THE FACT OF THE MATTER
WE all like a good fright now and then, and not just at Halloween, if only for the adrenalin rush and the cocoon of comfort that leaves us sated after the thrill has gone. Of course, there are those who are schlock and horror junkies needing frequent fixes of blood and gore and nightmarish ghouls. Otherwise, there would not be the expansive libraries of horror tales that is cinema and the printed word.
When I was at college many moons ago, I would give Friday afternoon lectures a miss for the Carlton Cinema on Dublin’s O’Connell Street to whet my appetite for the works of Edgar Allen Poe or the Dracula movies of Christopher Lee. To be honest, I think my adrenalin rush those misspent Friday afternoons was more down to the ample bosoms and exposed flesh of those beautiful, but hapless, wenches who fell foul of Christopher Lee’s lack of a good orthodontist.
But horror and ghouls do not just abide in the world of literature or cinema or in our collective imagination. Horror, of a stomach-churning sort, exists in the real world.
I am not talking here of the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man that is evidenced in Yemen or South Sudan or in a hundred other global conflicts. Rather, I’m talking about Nature. Stories we associate with creep shows play out every day as animals use their shocking abilities in a savage effort to survive and pass on their genes. Nature is indeed
red in tooth and claw, but, turns out, teeth and claws are some of the more docile adaptations in the evolutionary arsenal.
Consider the Ichneumon wasp, an innocent enough little bugger — it has no sting — I came across when
I first visited America, also many moons ago. In the movie ‘Alien’, the titular alien begins its lifecycle as a parasite embedded in a man’s chest before bursting forth in bloody fashion. Our friend the Ichneumon’s life cycle is strikingly similar to the lien’s. A female Ichneumon seeks out a host for her young, usually
a caterpillar or such, and uses her syringe-like ovipositor — her organ used for laying eggs — to inject the creature with eggs. When they hatch in their unwilling nursery, the eggs begin devouring the poor old caterpillar from the inside out!
Unlike the alien, the Ichneumon larvae’s approach is surgical because, fair play to them, they leave essential organs like the heart for last in order to keep their ‘host’ alive, and therefore fresher, longer.
Cannibalism was the de riguer of low budget horror in my Friday afternoon cinema in the 1970s. The natural world, however, has far fewer scruples when it comes to cannibalism than do B-movie directors. Take the Spadefoot frogs who lay their eggs in rare desert pools. While these pools have few predators, they lack nutrients and evaporate quickly in the heat. To survive, the tadpoles must develop into toadlets and escape their barren nurseries in as little as a week.
The survivors manage this by cannibalising their smaller siblings and the winners emerge from the pond to renew the ghastly cycle, their bellies filled with their would- be brothers and sisters!
Meanwhile, some carnivorous plants have stepped up their culinary game and taken a liking to the taste of mammals.
With colourful, fluid-filled leaves, pungent scents, glistening glue or grasping tentacles, they lure their victims to a nasty end. And they live right here in Ireland.
Anyone who has walked over a bog on a still, hot day will know what a paradise they are for insects, especially the biting sort.
What you may not know is that bogs are full of plants that have turned the tables on the insect world and will capture, kill and eat every midge, bug and ant they can. John Wyndham’s classic The Day of The Triffids doesn’t come into it.
Finally, those creatures that permeate our worst nightmares. Rats typically avoid smells of cat pee — for obvious reasons! — but when afflicted with the dreaded slug-like protozoans — parasitic thingamejigs — called Toxoplasma gondii, the rat’s brain becomes rewired. T. gondii not only represses the rat’s natural fear of cat pee but replaces it with urges of sexual attraction.
The rat is driven to seek out the cat odour in the hope to procreate, but comes face-to-face with the predatory Big Tom. At the end of the day, these microorganisms can only reproduce sexually within a cat’s intestines.
And I thought my sex life was weird…