Annual Insect Fear Film Festival to displace fears, stereotypes

Mark Demkovich, graduate student in LAS, remains calm while multiple lubber grasshoppers crawl across him at Morrill Hall.

By Saher Khan

Flesh-eating grasshoppers and moth infestations are what attendees will view on the big screen at 31st Annual Insect Fear Film Festival, which will take place at Foellinger Auditorium on Saturday.

The annual festival aims to combat people’s fears and stereotypes of insects, said May Berenbaum, founder of the festival and entomology professor.

“Knowledge is power, and this festival is all about equipping people with knowledge so they no longer have to be afraid,” Berenbaum said. “And (it) can also educate the public about how important insects are.”

This year, the theme of the festival is about what insects fear: pesticides.

The festival is usually about dispelling people’s fear of insects, but Berenbaum said that this year she wanted to focus on insect’s fear of pesticides because pesticides have a major effect on people’s everyday lives and the government spends millions of dollars on trying to develop ways of controlling them.

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The festival will screen the 1949 film “Riders of the Whistling Pines” and the 2005 film “Locusts: The 8th Plague.” Before the film screenings, the festival features various other activities in the foyer of Foellinger Auditorium, such as face painting, an art competition and an insect petting zoo. The festival will also include a pesticide zoo, where people will get to see the dangers and after effects of pesticides. Berenbaum also has a collection of antique pesticide cans that will be on display, Berenbaum said.

Michelle Duennes, publicity head of the festival and graduate student in entomology, said that when Berenbaum introduces each film to the audience every year, she points out their biological inaccuracies. Berenbaum said she, along with her film critic husband, choose the films that are screened each year.

“Every year, people can come see tons of different species of live insects and lots of exotic ones we don’t have here,” Duennes said. “It’s an opportunity for people to touch them and see them and see that there really isn’t anything to be afraid of.”

The festival petting zoo will feature insects that are part of the entomology department’s insectary. The department orders all kinds of insects, such as cockroaches, grasshoppers, tarantulas, and blue death feigning beetles, which roll over and “play dead” if touched. In addition to the festival petting zoo, these insects are used through out the year for outreach purposes, such as on school visits to teach children about insects, Duennes said.

BugScope, an educational outreach project through the Beckman Institute, also comes to the festival each year. This year, BugScope will bring their Electron Microscope, which can be controlled via a web browser, to look at insects. Festival-goers can control and move around the microscope, Duennes said.

Berenbaum founded the Insect Fear Film Festival in 1984.

“I grew up being really afraid of insects, but after taking a class about insects in college, a professor completely changed my perspective,” Berenbaum said. “And I’ve wanted to return the favor by dispelling other’s fears ever since.”

Chip Austin, member of the public relations team for the festival and graduate student in entomology, said he thinks that people often either see insects as something to ignore, fear or eradicate, and the Insect Fear Film Festival is named as such to critically examine these ideas, not enforce them.

Duennes pointed out that insects are important in nature because they affect our daily lives — they are in the food we eat, they are responsible for pollinating most of our food, and they are pests that affect the crops we eat.

“Attending this event is an excellent way to begin thinking about insects in a different light, and consider what they are to humans besides nuisances and phobias, and this is important because many of them serve crucial roles in our environment,” Austin said.

Austin has not attended the event in the past, but is excited to do so this year. His main contribution to the festival was producing graphics to advertise the event so he said he is looking forward to see people come. Austin said the festival is a unique way for entomologists to utilize their expertise and communicate with the general public.

For the festival’s 30th anniversary last year, Berenbaum said the theme was X-Files related, and she was able to get X-Files creator Chris Carter and staff writer Darin Morgan to come out for the event.

“I contacted them and thought it would be a long shot, but they came down here to central Illinois, and ended up really enjoying themselves,” Berenbaum said.

Last year’s festival included a screening of Episode 12 from Season 3. The episode, which is titled “War of the Coprophages,” features the character Bambi Berenbaum, a researcher who is studying cockroaches. Darin Morgan based one of his characters from the show after Berenbaum. 

“He used some of my books for research and thought that ‘Berenbaum’ was a cool name for a ecologist,” Berenbaum said.

Last year’s festival brought out around 2,000 people, some coming from as far as Kentucky, according to Berenbaum.

“People who came as kids years ago now bring their own kids to the festival, so it’s really amazing to see,” she said.

Berenbaum said that many community members and students come out to the event, and she hopes that there is a large turnout this year.

Saher can be reached at [email protected].