Insectophobic entertainment

Insect Film Fear Festival Insect Fear Film Festival themes have ranged from bees to beetles and everything in between. The 33rd annual event will be held in February 2016. (Images courtesy of UI Dept. of Entomology)
For three decades, Professor May Berenbaum’s annual Insect Fear Film Festival has entertained and educated attendees about the planet’s most diverse, abundant and misunderstood organisms.

The black-and-white movie opens with a close-up of a sign indicating that Champaign, Ill., lies just 25 miles away before the camera slowly pans to a 1950s convertible containing two teenagers locked in a passionate kiss. As the girl’s eyes flutter open, she gazes up at the sky and suddenly assumes an expression of abject terror. Suddenly, the screen goes black because, as we later learn, the two teens have been killed by giant grasshoppers.

That opening belongs to Beginning of the End, a 1957 film in which monstrous grasshoppers rampage across Illinois, from Champaign to Chicago, eventually scaling the Wrigley Building.

Beginning of the End was one of the first films shown at the annual Insect Fear Film Festival, a University of Illinois institution since 1984. The event is the creation of May Berenbaum, who heads the Dept. of Entomology and was petrified by insects as a child growing up outside of Philadelphia.

“I would cross the street to avoid a caterpillar,” she recalls.

Berenbaum later came to embrace insects, receiving her Ph.D. in entomology from Cornell University in 1980. She developed the concept of the Insect Fear Film Festival while attending Cornell, but when she pitched it to her department head, he squashed the idea, calling it “too undignified.”

However, like many a monstrous cinematic bug, the notion refused to die.

A few years after joining UI’s entomology staff as a professor, Berenbaum presented the concept to then-department head Stanley Friedman, who “thought it was a splendid idea,” she says. “He got it.”

So began the Insect Fear Film Festival, which kicked off its first year with a showing of Them!, a 1954 movie featuring a young Leonard Nimoy, who later gained fame as Mr. Spock in the TV and film franchises Star Trek.

“Since then,” Berenbaum says, “we’ve presented more than 75 movies and 80 shorts; handled hundreds of hissing cockroaches, hornworms and tarantulas; and exposed more than 10,000 festival attendees to Hollywood’s concept of insect life.”

The festival also has drawn its share of entomological celebrities, such as Norman Gary, who portrayed a “bee wrangler” in more than a dozen films, including Invasion of the Bee Girls. Bert I. Gordon, writer and director of Beginning of the End, made a special appearance in 2003.

Chris Carter—writer, producer and director of TV’s The X-Files—was guest of honor for the 30th festival in 2013, along with fellow series screenwriter Darin Morgan. The festival, which typically attracts about 500 to 600 attendees, drew 2,000 that year. Among the chief attractions: an X-Files episode featuring entomologist “Bambi Berenbaum,” a character created in homage to UI’s Berenbaum.

Since 1987, planners have programmed each festival in accordance with a specific theme, ranging from ants, cockroaches and parasites to forensic entomologists, prehistoric insects, alien arthropods and animated social insects.

The event also features an arthropod petting zoo, a Bugscope electron microscope and an art contest for K-12 students. One year, a mosquito-themed festival sponsored a blood drive that collected 22 pints of blood. Another focused on bees, inspiring graduate students to don bee costumes and teach attendees the insect’s “waggle dance.”

Berenbaum also uses the event to impart entomological information.

“People fear what they don’t know,” she says, “and most people don’t know insects very well.”

Berenbaum hopes that increasing familiarity will decrease fear. “As long as insect fear films focus on the most diverse, abundant and misunderstood organisms on the planet,” she says, “entomologists have an obligation to interject some biological reality into the discussion.”