I love B movies. What they lack in gloss and committee-consensus smoothness, they gain in audacity – usually the kind that strikes to the heart of things. Sometimes I assign them, and the students look at me sidelong – “You want us to watch what?” But they don’t wonder any more after the ensuing class session.
In film circles, a name to conjure with is David Cronenberg, who is famous for maintaining that audacity along the entire spectrum of budgeting and distribution. I like his earliest work best, when I imagine him as a fixedly-staring, one-camera-owning case study out of Werner Herzog’s playbook. And the movie I’m talking about today is his 1975 Shivers.
Wait, you say, isn’t that just George Romero’s 1973 The Crazies? Nope, no it’s not. Different film entirely. Keep going.
There are lots of movies about the epidemiology of parasite-host interactions, almost all the same, almost all (collectively) worth a post some day. But not enough about the stuff that makes biologists rub their hands together with glee. Try it: go up to a biologist, say, “I hear there’s something interesting about parasites,” and watch them look stunned with delight, like a miser hit over the head with a gold bar. Schedule some time for the ensuing response and beware the possibility of a marriage proposal along the way.
Quick definition: parasitism is when one species lives in or on another, and its presence inflicts harm upon the host. Distinguish it from the more generic term symbiosis, which is “lives in or on” without reference to a given effect.
Point #1: until the 1980s, parasites were mostly the badly-treated street urchin of biological topics. They were “dependent.” “Weak.” Even sneaky, treacherous, freeloading, useless – a burden on the robust and forthright giants of nature who duked it out with the environment fair and square. I doubt anyone said it outright but the idea that parasites were triumphs of selection, in comparison to, say, us, was flat out. We’re “top of the food chain,” right?
Until two seconds’ thought shows you that parasites are the real top of the food chain, insofar as that term has meaning. Combine that with the observation that every living thing is parasitized, including the parasites, and you get a better idea of what community ecology – interactions among species – is really like. For instance, predation is better understood as a crap version of parasitism.
I don’t want to downplay the importance of epidemiology, especially the standing power of Hans Zinsser’s Rats, Lice, and History in 1935, so let’s take one clip to give it due and to lay down some necessary foundation.
Quick clarification: I’m not addressing effects on population size in this post, but rather the context for evolutionary change, given that both populations are currently present.
Given that transmission is the contextual variable for host-parasite interaction (and its evolution in a given case), the subtleties of low-virulence, multiple life-stages, and multiple host species turn out to be a matter of fascinating diversity for transmission strategy. That’s why in addition to optimal foraging and mate choice strategy, parasite-host interactions became the golden child for the renaissance of behavioral ecology in the 1970s and 1980s. Those variables offer such spin-the-dial fun that the algorithms look like circles-and-arrows in a conspiracy theory.
… including the juiciest bit of all, when parasites alter host behaviors. Usually, it’s done in such a way that gets the parasite or its offspring into another host, meaning across-species in a multiple-host-species sequence.
To repeat, severe detriment to the host is a typical feature of this tactic.
Movie-wise, the most common application of this concept concerns host aggression, most often transmission through body fluids – saliva via biting, and blood. The obvious inspiration is rabies, and combining that with agency/person-file tricks (see Death: what remains) yields the understandable intensity of zombie film tropes.
Here’s another spin on parasitism which I’m sad to say has received insufficient research attention outside of medical application, as well as insufficient cinematic shock application: sexual transmission. You can see what’s happening here easily I’m sure. If the hosts are already carrying out close-contact activities at a reliable frequency, then it’s a ready-made pathway of host-to-host parasite traffic.
All of which brings us square into Shivers territory. I am, in fact, unaware of any actual sexually-transmitted parasite which heightens hosts’ likelihood of sexual contact. Theoretically, it would seem a lovely, even predictable tactic. Shivers is about precisely this thing; once infecting you, the bug makes you … uninhibited. It can result in all manner of untoward behavior, but primarily attraction and lust. The effect becomes more and more extreme, and is apparently a one-way ticket into mania. [disclosure: consistent with many B films, the actual logic and physicality of the parasite is murky and not particularly sound, biologically; I am OK with that]
The movie’s available all over Youtube, however legal that may or may not be. Run a search (“Shivers 1975” ’cause there’s some other thing by that name); I’ll never tell.
The movie’s most obvious strength is that it takes its plain old squicky idea all the way through to the completely understandable ending. It even becomes a top-ranking zombie movie, especially since it features no “walking dead” at all. But I’m especially impressed with its brief dip into actual disturbing-dramatic territory worthy of the best science fiction, when examining the parasite’s effects at intermediate severity. The scene (warning: NSFW) concerns a distraught woman being comforted by a neighbor, which then turns into a sex scene. Contrary to some interpretations, I don’t think it pathologizes same-sex attraction, but instead, shows the warmest and most – in the colloquial sense of the word – human emotion in the entire film, which is set in a culturally-sterile high-rise complex and constantly emphasizes how badly-alienated the people in it already are. The infected woman is affected by the parasite but is still operating within the bounds of ordinary human behavior and emotion. All of the expressed emotions and interactions are, for lack of a better word, sincere.
Think about that – that your sincerity, intensity of emotion, heartfelt communication, empathy with another person, and commitment to acting upon it … feel the same, arguably are the same experiential phenomenon, whether it’s “you” or the parasite’s influence upon you.
Night night! Sleep tight!