“The best comedy and horror feel like they take place in reality,” says legendary actor, director and screenwriter Jordan Peele in a conversation with The New York Times. “As with comedy, I feel like horror and the thriller genre is a way—one of the few ways—that we can address real-life horrors and social injustices in an entertaining way.” With this in mind, it is no surprise that many horror movies can seem absurd, particularly when the spectacle of horror is rooted in what we already know to be true.
Peele’s evolution from comedy to horror, then, makes all the more sense considering he weaves elements of both the real and the unreal in his blockbuster hits like Get Out, Us, and Nope, all of which rely on symbolism to reach into the depths of societal anxieties and woes. While Peele is revolutionizing the horror genre, he is also building from a long list of horror directors: Alfred Hitchcock, M. Night Shymalan, and Steven Spielberg to name a few. All of these writers, at their core, are addressing real-life problems often influenced by human/nature relationality. Hitchcock directed The Birds (1963), a thriller that followed a series of sudden violent attacks by birds on people, Shyamalan has directed numerous environmentally-themed horror movies (many of which were publicly lambasted by critics and viewers alike), and Spielberg’s curious navigation of man versus nature is most evident in films like Jaws and the Jurassic Park series.
The medium may be relatively new, but humans have formulated mythological narratives in an attempt to explain the way the natural world works for millenia. And ecological horror, or eco-horror for short, is heavily influenced by such cultural creation and destruction myths. Natural disasters are depicted as demons, monsters, aliens or otherwise anthropomorphized beings that have come to wreak havoc on humanity in response to our mistreatment of the Earth. Ranging from pure fear of the unknown to wrestling with the collective guilt humans feel about the destruction they have caused to the planet, eco-horror grapples with the troubled relationship between humanity and the natural environment.
I have been an avid horror fan since I was a child. I grew up on the classics: Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as well as some D-list cash grabs: Freddy vs. Jason, The Collector, Cabin Fever. I loved the absurdity of horror—the way the genre allows us to validate our innermost fears, bringing us to the edge of no return until someone reminds us that evil, though it never dies, can always be kept at bay. The triumph, however, tends to be temporary (hence the sequel—seriously, why were there so many Godzilla movies?). Because when the “evil” is the result of our own fractured relationship with the environment, can we really defeat it by doing the same tired fight over and over again? This sort of progression—tenuous success in anticipation of the next hurdle—is an apt description of humanity’s contemporary, contentious relationship with the natural world.
When the “evil” is the result of our own fractured relationship with the environment, can we really defeat it by doing the same tired fight over and over again?
Even when there is a moral at the end of the tale, too much ecological horror begs the question: Should nature be conquered? Subdued? What happens when we create a problem and then are forced to deal with the consequences? How do we deal with those consequences? And considering how climate change is not a grand equalizer, but in fact exacerbates current social inequity, who is most burdened as a result of those consequences?
Every era of eco-horror offers a different answer to such questions—though the explanation will reflect the political climate of the time. A sensationalized version of vodou, an intrinsically Earth-based religion, captivated Hollywood since the 1930s and this is where we start to see a huge uptick in Black horror actors (a reminder that the original concept of the zombie was heavily borrowed from Haitain mythology). In a Western zombie movie, the survivors usually symbolize those who are able to make it out of an awful event; there is a hope that humanity will survive this challenge and hopefully learn something about themselves through this survival. But the Haitian zombie was an offspring of slavery: it was a reanimated corpses bound to a master it could only obey; it spoke simultaneously to a cultural and colonization fear. If at the end of the world only the zombies survive, what does that say about the world we’ve built?
The 1970’s saw a surge of Black horror films, especially during the Blaxploitation era, many of which dealt with the overlap of race, class, and environment (considering the environmental as a place where we live, learn and play): in Ganja and Hess (1973), a doctor’s assistant gets cut with an ancient germ infested knife that gives him an insatiable desire for blood, using the vampire as a metaphor for addiction. In White Dog (1982), one of the most controversial horror movies ever created, a Black dog trainer and young actress attempt to rehabilitate a dog that has been trained to carry out racial attacks. Once again we see the overlaps between racism and environmental concerns, in this instance symbolized through the learned violence of an animal often described as “man’s best friend.”
