- Play title: Bug.
- Author: Tracy Letts
- First performed: 1996
- Page count: 77
Tracy Letts’ play, Bug, explores the topic of paranoid delusions. To be specific, Letts gives a theatrical representation of an infectious, psychological disorder traditionally known as folie à deux which accounts for the spread of a delusion. There is the delusion, the manner by which it spreads, but always at the core of the story is the itch caused by a persistent bug!
The central characters in the play are Agnes White and Peter Evans. She is a lonely, middle-aged woman who lost her son and whose abusive ex-husband has just been released from prison. Evans is a mentally disturbed war veteran who appears to have no links with family or friends, he’s just a drifter who makes most people feel “uncomfortable” (Letts 20). Agnes and Peter meet by chance and then begins the progressive unravelling of both their states of sanity. Fuelled on alcohol and crack cocaine, the lovers begin to entertain the delusion that they are infected with government implanted, biological bugs. Their descent into utter madness and depravity is compelling and disturbing. Lett’s explores various themes like isolation, poverty, gullibility, mental illness, conspiracy theory, and murder.
Ways to access the text: reading/watching.
The text of Bug is free to read online via the Internet Archive. Existing members of Scribd will also be able to access the text. The playscript is reader-friendly but on account of the visual and auditory nature of many of the key scenes, a theatrical or cinematic viewing would be recommended.
There is a movie version of the play which is also entitled Bug and for which Tracy Letts wrote the screenplay. The movie was released in 2006 and was directed by William Friedkin. It stars Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon. Please note that the theatrical play and the film versions are not identical.
Why read/watch Bug?
Folie à deux.
In quite rare cases, it is possible for a deluded person to ‘infect’ someone close to them with a fixed delusion. This psychological phenomenon was first labelled as folie à deux in 1873 by Lasegue and Falret but is now more commonly known as induced delusional disorder or shared psychotic disorder. The common factors in such cases are that the individuals are usually biologically related or in a romantic relationship, are isolated from society, and the delusion in question relates to persecution or hypochondriacal issues. The ‘inducer’ is one of several terms used for the person, normally of higher intelligence, who infects the second person or ‘acceptor.’ In Bug, the aforementioned terms describe Peter and Agnes, respectively. The play is an imaginative space for an audience to explore this fascinating disease of the mind that spreads like a virus!
A love story.
It is with some trepidation that one would describe Bug as a love story, however the playwright himself described it as such. The obstacles to seeing the tale as romantic are obvious and numerous, such as drug abuse, paranoia, bereavement, manipulation, murder, and madness. Despite the fact that Agnes and Peter’s relationship is tainted by all of the aforementioned negatives, they still sustain a love that lasts until the end. Agnes is the more relatable of the two characters due to her everywoman status. She is initially sceptical of Peter’s stories but she ends up worshiping him and his ideas. Agnes has an undeniable, underlying loneliness which makes her vulnerable to con men and ‘nut cases’ but she can’t see the warning signs when Peter, an attractive younger man, shows an interest in her. Letts portrays a bereaved woman whose missing child is most likely dead and whose abusive ex-husband threatens to return, and then Agnes sees an opportunity for a new start.
Post reading discussion/interpretation.
“The Bugged-Out Folly of Two.”
Sometimes, just sometimes, naming something makes it easier to understand. Take for example, Peter’s attempts in Bug to accurately name the particular you-know-what that bit him. The bug is subjected to an exhaustive list of potential names during the discussion between Peter and Agnes. It’s a … bug/aphid/bedbug/louse/lice/termite/thrip/tick/flea! (Letts 35-36). Peter sticks with aphid and he’s almost sure too. Luckily for an audience, naming things is somewhat easier when you’re not smoking a rock of freebase from a pipe in a dingy motel room. The things that one needs to name in Bug are quite simple. First, there is the delusion, and then there is the manner by which it spreads. The particular delusion that affects Peter and then Agnes is called delusional parasitosis or Ekbom syndrome (you choose). Then there is the method by which the delusion is spread from Peter to Agnes and this has the name of folie à deux, or a long list of more modern, alternative names! Polyonymy is the word used to describe something that has many names – like Peter’s bug. What surprises one about Lett’s play is that the seemingly insane characters are not wholly adrift in an incomprehensible mind-space but, surprisingly, are relatively understandable through the use of just a few simple terms. What’s more – their madness is not without causation – the bugs only emerge when a series of key criteria are met and sustained. In this essay, the aim is to dissect the brand of ‘crazy’ depicted in Lett’s famous play. The play was written in the 1990’s but remains relevant in the context of contemporary society which grows increasingly concerned about spyware and the bugging of devices, the reliability of online information, and the motives of those at the top.
