Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan – The History of the Horrifying Ear Scene
Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan is beloved, but contains a truly horrifying moment.
“You see, their young enter through the ears and wrap themselves around the cerebral cortex. This has the effect of rendering the victim extremely susceptible to suggestion… Later, as they grow, follows madness and death…”
– Khan Noonien Singh
At school the next day, it was all we could talk about. Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan had aired on TV the night before, and for many of us impressionable youngsters, it was the first time we’d seen laid eyes on the movie.
We were too young to have heard about the “Spock must not die!” fan backlash that erupted before the sequel’s release in 1982. We didn’t know about the film’s emotional ending, which was moving in a way that few of us could have expected. And we most certainly weren’t prepared for what we can only describe as That Ear Scene.
If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know the bit I’m referring to.
Oh dear lord no make it stop
Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) lands on a seemingly deserted planet with Captain Terrell (Paul Winfield),and discovers that it’s the residence of Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban). A genetically-manipulated genius with an alarming appetite for despotism, Khan was left in exile 15 years earlier, and he’s plotting to exact his revenge of Kirk for the inadvertent death of his wife and 20 of his men. As part of his plot, Khan introduces Chekov and Terrell to his household pet: a loathsome, slug-like called a Ceti eel – an example of the creatures that had killed those close to him years earlier.
Watch Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan on Amazon
Grasping a couple of the creature’s greasy young with a pair of tongs, Khan explains that the eels have a tendency to worm their way into their victims’ ears and attach themselves to their brains. Khan takes Chekov and Terrell’s space helmets and drops an eel into each one. Chekov and Terrell, held down by Khan’s minions, can only gawp in fear.
“Let me introduce you to Ceti Alpha V’s only remaining indigenous life form,” Khan says with a grim smile. “What do you think? They’ve killed twenty of my people, including my beloved wife…”
Now, if you happened to be (say) a nine-year-old kid growing up in the late ’80s, this was strong stuff already. We weren’t yet versed in the dark world of body horror. We hadn’t seen Alien, or The Exorcist, or any of those infamous movies of the ’70s, though we’d heard hushed stories about some of their more extreme moments. Okay, so we’d watched a bunch of Nazis’ faces alternately explode or melt at the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, but that was more a hide-behind-a-cushion scene – or, if you were feeling macabre, a cackling-with-glee moment.
This bit in The Wrath Of Khan, however, was something else. Even the suggestion of something from another planet burrowing into our ears wasn’t just shudder inducing, it was the out-and-out stuff of nightmares. Add to this the disgusting design of the creatures – all segmented bodies, leech-like movements and icky ooze – and the suggestion that Chekov, one of the sweetest characters in all of Star Trek, might succumb to one of these things, was terrifying.
Surely Kirk would sweep in at the last moment, brandishing a phaser and rescue Chekov and Terrell at the last moment. Wouldn’t he? Well, no. The space helmets are crammed onto the victims’ heads, and we’re forced to watch, in horrifying close-up, as the absolute worst happens: one by one, the eels slither across faces and burrow into ears. Chekov and Terrell scream.
So do we.
The slug and the newspaper
Early in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan‘s production, the Ceti eels weren’t really eels at all. As originally written, the creature would control its hosts’ minds by attaching themselves to their necks – a plot point which might have been inspired by Robert Heinlein’s 1951 novel, The Puppet Masters. Producer Robert Sallin didn’t think much of this idea, however – it sounded too familiar, he thought – and so he resolved to come up with a better concept for a mind-controlling parasite.
The inspiration came from an unexpected angle: a newspaper lying outside his house one morning.
“I went out to pick up my newspaper,” Sallin told Cnet in 2013, “and there was a slug on the pathway. I thought, what if that slimy thing was able to go into the ear?”
The design of the Ceti eel came courtesy of ILM’s Ken Ralston, a visual effects supervisor charged with making the most of Star Trek II‘s relatively meagre budget; after the so-so performance of the incredibly lavish Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979, Paramount had decided to reign in its spending. Ralston came up with a range of concepts for the eel, some with legs, others with flowing tentacles.
The one Sallin ultimately chose was both the simplest design and the most abominable: a segmented, tough-looking creature which lay on its belly. In a masterfully brilliant touch, Ralston imagined that the eel’s larvae nested among the segments of its mother’s back, and had to be pulled free with a forceful yank from a pair of tongs.
The effects which brought the eels to life were simple and low-tech. The full-grown creature is simply a latex puppet, operated from below. The larvae which crawl across Chekov and Terrell’s faces are pulled along with a piece of monofilament. The close-ups of an eel crawling into the ear were created by fashioning an oversized portion of Chekov’s head from rubber. In a brilliantly nasty touch, the larval eels were slathered in a translucent substance to make them look more slimy and unpleasant. That substance was little more than raspberry jam.
It’s worth noting that Ralston and his designers were, whether they knew it or not, following in the footsteps of director David Cronenberg. Seven years earlier in 1975, he’d made his feature debut with Shivers, a low-budget horror in which a Canadian high-rise building is taken over by fleshy, slug-like parasites very like the ones in The Wrath Of Khan. Cronenberg had, like the makers of the Star Trek sequel, originally envisaged a more complex creature – something like a spider – but when he realized that would be too difficult, he came up with a more simple design instead.
Like Ralson, Cronenberg and his team fashioned the parasites out of latex and moved them around in front of the camera with thin, mostly invisible lengths of monofilament. The results, as creatures crawled into hosts through mouths (and other orifices), turning them into raving sex maniacs, was quite controversial at the time. One headline at the time read, “You should know how bad this movie is, you paid for it,” referring to the revelation that Shivers was funded at least in part by tax-payers’ money.
The obvious and major difference between Shivers and Star Trek II, though, was that the former was rated R while the latter was given a PG (at the time, PG-13 didn’t yet exist). When test audiences were shown an early cut of The Wrath Of Khan, they were left squirming in their seats; Sallin recalls that one audience member exclaimed, “That’s the grossest thing I’ve ever seen!”
Indeed, the original edit was reportedly considered slightly too gross, and was edited down slightly for Star Trek II‘s theatrical release. “I loved sitting in the theatres when everybody cringed,” Sallin admits.
No really, make it stop
Even in this form, the Wrath Of Khan ear scene is still a toe-curling moment. The joins in the special effects might be more glaring to modern eyes, but it hardly matters – what makes the sequence so effective is not only the sheer nastiness of the creature design, but the quality of the performances (look how coldly Khan stands there as Chekov and Terrell writhe in agony) and also the simple concept itself. There’s something about being powerless to stop a creature crawling in our ear that strikes at a primal, gut level.
Over 30 years later, the ear scene still works as an effective horror moment, and I’d argue that there’s an entire generation who’ve grown up with the after-image of the Ceti eel burned into their memories. The suffering that Khan meted out on two innocent space travellers – Terrell wound up obliterating himself with his phaser rather than kill Kirk; Chekov survived after the eel oozed out of his ear – set him up as one of cinema’s most imposing villains. The eels gave Star Trek II a horror edge which set it apart from the more stately Motion Picture.
Writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman were certainly affected by the Ceti eel, since they wound up putting a remarkably similar parasite – a Centaurian slug – in their 2009 Star Trek reboot. For pure shock value, nothing can beat the first appearance of Khan’s hideous eels in The Wrath Of Khan.
The beasts prompted horrified discussions at our school in the late 80s, and even now, we remain vaguely fearful of things crawling about in the dark, waiting for us to sleep, hoping to find somewhere warm to hide in our ears…
This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.