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Boundaries of Science in 1955’s Tarantula

By Christopher Stewardson


I must’ve been eight years old when I first watched Tarantula (1955). 


I’ve been obsessed with spiders all my life, with 24 pet tarantulas currently in my care – all of them named after classic television and film stars. As a child, this obsession naturally crossed paths with another fascination: 1950s creature features; Bert I. Gordon’s Earth vs. The Spider (1958) was (and remains) a firm favourite. This interest was significantly nurtured by a book called Who Goes There?: 1950s Horror & Sci-Fi Movie Posters & Lobby Cards. I repeatedly went over its pages, making mental lists of movies I simply had to see. I’d also caught an episode of the 1996 documentary series, The Fearmakers, which focused on director Jack Arnold. From both the book and that episode, several films leapt out at me. It Came from Outer Space (1953) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) were among them, but I was most desperate to see Tarantula. When I finally watched it, I was hooked, and to this day I revisit the film at least once a year. 


I may be somewhat biased, then, when I say the film is very good. From Clifford Stine’s impressive special effects to its arresting scenes of suspense, Tarantula is head and shoulders above most of the giant invertebrate films released during the 1950s. Its story is intriguing, concerning a nutrient designed to alleviate world hunger and which causes enormous animal growth. 


Tarantula originated with Science Fiction Theatre, a television anthology series which ran from 1955 to 1957. No Food for Thought was the sixth episode of its first season, directed by Jack Arnold and penned by Robert M. Fresco. Its story provided the basic premise for Tarantula: a group of scientists develop a chemical nutrient to meet the needs of world hunger. The scientists inject themselves with the nutrient but their bodies soon reject normal food; they also become extremely susceptible to disease. The episode featured no giant monsters, but director Arnold felt there was potential for a film in the story. In Tom Weaver’s Universal Terrors (2015), Fresco explained that Arnold suggested this to him and asked that he include a monster.


Arnold’s own recollection differs in that he claimed credit for the story. In Dana M. Reemes’ Directed by Jack Arnold (1988), the director remembered how his driveway would be covered in tarantulas once a year, prompting the idea for a film. Elsewhere, however, Arnold stated in a 1983 interview that he was inspired by the 1948 documentary, The Chicken of Tomorrow, which looked (in rather disturbing fashion) at the farming of enlarged chickens. In Tarantula’s opening, Arnold receives a story credit, but Fresco explained that this was a concession enabling him (as a then-young writer) to establish himself in the industry. 


Irrespective of the specifics, the dangers of scientific hubris in No Food for Thought and Arnold’s memories of a tarantula-laden driveway both provide the basis for the following interpretation: Tarantula is about boundaries of science and the unknown. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, in his introduction to the 1996 book, Monster Theory, writes that “the monster polices the borders of the possible”. It is with this analysis in mind that Tarantula comes alive. 


Leo G. Carroll plays Professor Deemer, a scientist working on a “completely non-organic food concentrate”. Its properties are bound and triggered by a radioactive isotope, causing gigantism in animals and an advanced form of acromegaly in humans. One of his enlarged animal subjects is a tarantula, which escapes when Deemer’s colleague – near death after injecting himself with the formula – destroys much of their laboratory. This all transpires within a large house in the middle of the desert, far from the Arizona town of Desert Rock. 


The boundaries of science that Deemer pushes against are physically realised in the film’s setting. Deemer’s house, after all, is like an extension of Desert Rock, reaching out into the desert – a demarcation of the known and the unknown. Indeed, the film actively attaches an unknown strangeness to the desert. In one scene, lead characters Matt Hastings (John Agar) and Stephanie “Steve” Clayton (Mara Corday) discuss its mysteries. “Everything that ever walked or crawled on the face of the Earth, swam the depths of the ocean, or soared through the sky left its imprint here”, he says, establishing the desert as something permanent, a spectator to the coming and going of myriad creatures. It stands where we – along with every other lifeform on this Earth – fall away. In turn, Tarantula develops themes from Arnold’s earlier science fiction work, It Came from Outer Space, in which poetic dialogue and striking visual presentation personify the desert as a living being, always watching. In Tarantula, Steve says she’d love to see the desert from above. Matt describes it as “something from another life. Serene, quiet, yet strangely evil, as if it were hiding its secret from man.”


Deemer figuratively and physically presses into the unknown – the desert – in the hope of unlocking such secrets, and he is punished for his transgression. Firstly, the escaped tarantula keeps growing. It is initially the size of a large dog. Next, it is bigger than a car. Then, it is a hundred times larger than a normal tarantula. It devours cattle and people alike, and eventually eats Deemer as well. But before his demise in the fangs of his creation, Deemer is already on borrowed time. In the clash with his colleague at the film’s beginning, he is knocked unconscious and injected with their nutrient – ensuring that he too will succumb to their doomed venture into the unknown. 


