Earth & Conservation

A Bug in the System: The Science Behind The Fly

Seeker's Bad Science podcast explores the disturbing entomology hidden in director David Cronenberg's horror film.

When director David Cronenberg released his horror movie The Fly in 1986, he hit a kind of pop culture nerve cluster. The director's signature body-horror vibe freaked out viewers, and the film enjoyed a wave of publicity as early audiences actually fled the theaters. The movie's gruesome effects won the Academy Award for best makeup.

The Fly also managed to resurrect a kind of b-movie, sci-fi spirit that hadn't been seen in mainstream Hollywood since the 1950s. The film has since earned a place in the pantheon of great sci-fi horror movies.

The film leveraged a little hard science, too. It tells the cautionary tale of Dr. Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), a brilliant but eccentric scientist who makes a historic breakthrough in the technology of teleportation. Brundle's miraculous “telepods” can instantaneously transport inanimate objects through space. He hopes to teleport people, too, but there are a few — ahem — bugs in the system.

In this week's episode of Bad Science, Seeker's podcast about scientific principles in the movies, host Ethan Edenberg roots around in the darker corners of entomology with comedian Byron Bowers and Doug Yanega, an entomologist with the University of California, Riverside.

Yanega, a veteran researcher who has discovered hundreds of new insect species, shares some genuinely weird trivia on the taxanomical order known as Diptera.

For instance, depending on how you define your terms, flies actually have multiple brains running different body parts and organic functions, Yanega said. These nerve cell systems, called ganglia, can theoretically operate independently of one another, a fact which has a kind of sideways relevance to the plot line of the movie. When Dr. Brundle gets his genetic material mixed up with that of a fly, the metamorphosis he undergoes is gradual and localized. Is this the teleported ganglia at work? As always, with Bad Science, reckless conjecture is encouraged.

Yanega also reports that there is a scientific basis to the film's infamous “acid puke” scene, in which the fly creature spits out caustic digestive juices to soften up its meals.

“Flies don't have jaws,” Yanega explained. “One way you can identify a fly is that they have mouth parts that are modified to take up liquid. They can't chew solid food.”

RELATED: Flying Insects Have Decreased in Number by Over 75 Percent in Recent Decades

The panel also runs down some interesting details on the movie's notoriously disturbing deleted scenes, many of which you can now find online. Edenberg provides some behind-the-scenes trivia, as well. Apparently, Hollywood legend Mel Brooks quietly helped produce and finance the film.

Click on over to this week's episode for more Hollywood lore and dubious science as Bad Science takes on The Fly.