“It’s a fucking bug” (Letts 35).
The simple, one work name of the play encapsulates the entire problem. In Bug, Tracy Letts very effectively exploits one of the commonest human fears, the fear of creepy-crawlies. In a review of Bug for The New York Times, Ben Brantley asks – “have you ever been to a play that made you itch all over?” because this is how most audiences predictably reacted to the theatrical experience. From a more scientific perspective, Nancy Hinkle writes that “Humans have an atavistic fear of infestation and parasites, which signify uncleanness and shame; perhaps this deep-seated repugnance explains the uniformity of ES experience” (179). ES refers to Ekbom syndrome, a condition where an individual suffers from an infestation by an invisible bug! Invisible does not refer to some ingenious, bug camouflage but denotes that the insect is not real. Another name for the same condition is delusional parasitosis. Peter Evans suffers from this delusion and Agnes White soon shares it.
The play’s effectiveness in unsettling an audience relies upon an audience’s misplaced, sympathetic bond with the onstage characters. In truth, “ES is not a phobia, as the individual is not afraid of insects but rather convinced that they are infesting his or her body” (Hinkle 178). Bewley et all. explain that the condition “is a true delusion, i.e., a fixed false belief, rather than a phobia (a persistent irrational fear)” (161). An audience member viewing a theatrical performance of Bug will be equally engrossed and grossed-out by the onstage spectacle. One will come to notice the slightest itch, maybe innocently caused by clothing but now attributed to a disgusting, hidden bug. All the while, the play is really representing madness and that little itch that anyone can experience is sometimes the first sign of one’s descent into a delusion. In short, one is hooked by the ingenious premise of the play and one is held in its grip until the tragic end arrives.
Ekbom syndrome/delusional parasitosis.
The only thing more engaging than watching someone scratch at an invisible bug is the prospect that you will soon catch it too. Hinkle writes that “One of the most unusual features of ES is folie à deux, in which another person … develops ES as well. This ‘psychological contagiousness’ develops in about one third of cases, with the second patient echoing the inducer’s behavior and conviction of infestation” (181). Bewley et al. make the observation that “In many cases the aetiology [of delusional parasitosis] is unknown. It may follow a real infestation, be associated with recreational drug use (especially alcohol, amphetamines, cannabis and cocaine), be a dementia-related psychosis in the elderly, and be associated with other organic disease” (161). Letts depicts Agnes and Peter as heavy drinkers and both of them regularly freebase cocaine in the motel room.
In addition to a high level of substance abuse which in itself will make individuals more susceptible to delusions, Hinkle notes three important commonalities of patients presenting with Ekbom syndrome, namely social isolation, paranoia, and a major life event. Patients have the instinct to self-isolate because they fear infecting others. It is ironic that Agnes lives in a motel room as she inadvertently mimics the actions of ES sufferers who often abandon their family homes and end up moving from hotel to hotel, but the bugs always follow them. In regard to the problem of paranoia – “patients’ explanations for their conditions are outlandish conspiracy theories, including that the government has released genetically modified organisms that are infecting them” (Hinkle 182). Peter earnestly believes that the US government has carried out experiments on its own citizens and that he is just one of many victims (Letts 58). The inclusion by Hinkle of major life events as a contributory factor to the onset of ES is quite enlightening – “Many patients recount a significant emotional experience just prior to development of their symptoms” (182). Peter was posted in Syria as part of the US army’s campaign against Iraq in the early 1990’s and he ended up in a mental hospital due to some form of breakdown. Agnes lost her six year old boy, Lloyd, and her ex-husband (Lloyd’s father) has just been released from prison and wishes to reunite with her thus stirring up old memories. Both Peter and Agnes have gone through major life events and are both experiencing emotional turmoil in the present moment and thereby are more susceptible to delusions. Nevertheless, what is confusing for an onlooker is how Agnes actually catches Peter’s madness.
