Armies of the Night: Satan's Fetus Stalks the Suburbs, Conclusion

by guest writer Mark Dery

Franco Folini/Creative Commons

Yet, in the mass imagination, the Jerusalem cricket is more than merely evil; it is uncanny. The insect’s folk names—niña de la tierra and cara de niño (Spanish for “child of the earth” and “child’s face,” respectively), wó see ts’inii (Navajo for “skull insect”) and, more recently, “Satan’s fetus”—hint at the psychological roots of its effect on us. In his inexhaustible essay, “The Uncanny,” Freud cites Ernst Jentsch’s theory that what makes the uncanny so disquieting is that it destabilizes the either/or logic of our culture, perverts the philosophical binaries that structure the Western worldview: inanimate/animate, organic/mechanical, and so forth. Uncanny things are border-crossers.

As “Satan’s fetus” and other such names suggest, the bald, bulbous-headed insect’s uncanniness has much to do with its humanoid appearance, specifically its disconcerting resemblance to a human baby—a resemblance enhanced by the widespread belief that stenopelmatids can cry like babies. (Not true, although they can produce a squeaking, called stridulation, by rubbing their hind legs against their abdomens.) JCs stand at the uncanny intersection of cute and eeeeeyewwwww. They put a face, at once cuddly and repugnant, on Daniel Harris’s argument in Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism that

cuteness is not an aesthetic in the ordinary sense of the word and must be by no means mistaken for the physically appealing, the attractive. In fact, it is closely linked to the grotesque, the malformed. [...] The grotesque is cute because the grotesque is pitiable, and pity is the primary emotion of this seductive and manipulative aesthetic that arouses our sympathies by creating anatomical pariahs, like Cabbage Patch Dolls... Something becomes cute not necessarily because of a quality it has but because of a quality it lacks, a certain neediness and inability to stand alone, as if it were an indigent starveling, lonely and rejected because of a hideousness we find more touching than unsightly.

Speaking for the vocal minority on who find Stenopelmatus cute, a user named Wyldbrry argues Harris’s point:

[T]wo months ago...I saw a potato bug for the first time. [...] When I saw him I stumbled back in fear. But my curiosity got the best of me and I came forward and stared into his beady eyes. He must have slapped some kind of mind control mojo on me ‘cause my next thought was, “aw poor little fella, he’s kinda cute in an ugly sort of way.”

Not only are JCs uncanny, but like all insects they’re irrevocably alien; maybe even more so than most members of class Insecta. Californians marvel, for example, at the bizarre sight of JCs marching lemminglike into ponds or pools. Inevitably, the insects drown, at which point a wriggling, whip-like thing—the parasitic horsehair worm (Gordius robustus or Paragordius varius)—bursts forth (out of the insect’s anus, if you must know), swimming off in search of a mate and leaving its host to die. According to Weissman, JCs ingest the worm when eating “dead material.” The worm takes up residence in the insect’s gut, where it hatches, after which it “cleans out the Jerusalem cricket, eats its internal organs.” All the while, the host animal behaves like any normal JC, blithely unconcerned that it’s being gnawed hollow. When the time is right, the worm releases hormones that inspire the insect’s irresistible compulsion to drown itself. This sort of parasitism is common enough among insects; from an anthropocentric perspective, though, it looks unspeakably alien.

The cricket’s alien nature—alien from a human’s-eye view, at least—trips the wires of our species-centric xenophobia. “There is nothing man fears more than the touch of the unknown,” said Elias Canetti, to which we might add: whether it’s nature or culture. Most Californians’ chain of unreasoning, upon encountering Stenopelmatus for the first time, goes something like:

A. What is it? I’ve never seen anything like it. B. It’s weird. And ugly. Disgustingly ugly. Evil ugly.
C. Must kill it, kill it dead before it contaminates my world.

“People write to me and say, ‘Gee, I saw this thing; I smashed it; I poured lighter fluid on it and lit it—would you like it?’” says Weissman. “People have this extreme reaction...” JCs arouse our fear of nature, a cultural neurosis that is, at its roots, a pathological fear of all that is Other. In the popular unconscious, stenopelmatids stand in not only for The Wild but for the illegal alien, who emerges at night to tunnel under la linea, the wall of steel.

We have always had, since the day we settled here, a gentle understanding with the creatures who live beyond our borders: we do not stray into their woods; they do not come into our village.- M. Night Shyamalan, The Village

On landuse and planning maps, of course, the division between “developed” and “undeveloped” areas is drawn as a straight-edged border. Spuriously precise boundaries likewise define parks, wildlife refuges, national forests, and official wilderness areas. In reality, there is an infinitely more intricate interpenetration of the wild and the urban. [...] Coyotes and cougars...are unwelcome heralds of a breakdown in the clear-cut, impermeable, but essentially imaginary boundary between the human and the wild.- Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster

In M. Night Shyamalan’s movie The Village, a group of middle-class whites, post-traumatically stressed by the Senseless Violence of Our Times, build their own private Idaho—actually, a cruelty-free Colonial Williamsburg, hidden from the modern world by a wild wood on loan from the Brothers Grimm.

