Betty Lou’s Treasure Trove: Mannequin Horror Summer Series by Jennifer Weigel, Chapter 4
The weekend skidded by, lost to prepping for the big art history exam on the Bauhaus that Tuesday. Pauline huffed an audible sigh of relief following the test; she had identified the slides easily and felt confident in her essay writing. Apparently, all of the studying had paid off, and now she could relax. She had completely forgotten about the basement workroom until she pulled up to the store and a switch flicked on in her mind.
Chester was outside, moving some of the mannequins around to showcase the new front window display in the making. He hefted the children away from the bench and strapped them to the pole with the flag waving Elvis wannabe and his doe-eyed girlfriend. Pauline looked at the window and was taken aback; the lovely blonde mannequin was poised front and center, sporting a flowy teal formal gown with sequin accents from the late 1940s. Her blonde hair cascaded over her shoulders.
Chester’s eyes met Pauline’s gaze and he waved an abrupt hello.
“She’s a beaut, isn’t she?” he called out. “Just finished working on her this weekend.”
Pauline waved back with a slight roll of her fingertips nodding, unable to speak. She opened the door to be greeted heartily by Betty Lou, who was nestled in her corner watching the television for a change of pace, tuned in to an unfamiliar old game show in which a man dressed in a chicken suit was deciding something between a door and a box.
“You’re almost there, hon,” Betty Lou exclaimed from her ledger, taking note of how many hours she’d worked. “You’ll have that mannequin worked off in no time. I even put a SOLD sign on her for you. One or two more days and she’ll be yours… Now can you rearrange that front window? Chester’s finished his newest creation, and I want to make sure she gets all the attention she deserves.” She gestured towards the new blonde mannequin with her meaty hand. “Just clear out all of that junk around her feet and finish setting up that dollhouse display.”
Pauline drifted to the front window. The mannequin appeared much more static than she had when Pauline had confronted her downstairs, her skin less waxy and her eyes distant and dry. She stood sentry, staring out into the parking lot. Betty Lou’s voice drifted over, “She’s a pretty one. Looks just like that girl Dinah, who worked here before you came along…”
Apparently Chester had just piled everything to the side as he readied his new mannequin for her debut, and he and Betty Lou had been waiting for Pauline to clear the things out. Pauline picked up a couple of boxes of shoes from the heap next to the mannequin’s feet and hauled them to the shoe rack a couple of clothing displays over. There was a dollhouse and a box of doll furnishings and accessories at the ready, and once Pauline found new homes for all four boxes of shoes and wigs, she set to work on putting the dollhouse together. She could barely make out a trailing tiny and distant sound, like far away moaning, but it was largely drowned out by the television in Betty Lou’s corner. In fact, it was only barely audible within arm’s distance of the new mannequin, and only if Pauline strained to hear it at quiet points in the show. It was the same soft crying she had heard in the basement, but much more distant and muted.
The dollhouse was vintage and was in relatively good shape but had remained unfinished. There were some rooms that were more complete than others, wallpapered and floored in ways that were aesthetically pleasing, and Pauline could identify where the kitchen, bathroom, dining room, and two bedrooms were likely supposed to be, arranging furnishings from the box accordingly. She set up a sort of parlor in another room, and a den in another, before she left for the day. Every so often as she worked, Pauline would glance up at the new blonde mannequin out of the corner of her eye. She had the distinct feeling that she was being watched, and the eerie sobbing was unnerving. But the mannequin just stood motionless, silently staring out the front window to greet anyone passing by the store.
Nightmarish Nature: Worrisome Wasps
This time on Nightmarish Nature we are examining wasps. Wasps are truly terrifying, and not just because some of them sting or are aggressive, though those are often the first ones we think of because we as humans come in conflict with them more directly. No, wasps are extremely varied and some are just outright bizarre… stinging doesn’t even begin to touch on the worst horrors they can inflict.
Now many wasps are actually very helpful to us humans. They act as pollinators and keep pests under control. But if you are another insect, especially a large or fleshy one bulking up, watch out. An encounter with the wrong wasps can mean an untimely and horrible death. A few wasp species will disassemble and eat insects bit by bit but that’s just the start of it, others do even more sinister things.
