Our monsters, ourselves
cinema Exploring eco-horror
The 1954 Toho Pictures man-in-a-monster-suit classic thrilled audiences in Japan, where it was made, and in the U.S., where it was released in 1956 with new footage and English dialogue for the American audience. In both markets, it represented a pop-culture response to the pervasive fear of nuclear war. In the movie, Godzilla isn’t created by the nuclear tests that were rocking the globe at the time but is merely awakened by them — and he’s not happy with the uppity primates who have disturbed his sleep. And so was born the environmental horror film, in which the Earth and its creatures retaliate for the wrongs done to them.
In Monstrous Nature: Environment and Horror on the Big Screen (University of Nebraska Press, 2016), authors Robin L. Murray and Joseph K. Heumann begin with the lizardlike “king of the monsters,” but they spend little time on him and his 1950s giantmonster ilk (Mothra and Gamera, for example). The writers devote more text to the 2014 remake starring Juliette Binoche and Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston. In this version, Godzilla is humankind’s best hope against a wave of other monsters that feed on radiation. “Horror films such as Godzilla provide a space in which to explore the complexities of a monstrous nature that humanity both creates and embodies,” the authors muse.
As you may have noticed, this is academic writing; the point is not primarily to entertain but to break new ground in the analysis of these films and examine theories about them that have been advanced by other scholars. Murray and Heumann, both affiliated with Eastern Illinois University, are co-authors of two previous volumes of cultural criticism from an ecological viewpoint. Monstrous Nature isn’t a breezy read — the text is frequently interrupted with footnotes and page references, unevenly edited (homonyms slip through), and oddly punctuated — but it’s possible to get into a groove with it, the way you might with dense literary fiction, philosophy, or poetry. Some of the research papers the authors refer to are fascinating in their own right — often for the titles alone, such as “Our Zombies, Ourselves: Exiting the Foucauldian Universe in George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead.” And the wide-ranging discussion covers foreign films and independent films that, in many cases, have flown under the radar. If you are inclined to follow along, there’s plenty here to fill up your Netflix queue.
The topics covered at length include insects in horror, the effects of war on childhood, horror comedy, parasites, cannibalism, and body modification. Some of these subjects probably aren’t what come to mind when you consider enviro-horror films such as the Godzilla series or the pollution-creates-mutants horror of B movies such as Prophecy (1979). When discussing insects, the focus isn’t on “big bug” movies of the 1950s. (Them!, made in 1954 and set in New Mexico, is the most famous of these — and the poster provides the book’s cover art — while others include Tarantula, from 1955, and 1957’s The Black Scorpion and The Deadly Mantis). Rather, the authors focus on The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971) and Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (2010). The former, which won an Oscar for best documentary, features innovative closeup photography of insects and a stern message that they may outlast humans; the latter delves into the Japanese fascination with beetles as collectible pets.
Perhaps the most resonant of the ideas discussed in the book is attributed to Joseph W. Meeker, author of The Comedy of Survival (Scribners, 1974). Roughly summarized, it embraces a view of ecosystems as healthiest when they are complex webs of species in equilibrium. This is contrasted with the “tragic” view that one species (ours) must dominate and vanquish others in order to survive. The authors quote Meeker:
“Evolution does not proceed through battles fought among animals to see who is fit to survive and who is not. Rather, the evolutionary process is one of adaptation and accommodation, with the various species exploring opportunistically their environments in search of a means to maintain their existence. … Organisms must adapt themselves to their circumstances in every possible way, must studiously avoid all-or-nothing choices, must prefer any alternative to death, must accept and encourage maximum diversity, must accommodate themselves to the accidental limitations of birth and environment, and must always prefer love to war — though if warfare is inevitable, it should be prosecuted so as to humble the enemy without destroying him.”
