31 Days of Halloween

31 Days of Halloween — Day 21, Ecosystems Bite Back: A Primer for Contemporary Eco-Horror

One night, while watching Creepshow 2, I turned to my significant other and said, “I bet I could write a Master’s thesis on the environmental themes in this movie.” For those of you who haven’t seen it, the central installment, called “The Raft,” features a carnivorous oil slick that terrorizes – who else? – a group of carefree, stranded college kids. I was kidding, but only a little – as an ecologist and a horror nerd, I enjoy when my interests cross-pollinate such that one helps me make sense of the other.

Environmental themes have been present in horror since the birth of the genre itself, since before we even named it a genre. (Picture our primitive ancestors around a cooking fire, speculating about the monsters lying in wait out in the unknown wilderness at the edge of the light.) The terrors associated with the natural world take different forms in different eras. Godzilla and other giant-creature-features often play on fears related to nuclear technology. Frankenstein sets a pursuit for the monster against a landscape including the sublime sight of Mont Blanc, a reminder (a taunt?) against the deviance of Frankenstein’s experimentation. I have (half seriously) made a claim for environmental themes at work in My Bloody Valentine (mining, you guys!). While the great fears and troubles of different eras reshape how we construe our nervousness and horror related to the natural world, often what we are most frightened by is not simply the unknown, but the uncontrollable. What might we have awakened that could crush us in an instant? What could we have broken and be helpless to fix? 

The most obvious environmental terror of the current generation is the looming specter of climate change, so it should be no surprise that motifs related to climate (both local and global) are cropping up in many contemporary horror films. I might even argue that climate lies at the heart of most contemporary eco-horror, whether or not it’s explicit. Over the last few years, I’ve been noticing an increasing number of movies unsettled by the environment, by forces bigger than humans with the power to reshape and destroy – and in particular, by human arrogance in the face of something that should awe and scare us (do you see what I mean about climate?). Here are a few that I believe capture the current zeitgeist.

Blood Glacier (2013). Many horror movies in the last decade have dealt with the tension between a warming climate and the frozen parts of the earth – The Last Winter and The Thaw, for example. The Colony and Snowpiercer (which has horror-esque elements built into its allegorical sci-fi structure) are both notable for showing the photo-negative aftermath of global warming – global “cooling” solutions gone horribly awry. I chose to focus on Blood Glacier for three reasons: 1) It focuses on a research base, which I am always biased toward enjoying; 2) It has a dog in it; 3) It’s called Blood Glacier. Google may try to lie to you and tell you it’s called The Station. This is patently false; the original title of the Austrian film is Blutgletscher, which on its own should make you want to see it.

Blood Glacier is centered around Janek, a solitary researcher at a station in the Alps, whose closest and most personal relationship is with his dog Tippi. One day, he discovers a strange, red liquid oozing out of a glacier – and the liquid seems to be having horrifying, mutagenic effects on the local wildlife. As a group of important government officials (led by Janek’s ex) trek inexorably toward the station, unaware of the situation’s gravity, the tension ratchets and ratchets, creatures ever grosser and stranger coming out of the woodwork. Blood Glacier not a perfect horror movie; I, in fact, have one major quibble about the central romantic relationship that almost ruined my enjoyment of the movie (feminism, pesky feminism – I’ll just say that viewers should resist the urge to interpret this movie in relation to the characters’ reproductive choices). But it works pretty damn well – among other things, the subplot involving Tippi has real heart. I liked it in particular because of how effectively it pitted a global terror – warming climate, melting glaciers, systems tipping into new and unpredictable states – against personal stakes and drama. There is hubris here, and unforeseen consequences, and a deep moral sense about taking responsibility for mistakes. In other words, a good meditation on how we do (or might) react when our actions have altered the functioning of the world itself.

The Ruins (2008). This is one of those rare cases when I can say: Scott Smith’s book and the movie adaptation are about on par with each other (though if you enjoyed one, certainly grab the other). I loved this movie for how it took the trope of “clueless tourist kids get into a mess” (there are clearly a multitude of recent examples of this – Hostel, Turistas, Cabin Fever, etc.) and made it something more – something with a wicked botanical flair, even.

The premise of The Ruins is that six tourists – two American couples and their German and Greek friends – go out into remote Mexican jungle in search of two missing people who went out to an archaeological dig. They encounter hostile Mayan locals who kill one of them, but do not pursue them into the ruin itself – which, they soon discover, is infested with supernaturally deadly vines that infect their bodies and drive them mad – the vines can trick them, replicate sounds, move like animals. In other words, the violent locals have a very good reason for keeping people away from the ruins, and for trying to keep them from escaping: the ruins are a high-stakes quarantine.

I don’t need to elaborate on the implications of a bunch of clueless white kids tromping around the jungle with no sense for consequences, probably – the most interesting part about this movie is that you’re still somehow rooting for them to survive, even though you realize what a disaster it would be. In an era where ecotourism is becoming increasingly popular, a movie that asks what right or knowledge we possess to poke around ecosystems we don’t understand is particularly interesting. So, too, is the idea that something ferociously deadly could be unleashed from a local constraint by accident – we only need look at the current Ebola crisis (and attendant, largely hyper-reactive, American panic) to see an example of what might happen when disease breaks out of its natural reservoir. So, too, we are having the realization that local cultural knowledge (traditional ecological knowledge, or TEK) contains valuable lessons and insights into systems. Not to put too fine a point on it: it’s worth remembering that one of the fears around malaria is how its distribution will change in light of a warming climate.

