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8 Oct

How worms became this 12 months’s slimiest cultural obsession

How worms became this 12 months’s slimiest cultural obsession

From ‘would you continue to love me if I were a worm?’ memes to pop songs and TikTok parasite cleanses, worms are wriggling into popular culture – but why?

Worms are in every single place. From the earth under our feet to the deep sea, the wriggling invertebrates are omnipresent, essential to our existence and ecosystems. In recent times, worms have also infiltrated the cultural zeitgeist with increasing prominence. 

Last October, Heidi Klum caused a stir by turning as much as her annual Halloween celebrations dressed as an earthworm. Terms like ‘worm-pilled’, ‘wormcore’ and ‘worms for brains’ have also began to frequent our vernacular, and the everlasting query ‘would you continue to love me if I used to be a worm?’ continues to be emblematic of modern-day romanticism. Not to say the recognition of accounts akin to crypt0cryptids and waterbod, showcasing a wide selection of slimy, otherworldly worm-adjacent creatures.

Within the music world, this past half-a-year alone has seen Shame release Food For Worms, HMLTD’s album The Worm, Giant Swan’s Robin Stewart – as RS Tangent – release When A Worm Wears A Wig, and Ashnikko’s track “Worms”. On the latter, Ashnikko sings, “the world is burning, I got worms in my brains” – a line that taps into the apocalyptic relevance of the worm as a motif: as creatures, worms are related to decay. Within the context of the climate crisis, their association with decomposition and mortality makes them a fitting cultural companion. 

In keeping with the most recent wellness culture obsession with parasite cleanses, worms are also living rent-free in our bodies. A cursory seek for worm-related content on TikTok – at your personal peril, especially should you’re squeamish – throws up every kind of wormy creatures secreting from the insides of individuals’s mouths, writhing underneath the skin, and many TikTokers claiming to have passed elongated parasites of their poo consequently of DIY cleanses. It’s a morbidly fascinating wormhole of real-life body horror. While, hopefully, none of us are about to have a mutant chest-bursting Alien moment, worm-like creatures have an extended legacy inside sci-fi and horror as a vessel of fear. And the parasite cleanse trend taps right into a widespread fear over bodily autonomy, spurred on partially by the COVID-19 pandemic and interlinked wellness conspiracy theories. 

Our current cultural obsession with worms also stems, partially, from one other element that has grown from the pandemic and lockdowns: the renewed enthusiasm for connection to nature. The popularity of neo-paganism is on the rise as is an interest within the lore of the land – the earthworm’s terrain. In May, the second annual Falmouth worm charming championships took place. Also generally known as grunting or fiddling, it’s an ancient art form used to lure worms to the surface. The revival of this tradition over the past few years in Cornwall is due to artist Georgia Gendall. “The Falmouth worm-charming championship celebrates the importance of the earthworm, while also being absurd and silly and cultivates collective joy,” Gendall says. “I believe there was a trend of individuals wanting to attach with the earth and understand our ecosystems more… As soon as you look to the earth the very first thing you come across is worms together with soil (which can also be trendy)”.

Elsewhere, this gleeful absurdism is tangible within the wealth of worm-on-a-string content across TikTok and meme culture – much of which takes on a darkly skewed humour. Images of the worms are accompanied by threats to reap your organs and steal your kneecaps. One other common slogan reads, “it’s worm time baby”. But what exactly is worm time? Have we collectively fallen right into a worm vortex? Lost within the warped spacetime of wormholes? Who knows at this point, but what is definite is we’re living on worm land. “Considered one of my favourite worm facts is that in a single acre of land there might be over one million worms. There’s something about that I find very comforting,” designer, actor and TikTok star Myra Magdalen says. Known for maximalist outfits taking inspo from nail clippers, computer keyboards, red onions and bugs, worms also feature heavily in Magdalen’s creative cosmos. In a tour of her room, she shows her office space’s ‘worm wall’, displaying a montage of images of fleshy annelids and cartoon counterparts. 

While worms have undoubtedly been having fun with a recent popularity surge, they’ve long been weaving their way throughout popular culture. There’s William in Labyrinth, Worms the video game, 90s sci-fi comedy Can of Worms, and the sandworms in Beetlejuice and Dune. In addition they tap right into a deep childhood memory for a lot of, recalling an easier time of digging around within the mud. This childhood connection is something which each Gendall and Magdalen align on, mentioning a fascination with the worm’s vital role on the earth from an early age. “For me, they’re the proper balance between the absurd and the necessary,” Gendall says, “and so they instil a childlike sense of wonder in everyone who comes across them.” This aspect also feeds into the emergence of feral aesthetics – think moss girl summer, goblin mode and the like – over recent years. “As someone who’s a really messy maximalist, who doesn’t mind somewhat dirt and finds treasure in trash, I type of relate to worms,” Magdalen says. 

Across much folklore and mythology, worms are seen as between life and death. Earlier this 12 months, a video from Liaoning Province in China went viral showing what looked like grey worms raining from the sky. While that instance turned out to truly be catkins from trees, more recently the same plague-like incident featuring white worms coming from the sky occurred in India – with each occurrences tapping right into a biblical apocalypticism in line with worms’ liminal, primordial significance. “Worms take care of decay and renewal always and that feels in step with paganism’s belief in birth, growth and death carrying spiritual meaning,” Gendall says. On this context, worms really are a fitting symbol for current tumultuous times – carrying a balance between associations with mortality and an absurd silliness. Plus earthworms have five hearts, so perhaps the ‘would you continue to love me if I used to be a worm’ meme is definitely more romantic than it seems.

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