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This is the fourth installment in a Valentine’s Day series of shorts by Jennifer Weigel in which unsuspecting lovers succumb to deadly gases. You can read the first three installments here:

Shelby and Braydon

Brad and Jeffrey

Syrah, Ellie and Squid


Episode 4:

Joe looked lovingly at Dianne.  Even after all these years, she never ceased to amaze him.  The kids were grown and had flown the coop, they had both retired, and now it was just the two of them in the great big house.  Dianne continued to play homemaker and was making Mexicali rice for dinner, sitting at a stool at the countertop sautéing some leftover chicken from the night before with some salsa.

“Can I help?” Joe asked.

“Nothing for you to do honey,” Dianne called back.

Joe reached in his pocket and caressed the carved wooden heart hidden within.  He liked to bestow Dianne with trinkets to show she was loved, sometimes it was a card or a box of chocolates, or a pair of fancy earrings, but this time was special.  There was no special occasion, just a profession of his feelings for her.

Joe had taken up woodworking upon his retirement and had been whittling away at this heart in his spare time as he learned the trade.  He had burned their initials “JMS & DAS Forever” into it the smooth surface once he had sanded it down and then polished it to bring out the natural wood grain.  It was the first real thing he had finished.  Dianne knew nothing of it.


She had finished her cooking and was dishing up the meal, scooping a bed of rice onto each plate and then blanketing it with the chicken and salsa mixture before adding some shredded cheddar cheese to melt over the top.

“Can I at least get the table ready?” Joe asked.

“Sure, it’s just about time,” Dianne replied.

Joe arranged a fork, knife and spoon at each place setting along with a glass containing three ice cubes and water from the tap for each.  He placed the wooden heart atop Dianne’s folded napkin before helping to bring the plates in from the kitchen and set them down.

As Dianne sat at her place, Joe remarked, “That’s for you.  I carved it myself.”


She picked up the wooden heart and looked at Joe.

“I wanted you to know how much you mean to me,” he continued.  “After everything we’ve been through together, the kids and grandkids, this house…”

Dianne turned the heart over in her hand, studying the smooth surface and running a fingertip over the initials.  “Oh honey, it’s beautiful.  Thank you.  It’s been quite the adventure!”

As they leaned in and kissed one another, a faint odor crept in from the periphery.  It smelled old and stale, like corn chips and wet gym socks masked with lilac perfume.  At first neither noticed, and still later neither said a word about it hoping it would just pass and unsure whether it was something they did.

Finally Dianne spoke, “Honey, what is that terrible smell?”


“I don’t know,” Joe responded.

Dianne sniffed at her meal and glanced back towards the kitchen.  It wasn’t the food and she hadn’t left the stovetop on.

It seemed to be coming out of the air everywhere, like a thick invisible noxious cloud.  It was pungent but even worse, it was a bit disorienting.  Joe and Dianne both felt dizzy and a little nauseous.  Dianne had enough sense to press her LifeAlert button around her neck before she staggered and fell to the floor, but by the time the paramedics arrived both she and Joe were already dead.

Visualization of what the foul-smelling swirling cloud of deadly gases would appear as, if it weren't invisible
The fetid cloud of deadly gases closes in…

You can find more of Jennifer Weigel’s writing by visiting her website here at Jennifer Weigel Words.

Portrait of myself with dark makeup and crow skull headdress, backlit by the sun.

Jennifer Weigel is a multi-disciplinary mixed media conceptual artist residing in Kansas USA. Weigel utilizes a wide range of media to convey her ideas, including assemblage, drawing, fibers, installation, jewelry, painting, performance, photography, sculpture, video and writing. You can find more of her work at:

Original Series

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

Monkey cannibalism, staring at you, smiling wide and thinking about Brains...
Drawing of monkey cannibalism, thinking about Brains…

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.

Social Demonstration

African Wild Dog cannibalism, tongue lolling out
Drawing of African Wild Dog

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

Tom Cat calling out "Here kitty..."
Drawing of Tom Cat calling out “Here kitty…”

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.

Sexual Cannibalism

Cannibalism in spiders: 'cause spiders eating just about anything is terrifying, and they eat just about anything
Drawing of spider yelling “More spiders”

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.

Peacock Spider mating ritual

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:

Vampires Among Us


Perilous Parenting

Freaky Fungus

Worrisome Wasps

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Original Series

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.

Two wasps terrorize a spider with though bubble "Truly terrifying"
Wasps terrorize a spider

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.

Wasp stinging spider with thought bubble "This can't be good..."
Wasp stinging spider

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.

Caterpillar says, "I am BIG and JUICY"

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.

Thinking of figs... and wasps... and cookies...
Thinking of figs

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.

Wasps swarming or something, there's like five of them all flying around

If you have enjoyed reading about wasps here in Nightmarish Nature but missed previous segments, feel free to check out Vampires Among Us; Perilous Parenting; and Freaky Fungus.

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Original Series

Nightmarish Nature: Freaky Fungus



It’s time for another Nightmarish Nature segment. So far we’ve considered Vampires Among Us and Perilous Parenting; this time we will look at Freaky Fungus.

Drawings of mushrooms with spots and little cap hats
Drawings of mushrooms with spots and little cap hats

Maddening Mushrooms

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.

Drawing of caterpillar, wasp and beetle with text bubbles "HELP" "We're doomed" and "Run away!"
Drawing of caterpillar, beetle and wasp with text bubbles “HELP” “We’re doomed” and “Run away!”

Spore Sabotage

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.

Drawing of ant with text bubble "Truly terrifying"
Drawing of ant with text bubble “Truly terrifying”

High Times

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.

Drawing of dead ant releasing spores
Drawing of dead ant releasing spores

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.

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