Folie à deux
Through watching Bug, an audience encounters a rare psychological disorder known as folie à deux. David Enoch and Hadrian Ball are the authors of Uncommon Psychiatric Syndromes, in which they give the following definition of the disorder.
“The term folie à deux includes several syndromes in which mental symptoms, particularly paranoid delusions, are transmitted from one person to one or more others with whom the apparent instigator is in some way intimately associated, so that he, she or they also come to share the same delusional ideas” (179).
Among the many alternative terms for folie à deux are some catchier ones (excuse pun) like “contagious insanity” (180) or “communicated insanity” (180). Folie à deux is the traditional term which is widely known and to which Letts himself refers when describing the play. The psychological disorder is not contagious in the way one encounters a contagious disease, so it requires some explanation. For example, one may have numerous psychotic patients in a mental hospital who hold various delusions but their madnesses do not, in the main, spread to any other patients (195). No, it takes a very specific set of circumstances to facilitate the transfer of madness from one individual to another. In numerous case studies of the disorder listed by Enoch and Ball, the common factors are issues like social isolation, paranoid schizophrenia, and the sufferers’ delusions of being persecuted in some manner. Letts’ depiction of folie à deux is flawless in that he represents a set of circumstances and characters for whom this disorder would indeed quite likely affect.
Social isolation is a clinical feature of folie à deux that is well represented by Agnes and Peter. For instance, they predictably exhibit the “shared delusions … [of] two or more persons who live in close proximity and who are usually relatively isolated from the outside world and its influences” (192). Agnes lives in a motel room on the edge of Oklahoma city and she has been so isolated of late that Ronnie accuses her of having “hermitized” (Letts 16) herself. Although Peter moves into Agnes’s abode, the room remains a strange, apart space which eventually doubles as a protective bunker. Goss highlights the couple’s odd detachment from the outside world by drawing attention to the absence of a TV in the room. He says, “How’re you supposed to know what’s goin’ on in the world? Jesus, we might get invaded by Martians or something. They could be evacuatin’ the whole dang city right now, ’n you and me’s sittin’ here with our thumbs up our butts” (44). For Peter, the scary, external threat is not aliens but an imagined complot led by government and army officials. Peter fears a ‘they’ who are not Martians but unethical people in power who will stop at nothing to maintain the “status quo” (67). Ironically, the maintenance of the status quo is itself a factor in the emergence of folie à deux in isolated communities and specifically in isolated families (Enoch and Ball, 191). Peter unwittingly reveals his own desire for dominance and control when he psychologically projects his motivations onto an external adversary. Only when Agnes is cut off from her former support network will she begin to adopt Peter’s paranoid philosophy without resistance. Isolation is of prime importance in cases of folie à deux since one person is always shown to have ultimate control of the environment.
To comprehend the dynamic of the relationship between Peter and Agnes, one also needs to address the theme of power as explored in Bug. Folie à deux is often classified into subgroups, one of which is folie imposée which is characterized by a dominant, more intelligent partner who is gripped by a delusion and then imposes this upon the more submissive, suggestible partner (Enoch and Ball, 193). This power play is subtle since the delusion cannot be forced upon the submissive partner but instead, they must be won over. In general, the delusions are “of a persecutory or hypochondriacal content” (192). Peter is doubly afflicted because he fears the ultimate persecutor – the man in control, plus the method of persecution is a bodily invader, a crawling bug that lives beneath the skin. This illness of the mind for which Peter is a carrier, must be successfully transmitted to Agnes so that he is not alone in his madness, but secure in a couple. One may assert that he is a paranoid schizophrenic on account of his symptoms and this is the third factor already mentioned as a keystone for the development of folie à deux.