Now, we find ourselves deep in a climate crisis where horror seems less like a lab experiment gone wrong. Rather, it is a very palpable present-day reality.
White Dog is one of a long list of horror films that present animals as humanity’s most dangerous antagonist—and something to be defeated, dominated, and domesticated in order for man to prosper. This is perhaps most evident in Jaws (1975), Spielberg’s iconic survival thriller, which follows an epic battle between man and shark as three New England locals set out to capture the great white to protect a local tourist town from losing revenue. Throughout the film, grizzly scenes depict efforts to subdue and kill the shark in a bid for dominance. Jaws’ impact was so profound that it led to a sharp increase in galeophobia—an irrational fear of sharks—despite the global population of sharks having decreased by 71% since the film’s release. More recent films like The Shallows (2016) follow a similar storyline rooted in a man vs animal dichotomy in which Blake Lively is forced to outwit—and eventually kill—a shark in order to survive. Even Beast (2022), starring Idris Elba as a widower with two teenage daughters on holiday in South Africa, depicts a traumatized lion on the run from deadly poachers as a ferocious, blood-thirsty creature. It’s a trope that is quickly becoming tired, especially as the realities of the climate crisis, and the extent to which human activity is killing animals and destroying their habitats, is becoming public knowledge.
It’s also significant that many of these twentieth century movies were less interested in warning humans about their impacts on the natural world, but instead used plant, animal, alien, and lab-created mutant life as allegories for the red scare (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956), nuclear annihilation and a fear of internal enemies (Godzilla, 1954), and scientific mishaps that could bring about the destruction of the world (read: America) as we know it (Creature from the Black Lagoon, 1954). In the case of movies like Prophecy (1979), the Earth became something to rally against, reflecting the social anxieties of a particular area: conflicts between Western loggers and Indigenous peoples, the revenge that follows, and of course, nature fighting back. At its most insidious, like in C.H.U.D. (1984), the Earth was framed as the ultimate enemy, one that lay in wait, hoping humans would slip up enough for it to reclaim control, which the West—with all its science and pompousness—so desperately wants to cling on to.
And now, 40 years on, we find ourselves deep in a climate crisis where horror seems less like a lab experiment gone wrong. Rather, it is a very palpable present-day reality: pandemics (as in In the Earth, 2021), corporate and government negligence (The Crazies, 1973/2010), and the rise of natural disasters (CRAWL, 2019), to name a few. So, if we define horror as a genre that seeks to elicit fear, thrill and disgust from its audience, does eco-horror issue a warning? Does it ever provide solutions beyond annihilation temporarily kept at bay?
Contemporary Western horror hasn’t strayed far from its roots. With the exception of a few bold visionaries, it seems that we are constantly recycling the same tropes: possessed creatures, gory vengeance, and supernatural phenomena that speak more to our own fear of collective annihilation instead of addressing the uneven wounds we’ve created all over the globe. While entertaining, it leaves us unsatisfied.
Now, as we bear witness to the everyday horrors that occur as a result of the climate crisis—this year alone has seen unprecedented floods, wildfires, and droughts the world over—we are better appraised of how true environmental horror manifests in real life: written off as “natural” occurrences. Though Don’t Look Up (2021) is a satire, it is eerily reminiscent of Peele’s analysis of the relationship between comedy and horror. As the scientists turn to the media to warn people that a world-ending comet is rapidly approaching, the newscasters laugh it off. “Uncomfortable” content, they say, doesn’t resonate well with viewers. It’s not far from climate denying claims made by certain factions of the media that trivialize the recent increase in natural disasters as nothing more than weather patterns. If that’s not scary, I don’t know what is.