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:
How does an alien parasite survive if its host is frozen?
The premise of Fred Dekker’s Night of the Creeps (1986) is pretty wild: in 1959, a possessed alien goes rogue and jettisons a mysterious experiment tube out into space. It falls to Earth near a small town where some unlucky 1950s teens are necking in the woods. When one leaves his car to investigate, he ends up infected by parasites contained within the tube; his girlfriend is murdered by a violent psychiatric patient who also happens to have escaped that same evening. The parasite doesn’t get a chance to wreak havoc until 25 years later, when campus outcasts Chris Romero (Jason Lively) and J.C. (short for James Cameron) Hooper (Steve Marshall) are dared by the fraternity jock-types to find a dead body from the college’s research lab and drop it on another fraternity’s front step (all this to impress a girl, of course). What they find instead is the infested boyfriend from 1959, cryogenically frozen in a basement lab. The moment he thaws, he unleashes the alien threat that he’s been incubating for a quarter of a century.
The parasites in question are B-Grade Cronenbergian slugs from space. They can survive outside of a host, slithering around at outrageous speeds, zooming up people’s pant legs and trying to get into their bodies any way they can. Once they find a host, they kill it, control it, and multiply inside it until the host body’s head explodes and ejects more slugs that can then slither off and infect someone else. You know, standard parasitoid fare but sluggier.
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The way these alien slugs take over the body reminds me a lot of parasitoid wasp larvae. Healthy caterpillars are infected by parasitoid wasp eggs, the eggs hatch into larvae that feed on the caterpillar from within, pupate, and emerge many and squirming from the caterpillar’s dead and otherwise empty caterpillar husks as adults. Night of the Creeps parasites manage to survive decades inside a cryogenically frozen guy. Maybe surprisingly, this has some precedence in real life.
If you’re a fan of The X-Files, you might remember the very The Thing (1980)-inspired season one episode “Ice”, where parasitic ice worms are discovered in thawed ice cores at an Alaskan research base. Besides paying homage to Carpenter and his source material, the John W. Campbell short story Who Goes There?, episode co-writer Glen Morgan has also cited research expeditions that found ancient artifacts (and ancient soil) under the Greenland ice sheets. Of course, he wondered what else the ice might hold. The worms of Morgan and Wong’s imagination were also parasitic (and, Mulder believed, extraterrestrial), and the rendered their hosts paranoid and aggressive.
“Russian scientists found and allegedly revived two species of tiny roundworms […] that have been frozen within the Siberian permafrost for over 40,000 years.”
More recently, and in real life, Russian scientists found and allegedly revived two species of tiny roundworms known as nematodes (a sampling of only female nematodes apparently – girl power!) that have been frozen within the Siberian permafrost for over 40,000 years. The worms even hold a Guinness World Record for their feat of cryopreservation. You might also remember that in 2014, the Siberian permafrost also turned up a mysterious ancient virus (that luckily only infects single-celled organisms like amoebas). It’s certainly not the weirdest thing that scientists have investigated with ice-bound discoveries. I mean, we’ve found enough intact-ish Woolly Mammoth DNA for scientists to debate Jurassic Park-ing it with elephant DNA to see what might happen. (spoiler: it’s more complicated than you might think.)
But as far as we know, those Ice Age nematodes are definitely earthly. What are the odds of a frozen alien parasite causing problems on Earth? As far back as around 624 – 524 BCE, philosophers have posited that the building blocks of life exist scattered across the universe and so can find ways to achieve interplanetary spread. A more contemporary take on the Panspermia Hypothesis would be that microbes from other planets might find ways to Earth, either by hitching a ride in a meteorite and surviving entry into our atmosphere or by getting picked up on a space mission. True to the genre, horror has, of course, explored both meteorite and space mission infestations. We Earthlings are likely contaminating other planets with our Earth microbes on our missions. Despite our best decontamination efforts from sticky mats that trap the dirt from shoes, to forced air showers to blow away dirt and dust, we’ve tracked earthly bacterial spores surviving just fine in low Earth orbit on the ISS. They have also found their way onto the Mars Rover.
It’s hard to say how a human body would react to an alien parasite, given that we don’t have much information about the parasite in terms of their biology or microbiology and how they attack human cells. We can assume at least that an alien parasite would be so foreign that our immune systems wouldn’t be equipped to fight them, just as we might be more at risk to novel viruses (or viruses against which we haven’t been vaccinated). Even in terms of what the melting permafrost has yielded in the past decade, scientists have been speculating that there may be a risk that one day (thanks to our changing global climate) the melt will yield an ancient human pathogen that our bodies are no longer equipped to resist.
Despite the events of Night of the Creeps unfolding in a way that would win big money on Low Probability Bingo, I really like how the space slugs contaminate campus and spread. As a die-hard, I feel weird saying this but, this movie’s model for a space slug epidemic is more interesting (in terms of risk) than The Faculty‘s, where the alien slugs and host develop a sort of symbiosis that benefits them both and they can potentially evolve together. The case in Night of the Creeps is purely parasitoid where the aliens are the only winners and the hosts become used-up human husks.
“…scientists have been speculating that there may be a risk that one day […] the melt will yield an ancient human pathogen that our bodies are no longer equipped to resist.”