Agnes’s mental infection.
A salient question is how Agnes gets enveloped in, and then intoxicated by, Peter’s delusions. If one accepts that the play’s female lead – a divorced woman who does bar work and lives in a hotel room – is representative of a large element of society, namely the working poor, then why does she succumb so easily to Peter’s crazy conspiracy theories? She represents the average Jane (or Joe) and because she works in a honky-tonk, one would expect her to be reasonably savvy. Understanding Agnes’s path from smart-mouthed sceptic to fawning devotee relies on an understanding of her broader life circumstances. The factors which are most pertinent are the loss of a child, the return of an abusive ex-husband, poverty, and loneliness. The clinical feature of folie a deux that correspond to these circumstances are depression, poverty and isolation.
Letts charts the degeneration of Agnes chiefly through her weakening will power. Peter, who has the air of an authority figure, bombards his partner with his strange narrative until she finally breaks, but this is a process rather than a single episode. Additionally, the timing of Peter’s arrival coincides with the most opportune stage of his delusion – the early stage. Enoch and Ball quote Coleman and Last (1939) who “laid down the fundamental aetiological pre-requisites for a case of folie à deux” (194). The first prerequisite is that “the inducer must be in the early stages of illness, that is, before he becomes completely withdrawn from reality, in order to be able to positively influence the induced” (194). Although Peter is in the early stages of his delusion, his manner and conversation are still odd enough to alert the average person to a problem.
At first, Agnes is understandably suspicious of the stranger who Ronnie has brought along to the motel room. Agnes protests that she doesn’t know him and that he could be some “maniac DEA ax murderer, Jehovah’s Witness֨” (Letts 14). She later accuses Peter of being a “con” (22,41) on several occasions. This happens first when he says he just wants a friend rather than sex, and again when he strenuously objects to her asking the hotel manager to spray the room for bugs. However, her suspicions quickly abate. A pivotal interaction between Agnes and Peter happens on the first night when he professes to have been bitten by a bug which he then shows her. Her successive responses regarding the visibility of the bug slide all too quickly towards appeasing her new lover – “I don’t see it … I’m not sure … I guess” (34-35). At a later stage, when Peter’s delusions have become more entrenched and worrying, he can no longer accept a sceptical response and therefore when the dermatologist’s damning assessment of Agnes’s skin problem is revealed, Peter forces her to either confirm or deny the existence of the bugs. She acquiesces to his demand and confirms the bugs exist, prompting Peter to affirm – “then your doctor is lying to you” (52). When Ronnie threatens to take Agnes away, thus removing her from Peter’s crazy influence then his reaction is to go into a sudden frenzy as if the bugs are devouring him. Peter’s extravagant scene, resembling an epileptic fit, forces Agnes to choose between her friend and her lover, and Peter wins. Peter’s tactics are doubtless unconscious and a result of his paranoid delusions yet they still represent highly manipulative steps to force his lover to choose him.
On the other hand, one gradually discerns what motivations Agnes has to accept Peter’s tall tales as the play progresses. For instance, there is the sexual allure of Peter who is younger than her and quite handsome. Ronnie teasingly tells Agnes – “Play your cards right, maybe you’ll get bred” (15) and she later describes Peter as “Johnny Depp” (19). Intimacy could act as an antidote to Agnes’s loneliness. She may also consider a relationship with Peter as a means of escaping her newly returned ex-husband, Jerry, who is both violent and dangerous. As highlighted by Enoch and Ball, isolation is a strong contributory factor to the emergence of folie à deux and Agnes is certainly isolated and lonely. Peter picks up on her loneliness (20) which Agnes may have mistakenly read as the mark of a sensitive man and she later confides in him that she gets scared at night-time (33). Agnes’s history with Jerry who was controlling and physically violent has groomed her to accept another controlling partner. Yet, despite these factors, it is still not readily understandable why she would tolerate Peter’s delusions and begin to share such delusions too.
