Consider the cloak: that heavy, full-length piece of outerwear most often associated with epic fantasy franchises, and specifically, Harry Potter. It’s not something you’d wear to class, not if you value practicality—and yet somehow it remains the most iconic part of the wizarding school uniform.
But in the non-magical world, Portuguese university students have been wearing cloaks to class day in, day out, more or less since higher education was invented. They are the indisputable pioneers of the trend—so much so that many would swear, under Veritaserum if needed be, that J.K. Rowling was inspired by the Portuguese when picking out the outfits for her young wizards. Although Rowling has never been explicit about her inspiration for the cloaks, she wrote part of what would become Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone while living in Porto, Portugal, in the 1990s. Tour guides often point out the cloaked university students, whom Rowling must have seen walking to and from class, as the likely inspirations behind the Hogwarts dress code.
The look stems from the history of post-secondary education in Portugal, which has some of the oldest universities in the world. When the country's first university—the University of Coimbra—was created in 1290 in Lisbon, teaching was a religious vocation (as was learning), and so the medieval campus was teeming with clergymen. There wasn’t a student uniform, exactly, but the mish-mash of men from different religious orders did result in a student look: a dark, severe ensemble that civilian students began to approximate in the centuries that followed. As late as 1850, the all-male student body at the University of Coimbra was still wearing knee-length cassocks over shorts and knee socks. A long cloak topped off the whole outfit, lending a decidedly clerical look to the decidedly civilian students.
Things changed, dramatically, in the latter half of the 19th century. The progressive spirit of the era replaced the old-fashioned shorts with a practical three-piece suit, composed of black frock coat, waistcoat, and tailored pants—and so the standard male university uniform, or traje, was born. The cumbersome old cloak very nearly went out of commission then, but the boys had reportedly grown so attached to its drama that they kept wearing it over the new suits. School authorities allowed the cloak to remain, proudly anachronistic, to sweep the cobblestones of Coimbra another day. When the country’s second and third universities were founded in 1911, in the cities of Lisbon and Porto, students rushed to adopt the same weirdly popular suit-and-cloak combo.
Students from the Orfeão Universitário do Porto, a student association at the University of Porto, pictured in their trajes in 1956.
Girls didn’t get a standard uniform until 1945, when the Orfeão Universitário do Porto, a student association at the then-young University of Porto, accepted the first female members into its roster. (Before then, women didn't have any particular school attire, although they were sometimes told to wear all black so as not to stand out.) Members of the Orfeão were expected to perform traditional Portuguese singing and dancing in full uniform, and the girls rose to the occasion by suiting up in their very own, alternate version of the traje. They found their inspiration in the stripped-down practicality of military women’s uniforms and settled on a knee-length trapeze skirt and boxy three-button jacket. The cloak, of course, was the final touch, which quickly caught on at other schools.
Today, there are over 300,000 university students in Portugal, a respectable number of whom routinely wear the traje to class. It is no longer mandatory, as it once was, but it doesn’t need to be. To wear this historic uniform is to embrace and broadcast one’s identity as a student—although it’s also to be frequently confused with a Harry Potter cosplayer. Foreign visitors to Portugal sometimes make that mistake, but they should know the opposite is likelier to be true: Local students have been wearing cloaks to class since long before Harry Potter was cool.
Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Warner Home Video
In the 1950s, Elvis was king, hula hooping was all the rage, and movie screens across America were overrun with giant arthropods. Back then, Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and other “big bug” films starring colossal insects or arachnids enjoyed a surprising amount of popularity. What kicked off this creepy-crawly craze? An eerie blockbuster whose impossible premise reflected widespread anxieties about the emerging atomic age. Grab a Geiger counter and let’s explore 1954's Them!.
1. Them!'s primary scriptwriter once worked for General Douglas MacArthur.
When World War II broke out, the knowledge Ted Sherdeman had gained from his career as a radio producer was put to good use by Uncle Sam, landing him a position as a radio communications advisor to General MacArthur. However, the fiery conclusion of the war left Sherdeman with a lifelong disdain for nuclear weapons. In an interview he revealed that upon hearing about the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and started to throw up."
