What's a Disgusting Little Bug Like You Doing in a Nice Town Like This?

by Guy Petzall

It looked innocuous enough, in its way. A simple whitewashed house right on the main square of the small Chilean mountain town of Vicuna, it bore a styleless hand-painted sign out front: "Museo Entomologico y Natura", words that could be intriguing, were they not so blandly presented. Just inside the door, however, clearly visible as I wandered by on the sidewalk, came the real hook. For there, mounted on a piece of poster board, a painted butterfly of truly shocking proportion sat next to the lettered text "The Gigantic Beetles! Moths of 30 cm!"... and this near a painted cockroach of similarly terrifying scale, accompanied by the words "Scorpions! More than 18 cm!". "That's more like it," I thought, for suddenly this museum, far from the dry educational exhibit portended by the building's conservative exterior, had taken on the juicy character of a roadside attraction, its welcoming poster offering all the "face-your-repulsion" promises of a 50's pulp-horror b-movie preview, splashing its tempting terrors across the screen of my imagination. I paid my 350 pesos at the desk and entered the first room.

We go to museums for many different reasons. Often we aim to bask in the light of refined artistic achievement. On other occasions we seek to learn about a culture or a history. And at times, material jealousy is also involved: we visit a museum in order to fetish objects which we couldn't possibly afford to put in our homes; or, as in the case of so many palace musea (such as the Louvre) to fetish houses we couldn't possibly afford to live in. But here I had found something different: a repository of fascinating horrors, a collection of 3000 specimens if I never saw any of which again would suit me just fine -- especially in my house. This was neither a vault nor a safe, but a prison for the beauties it contained, allowing me to comfortably inspect what I would hope never to encounter in any other setting.

As a cushion against initial squeamishness, the curators had chosen to present the butterflies and moths first, those perennial favorites in all their splendors of color, shape and size, in case after case after case lining the walls and aisles of the room. Each glass-lidded box proved anew how very clever, from an evolutionary standpoint, butterflies actually are. After all, if I were a disgusting little bug, I'd want huge camouflage wings too: camouflage to prevent my being noticed at all; and huge so that, when I am noticed, all anyone would pay attention to would be my wings, and not the fact that beneath them I am about as repulsive looking as insects get. Concealment: conceal your existence, but if that doesn't work, conceal your character. The very fact that in order to go incognito, quite literally undercover, they had adopted the most extremely ostentatious of all insect apparati, made their efforts' success even more incredible, while the variety of techniques which the many hundreds of exhibited butterflies employed to accomplish this serial subterfuge amazed me. Some looked like leaves. Others gave the impression of swirling oil in water, while another group seemed more like splashes of velour paint than winged animals at all. As I worked my way from case to case, their ingenuity increased. Transparent wings. Spotted wings. Striped wings. Striped wings with transparent spots amid swirling color. Swirling wings with spots of transparent stripes in speckled transparent stripe-color swirls. Splashes and speckles and dots, oh my! Any pattern of dappled forest light you can imagine was represented, in insect form, somewhere in this room, co-opted as the fashion of inconspicuity. And after all these fantasies of light, color, clarity and darkness, the final case of butterflies was the most fantastic of all, for they truly glowed, like holograms, refracting the ambient light into spectral amazements, blue-green-silver phantom images flitting deeply within the thin sheets of wing, almost as though they were made, not out of matter, but of pure distilled light: the ultimate disguise.

All these specimens were carefully labeled according to species and geographical distribution, and they also came in an incredible variety of sizes. The smallest grew no bigger than an ordinary housefly, while the larger species seemed more like armored birds than a member of an insect family. In a few cases their hang-glider wingspans reached nearly a foot across, which seemed quite necessary, really, to lift the corporal gondolas hanging beneath, bodies like winnebagoes, "the man behind the curtain" indeed, and again gratefully overshadowed by their showier attributes.

But all too soon the butterfly collection ended, giving way to what I can only term the uglybugs. Cases full of wings became cases full of horror, beginning with those bulbous bumps, beetles. The smaller of these in their range of color from shiny green to glistening black to ladybug spots to contoured stripes, sat fixed to their boards in row upon row upon row like some sort of carapaced car lot, or a too-organized collection of geriatric clip-on earrings.

But as I progressed from case to case, I was led gradually into a nightmare world turned true: the evolution of intimidation, rather than camouflage. The beetles grew larger and larger, beyond the bounds of good taste, really, beetles like wristwatches, beetles like fists, beetles like hamburgers, beetles like triple-bacon-cheeseburgers. And as their scale increased, so did their ornamentation. What had been bumps now exploded into all manner of jutting protuberances, not mere horns, but huge sweeping forking antlers, sometimes in pairs, more often a single unicorn halberd of shell, extending barbs medieval in ingenuity, but seemingly useless as a matter of real function, being, after all, immobile outgrowths of the beetles' raven shells and beetles being, after all, not famed for their momentum in combat charge. I hopes for their sakes, then, that to each other they might not seem so ridiculously encumbered. "Hey baby," I imagined the patter going, "check out the size of my protuberance. I can barely lift it."