The bond that Agnes establishes with Peter must contain a significant benefit for her that outweighs his apparent illness. However, such a proposition may induce one to conclude that Agnes is mentally deficient or insane. Interestingly, Peter tells Agnes – “I don’t think you’re just some simpleton I can take advantage of” (42) but the mere articulation of this thought exposes the possibility that he views her as inferior to him, at least intellectually. Peter secures his bond with Agnes by guiding her through two crucial tests. The first is the ultimatum previously discussed where Agnes chooses Peter’s version of events over the dermatologist’s and as a result she loses her only true friend, Ronnie. Enoch and Ball quote Pulver and Blunt (1961) to provide an example of how the relationship bond in folie à deux is typically cemented.
“The dominant partner provokes the submissive one into accepting his delusions rather than risk the deterioration of a close and gratifying relationship. Folie à deux thus keeps the pair united but increases their detachment from the world of reality” (197).
The dynamics of a folie à deux relationship as described above reflects the nature of the bond between Agnes and Peter. Even though Agnes may not be fully aware of her dilemma, she describes it perfectly when she tells Peter – “I don’t know why I love you so much … Seems like all we ever talk about is bugs. I guess I’d rather talk about bugs with you than talk about nothin’ with nobody” (57). Her existence has become so stripped of meaning that anything is better than her solitary existence and her “lousy life” (57).
Despite the fact that Agnes chooses Peter, she still retains some scepticism especially as his story becomes more indulgent in regard to the touted military conspiracy to infect him with bugs. With some trepidation, Agnes tells Peter – “maybe you’re just lookin’ for a connection to the army … so you’re more liable to see one” (59). Peter then lures Agnes to join him in his tumble down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories when he invites her to find meaning where no meaning actually exists. This is the second crucial test for Agnes, the first being the rejection of the dermatologist’s opinion. Peter simply poses the question – “What don’t you know?” (68) which is an invite for Agnes to construct a link between Peter’s delusion and the mayhem that is her own life. The link will allow Agnes to explain her misfortune. Persecutory delusions are at the core of folie à deux and Agnes begins with enthusiasm to implicate everyone of importance in her life as participants in a conspiracy to steal her child, Lloyd. In addition, she imagines that the same group of people allowed her to be unknowingly used as part of a medical experiment by the military.
Returning briefly to the aetiological pre-requisites for a case of folie à deux, one finds that – “sharing the induced delusion must be of some advantage to the induced person” (Enoch And Ball, 195). Agnes comes to willingly participate in Peter’s delusion when she realises that it serves as an amelioration of her own responsibility in her child’s disappearance. She left her child unattended in a public place (Letts 69) and she is later weighed down with guilt over his disappearance. Agnes now holds the delusion that she is the “super-mother” (Letts 71). She is transformed from someone whose life is in turmoil to the elevated status of god-like mother, even if only as parent to a parasite who refuses to abandon her. She is no longer one of life’s losers but a central character in a war of good versus evil.
This train of thought leads her and Peter to conclude that they need to kill the bugs so that mankind can be saved. While they never openly describe it as a suicide pact, their mutual self-destruction is necessary to exterminate the bugs. Even though suicide pacts are rare, “antisocial behaviour including theft, violence, murder and suicide pacts associated with folie à deux have been reported” (Enoch and Ball, 206). Peter escalates the situation by murdering Dr. Sweet, believing that the doctor is a machine created by the military. Peter and Agnes are also afraid of Goss who tries to force entry into their hotel room. They now feel trapped and in a moment of panic, Peter says – “We’ll fight them. To the end … To the death” (Letts 74). The scene concludes with Peter striking a match in the gasoline soaked room.
