A parasite is defined as the dominant partner in an unwelcome relationship of different organisms. In other words, the parasite is a life form that benefits from an involuntary partnership, while the other creature in the relationship…does not.
Throughout cult-tv history, we’ve encountered many memorable and monstrous parasites, a fact which probably arises from the popularity of the 1951 alien invasion novel The Puppet Masters by Robert Heinlein. By some definitions, Star Trek’s the Borg might themselves be considered parasites, since, with their assimilation nanites, they transform and co-opt organic beings into Borg. But for this post, I’m going to concentrate on some memorable and gruesome biological parasites, rather than mechanical ones.
What’s the fear of parasites? In short, it’s the idea that our bodies can be used and abused by an intelligence not our own; that our bodies could be viewed as a resource or even food by some other creature. Many of the creatures on this list assume control of our physical selves, and replace our intelligence with theirs. Others see us, alarmingly, as just meat.
So here are eight truly horrific, incredibly disgusting cult-tv parasites. These are the monkeys you most definitely don’t want on your back…or anywhere else inside you for that matter.
8. Prehistoric tape worm. This revolting creature appeared in the fourth episode of Primeval, which aired in March of 2007 in the UK.
Here, a flock of adorable dodos waddle through one of the series’ colorful time anomalies into modern England, but a few of these extinct, flightless birds are carrying a parasite that can temporarily seize control of the host and act aggressively to assure reproduction. One of Connor’s (Andrew-Lee Potts) friends, Tom (Jake Curran), is infected with the organism after a dodo bite on his arm. He soon suffers debilitating headaches, massive pain and increased paranoia as the worm inside him…grows. At one point in the episode, we see a high-resolution scan of Tom’s skull, and this large, lively worm wriggling about inside it.
7. The Hellgramite. This parasite appeared in the third season of the first Twilight Zone remake (1985 – 1989) called “The Hellgramite Method.” In this tale by William Selby, an alcoholic named Miley Judson (Timothy Bottoms) realizes he risks losing his family if he doesn’t get off the booze permanently. Accordingly, he answers an ad for a cure for alcoholism and meets with Dr. Murrich (Leslie Yeo). The doctor, — who lost his own family to a drunk driver — gives Judson a red pill to swallow. Inside that pill, the drinker later learns, is a parasite called a Hellgramite: an unusual brand of tape worm that survives and thrives on alcohol. The more Judson drinks, the more the worm feeds and the bigger it grows. Now, Judson doesn’t even get the buzz of feeling drunk, no matter how much liquor he consumes! Eventually, if he keeps drinking, the Hellgramite will kill Miley, so the traumatized alcoholic must either starve the tapeworm and stop drinking for good, or let the thing kill him…
In this case, the cult-tv parasite, while quite horrible, is actually put to good use: curing alcoholism. At episode’s end, the Hellgramite Method works, and Miley Judson is a new man. As the voice-over reminds us, what this drinker needed “was something a little extra,” something that could only be found…in The Twilight Zone.
6. The Selminth. This parasitic creature appeared in the fifth and last season of Angel (1999 – 2005), in an episode entitled “Soul Purpose,” written by Brent Fletcher and directed by David Boreanaz.
In this entry, Angel becomes trapped in a vegetative state while under the influence of a slimy worm-like creature called a Selminth Parasite. This creature causes hallucinations in its host, and in the episode, Angel dreams that Spike has replaced him as the champion of the Shansu Prophecy. Here, the worm is used as a weapon by a sinister agent (Eve), and alters the very mind-state of the host. Angel must wake up and remove the parasite from his chest, or live in a a nightmare for the remainder of his days…
5. “Conspiracy.” In “Conspiracy,” a late first season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) is warned by a friend, Captain Walker (Jonathan Farwell) that some kind of sinister agenda is afoot in Starfleet Command.
After Walker’s ship, The Horatio explodes in an apparent accident, Picard fears there might be some truth behind his friend’s paranoia. He orders the Enterprise back to Earth, and there discovers that the Admiralty itself has been infiltrated by parasitic aliens bent on conquering the Federation from within. These small, crab-like aliens enter human beings through the mouth, and then completely control all higher mental functions. The small parasites also report to a much-larger, dinosaur-like “mother” being that has found a home inside Commander Remmick (Robert Schenkkan). The parasites die without this mother being in close proximity.
These creepy alien parasites (revealed in Star Trek novels to be related to the Trill…) can be detected by a sort of breathing gill that extends from the back of the host’s neck. In the episode, Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) rigs one for Riker (Jonathan Frakes) so that he will appear compromised, but can actually rescue Captain Picard from danger.
I must admit, I absolutely love this episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It has a more sinister, diabolical vibe than most episodes. In fact, it’s downright scary at times, especially the unresolved ending, which suggests the parasites could return one day, and have sent a message to their brethren out in space. I also love the visual of Picard and Riker frying the alien mother organism with their phasers. So much for respect and tolerance for all alien life forms! I’ve always found it ironic that Gene Roddenberry so vociferously complained about Admiral Kirk’s treatment of another parasite, the Ceti Eel in The Wrath of Khan (1982) — how dare he shoot it! it’s a life-form — but then Picard and Riker reacted exactly the same way in this TNG episode, with revulsion and phasers firing.
