This month, we take a look at rodents. Considering our cities are now supposedly infested with rats, it’s interesting to try and understand what makes these urban vermin so scary to some. Realistically, it all started in 1664…
During the period of 1664-1666, London was gripped by the Great Plague, the last major epidemic of bubonic plague in the UK. Wiping out an estimated 100,000 people, which equated to about 20% of the capital’s population at the time, the plague was all down to the bites of fleas carried in the hair of black rats. Disastrously, the residents of the city mistakenly thought that the disease was being spread by stray dogs and cats and so set about culling them. Obviously, cats are right above rats in the food chain, so taking out the predators of the vermin only exacerbated the situation. Interestingly, it was only in the 1890s that it was discovered that rats were the reason why the plague spread so quickly. Ignorance is not always bliss.
Rats were also central to the plot of a well-known story that warned against going back on your word. The Pied Piper of Hamelin was a character brought in by the Mayor of the town of Hamelin to help clear an infestation of rats, promising him a healthy reward for the completion of said task. The Pied Piper then played his pipe and the rats followed, happily lured to their deaths in the nearby river. Having completed the job, the Piper returned for his payment, but the Mayor reneged. So, in revenge, the Piper returned and played his pipe again, this time hypnotising the children of the town. They followed him and, dependent on the version you read, they either disappeared into a cave, never to be seen again or were returned once the Piper had received his fee. It is possible that an event of some description did occur in Hamelin, but it is generally thought that it is an analogy of the children dying and that the Piper is the symbolic figure of death. Either way, the involvement of the rats is interesting.
Considering their factual and fictional involvement in the painful deaths and disappearances of so many people, it’s understandable that society has a fear of these pests that can carry disease and pestilence. Our favourite genre has taken a real interest in this and rightfully so.
The obvious literature connection here is James Herbert, OBE. In 1972, Herbert began writing The Rats, inspired by a scene in Tod Browning’s Dracula where Renfield recounts a nightmare he has involving hordes of rats. Released in 1974, The Rats was Herbert’s first published novel and was quite graphic with its descriptions of death and mutilation. Herbert even seemed to break two of horror’s taboos – that neither babies nor animals should die – by killing off an infant and a dog to rat attacks early in the story.
The Rats was such a success it not only launched Herbert’s career, but also led to two sequels – Lair and Domain. Surprisingly, considering that the original novel did so well, there has never been a faithful cinematic adaption, the closest being a Canadian version called Deadly Eyes (aka Rats). The movie relocated the events to Toronto and is probably best summed up by the fact that dachshunds were dressed up in rat suits to achieve the visual effect of giant rats and the plot device that the rats are growing bigger because they are eating grain that is full of steroids. Here’s the trailer:
There have been further additions to cinematic history involving rats, most notably Willard and its sequel Ben. The sequel is probably best known for the title song, which was sung by Michael Jackson. The films are set in contemporary America and seem to place the central character of Willard in the role of modern day Pied Piper, who is able to control a small rat army until they turn on him. Willard was remade in 2003, with kooky actor Crispin Glover taking the title role.
Or how about Bruno Mattei’s typically gory Italian schlockfest, RATS: Night of Terror?
Sadly, the long line of bad Stephen King adaptions continued with the 1990 release of Graveyard Shift, which centres around a man-eating bat-rat. Seriously, don’t rush out to see it.
As with spiders in last month’s column, rats are one of those animals that can trigger fears that centre around sheer numbers. A group of rats is called a pack, swarm, horde or mischief. Imagine a mischief of rats streaming towards you in a darkened alley and tell us that doesn’t give you the heebie jeebies. For others, it is the long, snakelike tail that freaks them out, or the seemingly sharp teeth that line their mouths. Considering that you can buy rats in just about any pet store these days, maybe rats have caught a rap that they just don’t deserve.
Either way, it is understandable that as a carrier of death, rodents are seen as harbingers of doom and will continue to be a mainstay of horror tropes for decades to come. We didn’t even look at mice, because let’s face it, they’re not as scary…
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