When Lucille awoke, it was dusk. She woke with a start, jolting upright with a sinking feeling of dread as if she were being watched intently. This town seemed to have that effect though. The television was still on, a murmured noise in the background. Outside the wind echoed over a shuffling or rustling sound swirling around the hotel. A shadowy form swam past her window, edging closer and then briskly turning away. Lucille leapt out of the bed and ran to the door, heart racing. Her heart fluttered in her chest. A key clinked in the lock outside.
She slid into the space behind where the door would open as the key turned and the door swung a little until it was caught on the dead bolt. She peered through the crack in the door as a pallid grayish nose drew a few deep sniffs into the room before retreating. The nose returned for a long breath as Lucille slammed her hip into the door, jarring it shut. Something outside staggered backwards. The shadows flickering just beyond the window faded away.
Lucille listened to her blood pulsing through her ears and her heart pounding in her chest for what seemed like several minutes for all that she knew it was probably only a few seconds. Eventually she slowly crept to the curtain, eased her way to the slightest edge of the dusty drab fabric, and crouched down low. She parted the drapes just enough to look out. There were five figures shuffling around the parking lot, similar in appearance to the night before with pallid skin and hollow black eyes darting to and fro as if in some sort of synchronized dance. They would occasionally bump into one another only to separate and trail off again. She couldn’t make out whom they were, but she caught a flash of a black-grey beard, a glimpse of ruby lipstick, a trail of a well-worn stained light blue uniform…
The figures retreated out of sight to the left of her field of vision. Lucille slowly crept to the door and opened it, just a notch to see out. Nothing. She flung it open, her heart leaping out of her chest as the door swung wide on its hinges parting to reveal the rust colored sky of the setting sun enveloping the distant horizon. There was no one there.
Lucille closed the door behind her. She shot briskly to VENDING between Room 1 and the office, ducked inside, and peered out that window at the parking lot. She watched in horror as the shadow figures returned, circling one another in the parking lot and gliding along the earth. Their black eyes glimmered with far away intent, their noses twitched and twirled in the night sky as if they were pigs sniffing out truffles. They slunk over to Lucille’s room. The tall one tried the key in the lock again, it was the older man from breakfast, the blue-grey vein in his head still pulsing, visible even from that distance. How had he not been felled by that creature after that blow, and what came of all that blood? He was accompanied by the desk clerk and the bearded man from breakfast, as well as Tom Jones the mechanic and a small balding hunchbacked man that Lucille didn’t recognize who straggled behind the others a bit, snuffling about.
“I know y’all’re in there, missy,” the bearded man directed at the door as he sidled past the tall man and rubbed his shoulder against the frame. “Ya cain’t hide…” His coy smile revealed rows of sharp pointed teeth. The teeth were all the more apparent glistening in stark contrast to his full dark greying beard. The tall man snapped a quick jolting smirk at him, driving him back to catch his footing as the desk clerk squirmed her way between them as if to break up a longstanding childhood rivalry over who could finger their way over their half of the middle back seat. Tom Jones broke free of the group, raising his head high and deeply inhaling the stale night air. He wandered off the parking lot, down the shallow slope and towards the ravine.
The others hovered at the door a bit before they opened it, sniffing at the air with their full throbbing nostrils. Their eyes twinkled black and starry as if hyper-focused on their quarry. “She ain’t here,” the desk clerk exclaimed, rapping the bearded man in the back of the head hard when he bumped into her. The bearded man slinked aside.
The desk clerk’s eyes grew small again and pointedly bored holes into him. She lifted her heavy head and took a deep breath. She focused a bit and then her eyes grew wide again and she began to snake up the path towards the vending room. Lucille shrunk into herself, still fixated on the window, as she watched them slowly approach, weaving up and down the path.
“Come out’here, missy,” the bearded man called out, “We-know y’all’re in there…”
The desk clerk flashed out a hand and directed the others towards the front of the motel. As they receded around the building, Lucille dashed back to her room and secured it with the deadbolt. She left the room exactly as it had been, with the lights still on and the TV mumbling, and took watch at the window, peering through a diminutive crack in the drapes.
A sudden flash of movement and a brown form stumbled from out of the underbrush where the previous night’s scuffle had ensued, followed by Tom Jones sliding out from behind. It moved in an odd jerky manner that was profoundly not quite right. It reeked of rotting, decaying flesh; the smell permeated even the walls between the parking lot and the motel interior, weaving its way into Lucille’s room in a sickly sour stench. The putrefied beast lurched onto the parking lot, a grotesque mess of brown matted fur with white bones gleaming forth from bloody, pearly pus-oozing flesh. Perhaps it was once a deer, or maybe a small horse, but now it was no longer easily recognizable as either. Tom Jones slunk alongside as if herding the hapless creature to some specific destination.
Dizzy with adrenaline and confusion, Lucille turned away for a moment to collect herself. As she turned back she noticed that the entourage of pallid, grey, shadowy figures had rounded the building and descended upon the scene, circling the animal. From amidst the mob of ghastly figures, the horrific beast emitted a shrill blood-curdling scream the moment before they bowled it over and began to feed. Again.