Midnight Meat Train (2008). I have to say, I love a smart horror movie that delights in a campy title – like, say, Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Cannibal Holocaust, Midnight Meat Train doesn’t sound like something that would allow rigorous critical analysis – yet it is intelligent, insightful, and (most importantly) really damn scary. Based on a Clive Barker short story, the film follows Leon, an ambitious photographer who sets about trying to capture the spirit of New York City in the latest, darkest hours, and winds up finding a serial killer who preys on people riding the subway at night. Growing more and more obsessed as everyone refuses to listen to his warnings, Leon ultimately stumbles on a horrifying, deeply buried truth.

If you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading now – the resolution of the film is brutal and arrives seemingly from nowhere to change the entire balance of the story. It is also what makes me count this movie as an eco-horror. After the final showdown with the killer in the bowels of the city, the truth of his activities is revealed as a pack of reptilian monsters emerge from the darkness and feed on the human bodies strung up in the subway car. It turns out that these creatures have always existed, and the killer (“the butcher”) was charged (by human authorities, no less) with feeding them every night to keep them settled and at bay. In other words, the entire human enterprise of the city depends on blood sacrifice. Worse, Leon’s tongue is ripped out and he, at the movie’s close, has become the new butcher.

At first blush, this might not seem like a particularly ecological film – but it speaks to several key environmental themes. First, that cities, too, are part of larger ecosystems – though their function as an environment, as part of an ecosystem, is largely obscured in our cultural consciousness. In the last generation, we have begun to consider this under the broad heading of “urban ecology” – recognizing that cities can be understood as systems, that we can link their ecological functionality to their surroundings. Second, the film argues that we are often naïve about the ecological significance of our cities (after all, Leon ends the movie with his tongue missing, unable to speak the truth). Thirdly – whatever we think we understand, whatever we seem to have control of, we (probably) do not. In one of the most “controlled” environments in the world – New York City – nobody actually knows about the most powerful, ancient force at work, or the sacrifices needed to keep the city alive.

The Bay (2012). If I’m being honest, there’s almost no way I was going to dislike this movie – being a native of Chesapeake Bay country, I am instinctively in director Barry Levinson’s corner and also deeply interested in a movie that wants to speak intelligently, through horror, about the environmental complexities of the Bay. To boot, it’s a found footage movie that more or less manages to pull off actually feeling like a documentary.

The movie is narrated by a young woman who was charged with reporting on the annual Fourth of July festivities in picturesque Claridge, Maryland, and winds up being witness to the sudden outbreak of a parasitic infestation that kills hundreds of the town’s residents within 24 hours. The movie bounces between footage of the reporter and footage gathered from a local doctor trying desperately to cope with an influx of blistered, suffering patients, the CDC, local police, and home videos of residents reacting to the increasing body count. This is a movie built to chill you in your gut – there are a couple of obligatory jump scares, but mostly, it’s persistently and unrelentingly creepy.

It turns out that mutated, parasitic isopods have made it into the water system – while the initial symptoms of infection are gross enough, the cycle ends as the parasites burst out of bodies and eat people alive. By the end of the movie, bleeding, hole-ridden bodies litter the eerily silent holiday streets.

The best part of this movie is that if it’s not factual (obviously, such a thing has never happened), it’s accurate. The major culprit in the sudden attack of the isopods is a huge volume of excrement from the local poultry industry being dumped into the Bay – a real, pressing issue that has been an item of cultural and political contention for decades. The movie also captures the potential system-upending impact of a frightening invasive species (the isopods are named as being native to the Pacific), and the fear and reality of toxicity in local waters. The Chesapeake Bay permeates life in its surrounding communities in a way that is hard to describe – but this movie manages to capture how culture, economics (e.g. agriculture, local watermen), politics, and something as simple as drinking water are all linked to this great, troubled system. In light of this omnipresence, fears related to infection run especially deep. Again, this fear manifests in reality – for example, when I was a kid, we went through a serious scare with Pfiesteria piscicida (a toxic microorganism), and nobody knew if it was safe to get in the water.

What The Bay reminds us of most powerfully – in form and execution as well as content – is that we humans can’t extricate ourselves from the places we inhabit, in which we function. The health of an ecosystem is our own health, and if we strike carelessly into it – well, the ecosystem just might bite back.

4 replies on “31 Days of Halloween — Day 21, Ecosystems Bite Back: A Primer for Contemporary Eco-Horror”

I’m kind of excited to hear that the novel The Ruins is as good as the movie. I could easily have made a case for this being the kind of film that’s better visually than as a text.

Almost everything here has been lingering on my to-watch list, except for Blood Glacier, which I hadn’t heard of before. I’ll be bumping them up my list!

I *flew* through The Ruins (novel). I thought it was a blast. I think the book has some advantages over the film in terms of how the characters are presented, and the film does great work visually.

I heard the title “Blood Glacier” and reacted like I’d been given a Christmas present. Shades of “The Thing,” with that one (which is perhaps obvious).

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