Bedbugs might be a bit of a strange topic for a blog of this sort, but the media craziness surrounding these annoying insects begs for some commentary from this horror fan. First, some context: if you happen to watch the news on TV or pick up a daily paper, you’re bound to come across one of the many stories about the massive infestation of bedbugs. I’ve seen these in everything from the big-gun local paper to the alternative weekly to the New York Times. The media frenzy has gotten so out of hand that Jon Stewart weighed in on the Daily Show:
The media deserves the mockery that Stewart dishes out here. Bedbugs, though annoying, do not spread disease or cause you any grave harm. Like a mosquito, they suck out a little blood, creating itchy little welts that will eventually disappear. Still, the idea of something crawling in your bed is psychologically powerful and catches the eye when evoked in a headline.
Of course, there are other ways to think of insects, and Stewart’s inclusion of clips from Green Porno, a short video series conceived of by actress Isabella Rossellini, reimagine the insects in slightly different terms. Each entry in the series highlights the reproductive process of a different insect, illustrated by Rossellini herself in outrageous costumes. I especially appreciate the ways in which Green Porno raises questions about gender, nature, and the relationship between violence and sexuality. While the subjects of the videos may be insects, Rossellini’s anthropomorphizing of the insects suggests some connection exists between these creatures and us. Here’s another of those hilarious videos:
Psychologist Kevin Ocshner spoke about Rossellini’s video about bedbugs in relation to the media buzz, stating that he felt the video commented on the overblown nature of our fears by exaggerating the size of bedbugs (Click here to listen to the piece from NPR’s Talk of the Nation). Ocshner also discussed how the brain works when we imagine these bugs. Specifically, he says that the same parts of the brain that respond to actual threats, like a real bug in your bed, also become activated by strong thoughts of them. He connects this neurological quirk to the sensations we might get reading a thriller or watching a scary movie.
The power of insects (and other creepy crawlers) to trigger these fears might be one of the reasons that the surrealists used insects so often in their work. Below, a narrator explains Luis Bunuel’s likes and dislikes, and bugs come up several times (relevant portion ends at 3:17):
The prominence of insects is a trademark of Buneul’s films. In Un Chien Andalou alone, bugs form the basis of some of the most powerful compositions in the film, particularly this still of ants streaming out of a wounded hand:
But while the surrealists engage the fear of bugs subtly, the contemporary horror film has exploited it for a more blunt effect. One obvious example would be Slither, a film I’ve yet to see but has always intrigued me with its campy critique of monogamy. Watch the trailer below and you’ll see what I mean:
Slither isn’t alone, of course: The Fly (both the original and remake), Arachnophobia, Mimic, all tap into the same fear of bugs currently being exploited by the news media. While the increasing numbers of bedbugs might be truer than the fictional representations just mentioned, the hysterical response seems based more on fiction than reality.