Who’s Afraid of a Little Chicken?

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The satirical new Showtime series The Curse, created by masters of discomfort Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie, offers viewers many reasons to squirm. But for its characters, it’s chicken that serves as a persistent and unsettling specter: poultry is present where it’s not supposed to be and absent where it is. It’s just as eerie raw as it is cooked.

The series, which will air its season finale on Sunday, follows real estate entrepreneur couple Asher and Whitney Siegel (played by Fielder and Emma Stone) as they develop the city of Española, New Mexico. They build artsy “passive houses,” try to fill them with buyers, and attempt to inject new business into the area, all while hoping to stay on good terms with the locals and — above all else — be perceived as good people. And they’re filming their work for a Fixer Upper-esque HGTV show called Flipanthropy.

Chicken enters The Curse early. In the first episode, Flipanthropy’s producer Dougie (played by Safdie) instructs Asher to give a young girl in a parking lot some money to film B-roll. Asher gives the girl, named Nala, the lone $100 in his wallet, only to snatch it back a moment later. Upset, Nala claims to put a curse on him. At home that night, Asher is dismayed to find his meal-kit dinner lighter than usual: His chicken penne is missing the chicken.

The chicken remains just a customer service grievance until the show’s third episode, when Asher is reunited with Nala and learns that her “curse” was for the chicken to disappear from his dinner. He becomes convinced that the curse is not a TikTok trend as her family explains it but a real hex, and he begins to see chicken nefariously, and everywhere. He finds chicken on the sink at a firehouse while filming a segment for Flipanthropy, and he gets Dougie on-board enough that Dougie tries to get Nala to curse him and make his chicken dinner disappear too.

As silly as chicken is as The Curse’s boogeyman — and it is silly, offering some much-needed levity amid Fielder’s signature cringe — it also makes total sense. It wouldn’t hit the same if Fielder were haunted by, say, a steak; it’s chicken that manifests a very particular anxiety in the cultural imagination.

Beginning in the 2010s, we were haunted by urban legends of chicken nuggets made from “pink slime,” putting forth a sense that chicken couldn’t be trusted. There are frequent cases and warnings about chicken-related foodborne illness (about a quarter of Salmonella infections every year are poultry-related, according to the USDA). Our chicken phobia has become so widespread that some people have adopted the term “chicken anxiety” to refer to their fears of undercooking chicken or of contaminating other foods and their kitchens with the raw meat.

Chicken’s production might make one further queasy. Labor abuses, including child labor in poultry processing plants, have long been documented. The chickens themselves, which have been bred to grow significantly larger than they did less than a century ago, are also common case studies when discussing the ills of factory farming.

All these chicken anxieties worked their way into pop culture long before The Curse. Take David Lynch’s 1977 surrealist horror film Eraserhead. In one scene, the protagonist is instructed by his host to carve a tiny chicken at the dinner table. Before he even cuts it, the chicken begins to ooze blood from its cavity and wriggle on the plate.

Similarly, in the first season of Yellowjackets, the grim series about a high school girls’ soccer team that gets stranded in the woods after a plane crash, one of the girls dreams that she gives birth to a rotisserie chicken. She then takes a bite out of the chicken’s leg, which not only speaks to her hunger and trauma but also reinforces Yellowjackets’s cannibalism motif.

All of this is also reflected in how we talk about chicken: To “be chicken,” after all, is to fear, and as children, we are told of Chicken Little with his constant worry as a cautionary tale. In The Curse, what exactly is there to fear?

It’s not really about the chicken as much as the chicken has come to symbolize everything Asher and Dougie have done wrong in their lives and the shame they feel for it. In the show’s penultimate episode, Asher has a revelation: He’s been so fixated on shifting his problems to Nala’s chicken “curse” because it’s an easy scapegoat, that he’s failed to realize he’s been the problem all along. “I’m a terrible person,” he admits. If they were better people, they wouldn’t have to be so chicken.

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