CLEMSON — As a professor of entomology at Clemson University, Joe Culin literally notices the little things in life, be it in person or on the big screen.
Case in point: How Hollywood portrays insects in films, be it past or present, animation or live-action.
“It’s interesting, that when Disney began producing films that were hand-drawn, insects were portrayed with four legs instead of six,” said Culin, the associate dean for research and graduate studies in Clemson’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences who, this semester, teaches the “Selected Topics in Entomology” course that focuses on insect horror classic movies and their remakes.
“Back then, they wanted them to have a little bit of insect characterization and to humanize them a bit,” Culin said. “But it’s interesting, when you look at newer animation, some studios still use just four legs in their animated movies. However, others that are also doing computer-animated films now depict insects correctly with six legs.
“So it’s interesting to me that some of the more traditional studios have stuck with their original format when portraying insects while some of the other studios have not. Why wouldn’t they?”
Typically, such a question would not be asked on a university campus. But Culin teaches the not-so-typical university entomology course. This semester, Culin’s students will watch a total of eight insect horror films: four original titles, each followed by the first remake.
Here is the catch: The students must not watch just for entertainment, but with a critical eye to gain an understanding of the way filmmakers portray science, scientists and arthropods — moths, spiders, flies and bees. By doing that, and by having a discussion after watching old movies critically, the students are better suited to discuss and understand the true biology and behavior of insects, all the while not sitting in a formal lecture, but by being immersed in a classic “B movie.”
“We talk about the science in the films, and we talk about what is right and what is wrong in the films,” explained Culin. “We talk about whether something like what they’ve just seen could really happen. Can ants really be 15 feet long? Why or why can’t an arthropod be that big? We talk about why an insect that size couldn’t breathe because of the way their respiratory system functions. We talk about exoskeleton weight, because in very large insects it would be so heavy that they couldn’t move. We talk about the science and what’s good or bad about the way the film portrays both science and scientists. We talk about things others don’t usually talk about when watching these films.”
At the end of each film, the students use iClickers to answer questions as a basis for discussion of plot characteristics, the accuracy of the science, the role of scientists when dealing with the situations presented and the audience’s fear factor the filmmaker is taking advantage of when creating ”killer” insects.
The goal of the course: To learn something about arthropods, develop an appreciation for the influence filmmakers have on the way that people view science and scientists, and, hopefully, have some fun while doing all that.
Thus far, the 40-plus enrolled students already have seen “Mothra!” (1961), “Rebirth of Mothra” (1996), two versions of “Earth vs. the Spider” (1958 and 2001) and the original “The Fly” (1958). At the next class March 24, students will watch and discuss the 1986 remake of “The Fly.”
“It’s certainly not a typical class,” Culin added. “But I think this is a much more interesting way to have students learn something about science, than saying ‘you have to take this three-hour course that has a lab, and you’ve then got to do an insect collection.’ To me — and I hope to my students — this is a fun way to learn about arthropods, which is something most of them would not normally elect to do, and to make them more aware of the way things they watch may influence the way they view the world.”