Film-makers are finding horror, not comfort, in the natural world

Storytellers have always been fascinated by nature, particularly when it is hostile or its usual order perverted. In “Beowulf”, an Old English poem, abhorrent beings spring forth from marshes and watery caves to feast on human flesh. Gothic novelists used dark skies, whistling winds and misty moors to create a sense of unease in their readers. Some of the most famous films of all time, including “King Kong” (1933), “Godzilla” (1954), “Planet of the Apes” (1968), “Jaws” (1975) and “Jurassic Park” (1993), feature beasts on a collision course with humans.

The genre has become known as “eco-horror”. In their book “Monstrous Nature”, Robin Murray and Joseph Heumann, professors of English and film studies at Eastern Illinois University, argue that these stories share a common theme: “an eruption from the natural world” in response to human mistreatment. In films such as “The Birds” (1963), “Frogs” (1972) and “Dogs” (1976) small creatures turn into great adversaries. When they were made, global warming was not yet a grave concern—the term was first used in a scientific paper in 1975—but these films tapped into concerns about pesticides, the threat of a nuclear apocalypse or the prospect of dwindling natural resources.

Ecological change was dramatised on screen as public awareness increased. “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004)—adapted from Art Bell’s and Whitley Strieber’s thesis of 1999, “The Coming Global Superstorm”—and “The Happening” (2008) envisaged a bleak dystopian future. Now, as sea levels rise and wildfires burn across the globe, film-makers are once again turning to eco-horrors to sound the alarm.

Earlier works in the genre were ultimately hopeful for humankind’s survival; these new films suggest it may be too late for any salvation. “In the Earth”, a film by Ben Wheatley released in April, follows a scientist (Joel Fry) and park ranger (Ellora Torchia) who head into the woods while the world collapses into a pandemic. The story features folk tales, aggressive fungal spores and foot injuries—elements also found in “Gaia”, released in June. In that South African film, a forestry worker (Monique Rockman) encounters the malevolence of an organism that existed “long before the apes started dreaming of gods”.

Disaster in “Unearth” (2020), meanwhile, is unleashed along with natural gas when a fracking company moves onto a poverty-stricken farm in Pennsylvania. In “The Feast” (2021), a Welsh-language film, a wealthy city-dwelling family throws a banquet at their rural property to convince a neighbour to give up her land for the mining of minerals. The mythical spirit of “the rise” has other ideas.

“Lamb” (pictured), released in September and selected as Iceland’s entry for Best International Feature Film at the Academy Awards, also depicts people as powerless in the face of greater, immutable entities. “We humans are small and fragile,” says Valdimar Jóhannsson, the director and co-writer, “and even when we think we are in control of everything, we are still subject to the forces of nature.” His brooding debut follows María (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), whose remote farm is set among Icelandic mountains. A rift has formed between the couple, and, apparently, what is needed to knit them together is a part-human-part-lamb changeling, which they discover in their sheepcote.

Reminding humanity of its place is core to eco-horror. Of these new tales, “Gaia” most clearly scrutinises man’s supposed position at the top of the ecosystem; the film’s Unabomber-esque villain is a worshipper of the mycelium, an underground fungal network, and calls for “a swift end to the Anthropocene”. The genre often portrays the Earth as a powerful being—an idea that may dilute the environmental message, Ms Murray suggests, as it gives “people hope that nature can fight back, that we can only do so much harm”. All these stories, however, emphasise that the distinction between humanity and nature is a fallacy. The reality of the climate crisis is that humans are destroying not simply rainforests and rare species, but themselves.

Read more: Why Hollywood struggles to tell stories about climate change (March 11th 2021)

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