Friday, February 17, 2012

Year of the Locusts

Recently, I watched the movie Lucas, starring the late Corey Haim as a troubled teenager in the Chicago suburbs by the name of—you guessed it—Lucas. To most people, it's a bittersweet, coming-of-age comedy-drama. To me, it's a horror story.

In the first scene, we see Lucas fascinated by the sight of a cicada—often incorrectly referred to as a "locust"—molting. The scene is a metaphor, of course; as the insect leaves its exoskeleton behind, so will Lucas, by the end of the movie, leave his childhood behind. As if the metaphor weren't obvious enough, we have the similarity of the names: "Lucas" and "Locust." Cute, huh? It makes my flesh crawl just thinking about it.

Later, there's a scene in which Lucas and several other teenagers are riding in a convertible driven by a young, pre-tiger-blooded-and-fire-breathing-fisted Charlie Sheen. Something smacks the windshield, a girl begins screaming, Charlie loses control, and the car goes into the ditch. Lucas, who is, among other things, an amateur etymologist, explains that they have run into a swarm of "locusts," and that the insects are "harmless." (How many times have we heard those words in a horror movie, just before everything starts to go wrong?) The girl begins screaming again when she realizes that one of the insects is in her hair. I couldn't blame her. I felt like screaming, too. As a matter of fact, I think I did scream.

David Seltzer, who wrote and directed Lucas, was born in 1940 in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Illinois. That would make him about the same age as Lucas when the Northern Illinois Brood of Magicicada septendecim, or seventeen-year-locust, emerged in 1956. The next emergence was in 1973, my senior year of high school. My family had moved from Indiana to the Chicago suburb of La Grange, Illinois, just a few years before that. We had no idea what was coming.

Sure, we had cicadas in Indiana. Every spring they emerge from the ground in their nymph state, shed their skin, and fly off to mate, lay their eggs, and die by the end of summer. You rarely see them, but you might find an empty exoskeleton stuck to a tree trunk, and on lazy summer afternoons, you might hear the soft, soporific buzz of their mating call.

We knew all about common, garden-variety cicadas, but we knew nothing of periodic cicadas, or Magicicada. In certain parts of the country (including Northern Illinois), every thirteen or seventeen years (depending on the species), enormous broods of insects emerge at once—up to 1.5 million per acre. It's nature's way of triumphing over predators by sheer force of numbers.

Technically, Lucas was right—they are harmless. They don't bite or sting. They won't even eat your plants. However, they will seriously freak you out.

I was walking home from a friend's house late one night when I saw my first. While waiting to cross 47th Street, I noticed several exoskeletons clinging to the street light pole. When I looked closer, I saw something emerging from one of them—a strange, pale thing with beady red eyes, about the size of the end of my index finger. Like Lucas, I was fascinated.

It wasn't long before fascination turned to horror.

Within days, we couldn't go outside the house without being dive-bombed by what looked like giant, red-eyed horseflies from hell. We couldn't leave the dog out in the yard, for fear the insects would drive him crazy. We couldn't even leave the windows open, because the roar of their mating call was deafening. When my aunts came to town to attend my high school graduation, we ran out to their car with umbrellas to shield them from attack. At the graduation ceremony, there were quite a few uninvited guests buzzing around the auditorium.

Then, just as quickly as they had arrived, they began dying. By the thousands. They covered the ground. You couldn't drive down the street without running over them. You couldn't walk down the sidewalk without stepping on them. And everywhere there was this weird, sickening smell—the sweet, organic aroma of hundreds of thousands of squashed, decaying cicadas.

Not long after that, my parents moved away from Northern Illinois, and I am happy to say that I have never witnessed another emergence of Magicicada septendecim. The next appearance of the Northern Illinois brood will be in 2024. I understand that Deerfield, Illinois, will be celebrating with a "Cicadia Mania" festival. Maybe I should go. They say it's good to confront your fears.

On second thought, maybe I should try to get through Lucas without screaming first.

Magicicada septendecim

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