4. The Ganglions. These skittering, slimy, multi-tentacled parasites appeared in the short-lived alien invasion series Dark Skies (1996 – 1997). The ganglions were first seen in the pilot episode, “The Awakening,” written by Brent Friedman and Bryce Zabel and directed by horror legend Tobe Hooper.
The Ganglions enter the human head through either the nose, ear or mouth, and the assimilation process is slow and incredibly painful. First, possession by the parasite causes a nervous breakdown, but eventually the host mind is erased completely, and the Ganglion is in total control of his human steed. We learn in the course of the series that the Ganglions took over the Greys’ planet, much in the same way that they intend to take over the human race.
In “Awakening,” cult-television gets one of its most gruesome and effectively shot scenes as the scientists of Majestic attempt to remove a ganglion from its human host, a farmer. The results aren’t pretty. The ganglion escapes, attempts to attach to another unlucky soul, and then is deposited in a jar by John Loengard, using very long tongs. This scene remains harrowing, even today, and is splendidly shot by Hooper.
3. “Roadrunners.” An eighth season X-Files episode, Roadrunners,” by Vince Gilligan, introduces a parasitic creature that may or may not be of this Earth.
Here, Agent Scully (Gillian Anderson), sans partner, visits Utah to investigate a strange death. She soon runs afoul, instead, of a weird cult that believes a worm parasite represents the second coming of Jesus Christ on Earth.
These committed cult members attempt to get the worm inside Scully – who is pregnant at this point – by allowing it to burrow underneath her flesh, inside her back. This episode successfully gets under your skin too, by forging an atmosphere of extreme isolation and vulnerability. In The X-Files, we are used to Mulder always having Scully’s back during a crisis. But here, Mulder is gone, abducted by aliens, and we don’t quite trust Agent Doggett (Robert Patrick) yet. Here, Scully is the most alone we’ve ever seen her, in real physical danger, contending with villains who can’t be reasoned with. And she faces, clearly, a fate worse than death with that wriggling, monstrous worm in her back. In a truly upsetting scene, Scully is tied to a bed on her stomach, as the creature makes its subcutaneous approach.
A group of vocal folks like to complain about the last two, largely Mulder-less years of The X-Files, but episodes such as “Roadrunners” certainly prove the series was effective as ever in generating authentic, deep-down scares. I also appreciate the conceit that this particular parasite is never explained. We don’t know what it is, where it came from, or why it is here. Creepy.
2. The Invisibles. In a classic first season Outer Limits episode written by Joseph Stefano and directed by Conrad Hall, an undercover GIA agent, Spain (Don Gordon) attempts to infiltrate a secret and subversive society called the Invisibles.
Once inside the secret community, Spain learns that the strange group is led by hideous alien invaders: horrible crab-like creatures that attach themselves to the human spine and totally control minds. If the joining process goes wrong, humans are rendered deformed and nearly lobotomized.
Gordon attempts to warn government officials about the alien invasion in the offing, but the Invisibles are already onto him, and just waiting to absorb him into their ranks. In an absolutely tense and suspenseful scene near the episode’s climax, a wounded, prone, Spain is unable to escape as a skittering, multi-legged Invisible dashes towards him, attempting to join with him. He pulls himself along, screaming for help, as the thing, in the background, looms ever nearer. The feeling of vulnerability, entrapment and terror generated in that image, and throughout “The Invisibles,” remains incredibly potent almost fifty years later. Being joined with these huge, inhuman things is indeed a fate worse than death…
We never actually see the parasite in the classic episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery
entitled “The Caterpillar,” but we certainly learn all about it.
Here, a nasty civil servant, Stephen Macy (Laurence Harvey) covets a co-worker’s wife (Joanna Pettet) and attempts to off her husband with a parasite called an earwig. The murder scheme goes horribly wrong, however, when Stephen himself is exposed to the wee bug.
The earwig, you see, possesses a “decided liking” for the human ear. Once inside the ear canal, the odds of an earwig evacuating it are a thousand-to-one. They can’t turn around, and so instead keep plowing endlessly forward...burrowing into the brain and feeding on grey matter as they seek an escape route. The pain caused by these “stealthy chaps” is agonizing and horrible, and death is nearly always the result. Here, Macy undergoes agonizing pain as the earwig digs in. In fact, his hands must be bound to his bed-posts so he doesn’t claw his face apart in an attempt to get rid of the bug chewing a path through his brain.
By some miracle, Macy survives the ordeal, which he describes as an “agonizing, driving, itching pain,” and the earwig exits his ear. Unfortunately, those two weeks are only the beginning of Hell for Mr. Macy. He learns that the earwig was female and laid eggs inside his brain. The larvae will hatch soon, and find a ready source of food: his brain, Despite its lack of overt horrific visuals, “The Caterpillar” proves utterly disgusting and macabre in its suggestion of a fate worse than death: a perpetual itch you just can’t scratch.