Shifting his focus from radio to motion pictures, Sherdeman later joined Warned Bros. as a staff producer. One day he was given a screenplay that really made his eyes bug out. George Worthing Yates, best known for his work on the Lone Ranger serials, had decided to take a stab at science fiction and penned an original script about giant, irradiated ants attacking New York City. "The idea appealed to me very much,” Sherdeman toldCinefantastique, "because, aside from man, ants are the only creatures in the world that plan to wage war, and nobody trusted the atomic bomb at that time.” (His statement about animal combat is debatable: chimpanzee gangs will also take organized, warlike measures in order to annex their rivals’ territories.)
Although he loved the basic concept, Sherdeman felt that the script needed something more. Screenwriter Russell S. Hughes was asked to punch up the script, but died of a heart attack after completing the first 50 pages. With some help from director Gordon Douglas, Sherdeman took it upon himself to finish the screenplay. Thus, Them! was born.
2. Two main ants were built for the movie.
Them! brought its spineless villains to life using a combination of animatronics and puppetry, courtesy of an effects artist by the name of Dick Smith. He constructed two fully functional mechanical ants for the production, with the first of these being a 12-foot monster filled with gears, levers, motors, and pulleys. Operating the big bug was a job that required a small army of technicians who’d pull sophisticated cables to control the ant’s limbs off-camera. These guys worked in close proximity and often crashed into each other as a result, prompting Douglas to call them “a comedy team.”
The big insect mainly appears in long shots, and for close-ups, Smith built the front three quarters of a second large-scale ant and mounted it onto a camera crane. During scenes that required swarms of ants, smaller, non-motorized models were used. Blowing wind machines moved the little units’ heads around in a lifelike manner.
3. Them! features the Wilhelm Scream.
Fifty-nine minutes in, the ants board a ship and one of them grabs a sailor, who unleashes the so-called "Wilhelm Scream." You can also hear it when James Whitmore’s character is killed, and the sound bite rings out once again during the movie’s climax. Them! was among the first movies to reuse this distinctive holler, which was originally recorded three years earlier for the 1951 western Distant Drums. Since then, it’s become something of an inside joke for sound recording specialists. The scream has appeared in Titanic (1997), Toy Story (1995), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Batman Returns (1992), the Star Wars saga (1977-present), all three The Lord of the Rings movies (2001-2003), and countless other films.
4. Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance.
In one brief scene, future Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy plays an Army man who receives a message about an alleged “ant-shaped UFO” sighting over Texas. He then proceeds to poke fun at the Lone Star State, because, as everybody knows, insectile space vessels are highly illogical.
5. Many different sounds were combined to produce the screeching ant cries.
Throughout the movie, the monsters announce their presence with a haunting wail. Douglas’s team created this unforgettable shriek by mixing assorted noises, including bird whistles, which were artificially pitched up by sound technicians.
6. Sandy Descher had to sniff a mystery liquid during her signature scene.
Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Them! has a deliberate pace and the massive insects don’t make an onscreen appearance until the half hour mark. Douglas took credit for this restrained approach, saying, “I told Ted, let’s tease [the audience] a little bit before you see the ant. Let’s build up to it."
So instead of showing off the big bugs, the opening scene follows a little girl as she wanders through the New Mexican desert, listlessly clutching her favorite doll. That stunning performance was delivered by child actress Sandy Descher. Later, in one of the most effective title drop scenes ever orchestrated, a vial of formic acid is held under her character’s nose. Suddenly recognizing the aroma, the traumatized youngster screams “Them! Them!” Descher never found out what sort of liquid was really sloshing around in that container.
“They used something that did smell quite strange. It wasn’t ammonia, it was something else,” she told an interviewer. Still, the mysterious brew had a beneficial effect on her performance. “They tried to create something different and it helped me a lot with that particular scene,” Descher said.