Obviously, this flies in the face of the tough-guy, winner-take-all “tragic hero” narratives we cling to in our politics, pop culture, and personal stories — and it isn’t a realistic solution to the problems faced by protagonists in most horror movies. There’s no living in equilibrium with slashers Jason and Freddy, the evil spirit of The Exorcist, or the horrific “xenomorphs” of the Alien films. As examples of the potential for more evolved relationships among horror-movie heroes and villains, Murray and Heumann present the zombie films Land of the Dead (2005)
and Warm Bodies (2013). In the first instance, the undead demonstrate the ability to learn and use tools, and in the second, they are revealed to be a different but not necessarily inferior form of human (recalling a Halloween episode of The Simpsons, in which Bart explains that zombies “prefer to be called the living impaired”).
On the subject of humor in horror films, the writers turn to the work of Troma Entertainment, which made its name in the VHS era with gory shock-schlock such as The Toxic
Avenger (1984) and Class of Nuke ’Em High (1986) and their many sequels. (Other titles produced or distributed by Troma include Rabid Grannies, Surf Nazis Must Die, and Chopper Chicks in Zombietown.) Murray and Heumann note that — after environmentalism gained national attention in the 1970s with the advent of Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Clean Water Act — attitudes began to change. “Film audiences no longer needed to be warned or taught about environmental problems, and they already had institutions in place that took the issue seriously, so some films highlighting environmental problems took a comic turn.” Thus we got comic protagonists such as Toxie of The Toxic Avenger, a former nerd who takes on the bullies, gangsters, and corrupt officials of a New Jersey town after a vat of toxic waste transforms him into a deformed muscle-bound hero. Similarly, radioactive marijuana leads a cheerleader to give birth to a mutant baby that wreaks havoc in Class of Nuke ’Em High.
However, with elected officials having been successfully pressured to address pollution and protect ecosystems, the pendulum began to swing the other way. “During the Reagan era … the political climate changed, emphasizing deregulation and the gutting of the EPA. Instead of political will, the EPA now relied on voluntary compliance.” It’s safe to say that, in general, the honor system is no match for independent regulators when it comes to industry’s effects on public health. Moreover, the authors’ observations suggest that, when a known environmental threat is deemed safe to laugh about, it’s in danger of resurfacing and going unnoticed. The book concludes with a discussion of “cli-fi” films — movies that address human-caused climate change. Probably the best known is Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004), which succeeded in raising awareness of the variety of potential dangers that come with an altered climate but exaggerates them to such a degree that it tends to play as comedy. (Admittedly, the ending, in which Americans fleeing their icebound homeland stream across the border into Mexico, is a nice touch.) Murray and Heumann write: “Monstrous cinema and its cli-fi offshoots may present important environmental messages, but they also must entertain viewers with spectacular effects to attract the audiences needed for big profits.” In keeping with previous chapters, the writers turn their attention to smaller and more independent productions, including Half-Life (2008), The Thaw (2009), The Colony (2013), and Snowpiercer (2013). Many horror movies have as their message the notion that, whatever the source of fear and danger — ghosts, serial killers, or horrors from beyond the grave — the greatest threat comes from other people. How many zombie films demonstrate the folly of trusting in your fellow survivors, no matter how wellmeaning they may be? So often, individuals are willing to risk the safety of the community as a whole to get what they want. As Meeker’s work makes clear, “every man for himself” isn’t a philosophy to assure the safety of a group. The message is spelled out loud and clear in Aliens (1986), in which Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) says of the titular menace, “I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them [screwing] each other over for a goddamn percentage.” Murray and Heumann reach the same conclusion: “Despite their emphasis on monstrous nature, the horror films we explore here also demonstrate the true monster in the Anthropocene age: humanity itself.” Happy Halloween!
“Monstrous Nature: Environment and Horror on the Big Screen” by Robin L. Murray and Joseph K. Heumann is published by University of Nebraska Press.
Many horror movies have as their message the notion that, whatever the source of fear and danger — ghosts, serial killers, or horrors from beyond the grave — the greatest threat comes from other people.