Welcome to Science of the Scare! Every month I will dissect a Big Science Question from a horror movie and talk through it in (mostly) easy-to-digest terms.
Science and horror have a wild, entangled history and have left us with loads of questions to ponder. Deep, important questions like: just how many ways could we have a zombie pandemic? Is genetic engineering always a slippery slope to monstrosity? This month’s Big Science Question:
What happens when we intentionally expose plants to radiation?
This question comes at us directly from the 1950s — a decade in horror living in the aftermath of the atomic bombings of World War II. It was the decade that gave us Godzilla (1954), the giant ants of Them! (1954), and the human mutants of Day the World Ended (1955), all creatures born from nuclear weapon tests or strikes gone awry. One B-movie director, Bert I. Gordon, saw his career bloom in this climate, bringing us all sorts of giant insects and other nuclear creatures to enjoy.
Bert I. Gordon’s Beginning of the End (1957) is pretty standard fare for the Big Bug horrors of the 1950s: grasshoppers, monstrously embiggened by exposure to radioactive isotopes, can no longer be sustained by a plant-based diet. They go on a rampage, destroying cities and consuming human flesh. The effects are…low budget at best. The effect of monstrous grasshoppers conquering Chicago buildings is clearly achieved by having regular grasshoppers walk across a photograph of a building. Regardless, it’s a fun and worthwhile watch if you want to see a silly creature-feature. What I personally like the most about Beginning of the End is that, instead of focusing on the terror of nuclear warfare — a popular topic in horror during post-WW2/Cold War-era America — these grasshoppers were mutated thanks to eating crops being intentionally grown using radiation.
Reporter Audrey Aimes (Peggy Castle), eager to uncover the mystery of what destroyed a small Illinois town overnight, is the one to happen upon a greenhouse where scientist Dr. Ed Wainwright (Peter Graves) is carefully cultivating irradiated crops, which include giant strawberries and tomatoes.
Atomic gardening, or gamma gardening, was one of the very real, very weird radioactive fads to come about in the fallout of war time. It’s unclear where the rumor started, but reports popped up around 1947 that alleged that plants that grew in the atom-blasted soil in and around Nagasaki were larger and yielded more than regular crops. It wasn’t before government experiments enlisted farmers in the US to observe the effects of radiation on crops — essentially to understand just how messed up agriculture would become if an important crop-growing region got nuked, and also to see if radiation could in fact create useful mutations.
“[…] reports popped up around 1947 that alleged that plants that grew in the atom-blasted soil in and around Nagasaki were larger and yielded more than regular crops.”
Early gardens didn’t look anything like Ed Wainwright‘s cozy little greenhouse full of giant cultivars; instead, crops were planted wedges arranged in in concentric circles around a post (if that description seems confusing, just picture the radiation hazard symbol. It’s suspiciously similar). The central post contained a slug of some highly radioactive material (like cobalt-60) — material dangerous enough that if workers needed to walk into the crops, the post could be lowered into a lead chamber buried underground to protect them from exposure. Plants that were too close to the radiation died (surprise!), plants outside of the instant-death zone tended to grow with defects and tumors thanks to mutations. Even further out, plants appeared normal, but sometimes presented with unusual genetic traits. It was enough proof of concept for others to run with experimenting with irradiated seeds.
The crop that really caught on was Dr. Walton C. Gregory’s NC4x peanuts, which were blasted with x-rays (reportedly 17x the radiation that would kill a person). These peanuts were larger than regular peanuts and disease- and wilt-resistant. Public imagination was captivated: what would have taken nature hundreds, if not thousands, of years of mutations and evolution, radiation had accomplished in a single plant generation.
Irradiated seeds started appearing. It’s important to note that the plants produced from these seeds were not themselves radioactive, and they were safe to consume. Unlike previous follies with radioactive materials — radium-painted watches, thorium-infused toothpastes and lipsticks, radioactive cigarettes (as if plain cigarettes weren’t bad enough), and even radium condoms — gamma gardening at least wasn’t toying with human health. The chance of some grasshoppers noshing on a giant radioactive strawberry and growing to the size of a school bus was a big fat zero.
“Dr. Walton C. Gregory’s NC4x peanuts […] were larger than regular peanuts and disease- and wilt-resistant. Public imagination was captivated […]”
The atomic gardening fad eventually faded out in the sixties when hobbyists became frustrated and bored – irradiated seeds aren’t guaranteed to grow something interesting, if grow at all. But the gardens did produce food variants that we still eat today. If you enjoy foods like grapefruit or peppermint, it’s likely that the variant that you picked up at the grocery store has an irradiated crop in its history. And even though there are more efficient ways of breeding plants with useful mutations, research gardens are still irradiating plants in the name of science today.
If you want to read more about what the horror genre was up to during the 1950s, I highly recommend checking out Colin Paradine’s Horror Movies 101 entry on the era.
What’s your favourite atomic B-movie origin story? Have a Big Science Question from horror that you’d like to see answered? Let us know over on Twitter, Reddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!