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The Verge Review of Animals: centipedes

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Get off my planet

A brief survey of film can provide important clues about the character of insects and their invertebrate cousins. In the 1973 animated children’s movie Charlotte’s Web, we learn to love spiders through the medium of empathetic pork. In 1989’s Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, an affable ant saves a gang of miniature children from a scorpion’s sting. And a few years later in the 1991 film My Girl, we gain a new appreciation for bees after a swarm mercifully takes out Macaulay Culkin before he can make another Home Alone movie. Ants, bees, spiders — lots of small critters have received sympathetic portrayals from humans over the years.

But not centipedes.

The best we could come up with for the centipede — a dumb, stupid, no-good nightmare creature (more on that later) — is a 2009 movie called The Human Centipede. Recall the relatively benign, curious hijinks from the scientist played by Rick Moranis in Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, and then imagine the exact opposite of that. The Human Centipede’s star is a mad German scientist who’s bent on surgically enjoining three hapless tourists into, you guessed it, some kind of human centipede. He succeeds, and I’ll spare you the icky details since you already know them, but even his consuming aberration isn’t as horrifying as the real thing.

Welcome to 430 million years of hell

In my youthful years of turning over rocks and smashing dead logs, I encountered a number of the venom-injecting predators known as centipedes, and each time asked them to return from whence they came. If they had ever heeded my command, the fossil record tells us they would have traveled back roughly 430 million years ago to the dawn of their evolution. In the intervening years our world has suffered, their disgusting ranks have expanded to many thousands of species, with a frightening reach that extends even to some of the coldest and loneliest places on Earth. I can tell you they are unwanted in all of them.

Centipedes are professional killers

Like some other alien creatures living among us, the centipede’s lineaments are utterly macabre. I can only imagine the centipede is the devil’s innovation on the snake; every incarnation is a sinister series of segments, each with a number of legs altogether numbering in the dozens or hundreds, depending on the species. The slinking creature uses this fearsome motility to propel a pair of venomous claws toward its prey with the style of a professional killer. A 2012 study appearing in the Journal of Insect Physiology found that one species of large tropical centipede is a headhunting assassin, often "preferring to attack the head or thorax rather than the abdomen." Scientists found the centipede will even try to reorient its prey to achieve its preferred target.

I imagine the devil did not fully appreciate what he set in motion when designing the centipede. Indiana Jones is known for hating snakes, but you know what’s actually scarier than snakes? A tunnel filled with fucking centipedes. And even the snakes should be afraid of centipedes. Here’s a video of a gigantic centipede usurping the original harbinger of sin:

I didn’t always hate the centipede, but The Centipede Incident of 2009 remedied my childhood ignorance and revealed the creature for the abyssal horror it is. It was the middle of a warm summer night and I was in a deep sleep, shirtless and upright, the sheets kicked to the side of the bed. In the mysterious liminal zone of consciousness, where the dreamworld meets the splanchnic sensations of the body, I was alerted to a mysterious tickle running down my chest. I first imagined it might have been the hand of my partner sleeping beside me, but then I remembered... I was alone that night.

The centipede nightmare kept me awake for days

My right hand reached over to turn on the light, and as my eyes came into focus, there it was: a gigantic house centipede, surely seven or eight inches long as I remember it, its body quickly contorting and squirming across my bare skin. It quickly disappeared down the side of the bed, and beyond the safe glow of my lamp into the darkness. I lept out of bed in a panic as soon as I saw this misshapen fiend, but unable to hunt it down and destroy it, I sat awake with the light on until morning. My sleep was ruined for days, and sometimes I can still faintly feel the bastard skittering across my chest.

Unfortunately, the academic literature on the subject of centipedes is largely inadequate in proportion to their very real horror. Take this description of "firebrats, silverfish," and "house centipedes," courtesy of a page on The University of Kentucky’s website:

These arthropods are mostly a nuisance rather than economically or medically significant… House centipedes feed on small insects, insect larvae, and on spiders. Thus they are beneficial, though most homeowners take a different point-of-view and consider them a nuisance.

Compare this with a comment from "Angie," a member of an internet forum devoted to bugs:

I’m sorry but I would have to kill this creature! Its kinda scary looking!

I’m with you, Angie. And I won’t rest until every last centipede is dead.

Centipedes

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