Embrace the Ew: Ants in Horror Films
Ants are serial killers.
Or in other words, they are sociopaths, en masse. They hunt, overpower and immobilize their prey, then transport it home, dismember it and remove any evidence it was ever alive or they were ever involved. They do this again and again with no empathy. No regrets. No remorse. They kill because 10 million years of evolution requires them to, and at this very moment waves of these relentless little Hannibal Lecters are invading my house. Ants are in my walls, in my kitchen and in my bathroom, relentlessly marching into my private spaces. They are watching me and studying me with dreadful intent, but rest assured, I am watching them right back.
On my television.
The earliest account I can find of ants and other insects doing amazing and shocking things on film is the 1911 British silent film, The Strength and Agility of Insects. Directed by Percy Smith, the short depicted ants, houseflies and other insects in close-up, lifting and twirling things up to ten times their own weight. To early 20th century audiences, these acrobatics must have been both amazing and horrifying. Decades later it would be the atomic age, the years after America detonated the first nuclear bomb, that would unleash a horde of giant insect movies to a science-starved public. Into this mad laboratory of entertainment, the Ant rose from the Earth and, like any good soldier, it led the way.
One of the first to sound the arthropod alarm was the 1954 classic, THEM! directed by Gordon Douglas. Nominated for an Oscar, the film has held a place on the American Film Institute’s list of Top 10 Science Fiction Films of all time and provided plenty of inspiration for writers, filmmakers and game developers. Featuring snapping mandibles the size of car doors, these giant segmented brutes terrorized New Mexico with an undulating ant-shriek that heralded their approach and fueled the nightmares of a generation of movie-goers.
The celluloid world of 1950s New Mexico would be the first of many locations to suffer ant terror. It only makes sense the horror would persist given that, in real life, the only place on Earth ants haven’t colonized is the one with the most appropriate of names: Antarctica. That leaves plenty of our planet’s population in their path.
Based on a 1938 short story called Leiningen Versus the Ants, THE NAKED JUNGLE was another film released the same year as THEM! Set on a Brazilian cocoa plantation, the film memorably depicts an invasion of army ants and the war to stop them. It is a fairly dull drama starring Charlton Heston, but when Humans meet Ants onscreen it makes for some serious, though factually inaccurate fun, especially the cringe-worthy pre-CGI scene below.
The late 1960s and 1970s ushered in the culture of suburbia as every day a growing middle-class left its urban confines by the thousands. They were buying homes in outlying counties and by consequence, doing what Humans do: encroaching on the territories of indigenous species. In this case, it was the Ant. Horrified homeowners across America were discovering the three-bedroom, two-car garage nest-egg they’d saved for was quite literally, built on a nest. Adding to this tension was a growing debate about radioactive waste storage and an increasing amount of accidents at nuclear energy plants. With its finger on the rapidly increasing pulse of America, Hollywood responded to the pressure as it always does, with Horror films, unleashing a tie-dyed decade of ant-terror that has yet to be repeated.
Two of the cheesiest of these seventies swarmers were EMPIRE OF THE ANTS and ANTS (or It Happened at Lakwood Manor). Starring a who’s-who of bicentennial year talent, including Robert Foxworth, Suzanne Somers, Joan Collins and Robert Lansing, these sci-fi shockers featured rampaging ants mutated by an environment we had monstrously mismanaged. The films encapsulated, through Horror, nature’s reaction to the extreme development happening throughout America and the developed world. Simply put, more and more Humans were going where they were not welcome and a price had to be paid, in blood.
From the cheesy, we drift to the psychedelic. PHASE IV, a 1974 British-American film brought the decade’s Ant/Human battle to its psychotic conclusion. Directed by graphic designer Saul Bass, best known for creating the title sequences of the Alfred Hitchcock films, Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho, the film presented a horrific sort of World War Ant. For reasons unclear, a cosmic event has led a team of Scientists to discover that ants are leveling up and rapidly approaching their version of DEFCON ONE, threatening to overcome Humanity itself. Though it’s regarded today as an influential cult hit, PHASE IV may have been too much at the time. This insane form of insect Judgement Day possibly helped us turn the corner and calm down. Ants and other insects weren’t going to take over the world. Billions of colonies and millions of years had proved they didn’t need to. After all, we’re the newcomers, they’re the veterans. As the eighties approached, Hollywood decided to ease up and get real. Horror took Ants and all insects back to the beginning, back to doing what they were best at: being icky.
With the seventies behind them, ants marched into the 1980s, 90s and beyond trailing a healthy dose of Horror where Insects were front and center, including well-received gems like The Fly, Arachnophobia and Mimic, along with countless other films were creepy-crawlies simply made an appearance. As for Ants, modern Horror re-positioned them from the foreground to the underground, where they naturally do their best work. Although they starred in the occasional straight-to-video shocker (The Hive, The Bone Snatcher) ants were featured less and less in leading roles. With the magnifying glass off of them, ants were now free to elicit major creeps as co-stars, twitching their antennae in big-name pictures like 2002’s The Scorpion King and 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. As for what the future may hold, one thing is certain. Ants and Horror will always make for a wonderful pair, marching hands-in-hand into our living rooms and onto our television screens. Literally.
Serial killers or simple bugs? You be the judge. But whatever your decision, there’s no arguing ants make for good cinematic heebie-jeebies. They may not wield an ax or wear a hockey mask, but Horror movies love them. They bite, they sting and they will outlast us all. There is no escape from them. Ants will find you wherever you are, bring lots of their friends and significantly invade your space. In fact, each and every day Humans use Horror film dialogue to describe them, with words like collective intelligence, hive mind and superorganism. With scary facts like these, there is no denying Ants have earned the appropriately titled King of the Hill award in Insect Horror. As for the word Ants use to describe us? In this case, Audience.
Embrace their ew.
Got a creepy ant story? Leave yours in the comments.