Our mon­sters, our­selves

cin­ema Ex­plor­ing eco-hor­ror

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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)

Eco-hor­ror movies,

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.

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