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The Footprints of Monsters: Symbolism and Biology of THEM!

In the 1950s and into the 60s, there were quite a few giant insect movies.

They’re rare in the modern era, but do crop up now and again from Hollywood films things like Mimic and Starship Troopers or down to Sci-Fi Original Movies from Mansquito to Infestation.

It traces back to one film: Them! 

Them! is the first of the lot and the reason for so many imitators. 

Originally planned as an A-picture, it got a budget cut and ended up a surprisingly great B picture that inspired all the others (which explains why Santa Claus himself, Edmund Gwenn, in the roll of the scientist).  It was also one of the first mutant beasts spawned via radiation, rather than just being awakened or disturbed by it.

A pretty important picture, overall.

Symbolism

It’s not a shocker; these bugs are spawned by fears regarding radiation, literally and figuratively.  It’s more than just their origins that harkens to the invisible killer.

The opening segments building up the mystery of what “They” are is quite reminiscent of how the general public viewed radiation.  They didn’t understand the scope of it, what it could actually do—but they did know that it could be deadly.  The bugs aren’t seen until 28 minutes into the film, but they are heard.  Their repeated shrieking clicks echo like an exaggerated Geiger counter, creating tension quite effectively. 

The way the bugs operate is similar in respects to any subversive element hiding from the government.  Hiding underground, moving around at night: they can be seen in that light as a stand in for any threat to national security.  Being it was the fifties, it’s not a stretch to say that there are some communist elements to the insects: the uniformity, obeying one larger power and the fear of their spreading being the real danger of the ants rather than confronting an individual monster (who can be taken down with heavy gunfire). 

Running counter to that is the view of authority in the picture.

The cops, the military, the FBI, they’re the good guys.  They violate over people’s rights (having one man remain committed to an asylum to prevent a panic) in an effort to stop the monsters.   The message is: Let the government trample your rights, it’s for your own good.

Biology

Let’s start at the top.  There are 2 reasons why giant insects cannot exist.

  • The square-cube law means that their design would have to be altered to support the new weight and the shell is not thick enough to support the new weight and allow for enough living mater for the insect to survive.
  • Their passive lungs cannot oxygenate a large body effectively.

But given that we have these giant bugs running around just fine, it means that there is some compensation for these flaws.

Their bodies, obviously, are made of a stronger substance than normal insects and they have the strength to support their new size.  Second, they have to have an active breathing mechanism, such as compacting and expanding their abdomen to pump oxygen through the body or similar method of sucking in and expelling air like vertebrates do. 

Though identified by Santa Claus as members off the genus Camponotus, which most would recognize as the genus seen mostly in carpenter ants, and down to the species level Camponotus vicinus, these mutants do not really resemble that variety of ant.

 

Regardless, kudos to the writer who actually chose a species of ant that actually exists, and one that can possibly be found in the area where the atomic tests were found (finding specific ant species locals is not an easy task, but they do range from the Pacific Northwest down to California and west to the Dakotas).  Camponotus vicinus will eat dead insects; they prefer sugar and sweets over them.  These ants are occasionally seen farming aphids and the like.  They also go for sugar first over human prey, even leaving one General Store-runner into his own cellar after stinging him to death and chucking him down there.

Sugar is like an addiction for these guys.

Still, let’s have a moment of silence for movie writers who actually research their subjects.  They are a rare breed indeed. 

These ants, overall, resemble the primitive ants found in Australia.  These primitive forms are more like their ancestors: hornets and wasps.  They have long jaws and prominent stingers, much like these mutants.  These aggressive insects are often called “Bulldog ants” or “Bull ants” and are not quite as unified as the mutants or other ants—fighting amongst themselves sometimes over food. 

Their heads are almost a perfect match for those of the mutants in the film, but the body shape is more Camponotus. 

Like other Camponotus species, the workers are very uniform, but do vary in size (the smallest being, according to dialogue, 9ft, and the largest visually besides the queen were upwards of 12ft).   These mutants are also noted for passing the larva and pupa stages and emerging fully developed from the eggs.

One thing a lot of people don’t know about ants is that they do sting, and these monsters retain that deadly feature.  The sting hooks upwards showing hot it is used.  The creature bends its abdomen around while it holds on to its prey and stings it with a downward motion, sort of like a reverse scorpion.

Because of the limits of technology, the ants are never shown stinging, though victims of their sting do show up, as mentioned.   The smell of the sting is also an important point to the mystery.  The sting of an ant (or in some cases, spay) is loaded with Formic acid, which is the same as bee venom and can have similar effects to those susceptible to it.  Which leads to the classic title-drop moment of the film:  where a girl is shocked out of catatonia by the smell of the acid and runs screaming “THEM!” at the top of her lungs.

Cheesy? Today, sure.  But not back then.  


Overall, the monsters are pretty sound biologically aside from the size and getting such odd things to fly. 

Yeah, the queens and drones do fly, but it’s never shown on film.   Because, let’s face it, giant ants is one thing.

Giant flying ants is just plain silly.

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