William Castle’s final film, Bug (1975), begins with entomologist James Parmiter (Bradford Dillman) dropping off his wife Carrie (Joanna Miles) at church while he himself takes off for work. This opening scene initially strikes viewers as puzzling. Why does this couple not attend church together? Why is Carrie going to services so early on a weekday? One might just chalk up such implausibilities to the fact that this is a William Castle production, but as it turns out, this opening scene is deliberately constructed in order to set the tone for the rest of the story, which develops into an allegory focusing on the conflict between religion and science.
As Carrie enters the church, the priest is in the midst of a sermon, warning his flock that they are living through a time of nihilism. Immorality, violence and sin are rampant amongst the population. “People are filled with suspicion and hate. They ask if God is dead,” he proclaims, and moments later, an earthquake strikes, tearing the church to pieces. Here is a clear sign that all is not well; not only in this small California town but in the world as a whole. Something uncanny is at work; something possessing profound, wide reaching, metaphysical importance.
Juxtaposed with the religious tone of the priest’s opening nihilistic proclamations, we next hear James Parmiter deliver his own nihilistically laden observations, but this time within a scientific context. In a college classroom he lectures his biology students about the fallen condition of humankind, explaining that humans at one point could communicate with the animals, but have become so radically alienated from the rest of the world that they are now cut off from nature. He illustrates his point by making cooing sounds toward a squirrel that has found its way into the classroom, luring it to climb onto his shoulder. Communication with the animal world is possible, but humans have forgotten how to discourse with nature. Once we lived in harmony with the earth. Now it baffles us.
This idea – that humans are alienated, fallen, and separated from their world – is the core message of Bug. During the 1970’s this was a common theme in a whole crop of eco-horror films, such as Phase IV (1974), Grizzly (1976), Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), Day of the Animals (1977), The Swarm (1978), Piranha (1978), Slithis (1978), Prophesy (1979), etc. What sets the movie Bug apart from some of these other, in many ways technically superior, films is its intense and sustained focus on the metaphysical implications of this separation. In Bug, what is depicted is not a situation in which humans have despoiled their surroundings so that they must now confront some sort of monstrous threat to physical survival. No, in this film the problem seems to have little to do with environmental despoilment. Rather, it has to do with spiritual alienation and human separation from God. In this sense, it may be more accurate to classify Bug not as an example of eco-horror, but rather alongside films such as The Exorcist (1973), The Sentinel (1977), and one of William Castle’s other movies, Rosemary’s Baby (1968). In these films, the threat depicted is not so much physical as it is metaphysical, emanating from a realm beyond the visible, and threatening something far greater than mere bodily harm. The threat in these films is the threat of spiritual damnation.
The “bugs” referred to in the film’s title are large, fire producing cockroaches that pour forth from a fissure in the earth following the earthquake that destroys the town church. We are encouraged to think of them as a kind of “hellspawn” in their association with deep chasms, fire and danger to the Christian faith. They are, thus, a metaphor symbolizing wickedness and the dangers of Hell. These bugs are initially blind, sluggish and incapable of traveling very far because they are used to living deep within the core of the planet where the pressure is extremely intense. It even appears once they reach the surface – after provoking at bit of local mayhem and chaos – that they may quickly die out. What keeps them from doing so, however, are the efforts of James Parmiter, who first builds a pressure chamber to keep them alive, and then breeds them with normal, native cockroaches, modifying their genetic and physical structure so that they might adapt to their new surface environment. Without the help of humans, it seems, evil cannot survive.
Parmiter’s own wife, Carrie, is incinerated by the bugs, and it is his grief over her death that sends him into isolation and madness. In one sense, he simply loses his mind, withdrawing from his community and his students while developing an insane obsession with the creatures that killed his wife. However, there is a deeper sense in which this obsession is an illustration of the more general human preoccupation with manipulation of nature in the vain attempt to overcome mortality. As Parimeter continues to experiment with the bugs, they learn to communicate with him, and he becomes more and more invested in their survival. After losing his wife, he wants to make the bugs immortal. In his grief, he wants to use science to defy the order of nature. Such existentialist themes permeate the film, and are reinforced when the wife of Parmiter’s colleague, Sylvia (Patty McKormick), visits him with the excuse of returning the dead Carrie’s Bible. Sylvia is killed by the bugs while she vainly swats at them with the holy book. Afterwards, Parimeter discovers her body and retrieves his wife’s Bible, but by now it is too late. His scientific inquiries have isolated him from God, setting into motion an unnatural catastrophe that cannot be reversed.
Parmiter is doomed because he has defied his God. In a surreal, pessimistic and apocalyptic finale, he is swallowed by a hellish, red glowing chasm as a swarm of now sighted, winged bugs fly up and out of the earth, aggressively targeting him in an attack. He is their god, and now they will kill him. Their newly developed eyes stare out of the darkness, as if they are accusing him of a crime against nature.
Bug begins with the announcement of God’s death, and it ends with the main character – a scientist – descending into a fiery pit. It seems that science and religion just can’t get along. At least in this film, they pull in two separate directions: one toward Heaven and the other toward the earth.