Rats are polarizing creatures. They’re both beauty and beast: the cute, philosophical animated rodents of Ratatouille and The Secret of NIMH, plus the murderous swarms from Willard. They’re sacred animals in the Karni Mata temple and the Chinese zodiac, as well as instruments of torture and manifestations of horror—not to mention vehicles for bubonic plague. In other words, rats are more resourceful than you may think.
One particularly gruesome rodent manifestation is the phenomenon known as the rat king. First documented in 16th-century Germany, these are created when a group of rats living in too-close quarters becomes entangled as one at their tails, which fuse and grow together. Unsurprisingly, this multiple life-form came to be associated with the devil. In 1816 German Romanticist E.T.A. Hoffmann drew inspiration from the quivering aggregate of bodies for his novella The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, in which a seven-headed murine (i.e., rodent) abomination wages war against a seven-year-old girl named Marie. Hoffmann’s story is most well-known for its Christmassy ballet adaptation, The Nutcracker, bolstered by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s brain-penetrating score. Perhaps to avoid frightening the children for whom the ballet is intended, most productions depict the Mouse King not as a multiheaded monster but merely an oversize mouse. This instinct may be more scientifically accurate: Rat kings have never been confirmed in the lab, and many experts believe the extant “examples” were assembled by hoaxers with glue—that is, until 2005, when, in a small Estonian village, a farmer found a rat king composed of 16 squirming specimens; he claimed never to have heard of the folklore.
Rats laugh. In 2005 neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp reported that if you tickle them, rats emit high-pitched giggles. His research revealed their lighter side. As with humans, the younger ones are the goofiest, and the rats that chirp the most tend to hang out together in groups you might call rat packs. Panksepp believes their comedic preferences are “likely to be heavily laced with slapstick.” But our furry counterparts don’t just yuk it up; they are also prone to the blues. The study showed that in stressful environments—such as periods without food or when the whiff of a cat is in the air—a rat’s laughter greatly diminishes. Apparently, disguised under all that peculiar chittering is a sensitive being.
Pixar’s 2007 slapstick animated comedy Ratatouille depicts the delicate intricacies of rat emotions. Over the course of only a few frames, the protagonist rat, Remy (voiced by comedian Patton Oswalt), experiences near-religious ecstasy while cooking a mushroom, then plunges to such desolation and loneliness that he begins to hallucinate. He also talks happily with other rats, but when he tries to speak to a new human acquaintance, his anxiety makes his voice sound like frantic fingernails on a chalkboard.
In the criminal world, rat denotes an informant. The slang originated in the 1600s from tales of rats’ scuttling from sinking ships. In reality, however, rats have a strong sense of loyalty. In 2011 neuroscientists at the University of Chicago discovered lab rats are more likely to help one of their fellows escape from imprisonment than go after a morsel of chocolate temptingly left out. The tiny Houdinis can also disassemble complex traps to free their buddies. And when scientists tried to fool them with dummy-filled cages, the rats did not fall for the ruse.
Rodent camaraderie and the escape mentality had already been hypothesized in The Secret of NIMH, a film adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien’s 1971 children’s novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (the first of a three-book NIMH series completed by O’Brien’s daughter, Jane Leslie Conley). The story concerns the lab rats and mice of the National Institute of Mental Health, who are endowed with superior intelligence after some cruel human experimentation. They use their newfound smarts to make a daring prison break, helping each other along the way. But as any regular rat will tell you, it doesn’t take a genius to do that.
Food contaminated by rodents causes such horrifying diseases as hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, which initially manifests like the flu and then kills one out of three infected people. With that in mind, consider the premise of Ratatouille: A horde of rats runs a high-end Parisian restaurant kitchen. Fortunately the film is cutely animated; otherwise the vision of rats cooking stew might be hard to digest. Anthropomorphism in animation succeeds in erasing rodents’ more unsavory characteristics. The rats of Ratatouille, for instance, don’t wander the city streets eating concrete and electrical wiring, as their real-life peers do. These rats play Gypsy music and enjoy fine cheeses. In The Secret of NIMH, a band of superintelligent escaped lab rats doesn’t spend its days submerged in a stinking New York sewer; instead the rats live in a high-tech electric-powered haunt under a rosebush, where they strategize for a utopian future independent of humans. Nevertheless, NIMH reminds us of the species’s wildness in the character of the violent, power-hungry rat Jenner. When an underling squirms while the two plan a murder, Jenner growls, “They’ve taken the animal out of you.”