There are parasitic wasps that will lay their eggs in or on a host insect, like a large beetle, a cicada, a spider or a big juicy caterpillar – there’s pretty much a wasp for everything… A female may sting said insect to subdue it while she acts out her nefarious plans for the next generation (I once watched a spider hanging out in an outdoor potted plant whose fate was sealed, unaware of the horror that awaited it as a female wasp flitted on and around it, stinging and laying eggs before flying off again). Different wasps have different host insects and strategies for this, but the result is pretty much the same. Essentially, when the wasp’s eggs hatch, the larva will eat the creature from the inside out, either saving its vital organs for last or waiting until the time is right.
Caterpillars are especially susceptible to this in all stages of development: egg, caterpillar and pupa. Some species of wasps will lay eggs among caterpillar eggs, others will lay them within the caterpillar eggs, and still others will target the caterpillar itself, or even its pupa. Most build upon the host’s voracious appetite and ability to grow in mass so quickly, waiting until the opportune time to engage in their own frenzy of consumption. Some wasps will even target other wasps that target caterpillars, and this can go like four layers in – it’s like Inception level consumption from within.
And weirder still is the mutualism found between fig trees and very small wasp species. Both are dependent upon one another for their reproductive cycle to be complete. It’s very complicated and I won’t do justice to the cycle trying to explain it, so I recommend that you check it out here on the US Forest Service site.
Anyway to make a long story short, eating figs can even result in eating wasps. Crunch. Crunch. It isn’t actually all that terrifying though; the fig breaks down much of that matter (especially from the original female insect) to use itself as it ripens. And honestly a lot more foods contain insect parts than you may be comfortable with already, they’re pretty much in everything… So that horror aside, the coevolution of figs and wasps that has gotten them to this point is really quite remarkable.
Wasps are truly extraordinary. Many species are super specialized in their life and reproductive cycles. There are over 900 species of fig wasps alone, each dedicated to a different species of fig tree. And the parasitic wasps are also very specialized, with different species targeting different hosts at different stages of their development.
Nightmarish Nature: Freaky Fungus
Now I’m not talking about your aunt’s mushroom pate, I’m talking about mind-controlling tendrils of terror. They aren’t animals, they aren’t plants, they aren’t yummy mushroomy goodness, they aren’t magical (at least not the good kind of magic) and they’re actually kind of terrifying, especially if you’re a bug.
Essentially there are whole subspecies of cordyceps fungus (as well as others) that spread through insect hosts, and no, it’s not like a bad dinner party where your guests just don’t take hints but more a sort of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Well, more specifically like The Last of Us. Variants of these fungi are very targeted to specific bugs, and certain species of ants, beetles, spiders and even mantids can find themselves afflicted by this. The results aren’t pretty, and it’s also called zombie-ant fungus for good reason.
So the fungus spreads its spores through the air where they comes in contact with new host insects of its selected type and are absorbed into the body. Once they find an appropriate specimen they begin the takeover… An insect affected by the fungus will begin to behave oddly as the fungus signals its brain to act in ways that the fungus needs it to in order to complete its own life cycle. The host will not engage in its normal buggy activities while the fungus drains it of nutrients and prepares it for the next wave of terror. The fungus can even grow tendrils to control muscle movement, puppet-mastering the host’s body.
As the fungus grows and prepares to send forth spores, it sends signals to its host to climb as high as it can, perch atop a plant or blade of grass or whatnot, and clamp down with its jaws in a death grip, to contort itself into a perfect spore-dissemination cannon. The fungus will grow long tendril blooms out of the insect’s body to rain down more terror on new unsuspecting hosts going about their buggy business. If the insect is a social creature (like an ant), it’s nest-mates may also try to drive it as far from their home as possible out of fear of what will soon come to pass. As these spores implant themselves in new host insects, the cycle repeats itself.
Here’s a link to National Geographic, not for the feint of heart. This is enough to strike terror into the heart of every ant, among many other bugs.
So essentially here’s yet another reason to be glad you’re not a bug. Because you don’t want to fall victim to a zombie body snatchers fungus takeover. Frankly, I’d prefer the sneaker-squash to the slow and confusing death that this sort of thing brings.