7. Them! was originally going to be filmed in 3D and in color.
To hear Douglas tell it, the insect models looked a lot scarier in person. “I put green and red soap bubbles in the eyes,” he once stated. “The ants were purple, slimy things. Their bodies were wet down with Vaseline. They scared the bejeezus out of you.” For better or for worse, though, audiences never got the chance to savor the bugs’ color scheme.
At first, Warner Bros. had planned on shooting the movie in color. Furthermore, to help Them! compete with Universal’s brand-new, three-dimensional monster movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon, the studio strongly considered using 3D cameras. But in the end, the higher-ups at Warner Bros. didn’t supply Douglas with the money he’d need to shoot it in this manner. Shortly before production started on Them!, the budget was greatly reduced, forcing the use of two-dimensional, black and white film.
8. The setting of the climactic scene was changes—twice.
Yates envisioned the final battle playing out in New York City’s world-famous subway tunnels. Hughes moved the action westward, conjuring up an epic showdown between human soldiers and the last surviving ants at a Santa Monica amusement park. Finally, for both artistic and budgetary reasons, Sherdeman set the big finale in the sewers of Los Angeles.
9. Warner Bros. encouraged theaters to use Them! as a military recruitment tool.
The film’s official pressbook advised theater managers who were screening Them!& to contact their nearest Armed Forces recruitment offices. “Since civil defense in the face of an emergency figures in the picture, make the most of it by inviting [a] local agency to set up a recruiting booth in the lobby,” the filmmakers advised. Also, the document suggested that movie houses post signs reading: “What would you do if (name of city) were attacked by THEM?! Prepare for any danger by enlisting in Civil Defense today!”
10. The movie was a surprise hit.
Studio head Jack L. Warner predicted that Them!, with its far-fetched plot, wouldn’t fare well at the box office. So imagine his surprise when it raked in more than $2.2 million—enough to make the picture one of the studio's highest-grossing films of 1954.
11. Them! landed Fess Parker the role of TV's Davy Crockett.
When Walt Disney went to see Them!, he had a specific objective in mind: Scout a potential Davy Crockett. At the time, Disney was developing a new television series that would chronicle the life and times of the iconic frontiersman, and James Arness, who plays an FBI agent in Them!, was on the short list of candidates for the role. Yet as the sci-fi thriller unfolded, it was actor Fess Parker who grabbed Disney’s attention. Director Gordon Douglas had hired Parker to portray the pilot who ends up in a psych ward after an aerial encounter with a gargantuan flying ant. And while his character only appears in one scene, the performance impressed Disney so much that the struggling actor was soon cast as Crockett.
By the Texan’s own admission, his good fortune may’ve been the product of bargain hunting. “Walt probably asked, ‘How much would Arness cost?’ and then ‘This fellow [Parker], we ought to be able to get him real economical,” Parker once said.
*Warning: This article contains spoilers for Stranger Things season 3.*
As if we needed a reminder of how much we miss a certain late Stranger Things character, Netflix just went and drilled it into our hearts again.
As reported by CNET, the streaming service recently released a video tribute to the Russian scientist Alexei (Alec Utgoff), showing him sipping his Slurpee on a loop for 12 hours. Yep, you read that right: 12 hours of nonstop Slurpee-sipping.
The video is captioned: "To honor our Slurpee sipping hero, we are pouring one out for our pal. Sip along!"
In season 3 of the Netflix hit, Alexei opens the portal between Hawkins and the Upside Down to help the Soviets in their research. When the fan-favorite character gets kidnapped by Jim Hopper, his request is a cherry Slurpee in exchange for information ... and he won't compromise on the flavor.
Tragically, Alexei doesn't make it to the end of the season. And in true Stranger Things fashion, his death was totally unexpected and left fans shocked.
While you're still mourning the fallen character, just try and enjoy the oddly mesmerizing video of Alexei sipping away.