When it comes to generating buzz, it’s hard to beat the Insect Fear Film Festival, which celebrates its 30th anniversary on Saturday, February 23. The lights will dim in the Foellinger Auditorium at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The screen will light up. Skin will crawl— as will a cinematic parade of members of the phylum Arthropoda, which includes spiders, scorpions and insects. One of the featured films will be “War of the Coprophages” from season 3 of The X-Files, which features killer cockroaches.
The bug film fest was the idea of Professor May Berenbaum, head of the university’s Department of Entomology. “It’s about education,” she says, and righting the wrongs done to “the most misunderstood taxon on the planet.” National Geographic Editor at Large Cathy Newman caught her between classes to talk about the event.
Let’s talk about how the idea of the Insect Fear Film Festival was…pardon my saying so…hatched.
I was a graduate student in entomology at Cornell University, walking across campus when I saw a sign advertising a showing of Godzilla, sponsored by the Asian Student Association. ‘If they can have fun, so can we,” I thought. When I pitched the idea of an insect fear festival, my department head said it was undignified.
Many years later, when I was on the faculty here at the University of Illinois and established in the field, I tried again. My department head loved it. We held the first festival in 1984.
How does it compare with Cannes?
Well, it’s not so much about film as insects. And we don’t have premieres. The goal is education through entertainment. For our purposes a film doesn’t have to be excellent.
I imagine most insect films meet the criteria of non-excellence. Is there anything above a grade B film in the genre?
The granddaddy of them all is Them! A 1954 film about an encounter with a race of giant ants. It was nominated for an Oscar and was Warner Brothers’ biggest grossing film that year. Angels and Insects (1995) won an Academy Award for costumes. Many big actors got their start in bug films. Clint Eastwood appeared as the jet pilot in Tarantula (1955). Leonard Nimoy appears in Braineaters (1958).
Are there trends in insect films?
In the 1950s big bug films were popular—oversized insects made so by radiation. What causes the mutation differs with the era. Genetically engineered big bugs came in the 1990s. In the 1970s, swarms were popular.
Is the film festival an attempt to proselytize the public and convert them to the cult of entomology?
It’s a plea for tolerance. Yes, there are bad actors in the insect world. Insects that have caused pain and suffering. Insects are vectors of disease. They consume 30 percent of the world’s crops. But there are far more good guys than bad guys. They recycle and can tackle materials not otherwise broken down. They pollinate. Without insects the world would be bleak and inhospitable.
How did you get interested in insects?
I used to be afraid of them. I would go out of my way not to cross the path of a caterpillar. But I always wanted to be a biologist and at Yale, when I placed out of introductory biology, a course on terrestrial arthropods was the only one available. I confronted my fears and here I am today.
Do you have a favorite insect? And a favorite insect film?
I’m asked about my favorite insect all the time. Do you ask an English major their favorite author? Each has its own appeal. As far as film, it would be Beginning of the End, a 1957 film in which giant irradiated grasshoppers attack central Illinois, end up in Chicago, and drown in Lake Michigan. One reason I like it is because it starts out here in central Illinois, but it is clearly not filmed here because you can see mountains in the background.
If you have a fly or cockroach in your house do you catch and release it outside?
It depends on the fly. I know which ones pose a risk and which don’t. I have a low tolerance for mosquitoes because they carry disease. Of course there are mosquitoes that pollinate orchids. No one species is totally irredeemable. As far as insects in the house, I’m perfectly happy to escort the harmless ones outside.