Nightmarish Nature 2: Perilous Parenting
Returning to our new series on Nightmarish Nature, last time we looked at some Vampires Among Us. This time we will consider some Perilous Parenting…
I’m not going to go into reproductive habits among the natural world. Some of that is outright horrifying too, at least in terms of our human-normative perspective. Yeah, angler fish have attachment issues. Spiders & mantids are totally safe word averse, courting death as much as sex. And ducks are more than kind of rape-y. But rape is still NOT our sponsor and this isn’t intended to be an R- or X-rated segment. So instead we’re going to skip right to parenting perils…
Parenting is inherently scary for first-timers seeing as how there’s no instruction manual or anything that comes along with the new role. And now you’re responsible for a totally new little critter knowing that a lot of its mental & emotional baggage issues will start with you. It’s a huge responsibility, and some creatures have developed some fascinating strategies to deal with raising their young before sending them off in the world. (As opposed to those who just let the kids fend for themselves starting out completely on their own, that’s a different kind of horror.)
There are parents who die for their offspring, like octopus. There’s the sort of devotion that comes from sealing mom in a tree to sit on the eggs, relying solely on dad to feed her (hornbills) or from having all the dads huddle together for survival, holding their eggs on his feet to keep the babies alive during the harshest winter ever (Emporer penguins). And there’s the kind of cuteness that comes from having pouches, like kangaroos and sea horses, which are totally not the same for oh so many reasons, but both still kinda adorable in their own ways. (Remember, it’s not just moms but dads too.)
Where This Gets Horrific / Trypophobia Warning
But I think the most terrifying parenting horror stories for me are those things that trigger trypophobia or worse. Oh by the way, if you are afraid of or disgusted by clusters of slightly varied objects, you might want to sit the rest of this segment out. In fact don’t even keep reading, just go back to thinking about cute things with pouches, like good designer handbags (so hard to find these days).
So I’m going to look at this first from the plant world. A coworker once brought in a mother-of-millions plant to work to share around, which was the first time I encountered the species. Now these aren’t your spider plants which send off little offspring on stalks to start anew a ways off. Oh no. These succulents form little tiny baby plants along the edges of their leaves that fall off and start growing beside themselves. Some make it, some don’t (competition for resources when you’re all living literally on top of each other can be harsh, but you’re obviously in a great location so why not share the bounty?) That doesn’t sound so bad until you remember the “millions” part of this. These plants can be very very VERY prolific. Think rabbits on steroids but a couple orders of magnitude on steroids, so more like bugs or fish or something. The sheer quantity of it honestly kind of creeps me out, so needless to say I did NOT adopt one of my coworker’s plants.
Bugs and Aquatic Life and Baby Central
Moving on, as mentioned, lots of bugs and water critters breed like rabbits on steroids on steroids, so they are kind of naturally prone to the whole trypophobia thing, though a lot of them are also pretty hands off. There’s those jumpy fish who let the babies swim in their mouths for safety at the slightest sign of danger, which is both creepy and cute and so a little bit spoopy in my opinion. And spiders and scorpions will carry lots and lots of tiny babies on their backs. Tiny baby spiders are also known to balloon en masse on little strands of silk to drift on the wind to new homes where they can forge their own lives, hoping to land in primo locations and not someplace uninhabitable. (Please oh please let me drift to the penthouse suite and not the dump…)
But the one that really takes the cake in my book is the surinam toad. They’re kind of weirdly flat creepy looking creatures in all the good, bad, ugly categories to start with. You know, perfectly suited to being mistaken for leaves in the mud by both predators and food. But their parenting style gets even weirder than their physical appearance. So, the male toad will entice a female to mate with him and then shovel their fertilized eggs on to mom’s back to be absorbed into her skin when it grows around them, kind of like bubble wrap. And then, when the time is right, the true horror begins…
Surprise! They all pop out, with all of the babies literally erupting from little tiny holes in mom’s flesh. Let that sink in a minute. I’ll repeat in greater detail in case you weren’t listening. Mom develops the fertilized eggs under her skin in these little pockets on her back through all beginning life stages, from hatchlings to tadpoles to fully formed froglets, until it’s time two to three months later, when she births LOTS of little baby toads. The tiny toads literally erupt from beneath mom’s skin to swim to the surface and fend for themselves. She then molts and starts the cycle anew.
Just, no, I can’t even… So that’s it, I’m done for now. I’ll leave you with that image burned into your psyche as your last impression of this segment of Nightmarish Nature. Until next time…