The Hellstrom Chronicle: Turning Insects into Monsters
With the 1971 Academy Award for Best Documentary, The Hellstrom Chronicle connects amazing micro-documentary footage with a cautionary voiceover from Dr. Hellstrom. The film’s faux documentary stance, however, is complicated by its confusing rhetorical message that warns of mass elimination due to destructive environmentally disastrous practices performed by insects at the micro-level, without threatening their own survival. Although The Hellstrom Chronicle begins by contrasting the human world with that of insects and approaches its subject for varied purposes, it ultimately contends through its narrative and visual rhetoric, "Is it possible that these creatures are us?”
Perhaps in an attempt to warn humanity about the negative consequences of their own exploitation of the natural world, the film constructs insects as monsters first by highlighting characteristics that Stephen R. Kellert suggests promote fear in humans, but those traits may also draw on the qualities shared by the most horrific versions of ourselves. By emphasizing these fear-inducing characteristics, the film seems not only to warn humanity about insects seeming invulnerability, but also to attribute their possible dominance in the world to humanity’s own mistreatment of the natural world. If we continue to destroy our environment, the film suggests, our species will be usurped by the insect world. Despite the film’s attempts to separate humans and insects, however, its narrative and film footage suggest insects will inherit the earth not because they are superior to humans but because they are just like us. Drawing on all levels of anthropomorphism proposed by Persson, Laaksolahti, and Lonnquist, the film constructs insects as monsters by highlighting their primitive psychological qualities, their connection to human folk-psychology, their traits and “dispositions,” the social roles they play, and the emotions they both display and produce.
The film first applies the primitive psychology level of anthropomorphism, highlighting insects’ drive to fulfill their basic needs aligns with that of humans. Hellstrom claims, “In fighting the insect we have killed ourselves, polluted our water, poisoned our wildlife, permeated our own flesh with deadly toxins. The insect becomes immune, and we are poisoned. In fighting with superior intellect, we have outsmarted ourselves.” Yet that so-called immunity is based on one element humans and insects share: “only humans and insects as species are on the increase.” Man radically changes the earth, and insects adapt to any changes man can make, Hellstrom declares, yet his attempts to separate humans from the insect world fall flat because he bases his arguments that insects will inherit the earth on their similarity to humans.
Even when making claims about differences between these two worlds, Hellstrom grounds his arguments in demonstrations of their similarities. For example, Hellstrom discusses insect traits in relation to those of humans, maintaining that the society of bees is perfect because it is based on cooperation rather than competition and “individual need,” so that “in [this] cooperative society, the fate of each is the destiny of all.” Since both individuality and cooperation are human traits and dispositions, connecting them to insects anthropomorphizes them on the level of traits, a higher level than that of primitive psychology.
Hellstrom also draws on the folk-psychology level of anthropomorphism when describing cooperative behavior of insects. At the same time Hellstrom separates bees from humans because of their perfect cooperative culture, he connects the cooperative harvest ants to human farmers when he suggests they are “the first to take steps toward agriculture,” a parallel that aligns with folk-psychology. Hellstrom draws on both traits and folk-psychology anthropomorphism when he maintains that these insects’ “instinct to harvest is an instinct of greed,” just as in the human world. He makes similar comparisons with a termite mound society, “one of the first experiments in social order” that he visually compares to a computer at the California Institute of Technology.
Near the end of the film, however, footage and voiceover commentary contradict this claim, implementing images and commentary that illustrate folk-psychology and traits levels of anthropomorphism. While showing images of insect violence, including those from the Naked Jungle (1954) of ants with the “need to kill and plunder” using their bodies as bridges, building trenches to prepare for war, and acting as sentries and guards to launch attacks and bring back their kill, Hellstrom proclaims that these driver ants are a “mindless unstoppable killing machine, dedicated to the destruction of everything that stands in its way. Each of them is completely blind, driven forward through the darkness by a single demanding need within – the need to kill and plunder.” Through pillaging their young are fed, Hellstrom tells us, and an ant-covered lizard is shown being dragged back into their fortress as an illustration. Other animals and insects are brought back to share with the rest of the colony: a snake, a caterpillar, a scorpion, and a butterfly.
Hellstrom ends the film with the diatribe, “The true winner is the last to finish the race,” but his narrative and film footage suggest insects will inherit the earth not because they are superior to humans but because they are us. By integrating multiple levels of anthropomorphism, The Hellstrom Chronicle turns insects into monsters possessing the worst human traits and exploiting them for the most destructive reasons. What is missing from The Hellstrom Chronicle is at least a partial nod towards the interdependence and biotic community of organismic approaches to ecology. As Canby suggest, “Anyone who as ever lived more than a week in a New York apartment already knows, for example, that an entente with insects must be reached if the world is to survive.” By constructing insects as monsters, the film connects them to the human world without inducing the sympathy that might save both.