Rat teeth are strong as steel. This disturbing factoid has been exploited throughout the centuries. During the Middle Ages, one terrifying torture involved placing rats inside an overturned cauldron resting on a victim’s abdomen, then heating the pot and waiting for the rats to chew through the softer exit. Understandably, rats are an easy horror ploy. Weird-fiction master H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Rats in the Walls” depicts a man beginning to lose his sanity to the sound of scurrying unseen vermin. In a skin-crawling chapter of George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the protagonist’s face is shoved into a rat-filled cage. But the film Willard ups the ante. Based on Stephen Gilbert’s 1969 novel Ratman’s Notebooks (and its 1971 film adaptation), the horror-suspense flick features a trained army of rats led by a large, malicious one named Ben. They quickly turn bloodthirsty, attacking cats, dogs and, finally, humans. Even Ratatouille, with its much kinder portrayal of rats, includes a scene in which a swarming rodent infestation overpowers and restrains a health inspector. Outside the fictional realm of rodent rampage, of course, rats rarely attack humans—but when they do, they target the weakest person, the youngest or the oldest.
In mid-19th-century England, Queen Victoria’s official rat catcher, Jack Black, came upon an albino rat in a graveyard one night. He caught it, bred it and originated the surprising trend of “fancy rats,” or rats kept as pets. Peter Rabbit author Beatrix Potter purportedly bought a rat from Black, and Victoria herself allegedly kept two. The phenomenon has fallen out of favor somewhat, but for the odd rat lover, the albino rat still holds a curious draw. In the film Willard, the extremely odd eponymous protagonist finds a white rat, names him Socrates and develops an unhealthy dependence upon him, falling asleep as he whispers sweetly into the rat’s ear and later avenging Socrates’s death with rat-assisted murder.
Rats are literally worshipped at a majestic Hindu temple in Deshnok, India, in the northern state of Rajasthan. Around 20,000 of them take sanctuary in the temple, where they are sacred to the 15th-century sage and prophet Karni Mata. They drink gallons of milk from gilded basins, and for devotees, the greatest blessing of all is to see one of the few white rats among the moving carpet of dark fur: They are embodiments of Karni Mata and her children.
There are few quicker ways to ostracize yourself than by consorting with rats. Rats are cannibals. They are incestuous. They caused the Black Death. In 19th-century England, the popular sport of rat baiting involved betting how fast a dog could kill a group of them. Yet in the world of fiction, women sometimes exhibit a strange attraction to insecure, rat-loving men. The film Willard features a deranged young man who turns to rats for comfort; as he converses with his rat pals, he soon loses any mental stability he once had. Yet somehow Willard (actor Crispin Glover at his creepiest) sparks the interest of a beautiful coworker, played by former Miss USA Laura Harring. Likewise, in the acclaimed Japanese manga series Fruits Basket, the introverted, asthmatic but androgynously hot high schooler Yuki Sohma—nicknamed Prince Charming—has a fawning fan club of girls who obey strict rules dictating how to interact with their idol. Unfortunately for his devotees, Yuki is under a curse that causes him to transform into a rat whenever he has physical contact with a member of the opposite sex.
According to Indian legend, the sage Karni Mata was asked by a woman to revive her drowned son. She spoke with Yama, the Hindu god of death, but Yama refused to help. Karni Mata decreed her people would no longer suffer under Yama’s power; instead, after death they would be reincarnated as rats. Thousands of sacred rats, or kabas, inhabit the Karni Mata temple in Deshnok. Having a rat scurry across your feet there is considered lucky. Better still is eating food a rat has already sampled.
Rats also mystically connect to humans in the Japanese manga series Fruits Basket, partly based on the story of the Chinese zodiac: The Jade Emperor, the ruler of heaven, decided to hold a banquet for all the animals; the mischievous rat tricked his enemy, the cat, out of attending. As a result, the cat isn’t honored as one of the 12 zodiac animals. In Fruits Basket, each member of the cursed Sohma clan embodies one of these creatures, with the quarrelsome adopted son, Kyo, personifying the cat. His jealousy toward his popular kinsman Yuki, the rat, adds a touch of teen angst to the mythical rivalry.