Ever play one of those games where you had to figure out how many marbles are in a jar? That's the game we found ourselves playing when we were trying to figure out how many live creepy crawlers we'd need to fill our infamous worm pit.
Originally, we were thinking about getting 100,000 worms. Sounds like a lot, right? Well, it is.
But if you're looking to cover a body in a Plexiglas case measuring 3 feet wide by 7 feet long, it is not as much as you might think. For an expert opinion, I placed a call to a big mealworm supplier in Oregon.
After talking with the supplier, it became clear that 300,000 would be the magic number. And, as luck would have it, he told me that one of the nation's largest mealworm suppliers was located right here in Los Angeles. In fact, it turns out both mealworm companies are owned by the same family. No doubt about it, this is a family that knows its worms.
Deciding what type of worm to use in the pit was easy. It simply had to be the superworm. They're feisty, yellowish guys that are larger and livelier than your average mealworm. They originated in South America, they're about 2 inches long, and they're full of protein. Typically, they're used as food for reptiles, birds and turtles.
But the best part about the superworms, as far as we're concerned, are their six pointy little legs. When one of them is walking on your skin, you can feel the little legs poking into you. Just imagine 300,000 of those guys crawling on you. We'll do the math for you. that's 1.8 million legs!
Just to make things a bit creepier, we decided to place our worm pit at the old Grand View cemetery. It's one of the oldest cemeteries in Los Angeles, the final resting spot of such long ago luminaries as the woman who played Aunt Harriet on the 1960's TV show Batman and the guy who once provided the voice of filmdom's Francis the Talking Mule. We shot the stunt in the mausoleum, just a few feet down from the remains of famed rodeo queen Annie Oakley.
For added effect, we decided to tell the contestants a little bit about how the body decomposes and how worms eventually find their way into corpses. What a weird research project that was. I talked to several people who work with dead bodies. They told me how it can take 40 to 100 years before a properly embalmed body will start to decompose. They told me how vermin can eat away at corpses but that the biggest factor that causes decay is the body's own bacteria. They told me how bodies years ago were embalmed with cyanide.
They also told me how many of the bodies behind crypts remain mummified for many years. Yikes. One cemetery worker told me he once saw a body in a crypt that was still mummified after 30 years. And exactly how did he see it? He told me. "One of the crypts had to be repaired and I couldn't help peeking in." I'm probably the last person who should be calling somebody's job weird, but I just couldn't help wondering how these people work with dead bodies day after day.
Eventually, I found some web sites specializing in a particularly icky science known as forensic entomology. In simple terms, that's the study of the bugs found on dead bodies. Too weird. But I was thrilled to find photos of maggots that looked remarkably similar to our superworms!
From the moment that the 300,000 worms were revealed to our contestants, it was clear that this was not going to be an easy stunt for any of them. And it became even tougher when they learned that they might actually have to eat some worms while in the pit.
The contestants who lasted in the pit for the full four minutes said it was even tougher than they imagined it would be. They said they could feel the superworms poking them all over their body. One contestant said she would have preferred laying down next to a dead body. Hmm, that gives me an idea?
by RICH BROWN