Urban legends are all around us, playing a part in our everyday lives and becoming ingrained in our culture. Most people are familiar with the more common legends like The Killer in The Back Seat, Bloody Mary, or Bigfoot, but there are others that you might not be as familiar with. Here at Nightmare on Film Street, each month I’ll be taking a look at a different urban legend and revisiting a famous movie (or, sometimes, one that’s not so famous) that plays off that particular myth.
This month I’m focusing on the Bosom Serpent legend and pairing it with several movies, mainly 2012’s The Bay, which takes a similar concept and spins the idea into an ecological nightmare.
Chances are you might not be familiar with the name Bosom Serpent, but you’ve probably heard one or more variations on the tale. The Bosom Serpent legend is the idea that animals are able to live inside the human body. In many cases, the creature reproduces while in the human host and/or emerges on its own or is surgically removed. The “Bosom Serpent” moniker stems from a short story originally published in 1843, but related folklore goes back centuries earlier. Egotism; or, The Bosom-Serpent by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a story in which a serpent is living inside a man’s bosom. Since the publication of Hawthorne’s story, the legend has spawned other, similar tales that have become well-known legends themselves.
One of the most well-known movies that has similar shades of the Bosom Serpent legend is Alien (1979). The titular creatures are able to grow inside the human or animal host, eventually bursting through, hence the well-known “chestburster” scene of the first movie of the franchise.
Over the years, the idea of bugs underneath human skin has appeared in countless horror films, including the mentally unstable, meth-addicted characters in Bug (2006), and, more recently, as a drug-induced hallucination in Netflix’s The Perfection (2018).
Those of you with arachnophobia, turn back now. “The spider bite” is an urban legend that tells the story of a young woman who is bitten on the cheek by a spider. The bite grows into a boil that eventually bursts to reveal hundreds of baby spiders crawling to the surface. The legend has various interpretations that place the incident in different countries and change the method by which the baby spiders emerge; in some cases, the boil bursts on its own, and others have a doctor who lances the bite. Even though there are many different interpretations of the spider bite legend, one thing is common among them all–baby spiders hatch from eggs which the mother spider laid underneath the skin. The whole thing sounds like the stuff of nightmares, and, over the years, the horror genre has made the most of the spider bite legend and other ideas that likely stem from the Bosom Serpent.
Published in 1981, Alan Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark faced the spider bite legend head-on when the author included it as one of the stories in his popular children’s book. The spider bite story in Scary Stories has stood the test of time and has been featured heavily in the marketing for the upcoming movie adaptation, out August 9th.
Parasites of The Bay
If you think the idea of an eco-horror movie using the idea of the Bosom Serpent sounds intriguing, look no further than the 2012 film, The Bay, which takes place during an Independence Day celebration in a small Maryland town. Here, the parasites not only enter the human body, but they take control over the host’s mind. While the parasites in the story are in fact real (Cymothoa exigua), the way they are presented in the film is a fictional, but far, far scarier version of the truth. The parasites have mutated because of the extremely dangerous levels of toxicity in the water.
The Bay is a found-footage horror flick in the guise of an environmental documentary, which adds an additional layer to the already scary scenario, and the timeliness of the subject matter makes the events depicted in the story seem all the more plausible. The highly underrated film was directed by Oscar winner Barry Levinson for Blumhouse.
Truth to Legend
Putting sci-fi and horror movies aside, is it scientifically possible for insects or other creatures to burrow underneath human skin and lay their eggs? If you’re overly squeamish, you might want to stop reading now because my research says yes. In fact, there are numerous insects that are able to do just that, including scabies and various types of flies.
One of the most interesting facts about the Bosom Serpent legend is that it changes over time, reflecting our changing values and providing an interesting way to present a big dose of social commentary. What happens when the idea is crossed with a story that warns of environmental decline?
Have you seen The Bay? What is your favorite movie that deals with the Bosom Serpent legend? Let us know your thoughts on Twitter, in the official NOFS Subreddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!