Alex Garland’s upcoming film Annihilation is going to be your next sci-fi obsession. Having read Jeff Vandermeer’s book a couple of years ago, it is a mysterious story full of intrigue and suspense, where monstrous things lurk just out of sight and the world where the action takes place seems bizarre and unrecognisable. The plot follows a group of government sponsored researchers on an incursion into the forbidding ‘Area X’, an area carved out of the US Western seaboard that has been suddenly and inexplicably detoxified and returned to a primal state of ecological balance by some unknowable force that seems to invest the place with an alien energy. Those who venture into it tend to come back very much worse for wear, contaminated by whatever presence maintains the area in a state of nature.
Vandermeer’s book and Garland’s much anticipated adaptation are steeped in the tradition of ecological horror, which swaps ghosts and axe murderers with the human terror of ecological collapse and irrevocable climate change, achieving a powerful sense of existential dread. ‘Area X’ is not a man who wears a hockey mask or who has knives for fingers but the dangers it poses are all the more terrifying by the fact that they speak not only to nightmares of individual death and bodily harm but represent an animation of our fear of absolute civilisational collapse as a human species. You’ll note very quickly that none of the characters are given names and are instead referred to by their profession and the utility they provide to the expedition into ‘Area X’; The Biologist, The Psychologist and so on. This is because the terror of the text comes not from gruesome deaths but from the idea that this alien force has come to strip away all the trappings of man’s long effort to establish an anthropocentric order out of the wilderness of nature. In tearing us away from names and language ‘Area X’ destroys the vital intellectual infrastructure of a humanity whose industrial developments have outstripped its balance with nature and reducing the characters that explore it to mere functions in a balanced ecological system with all the personality and individuation of plants providing pollen to bees or fungi providing nutrient networks to large redwoods.
There is something totalistic about this kind of fear and the impact of human activity on the natural environment has a long legacy in horror cinema. A notable example is my own favourite horror film of all time, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, lauded and derided in equal part for its lo-fi grit and grisly, debauched atmosphere. But as the recently departed Tobe Hooper stressed a number of times in interviews, the real horror of the piece is not the masked killer or the cannibal family but, in fact, the spectre of factory farming and the sanitised, industrial slaughter of animals, with its recurring images of meat hooks and butcher’s knives and the sensual delirium of killing for meat. Here, in a trashy little exploitation film, the viciousness of factory farming was laid bare, and embodied in the hulking form and brutish manner of Leatherface and his cannibal cadre. Those viewers not ready to deal with the harsh reality of industrial food processing could take in the message in a sort of confined way, through the visage of a masked killer and the image of his instruments of torture.
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So what is the utility of horror in exploring ecological imbalance and disaster? Why has such a maligned genre (undeservedly so, in my own eyes) proven such a powerful vehicle for communicating the dread of nature’s revenge against the advance of human industrialisation? Likely for just the reason I stated above in discussing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the creation of a manageable, actionable fear. As someone interested in climate justice, I can say unequivocally that the simplest way to depress yourself horribly is to start reading about climate change research. From Carbon Dioxide content in the atmosphere, threatened food supplies and warming oceans it does not present breezy and pleasant reading. Indeed the sheer volume of disquieting information can be almost impossible to process and one can easily by given over to maudlin despair at the prospect of the whole thing.
But then along comes a neat little footage horror film like The Bay. It carves off a slice of these global concerns into a more digestible portion: a little tv news documentary on a strange viral outbreak in a small town on the Chesapeake Bay in the United States. On this small stage we can play-act our horror and revulsion at the consequences of corporate pollution, government corruption and ecological collapse in a frightening but manageable way. Eco-horror not only makes fine fright shows out of relevant and topical issues, but allows us to approach those issues without becoming totally paralysed by an all consuming fear, processing them into our understanding of the world and perhaps inciting us to even the smallest of actions to change our habits and behaviours and concerns. While the issues of nuclear proliferation and contamination are enormous global problems hiding any number of geopolitical complexities, it turns out a gigantic mutant reptile smashing its way through Tokyo proves a much more digestible terror that at least points us in the right direction.
As Climate Change marches ever forward and becomes a more immediate concern for the global population, the edges of its super storms are more likely to blow their way onto our movie screens, edging out poltergeists and phantoms (although even the archetypal Poltergeist is ultimately a tale of irresponsible land development and the destruction of indigenous communities) at the forefront of those things that terrify us. But perhaps the campfire ghost story, plausibly the oldest literary genre in human history, is the only way we can process such all-consuming dread and spur us into action before it is too late.