[Guest authors Christopher Lombardo and Jeff Kirschner of Really Awful Movies take a look back at some of the most memorable slimy moments in the horror and sci-fi genres.] In Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, the philosopher weighs in on the icky properties of slime: “…it sticks to me, it draws me, it sucks at me. Its mode of being is neither the reassuring inertia of the solid nor a dynamism…”
The author described “le visqueux” (viscosity) at length, and reportedly even stared at algae to experience the repulsive feelings associated with the title and theme of his dour novel Nausea.
When it comes to phobias, a fear of slime sits pretty low on the list. Who has even heard of blennophobia compared with more prevalent fears such as agora- or arachnophobia?
Perhaps because it’s one of those fears, like being scared of fire, that is so ubiquitous that it doesn’t really need a psychological condition or fancy verbiage attached to it. After all, it’s pretty rare to experience fire in your day-to-day life (as opposed to public spaces or spiders).
Many of us were introduced to slime in high school chem labs or through Ghostbusters. On the ’80s Canadian teen variety show You Can’t Do that On Television (featuring a young Alanis Morissette), if cast members used a certain catchphrase, they “got slimed” with a bucket of fluorescent green slop.
Despite this early exposure, we all still reflexively recoil at slimy things, whether it be the sight of mucous when you catch a fellow commuter picking their nose at a red light, or when picky eaters turn their noses up at sashimi.
Naturally, this persistent fear has been exploited in a wide range of films, particularly in the sci-fi genre, as slime has a certain otherworldly quality.
In Chuck Russell’s 1988 science fiction horror film, The Blob (itself a remake of the 1958 drive-in classic of the same name), a meteorite (that longstanding plot device holdover from ’50s monster movies) crashes into a small and seemingly abandoned California burg. The rock gurgles a bit like lava before emitting a slimy, mold-like substance. Because it’s a horror film, someone nearby, a bearded vagrant with a dog, who narrowly missed having his head become a crater, lets his curiosity get the better of him. Instead of doing the sensible thing—running away as quickly as possible in the opposite direction—he pokes at the goo with a long stick. Bad move. The vagrant soon melts in glorious fashion.
Interestingly, slime mold is more advanced than we thought. Researchers at the University of Toulouse found that the bright yellow Physarum polycephalum, which inhabits decaying vegetation and is often referred to as “many-headed slime,” has developed a learned avoidance response to quinine and caffeine, despite not having a brain.
Horror genre aliens are often the complete antithesis of the cute and cuddly otherworldly creatures that either come in peace or want to go home. They’re ugly, deadly, and very, very viscous. Slime oozes everywhere in both Ridley Scott’s Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing. In the former, ostensibly a slasher film set in space, the H.R. Giger-designed extraterrestrial exudes the stuff as she picks off the crew one by one before setting her sights on the film’s final girl, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. The rivulets of gloop pouring from the creature’s mouth repulses both audiences and the crew alike, and a safe trip back to terra firma is far from guaranteed when her maw opens and the mucous spills. The shape-shifting, parasitic alien presence in 1982’s The Thing, meanwhile, is capable of absorbing and assimilating any organic being it encounters. Each transformation is a crescendo of goop and grue in what may be makeup master Rob Bottin’s finest hour—a triumph of practical effects wizardry.
Canadian horror maestro David Cronenberg capitalized on the visceral revulsion we have to slime in his remake of The Fly, exploiting the digestive habits of bugs (Musca domestica) who vomit before eating so that their enzymes can soften food and aid digestion. Scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) sprouts hair, develops incredible energy and body strength, and takes on that gross gustatory fly property, too. In an infamous scene in front of girlfriend/science journalist Veronica (Geena Davis), he burps up green slime and, clearly embarrassed, concedes, “That’s disgusting.”
Most research on what we find disgusting has focused on food, and reactions have developed over millions of years of evolution. In a piece in The Atlantic, “How We Cultivate Disgust,” Professor Jeffrey Lockwood says, “We are keenly attuned to the tactile properties of substances that are likely to infect us—curdled, gooey, lukewarm, moist, mucky, oily, scabby, slimy, slithery, and squishy.”
In Greg Lamberson’s underrated Slime City, loser Alex (Craig Sabin) samples some dodgy green “Himalayan yogurt.” After ingesting it, his face morphs into what looks like a double cheese pizza. He quickly turns psychotic and pummels a homeless man to death with a lead pipe. In the film’s best scene, over for dinner at his future in-laws, Alex’s face drips egg yolk-like goo right onto the dinner plate. Peter Jackson’s deliciously sanguinary Dead Alive features a most unappetizing meal, as decomposing battle-axe Vera Cosgrove (Elizabeth Moody) spews viscid pink pus into an unsuspecting glutton’s dessert. “Rich and creamy… just the way I like it,” exclaims the diner as he hungrily ingests the secretion-suffused slurry.
In the gnarly Street Trash, a liquor store owner discovers a crate of dusty, decades-old hooch called Tenafly Viper and sells it to scrapyard-dwelling Brooklyn hobos. Unfortunately, there’s a pretty terrible side effect: it melts faces. In one scene, a man melts on a fire escape, dripping gross slime on a yuppie passerby.
In horror, what frightens us is frequently an additive. Paired fears heighten tension, whether it’s the inferno during the face dripping denouement of Scanners, or the claustrophobic intrusion of personal space in the average slasher shower murder. Slime rarely in itself provides the fear, but it is an effective adjunct.
Christopher Lombardo and Jeff Kirschner are authors of Death by Umbrella! The 100 Weirdest Horror Movie Weapons and co-founders of www.ReallyAwfulMovies.com and the Really Awful Movies Podcast.