Entomophobia, the irrational fear of insects, is a pervasive but rarely celebrated part of our culture. That is until 34 years ago when the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign first began its annual Insect Fear Film Festival (IFFF). Described by Todd Johnson, a graduate student within the department, as “the brainchild” of Department Head May Berenbaum, the IFFF is an event of which the department is very proud.

The theme of this year’s IFFF is “Illinois Alumnus Paul Hertzberg Insect Fear Films.” Hertzberg graduated from the U of I in 1971, moving on to produce 150 films including the two that will be viewed at this year’s IFFF. Each film will be introduced by Berenbaum, who in the words of Johnson, “is great at putting films into larger contexts, discussing how and why we may think the things we do, for instance is it an aversion to things that are unknown or look different from us, or perhaps the film(s) speak to our relationship to technology. May is also excellent at identifying which of the science is real or not.” The first film, 2 Lava 2 Lantula (2016) is the SyFy sequel to 2016’ Lavalantula and will begin shortly after 7:15 p.m. The second film, Caved In (2006), will be viewed following a 9 p.m. Q&A session with Hertzberg himself.

Other activities will include an insect and arthropod petting zoo. Creepy crawlies available for up-close exploration will be Madagascar hissing cockroaches; deaths head roaches, Florida skunk roaches, many more roaches, an Arizona hairy scorpion, a rose hair tarantula, and more. For those less inclined to get hands-on face painting, displays featuring insects from around the world, balloon-insects, and the Annual IFFF Art Contest featuring art from all ages and grade levels from area schools. Prizes for the art contest will be announced at 7 p.m.

So is a fear or phobia of insects warranted? To find out, I sat down with Johnson to discuss the IFFF, insect fear and find out where our concerns should really lie from someone devoting their life to insect study. As with anything, what makes good film depends on what you like, but what many people including Johnson find enjoyable about insect fear films is that many insect fear films exist within incredible extremes. They can be, quite literally, larger than life. Johnson also enjoys seeing insect fear films that reflect how insects behave in nature, especially parasitoids.

Try not the let the films get to you too much though. You don’t have to enjoy horror to enjoy insect fear film says Johnson. Insect fear film is actually a large subgenre that dabbles in horror/dread as well as the absurd. Johnson contends that, as with many fears and prejudices, these fearful responses are learned behaviors and exposure matters.

Insects are visually and behaviorally alien to us but they also perform many important ecological purposes, Johnson explained. They may bite, jump, and squirt, but many insect characteristics are not meant to directly harm or impact the lives of humans. At the same time, he acknowledges that some insect concerns are warranted. Insects are often associated with unhygienic conditions and can pose threats to public health, especially within species that serve as vectors of diseases. In addition, many species of insect damage important crops. “It makes sense to have an antagonistic relationship with insects, but not with all insects all the time,” Johnson told me.

What Johnson finds most concerning are vectors of disease, such as mosquitoes, whose range will increase as climates become increasingly warm. Instead of being fearful of the insects themselves, Johnson urges the community to become more informed about larger and more tangibly dangerous concerns pertaining to insects and our environment.

So how should you increase your exposure to insects and engage in a bit of immersion therapy? Go to the 2017 Insect Fear Film Festival of course. This year’s festival will take place this Saturday, February 25th at Foellinger Auditorium from 6-11 p.m. The event is free and open to the public, featuring events, activities and learning opportunities catered to every one of every age and every insect fear level.

2 Lava 2 Lantula is rated TV-14. Caved In is rated R for violence and gore. 

Photos courtesy of the U of I Department of Entomology.