cannot absorb or “recognize” the being of a fly. And so the movements that turn Brundle into “Brundlefly” are necessarily passive and unwilled. They involve affects and passions of which their ostensible subject is not the master. Sensation and desire are so far from being reducible to self-consciousness that for the most part they are incompatible with it. (144)
Despite all the ambivalence concerning body and human identity in Cronenberg’s ouvre, The Fly is nevertheless a tragic cautionary tale about the dangers of embracing the insect, a confirmation of the limits between the dual categories of human and insect. Although The Fly’s hero enjoys his new abilities in several scenes and indulges himself in sexual debauchery (like Mr. Beetle in The Cameraman’s Revenge), thanks to the “clinical gaze” (Badley 31) of Cronenberg’s camera, these moments are depicted without any signs of bliss or ecstasy. Cronenberg stages the paradox of human-insect encounter imagined as an ecstatic rapture: if a human becomes an insectoid automaton, the human notions of joy, ecstasy or freedom will be eradicated in the process.
Among the increased number of insect-themed movies made in the last half of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties, there was a small number of films which undermined the traditional views on insects or overturned the insect-human hierarchy. For example, an ant-headed alien in the opening sequence of John McNaughton’s The Borrower states that in the space empire of insectoid aliens the worst possible punishment for a criminal is the genetic devolution to a physically fragile human being and exile to the hellish planet called Earth. In Honey, I Shrunk the Kids the minuscule suburban juveniles make a friendship with an ant living in their garden and succeed in domesticating the insect on some level. But the taming of the ant does not really differ from the shrunken hero’s duel with the spider in The Incredible Shrinking Man: its function is to confirm humans’ superiority over the animal kingdom.
More complex questions are raised about the human-insect encounters in MTV’s gross-out comedy horror musical Joe’s Apartment (1996) based on director John Payson’s short film Joe’s Apt. (1992). Joe is a newly graduated, broke university student who moves to New York to get a job and a start a life. He rents a flat which is the home of an extraordinary cockroach colony: these insects are intelligent, capable of speech and very fond of dancing and singing. Joe’s Apartment exploits the everyday disgust felt toward cockroaches for a comic effect and draws parallels between pests and New Yorkers living in the urban decay of the millennia. The similarity between urbanites and insects is also emphasized in Del Toro’s Mimic (1997), where mutant roaches called the “Judas breed” disguising the appearance of humans preyed in Manhattan’s sewer system and subway tunnels. The Judas breed is the insectoid embodiment of the homicidal threats of the non-hygienic modern city space. By contrast, the roaches in Joe’s Apartment offer survival strategies to the hero in the urban decay. The cheerful carnivalesque of the dancing-singing insects demonstrates how to overcome repulsion – whether the source of disgust is the decaying environment or low culture. (Connecting art to bodily wastes, there is an artist-musician character in the movie named Walter Shit.) Joe’s Apartment evokes the aforementioned link between insect-themed cinema and trash culture, and in a key sequence develops this connection further. In this scene, the cockroaches perform a musical number in the toilet reminiscent of Busby Berkley’s classical movies from the 1930s. In the filthy lavatory, the dancing insects and the symmetrical formations of the performance intermingle gross-out humor, grotesque and the over-the-top camp aesthetic of classical Hollywood musicals. Joe’s Apartment not only links insects to sensuous rapture like The Tingler did, but, by evoking this old musical number, the dancing cockroaches become the agents of cultural memory, the guardians of trash culture. These impure, nonhuman creatures preserve and reenact often neglected and ridiculed pieces of humanity’s “cultural detritus”.
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