The scene played out in déjà vu as if she were watching the same nightmare she had had the night before: the widening bright black eyes, jaws unhinged, writhing mass of limbs and bodies wriggling in to tear at the flesh of the wretched form trapped in their midst. As they had their fill, the ghastly figures withdrew, blood dripping from their jagged teeth. They straightened up, and cracked their jaws back into place, their bright black eyes deadening to their usual hollow stare.
Unable to watch any longer, Lucille slid down the wall and wept, whimpering to herself as quietly as she could muster, breaths heaving between silenced sobs. “Oh my God,” she sighed. She remained frozen in place for what seemed like an eternity, too afraid to move to find out what time it was. Finally, she was able to rouse herself, and she crept along the edge of the room to shove the TV bureau in front of the door only to discover it was bolted to the floor. A quick assessment determined that all of the furniture was secured as if she was on lockdown, why hadn’t she noticed that before? She propped the only moveable object, a chair, against the deadbolted door and took refuge in the bathroom. Eventually, once the adrenaline receded, she fell asleep in the bathtub.
Nightmarish Nature: Cannibalism
Let’s return to explore more Nightmarish Nature, shall we? This segment focuses on cannibalism, as we generally find it icky / taboo and because it’s more common than you might think. There are many different reasons that different creatures engage in cannibalistic practices. Energy waste doesn’t last long in nature; gaps are filled as things evolve to utilize whatever resources are available to meet their own needs. C’est la vie (light up another cigarette). In any case, the challenge to the cannibal lies in determining kinship and not accidentally erasing their own line or progeny, thus decreasing their likelihood for survival over generations. Oh, and in avoiding those pesky prion diseases…
Resource Driven Cannibalism
Resource driven cannibalism can occur when competition for resources is high. This may be due to scarcity, with individuals taking to eating each other to avoid themselves starving to death (with those consumed either still alive and killed to this end, or eaten after death of other causes). Or it may be outside of the cannibal’s control, considering the spread of Mad Cow Disease from feeding beef meal harboring the prion disease (and parts from other mammals like sheep) to growing cattle to save money, ’cause it’s not like the cows were allowed to order whatever they wanted. Or it may be due to direct conflicts with other groups of the same species, either due to competition for resources, mating rights and/or territory. These behaviors have been noted in mostly male chimpanzees raiding other groups, which have even been documented as all out wars against other males in neighboring bands, campaigning to eradicate all outside of their ranks.
Thinking about chimpanzees, males are also documented to gang up on alpha males seen as too controlling or sadistic, with groups of younger males attacking and rendering the alpha male to pieces, often consuming his flesh and blood in the process. This can upend established hierarchies to replace them with new structures, for example with a new male taking on the role of leader. But cannibalism can also be used to reinforce existing hierarchies, as seen in African Wild Dogs wherein the dominant pair will kill off any offspring that other dogs may have birthed so that the pack will focus on raising only the alpha pair’s pups, thusly reestablishing and enforcing social structure while ensuring the best survival chances for the pups raised by channeling all resources to the one brood.
Infanticide & Filial Cannibalism
Like African Wild Dogs, other parents may also eat their offspring, or better yet their rivals’ offspring. Stillborn or unhealthy offspring may be consumed, or just any that they can get their hands on at birth. (Again with the young male chimpanzees…) Some creatures enter into cycles wherein smaller individuals are more vulnerable to predation by larger ones both within and outside of ones own species, as is seen among many fishes with eggs and smaller fishes playing an important role as prey to larger ones. Other creatures may engage in these practices to reduce competition (for themselves and/or their offspring) and/or increase opportunities to mate. Male cats are notorious for killing kittens that are not their own in order to bring females into heat again sooner, potentially increasing the likelihood of mating with said females themselves while decreasing future competition. Win-win! Female cats must take great care to hide their kittens in order to protect them from males as much as other predators, and can have kittens by different fathers within the same litter in order to increase their kittens’ overall survival as a group with father cats more willing to accept kittens when their own kin are present.
Mantids and spiders are especially known for sexual cannibalism, with larger females consuming males during copulation, but this is not always linked to vast size differences and does not appear in every species. Females who engage in this practice may have healthier eggs in larger clutches, thus increasing the survival likelihood of more of their offspring. Sometimes the risk to the male suitor of being mistaken for another species by an aggressive would-be mate is high, and various rituals have developed within certain species to help avoid such mistakes and entice the female to mate. Male spiders are known engage in elaborate dances, movements, tapping and silk spinning rituals to avoid being eaten pre-copulation or at all. It’s a hell of a lot more involved than a good pick up line and a well-timed drink, as you can see here.
If the above video doesn’t load, you can find it on PBS YouTube here.
Thank you for joining us for another exciting episode of Nightmarish Nature. If you enjoyed this, please feel free to check out these previous segments:
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.