Their legs and antennae grew too, and too much, even in proportion to their bodies, developing into long-reaching segmented thorn-branches, terminating too often with forked pinchers like tiny twin darts. "All the better to clutch you with, my dear." I did have to hand it to them, though: they tried to intimidate, and they succeeded, with me at least. And I must add that were I to discover one of those lovelies in my bed at night, I would be grateful indeed for the handles I could use to safely pick the critter up and eject it from my domain.

After the beetles, I was faced with a few tarantulas, obligatory in any creepy-crawly collection worth the name. These particular specimens were a tad over-desiccated for my taste, furry shriveled bulbs next to furry shriveled buds, and with a springboard of furry shriveled legs to support them. They indeed lived (or died) up to their advertised claims as to size, but let's face it: tarantulas aren't creepy because they are big, lots of spiders are big; no, tarantulas are creepy for having hair. It brings them vicariously into the mammalian fold, makes them closer to kin than curiosity. With such a thick, bushy coif going on, it's natural to imagine that these spiders have beneath it not a hard shell, but soft flesh, juicy meat, something essentially muscular and gooey about its composition, something tactile and spongy, easily fueling THJS (tarantular heebie-jeebie syndrome). Never mind that they're not poisonous: they're ticklish-looking, which is far worse. Which is why, I guess, no other spiders were displayed. After the fuzzy ones, the shiny ones are too easy. The tarantula is all you need.

Next to the tarantula case was a box displaying mantids, crickets and grasshoppers, some in their standard garden varieties, and others per usual growing to sickeningly distorted size. But in this instance it was the bugs' Latin names that really caught my attention, since one large group of them had been arranged beneath the label "NEUROPTERA", although they didn't look like particularly brain-rich creatures; while the group named "HYMENOPTERA" looked about as unattractive as any animals I'd ever encountered (Hymenea was the goddess of matrimony, you know). Despite their scale and their bizarre taxonomy, however, the insects in this case seemed somehow pale and unconvincing next to the arachnids. They were, after all, bald and spindly. I glanced for a while, said, "mm-hm" to myself, and moved on.

But lest museum-goers grow too desensitized by their inuration to THJS, the exhibit curator had adopted a strategy of reverse-reverse-reverse-reverse psychology, rebridging the gap from intimidation back toward camouflage, and to an extreme designed to trigger any lingering paranoia which may have gone untapped. For the next few cases took on the aspect of a sort of demented game: see this bundle of harmless wooden branches? Guess which one can crawl up your sleeve! See this pile of dried leaves? Can you tell which one you wouldn't want to step on? See this rock? Don't touch it, it's bite is extremely poisonous!

After a few minutes of this, I had begun to develop fears I never knew existed, fears of pretty much everything I could think of, and the more harmless it appeared, of course, the more deadly it could be. The moral of the story seemed to be: don't trust anything, for nothing is as it seems...

...which turned out to be a comforting message, in the end, since the final few cases of the entomology exhibit were filled with such grotesque horrors that I felt glad for any suggestion that they might not be what they seemed. This was the part of the exhibit meant to appeal to our natural disgust of malformation and mutation. These were the monsters. These were the hybrids. Abandoned by evolutionary process, stuck on the cusp, halfway between species, outcast by all, and, unfortunately, still able to survive and reproduce. Half-moth-half-lobster; half-dragonfly-half-giant-ant; half-beetle-half-burnt-wood; half-grasshopper-half-sparrow. The horrors continued, mutant following mutant, a Klingon cricket with thorny leg-shells rippled like twisted musculature sitting beside an animal which, as far as I could tell, was nothing but mandibles and legs. Fascinating things. Horrible things. Things that made me instinctively reach for a can of Raid, or for a sturdy hammer, even though I hadn't brought one, and even though the specimens were already dead. I did at least have the satisfaction of noting that in several instances, parts had broken off the bugs and begun to collect at the bottoms of the cases. "Long live entropy," I thought, "vive la resistance." "Go out with a bang," goes the old show-biz maxim, "go out with a shudder," its modern counterpart, as I passed out of the entomology room and into the rest of the museum.

Compared to the bugs, however, the remaining displays paled. Their intent was clear: to show something of paleontology, evolution and natural history in the region, but it looked as though the museum had given the job of actually constructing the exhibits to a class for fourth-graders. The pictures, the sculptures -- even the taxidermy -- looked not merely amateur, but juvenile. Every item looked like a deformation, and all improperly positioned. Armadillo: in attack posture. Skulls: in attack posture. Birds -- swallows, gulls, parakeets -- which looked to have died from inanition rather than capture: in attack posture. Even parts of birds had been mounted on branches in threatening ways. So that afterward even the shellfish collection of bivalves, mollusks, conches and squids, even the fossils assembled there, seemed to be ridiculously positioned to strike, if provoked.

Needless to say, I didn't tarry overmuch there, but returned to the roomful of bugs for another gape'n'gander before once more emerging into the sunlit square where, I swear, I could, just perceptibly, feel the ground crawling under my very feet.