In his seven theses of monster culture, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen examines the function of the monster in fiction, interpreting it as a warning against venturing beyond the known. It is a lens that clarifies the anxieties with which Tarantula engages. He writes, “The monster prevents mobility (intellectual, geographic, or sexual), delimiting the social spaces through which private bodies may move. To step outside this official geography is to risk attack by some monstrous border patrol or (worse) to become monstrous oneself.” In turn, there is an argument that Tarantula is as much horror as it is science fiction. Vivian Sobchack’s genre delineations in Screening Space (1987) describe the horror film as dealing with the individual in conflict with society or some extension of himself. Tarantula sees both, for Matt and the others of Desert Rock are suspicious of Deemer’s experiments out in the desert; meanwhile, the tarantula is obviously Deemer’s extension, of his knowledge and hubris. Using Cohen’s approach, the giant tarantula patrols the boundary between known and unknown, desert and town, devouring Deemer for pushing too far. The film also depicts Deemer’s extreme acromegaly – resulting from his injection – as monstrous via musical stings and lurid makeup. He himself is changed by his work. 


And bristling beneath these boundaries are contemporary anxieties over nuclear destruction and scientific possibility. Like many creature features of its time, Tarantula articulates the fear of collective incineration that hung over the Cold War, a prospect Susan Sontag described as “unsupportable psychologically”. And like several of its peers, such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Them! (1954), and Beginning of the End (1957), Tarantula ultimately provides an easy resolution to the unanswerable questions it naturally raises. At the film’s climax, the giant tarantula approaches Desert Rock. Having failed to destroy the creature using dynamite, the air force is called in. Fighter planes promptly arrive and blast the tarantula with rockets before unleashing their napalm arsenal. The poor spider burns to death as the characters watch in the foreground. 


There is, within, a fear of what scientific discoveries really bring, a worry that each revelation unlocks a terrible punishment, vividly embodied by the giant spiders, ants, locusts and other monsters of the atom-focused creature feature. But then, that fear is nullified, resolved with unfounded ease by military means. The incomprehensible fear of nuclear apocalypse is met with the familiar and curated image of American military might. Thus, nuclear anguish is made safe and (dare I say) dangerously conventional.

Lea Anderson describes these discordant elements as follows:

“Tarantula is unequivocally demonstrative of the truly bizarre, deeply haunted nature of American culture in the '50s, a time that saw enormous schisms between the national narrative being produced and exported and the realities of social life.

The national narrative dispersed for the American public was a horror story all its own. A jaw-dropping example of contemporary propaganda can be found via You Can Beat the A-Bomb (1950), which downplays the dangers of radiation and depicts the detonation of an atomic weapon as something that simply rattles one’s home. After the “bomb” is dropped, the father of the film’s example family takes charge. “But what about the radiation?”, asks his concerned wife. “This was an airburst, honey”, he says. “If the radiation didn’t get to us when the atomic bomb exploded, just about all the dangerous stuff is gone.” And later, upon inspecting the slight dishevelment of their home, he proudly asserts that there is “nothing to do now but wait for orders from the authorities and relax.” Atomic fascism never felt so cozy. 

Later efforts like Let’s Face It (1954), A New Look at the H-Bomb (1954), and Rehearsal for Disaster (1957) are only slightly less dishonest. They still assert an unfounded optimism and a grotesque narrative about protecting “our way of life”.


By contrast, filmmaker Joe Dante, a notable devotee of films like Tarantula who experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis as a young child, once remarked, “I can’t stress enough how much you probably can’t conceive of what it’s like to actually think the world is gonna end.” This is the schism Anderson so astutely describes: between the inherent silliness of civil defence propaganda, and personal, existential terror; between the nightmare message transmitted by such propaganda films that atomic war may happen, and the assertion that survival is possible; between the intangible fears made flesh via monstrous embodiment, and the US air force.


One last point I’d like to make is that it isn’t hard to pity the arachnid menace. Arnold’s recollection of a driveway covered in tarantulas is a seasonal reality, especially in Arizona. Late summer brings out droves of wandering male tarantulas in search of a mate. It’s a regular sight to see them crossing the road, a perilous journey for the intrepid spiders. In the film, Matt Hastings says that the giant tarantula has been “taken out of its primitive world” and turned loose “in ours”, and indeed everything the spider does in the film is but a magnified form of its natural existence. But it did not ask to be gigantic, and the characters’ perception that it has intruded upon “our” world misses the fact that we live in the same world together. It is an error in judgement as costly as Deemer’s experiment.


Tarantula is many things. It is a rumination on scientific boundaries, an articulation of Cold War fears, and it is a taut science-horror thriller. 


 

Christopher Stewardson writes about mid-20 Century horror and science fiction films and has been published in Little White Lies, Fangoria, Dread Central, Arrow Video, Eureka Entertainment and elsewhere.

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