The only downside to this Fantasy Island for Real Simple readers is the ever-present menace of Those We Do Not Speak Of, hulking, hairy creatures who patrol the borders of the dark and trackless wood. Of course, borders are made to be breached: the village idiot sneaks into the Forbidden Woods, and the monsters from the wrong side of the tracks—er, trees—go wilding through the all-white village, leaving mutilated house pets as their calling cards.

Sure, the movie is a big, fat tub of Jolly Time® Blast-O-Butter® Popcorn for the mind. Still, Shyamalan’s bogeymen have a message for us: the age of tidy dualisms is well and truly over; in the chaos and complexity of our times, sharp distinctions are a philosophical mirage. White-flight exurbanites may circle the wagons, in gated communities, against gangbangers and border-crossers, and nativist demagogues may demand a ring of steel around Fortress America—a levee against the flood of immigrants threatening, in the immortal words of Dr. Strangelove’s General Jack D. Ripper, “to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” But whatever we repress always comes back to bite us, whether it be the race-based inequities that breed Bloods and Crips or the economic dealmaking that turns a blind eye on illegal immigration or our centuries-old policy of eradicating whatever wild nature we can’t domesticate.

That’s why Shyamalan’s villagers are forever and always speaking of Those We Do Not Speak Of. And that’s why there’s a low-lying fear in California’s sprawl country, an anxiety that occasionally blossoms into collective panic attacks. Out where the McMansions meet California’s wild edge, white exurbanites’ worries assume mythic form. In the dark chaparral beyond the last street light, nebulous fears—of inner-city pathologies and the Browning of America and feral nature closing in—take palpable shape: pet-killing coyotes, cougars with a taste for birdwatchers and bikers, alien invaders from south of the border, Jerusalem crickets on the march.

To connoisseurs of California absurdism, the stealthy penetration of suburbia’s perimeter by small swarthy aliens on the prowl after dark sounds suspiciously familiar. In the cultural firefight over illegal immigration, defenders of our declining empire conjure visions of a Brown Peril, overrunning the border like some biblical plague. On the hairy-eyed nativist fringe, “cockroach” is a well-worn term of opprobrium, as in blog comments like: “Here in California, the Mexicans are breeding like might sound racist, but its [sic] true. Their culture revolves around filth and corruption.”

In typical Trickster fashion, Chicanos have appropriated the slur and used it as a stick to beat the devil, as in The Revolt of the Cockroach People, Oscar Zeta Acosta’s novel about the Brown Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Or La Cucaracha, Lalo Alcaraz’s stingingly funny comic strip about pochos (Spanglish-speaking Mexican-Americans, caught in the double consciousness of their parents’ Mexican traditions and the Gringolandia in which they grew up). Or this ha-ha-only-serious post on the blog Corrente:

Principles of cockroach people:

  1. Avoid the Man. If the light shines on you, scatter.

 2. Survive. Some of you will be stomped and gassed. Make sure the rest survive.

 3. Don’t believe what you hear or read. Promises are just words.

 4. There are more of you than there are of them who would destroy you.

 5. Very few people like cockroaches. Beware of those who claim they do.

 6. Gather what you need to survive.

 7. The cockroaches have survived every attempt to eradicate them; they will prevail.

 8. When the chance comes, move in a mass to secure food and territory. 

In a sense, we are all cockroach people, pests, vermin, the sworn enemies of the bugman and his exterminators.

At a time when camo-clad vigilantes patrol the US-Mexico border and cazamigrantes (migrant hunters) have declared open season on illegal aliens, tales of suburbanites terrorized by vermin resembling giant cucharachas can’t help but sound like social satire. For Californians living in the free-fire borderlands, stumbling on a big, brown insect creeping surreptitiously through their homes is just one more Close Encounter with the Darker Other. 

(c) Mark Dery; all rights reserved. A shorter version of this essay first appeared in the (now out-of-print) spring 2007 issue of Cabinet magazine. Reprinted by permission of the author.


  1. You know, as a Mexican I really don´t know what to say about this XD

    I believe people around the world, not only in the US, have been freaking out about big scary insects for a long time, much longer than they have been freaking out about "cockroach people". It is not an American reaction, but a human reaction. Big bugs are scary to most people; the bigger and scarier they are, the more dangerous. It is not always true, of course, but it's the way our brains are wired to see things. Maybe a legacy from our African ancestors, when they shared the savannahs and forests with Baboon Spiders and other large, aggressive, moderately dangerous bugs.

  2. This question of where we get our phobias always fascinates me. Your theory makes a lot of sense, but I've also seen a study (actually several, I think, but I know I have one in my files) which says these phobias are not equally distributed. Arachnophobia is apparently much more common among people of Northern European descent than in other ethnic groups. And of course, northern Europe is not a likely place to meet dangerous spiders. I don't know how to explain that.