The shock effect of the final tragic scene depicted by Letts is intensified when one considers that the truth is always available to Agnes. Maybe it is for this reason that the playwright toys with tautology, for example Peter’s exhaustive list of names for the bug when he will just resort to calling it a bug anyway. Or the many names that a knowledgeable audience member will be able to sort through when identifying the type of paranoia Peter suffers (infectious parasitosis/Ekbom syndrome) or the means of infecting others (folie à deux/etc). Which word, if any, will serve as a key to unlock the madness?
The sceptical voice.
In Bug, one witnesses the sharply delineated lines between scepticism about, and emersion in, an idea. Letts lends credence to the belief that sanity and madness are as dichotomous as black and white and then he painstakingly dismantles that security of belief. The play depicts a scene of horror not simply because of what happens at the conclusion but more importantly, how easily someone can get drawn into the madness.
There are three obviously sceptical characters in Bug, namely R.C. (Ronnie), Jerry Goss, and Dr Sweet. Each of these characters quickly and effectively challenge Peter and thereby expose his madness. For example, Ronnie takes Agnes to a dermatologist whose professional opinion is that “her [Agnes’s] sores were ‘self-inflicted” (53) and R.C. then confronts Peter with the apparent truth of the situation – “She’s done this to herself, just like you” (53). Jerry, though a despicable character, nonetheless also sees right through Peter when he observers the young man doing bug experiments using “a kiddie chemistry set” (43) and subsequently remarks – “you’re pretty much just jackin’ off here, aint’cha?” (45). Jerry sarcastically says that he’s glad Peter is taking good care of Agnes and isn’t just some “weirdo freeloadin’ cokehead” (48). The description is wounding yet wholly accurate. The third individual, Dr. Sweet, is the most threatening to Peter since the doctor knows that Peter was in a mental hospital. If Peter’s illness is convincingly exposed by the doctor, then the entire story of military experiments will be exposed as the chaotic ramblings of a mentally ill man.
The sceptical voices expose the truth of the situation but Agnes is unable to hear the warnings due to her own investment in Peter, and by extension, her investment in his story. In short, the sceptical voices fail to protect Agnes, instead they force her into a series of consecutive flawed decisions. Only Dr. Sweet knows to appeal to Agnes’s unresolved trauma over losing Lloyd as a means of extracting her from the grip of a madman but the doctor is sacrificed before she can escape. Agnes get locked into a delusion like a prisoner behind a metal door and to understand why, one must look at the source of the delusion – Peter.
Peter Evans appears to be a fairly harmless guy, even if he is somewhat withdrawn and odd at first. However, he soon shows evidence of paranoia when he warns Agnes about the radioactive element called “americium-241” (Letts 24) used in smoke alarms. Peter is factually correct but only his paranoia can transform a household smoke alarm into a threatening object. One experiences an irritation because of the half-truths of Peter’s many otherwise outrageous claims. An audience is unsettled when a statement needs to be assessed rather than joyfully dismissed as madness. In other words, the seed of doubt is successfully sown. It is only much later that an audience learns from Dr Sweet that Peter has previously “been diagnosed as a delusional paranoid with schizophrenic tendencies” (61). The complication of Peter’s madness is that not everything he says is illogical or paranoid. Peter warns Agnes that “people can do things to you, things you don’t even know about” (31) and he blames this state of affairs on the nature of the modern world where personal safety is no longer possible due to “the technology, and the chemicals and the information” (31). Letts wrote the play in the 1990’s but Peter’s fears are more relevant than ever considering online media articles with titles like – “Smart Devices Are Spying on You Everywhere, And That’s a Problem” (Science Alert).
