History of IFFF

History of the Insect Fear Film Festival

The Insect Fear Film Festival at the University of Illinois was initiated by our Department Head Prof. May Berenbaum in 1984, and has grown into a nationally recognized event. Below in her words is a history of the festival.

The Insect Fear Film Festival basically began as an idea that I had as a graduate student in Cornell; upon reading a poster advertising a Godzilla festival, sponsored by the campus Asian-American Society, I thought a similar event, featuring insect fear films (a term I borrowed from my film buff brother), might be both fun and educational. When I pitched the idea to the head of the entomology department, he almost instantly vetoed the idea, fearing that such an event would be too undignified. He countered with a plan to host a series of documentary films about insects, but that wasn’t really what I had in mind, so the idea more or less was shelved for a while. After a year as an assistant professor at Illinois, however, I worked up the courage to approach then-head Stanley Friedman with the same pitch. This time, the idea enthusiastically embraced; Stanley thought it was such a good idea that he suggested charging admission in the hopes of getting another TA line out of it. The rest of the faculty and the graduate students embraced the idea as well. Campus regulations being what they were at the time, we stuck with the plan for a free event, sponsored in part by the Student Government Assocation, open not only to the university community but to the public at large.

The first festival was held in March 1984; our optimism in calling it the “first Insect Fear Film Festival” proved well-founded. The first festival established a format that turned out to be quite durable. At each festival, we show two or three feature-length films (in 1984, these were “Them” and “Bug”) interspersed with animated shorts (in 1984, these included the 1980 Academy Award winning Hungarian short, “The Fly”). Before the festival begins, and between films, the audience is invited to see and handle a variety of live specimens (kind of a “meet the stars” opportunity), invariably including tarantulas (not insects, but a crowd-pleaser nonetheless), hissing cockroaches, and tobacco hornworms, among many others), as well as to see Cornell drawers and Riker mounts of all kinds of arthropods. Another common element to all festivals, beginning with the second, has been a festival T-shirt, designed by a graduate student and sold at the festival. This general format has served us well, but it has been modified over the years. After a few years, the festivals began to be organized around themes–thus, the fourth festival featured female insect fear films (Mothra, Empire of the Ants, and the only soft core insect fear film, Invasion of the Bee Girls), the fifth festival was an all-spider affair, the sixth featured orthopteroid insects, the seventh social insects, the eight cockroaches, and the ninth flies. For the tenth festival, in 1994, we had a 12-hour marathon and, for the first time, served insect treats to accompany the film (deep fried waxworms, stir-fried silkworm pupae, and the ever-popular Hotlix tequila-flavored lollypops complete with maguey worms). That same year, we also held a children’s insect art contest in conjunction with the Natural History Museum; the winning drawings were on display at the museum for two weeks after the festival. Other events that have been held in conjunction with the festival included a thematically relevant blood-drive, held in cooperation with Community Blood Services of Champaign, for the 1999 mosquito film festival.

All told, we have shown 38 different feature films and over forty shorts in the name of public education; over a hundred graduate students have bravely sat through hours of unspeakably bad film footage (often multiple times) so as to be ready and able to wrangle tarantulas between films, assist with crowd control, repair recalcitrant 16 mm projectors, deep-fry and serve appetizers, and contribute in a thousand other ways that are not generally within the purview of a graduate education in entomology. When we began, Ronald Reagan was in office, materialism was rampant, and insect movies were terrible; today, there’s a democratic president in Washington, environmental awareness and volunteerism are more fashionable, and insect movies are still terrible; it’s nice to know that there are some things in life to count on. For some reason, the Insect Fear Film Festival has tremendous media appeal. Over the years, the festival has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch; internationally, the story has been carried by the International Herald Tribune, the Jerusalem Post, the London Times, Der Spiegel, and the Wellington Dominion from New Zealand. A story even appeared in one of the most widely read and influential publications of our day–the Star (available at grocery store checkout lines everywhere), where I was taken to task for revealing Jiminy Cricket, one of the nation’s most beloved cartoon icons, to be a “fraud.” Magazine coverage has included Science News, Chemical and Engineering News, National Gardening, National Wildlife, Outside, Premier, Twilight Zone Magazine, and Spin. I can’t imagine too many other events covered both by Premiere and Chem. and Engineering News. Bob Edwards of National Public Radio’s Morning Edition ran a story, as did Terry Gross of “Fresh Air”. The Independent Broadcast Network ran a 15 minute debate in 1993 on whether inaccurate depictions of insect biology were protected by the first amendment, and Voice of America ran a ten-minute interview, presumably to showcase the benefits of freedom to oppressed peoples everywhere. Locally, WILL FM ran an hour of classical insect music in honor of the festival last year. Television coverage has included CNN, CBS Morning News, and ABC World News Tonight (the latter of which sent a four-man film crew and gave the festival 2 1/2 minutes in prime time on Super Tuesday in 1992). Even the festival T-shirts have received media coverage–in an interview in the Village Voice, Richard Linklater, director of the generation-X classic “Slackers,” was revealed to be wearing a UIUC Insect Fear Film Festival T-shirt, although he admitted in the interview that he didn’t know exactly how he came to possess it.

Why the fuss? Have there been that many slow news days in the past ten years? Maybe it’s because insects remain the one familiar and conspicuous group which is politically correct to hate. Probably for this reason, Hollywood has shown no inclination to stop producing bad insect science fiction films either; while the effects certainly are getting better, the biology is not. As long as they keep disseminating disinformation about the most misunderstood taxon on the planet, we have an obligation to counter with the truth about insects. So it’s my fervent hope that the festival will continue–and if we manage to have fun in spreading the gospel, as it were, so much the better!