    On Mark Dery's point--It's a sensitive matter, to say the least. When I lived in the Los Angeles area, I was disturbed to realize how much racial tension was in the air, rarely mentioned, but visible in small and subtle ways. It's not too difficult for me to imagine it peeking out even in a seemingly irrelevant matter like bug-phobia.

    I'll give you an example of bug-talk masking something else, something I wrote about in The Red Hourglass. It was an older book on the black widow spider. The odd thing about this book from the 1940s was the way it kept referring, without scientific evidence, to the creeping menace of widows spreading across the US. At one point it actually compared widows to communists. (Both hide their "red" underneath, it said.) It was easy to see what the authors were really concerned about, strange as it seemed. I suppose this could just be a nutty, isolated example, but it certainly convinced me to take seriously the idea that one sort of paranoia can leak over into others.

    Still, one needn't be culturally uptight to get scared of a big bug. I certainly wouldn't pretend anybody in particular has ulterior motives for a simple gut reaction. I think Dery is speaking more of a general level of tension, a higher propensity to get scared of one thing if you're already scared of another.

  3. I remember having the "big bug" conversation with one of my teachers in high school--Mr. Cameron was quite the philosopher. We agreed after some back-and-forth that bugs, by their nature, are strange and alien (all those extra legs, horns, feelers, mouthparts and God alone knows what else)and a small minority are capable of inflicting serious pain or even death. And even those that are harmless, like Jersualem crickets, don't always look it. Something about the idea of such a little creature being able to hurt something as big and powerful as a human strikes at our basic sense of "rightness" whereas bears, sharks, cats, even snakes seem more...logically threatening, I guess, is the best way to put it.

    Another thing that makes big bugs (I use this in the non-scientific sense to include arachnids and myriapods too) scary is that we--especially in the US and Europe, I don't know if this has anything to do with the arachnophobes referenced, but it kind of makes sense to me--have a preconceived notion that "all bugs are small." The most obvious exceptions in our culture and/or environment--dragonflies and butterflies--are generally visible at long-range, do not bother us in any way, and are deemed attractive by most people (associated with spring and summer.) Coming upon an unknown insect of unusual size suddenly, at close range, again violates that preconception of order that we humans are so fond of.

  4. That makes a lot of sense. Yet I wonder where we got the idea that bugs are alien; they may be different from us, but we have never lived in an environment without them.We ought to be used to them by now. Even if the question is size, no human population can have existed without occasionally encountering big bugs. Even in northern Europe, some of the Tegenaria are pretty big.

  5. Spiders seem to enjoy a special status--I believe more people fear them than fear snakes, according to one study. Part of this is the anthropomorphism spiders invite--female spiders (not just widows) consuming smaller, weaker males; and the horrible idea of being tied up and helpless if we imagine ourselves in the place of an insect (think of Mary Howitt's grim little poem about stranger danger, "The Spider and the Fly.")

    As a child, I was terrified of spiders, having had ample opportunity as a country kid to see them capture, wrap up and eat all sorts of unfortunate insects--the slow, deliberate movements of a web-builder seem cruel to a child's eyes, as though the spider is playing with the doomed insect. Such experiences may be at the root of "selective arachnophobia"--people who profess to hate spiders but are not bothered by tarantulas, and sometimes not by wolf or jumping spiders either. (I've met a few such folks.)

    In northern Europe, I'd count the male stag beetle as a big, intimidating bug, yet there seem to be no superstitions about him. People evidently know he's a harmless guy. This suggests some of the fear quotient is based on the eerie, nervous movements many bugs and spiders exhibit, in contrast to the stag beetle's plodding walk. The mantis, too, is largely tolerated and even enjoyed by people who ardently hate most bugs, and I think this is only secondarily due to its sometimes beneficial eating habits--it is in at least part, I think, due to the overall upright stance and slow gait of the mantis, which invite us to see it as "one of us."

  6. The mantis also has a sort of face, which may make it less creepy to some.

    I hadn't thought of the tying-up aspect of the spider as fearful, but it makes a lot of sense.

    The mate-eating habit seems to me less likely to have influenced phobias historically, as I think most casual observers didn't know about it until the "black widow" was publicized under that name in the early 20th century. Fabre vividly described mate-eating in mantids, and it was only after that point that this trope of bugs as sexual predators entered Western culture. I suspect US culture, particularly, was ready to imagine and receive such a trope, for complicated reasons having nothing to do with bugs. When Comstock applied the name "black widow" to Latrodectus spiders, it very quickly spread beyond nature studies--into films and novels, for example, always applied to a femme fatale character. Of course the spiders had been around, occasionally eating their mates, long before humans noticed the behavior; but once science (or rather nature studies) pointed it out, it caught fire in the popular imagination. I believe the culture's anxiety about gender roles at that point explains why this trope caught on, and also suggests something about how phobias work: they are often based on some scrap of truth, but the real emotional charge may come from other, irrelevant anxieties that somehow get focused on those little scraps. Of course I'm deep in Freudian territory here and probably full of crap.


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