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? And this month’s question:
Could We Defeat Shape-Shifting Alien Parasites with Crushed-Up Caffeine Pills?
Aliens come to take over the Earth and they start their quiet siege at a high school in a small Ohio town. They infest the faculty first before moving on to the students, and they guzzle bottle after bottle of water. Luckily, the students at Herrington High already have what it takes to defeat these otherworldly enemies: they have caffeine.
I love The Faculty (1998, dir. Robert Rodriguez); I really, really do. But killing advanced, shape-shifting aliens with coffee seems like a stretch but I’ll admit that it makes loads more sense than the aliens from Signs coming to Earth only to be vulnerable to water. I want to know what the deal is with these aliens.
First, we need to learn a little bit more about this alien species’ biology and try to compare it (as much as we can) to something that exists here on Earth. Thankfully, The Faculty gives us a whole scene with the students hanging out with their cool science teacher, Mr. Furlong (Jon Stewart), where everyone offers really technical information that most teenagers wouldn’t know (and broadcasts the research the writers did for the script). “Could it be gnathostomulida?” says bad-boy Zeke (Josh Hartnett), because casually dropping nomenclature makes him cool and mysterious. He’s a contradiction.
By the by, Zeke‘s guess wasn’t bad. Gnathostomulida, also known as a Jaw Worms, are…worms with jaws. The Faculty‘s creatures also have jaws and nifty claw-like structures that pull back skin to reveal their teeth! Jaw Worms even have cilia, little hair-like projections, all over their bodies like shorter versions of the strange and stringy filaments that sprout on The Faculty‘s parasite when they put it in water. They live in underwater muck along coastlines and can survive where there’s almost no oxygen. But also: they’re really, really small. Not microscopic (more like: one millimetre long), but definitely not big enough for Casey (Elijah Wood) to randomly spot in the grass on the football field.
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Here’s what else we can decipher from the Science Class Scene’s jargon:
- “A certain mesozoan only occurs in the kidney of certain octopuses and squids”: “mesozoan” is a term for parasites that infect sea creatures, but that are not single-celled protozoa. The “certain” mesozoan Mr. Furlong is referring to are the worm-like dicyemid mesozoans, whose larvae mature inside squid kidneys.
- “It’s a pelagic organism.”: it lives in water. So, why is it in the land-locked Midwestern state of Ohio?
- “check the follicles on its underbelly”: it’s got organs to sprout hair-like structures
- “It’s not annelid or mollusca”: it’s not from the same family as earthworms, leeches, clams, or slugs.
Basically, these aliens are clearly parasites and need to stay wet. This jibes with what we end up learning about the aliens, which is that their planet has dried up, so they thought they’d come to our ocean-covered world and infest our mostly-water human bodies.
Fun fact: Remember Mrs. Brummel (Susan Willis), the one teacher whose body rejected the alien infection? As humans age, our muscles atrophy and our kidneys get worse at reabsorbing water into the body. When this starts to happen, you see a huge dip in the body’s water content. So, it wasn’t just that Mrs. Brummel was old and couldn’t handle being infected. She was old and her body was too dry to sustain the parasites.
“The lethal dose for caffeine in humans is 10,000 milligrams — somewhere around 100 cups of coffee or way more caffeine pills than you can fit into a single hollow pen.”
For a parasite that loves water, it makes sense that it wants to steer clear from caffeine. Caffeine is a diuretic, especially if you don’t normally consume coffee. It makes your body produce more urine, and if you’re peeing out a bunch of water without replenishing it, you can get dehydrated. From personal experience, don’t drink tea to hydrate yourself before you donate blood or the nurse will turn you away, telling you that your veins are “flat as pancakes”. That said, for most people, it’s considered a pretty mild diuretic. One study has suggested that drinking coffee has the same diuretic effects as drinking plenty of water, which sort of crushes this entire caffeine-kills-the-aliens theory right here.
Scat, Zeke‘s homebrewed drug concoction, is crushed-up caffeine pills and “some other household shit” poured into emptied ballpoint pens. A typical caffeine pill has 100 – 200 mg of caffeine, about the same as a mug or two of coffee. It’s hard to guess at how many pills are crushed into each pen-dose, but according to Zeke it’s “Guaranteed to Jack You Up”, so let’s say it’s at least the maximum safe dose of 400 mg, if not more. The lethal dose for caffeine in humans is 10,000 milligrams — somewhere around 100 cups of coffee or way more caffeine pills than you can fit into a single hollow pen.
We first see Scat in action against the parasites when Zeke stabs a Scat-filled pen into Mr. Furlong‘s eye. One pen was enough to do the trick. Then we see Delilah (Jordana Brewster) snort at least part of a pen-full of Scat. It doesn’t kill her like it did Mr. Furlong; instead it sends the parasites swarming desperately under her skin. Finally, Casey is able to do away with the Alien Queen in the same style as Mr. Furlong — by jabbing a single dose of Scat straight into its eye. I don’t know about you, but doesn’t it seem like the Queen should have required more Scat to take it down? It seems like it would take more than a single dose to dehydrate a giant alien creature.
So, let’s return to a creature that we know we can kill with caffeine: the lowly slug. I know that we’ve already established that these aliens are probably not related to slugs, but there isn’t exactly a body of scientific literature on how caffeine affects alien parasites. There is plenty of data on caffeine versus slugs. In one case, when scientists tried spraying slugs with caffeine to see what would happen (they were originally trying to use the caffeine to deal with invasive frogs that were eating plants in Hawaii, but noticed that the slugs started dying), they saw that the slugs died with as little as 0.5% caffeine solutions and started having heart irregularities with solutions containing 0.1% caffeine.
“Water probably wouldn’t save [the alien parasites] if caffeine were a neurotoxin with a minimal lethal dose.”
Here’s the kicker: it doesn’t seem like the caffeine was killing the slugs because it was drying them out. Instead, the caffeine was acting as a lethal neurotoxin. Given how actively Marybeth (Laura Harris) was trying to avoid caffeine, it’s possibly because she’s worried about more than just getting dehydrated. If it were just dehydration, she might have been able to get away with snorting some of the Scat and just chug a few water coolers’ worth of water to replenish herself (assuming that she has more self-control as the Queen than the immature parasites do when exposed to caffeine). Water probably wouldn’t save her if caffeine were a neurotoxin with a minimal lethal dose.
There you have it: one pen-full of Zeke‘s Scat probably doesn’t pack enough punch to dehydrate an alien Queen, but it is enough to poison her nervous system.
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