In a recent article, a woman identified as "one of the country's premier cicada experts" described the insects' sound as "flying saucers from a 1950s sci-fi film." I mentioned this to a guy I work with and he said, "Yeah, 'Invaders From Mars.' " I looked up "Invaders From Mars" and found that it was made in 1953, which was a year that Brood X emerged. Can Answer Man find out if the sound effects guy for that movie recorded periodical cicadas?
Gregory Dunn, Alexandria
Answer Man was excited about this question. Wouldn't it be cool if it was true?
But then he watched "Invaders From Mars," and he wasn't quite so excited. It's not that "Invaders From Mars" is a bad movie. (It is a bad movie, or rather, being a B-grade, 1950s sci-fi movie, it has a certain campy charm.) It's that the aliens didn't sound much like the cicadas that have been waking Answer Man from his well-deserved sleep every morning.
"Invaders," directed by William Cameron Menzies, is about David, a little boy who late one night sees an alien craft land near his house. In the morning, David persuades his skeptical father to go take a look. When Dad comes back, though, he's somehow changed: brusque, with a strangely flat affect. He also has an odd scar on the back of his neck. Things go downhill from there.
The sound in question occurs whenever anyone approaches the sand pit where the spaceship is buried, rising to a climax as the hapless victim is pulled down. The noise has an insectlike drone, but it wasn't made with insects.
"It was a choral group," said Wade Williams, who owns the rights to "Invaders From Mars," among other 1950s horror flicks. "It was a really weird noise that sounds like cicadas."
A composer named Raoul Kraushaar wrote the music for the film, employing a 16-voice choir for the sand-sucking scenes. "The voices were slightly distorted electronically," said Wade, who lives in Kansas City, Mo.
At our behest, David Tolchinsky, an associate professor of radio, TV and film at Northwestern University, watched the movie. In addition to the "alien" voices, he detected pulsing sounds produced by a violin and an organ.
David said cicadas are exactly the sort of thing sound effects guys like to record, "just because it's a cool sound" and they're always looking for interesting noises. For example, he said the sound behind the signature scene in "Alien" -- where the creature bursts from John Hurt's chest -- is composed of an apple bite, water in a bucket, a speeded-up voice and an electric shock.
David said if he recorded the cicadas he'd probably use them "not to represent insects but mixed in unexpectedly in a monster voice, as strange ambience, as a substitute for a helicopter, etc."
In a recent online chat, I asked readers what the cicadas reminded them of. Some of their thoughts: "the phasers in the original 'Star Trek,' " "a tourist bus idling" and "a PTA meeting."
What a Load of Hoya
A colleague asks Answer Man why the words "Hoya Saxa" are painted around Georgetown.
We sort of know the answer to this, but it's one of those questions that is pretty much unanswerable without access to a time machine. (And wouldn't one of those really come in handy every now and then?)
The first reference to the expression "Hoya Saxa" I can find in The Washington Post dates to Jan. 20, 1894, in a story about a Georgetown University alumni dinner that rang to the sound of " 'Hoya, hoya, Saxa,' from many youthful throats."
So, "Hoya, hoya, Saxa" is a cheer, sort of like "Hip, hip, hooray." A Post story on Oct. 28, 1894, about a football game between Georgetown and Swarthmore, includes the line, "The Georgetown rooters crowded along the side lines, following up the plays and encouraging their representatives with their college yell of 'Hoya-hoya-saxa.' "
But why would anyone shout that? The traditional story is that it's an allusion to some earlier Georgetown team that went by the name the Stonewalls. A student noted the Stonewalls' athletic prowess by shouting "What rocks!" (Geddit? Stone: rocks.) But being a smarty-pants Georgetown student, he couldn't just shout it in English. He commingled two classical languages and shouted Hoia (from the Greek hoios, meaning "such a" or "what a") saxa (Latin for "rocks").
However, The Post never mentioned a Georgetown team that went by the nickname the Stonewalls. And in a 1992 article in Georgetown Magazine, Father William McFadden argued that Hoya may be derived from the all-purpose exclamation "Hoy."
So we're sort of Lost in the Mists of Time. What is clear is that the "Hoya Saxa" cheer predates the "Hoya" team nickname. There are numerous references to the former, but through the early 1900s most GU teams were called the Georgetowns, the Hilltoppers or the Blue and Grays. In 1907, The Post referred to a bulldog named Hoya presented to the captain of the university's rowing team, and by 1928 "Hoyas" had become a synonym for the school's football team that was so well accepted that it didn't need to be explained.
If that Greek/Latin/Stonewalls story is correct, though, it means that Georgetown students are actually the "Whats." Sounds like an Abbott and Costello routine.
Researcher Alex MacCallum contributed to this report. Is there something you're just dying to know? Answer Man might just answer it. Send your query to firstname.lastname@example.org, or John Kelly, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Please include your name and city.