The difficulty with Peter’s crazy talk is that he refers to real cases where the military and government attempted to control and also harm people. To support his own claim that the army has used him as a guinea pig for an experiment, Peter refers to two well-documented examples of official misconduct by arms of the state – “feeding LSD to enlisted men at Edgewood Arsenal … [and] watching those poor fuckers in Tuskegee die from syphilis” (58). Regarding Edgewood, it is on the public record that “For two decades during the Cold War, the United States Army tested chemical weapons on American soldiers at Edgewood Arsenal … they [the soldiers] were exposed to chemicals ranging from mustard gas and sarin to LSD and PCP” (The New Yorker). The second case that Peter references is “the ‘Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,’ a secret experiment conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service to study the progression of the deadly venereal disease — without treatment” (Brown). This study ran for forty years until 1973 and even though penicillin became the standard treatment for syphilis from the mid 1940’s, this antibiotic was deliberately withheld from the men participating in the experiment thereby guaranteeing that they would eventually die from/with syphilis. When one mixes such real life travesties with Peter’s own conspiracy theories then the truth becomes less black and white, less tangible for an audience.
All of Peter’s theories stem from his steadfast belief that the army has implanted a bug within his body, specifically beneath the filling of a tooth! Peter has already seen the bugs on his skin and he feels them too. One finds truth in Peter’s story but not in the expected way since, “Heavy repeated doses of cocaine have also been known to cause paranoia and organic psychosis; and habitual coke users, like speed freaks, have experienced the frightening hallucinations and sensations of bugs crawling beneath the skin” (Crittenden and Ruby). The play, Bug, opens on a scene where Agnes is “smoking a rock of freebase out of a pipe” (Letts 14) and she and Peter are subsequently shown to be habitual users. Kyle Ruggeri explains that “Powerful uppers such as cocaine and meth have many dangerous side effects, but one is just plain creepy. It’s called coke bugs. Other names are Meth Mites, Crack Bugs, and Amphetmites”. Ruggeri goes on to detail how addicts, “will cut themselves and itch themselves until they’re bleeding to get the bugs off”. For Peter, the bugs are frighteningly real and the perverse truth is that many drug users experience the same bugs. One cannot negate Peter’s visceral experience simply by asserting that the bugs are a manifestation of a drug-addled mind.
Peter manages to convince Agnes because he acts as an informed authority figure who manages to mix truth and falsehoods without recognising the differences himself. He alleviates Agnes’s loneliness, he convinces her that the bugs are real, and most importantly – he let her buy into the story in a way that takes away her pain over Lloyd.
The magnetic pull of Bug is thanks to a compelling mix of creepy-crawlies and madness. Letts creates a strange environment in the little motel room outside Oklahoma city where a seemingly normal woman is drawn into an amazing delusion which she later adopts as her own. If one identifies at any level with Agnes who initially sees Peter as an oddball character then the implication is that anyone could find themselves in this position of voluntarily submerging themselves in craziness to escape the hardships of an unhappy life. The potential lifelines of sceptical friends and even medical professionals are shown to be totally impotent in the face of a rabid delusion. The horror of the scene is the logical expectation that it will inevitably spiral out of control. There is no indication that anyone or anything can help and there is no magic word to unlock the spell. Letts presents his audience with a maleficent bug lodged in the mind and it’s the scariest thing of all.
Bewley, A.P. et al. “Delusional Parasitosis: Time to Call It Delusional Infestation.” British Journal of Dermatology, vol. 163, no. 4, 2010, pp. 899-899
Brown, DeNeen L. “You’ve got bad blood’: The horror of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.” Washington Post, May 16, 2017.
Crittenden, Ann and Michael Ruby. “Highs, horns and bugs crawling.” The New York Times, September 1, 1974.
Enoch, M. David and Hadrian N. Ball. Uncommon Psychiatric Syndromes. 4th ed., Oxford University Press, 2001.
Hinkle, N.C. “Ekbom Syndrome: A Delusional Condition of ‘Bugs in the Skin’”. Current Psychiatry Reports, vol 13, 2011, pp. 178-186.
Letts, Tracy. Bug. Dramatists Play Service, Inc, 2005.
Ruggeri, Kyle. “What Are Cocaine (Coke) Bugs or Crack Bugs?” Sober Dogs Recovery, https://soberdogs.com/what-are-cocaine-coke-bugs-or-crack-bugs/. Accessed 21 September 2022.
“Secrets of Edgewood.” The New Yorker, December 21, 2012.