Notebook Primer: Eco-Horror

A guide to when nature turns against humans in cinema—often for good reason.
Danielle Burgos

The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.

The Last Winter (2006).

What I am suggesting is that the imagery of disaster…is above all the emblem of an inadequate response. I do not mean to bear down on the films for this. They themselves are only a sampling, stripped of sophistication, of the inadequacy of most people's response to the unassimilable terrors that infect their consciousness.

—Susan Sontag, The Imagination of Disaster

On 15 March 2022, an eastern Antarctic ice shelf the size of New York City collapsed into the ocean. Climate change is accelerating faster than anticipated, and the window in which to correct centuries of carbon dumping before setting off a sixth mass extinction event is minuscule, if not already slammed shut. Humanity has had decades to take action, but like a deer frozen in the headlights of an oncoming SUV, we seem incapable of saving ourselves. Instead we make movies, wildly wasteful, energy-intensive and environmentally damaging forms of storytelling, to inoculate our minds against the reality closing in on us. Ironically, a chunk of these tales cover this exact problem, served up in an over-the-top genre called eco-horror.

Eco-horror could arguably include any film featuring a combination of ecology and horror. But any categorization lumping Al Gore doc An Inconvenient Truth (2006) in with LL-Cool-J-vs.-superintelligent-shark vehicle Deep Blue Sea (1999) is too broad, so let’s narrow it down. The key element for eco-horror is nature become uncanny and maliciously turned against man. While the cosmos are part of the natural world, I’m focusing exclusively on Earth, so no aliens (sorry Day of the Triffids and Annihilation), meteors (bye Armageddon), rogue planets, or black holes.

Natural (and unnatural) disaster films have existed since the dawn of filmmaking and often feature horrific scale, from 1933’s Deluge to the many twin productions of the 90s like 1997’s Dante’s Peak and Volcano. The atomic age added the twist of nuclear disaster, from 1965’s Crack in the World (ill-timed explosion splitting the planet down the middle), all the way to 2003’s The Core (where it was the solution to restart earth’s magnetic field), but these are still natural processes with no agenda. No, eco-horror proper has nature gunning for humans, whether for general crimes against the globe or specific encroachment, trespass, or lack of respect. 

Shin Godzilla (2016).

The unnatural, in the sense of artificial/manufactured, is also vital. King Kong and Mothra (naturally giant creatures), no; Godzilla, hell yes. Particularly Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971), where Godzilla becomes reluctant savior fighting a monster literally born of humanity’s pollution, and Shin Godzilla (2016), which features the original atomic metaphor updated for the Fukushima Daiichi accident to slander bureaucratic foot-dragging and pedantry with lives at stake. Both films feature creature evolutions to increasingly damaging forms as time passes, not the subtlest commentary on humanity’s general approach to climate change.

Films like Jaws (1975) and Orca (1977) represent opposite poles of natural horror, both ignored here: animals exceptional (usually larger or stronger) but still within normal bounds, behaving typically but with humans as victims, vs. Orca’s Death-Wish-but-an-animal plot, where otherwise typical creatures ascribed human emotions and motives seek vengeance on individuals. Few Jaws knockoffs thought apex predators threatening enough to terrify on their own, and so became eco-horror. Grizzly (1976) comes closest to natural horror, and even then the bear is a prehistoric mega-remnant, not a grizzly. Piranha (1978), Alligator (1980), and Tentacles (1977) all have animals modified by corporations, directly or otherwise: Piranha’s Army-sponsored genetic mutations, Alligator’s animal testing runoff becoming snack for the altered alligator, and Tentacles’ construction company using radio frequencies "above regulated levels" driving the giant octopus insane (or something; it’s not the most coherent film). Altered animals as avatars of anthropocene irresponsibility come back to wreak havoc is definitely eco-horror. 

The genre  has its origins in the 1940s when First World humanity realized expansion had to stop somewhere, and space exploration wasn’t yet reality. We were stuck here, for the moment. Fabulists of an earlier age like H.G. Wells predicted the industrial revolution’s impact in economic and sociological terms, but environmental concerns were still relegated to “stewardship,” maintaining nature as supply cabinet for the country with Man as Lord and Master per biblical instruction. The future was with Progress via Science—teflon and nylon were invented in 1938, with polyester to follow in 1950. Science would solve everything

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953).

The first film of the Atomic Age was The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), a direct inspiration for Godzilla (1954), which came out sixteen months later. Atomic power (“Operation Experiment”) awakens a fictional Rhedosaurus (animated by Ray Harryhausen) from suspended animation. The creature wreaks havoc down the North Atlantic returning to its old spawning grounds in Manhattan. In an acknowledgment of fallout spoliation, the creature’s blood contains a virulent contagion that spreads through the city; it can’t be killed by normal means without risking wider infection. The solution? Atomic power! A radioactive isotope darted into a neck wound from the top of a Coney Island coaster makes short work of the creature. An important difference between the Rhedosaurus and Godzilla is that while atomic energy awakened one, it created the other. Godzilla director Ishirō Honda pointed out, "If Godzilla had been a dinosaur or some other animal, he would have been killed by just one cannonball. But if he were equal to an atomic bomb, we wouldn't know what to do. So, I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla."

Only a few Americans were aware of the Manhattan Project before its results unleashed devastation beyond comprehension—megadeath (or megacorpse), a term for one million deaths by nuclear explosion, was coined in 1953 by RAND military strategist Herman Kahn. At the end of THEM! (1954), first of the big-bug movies, the character Dr. Medford summarizes, "When Man entered the Atomic Age he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.” Yet film after film set up a quite predictable chain of willful ignorance: testing leads to unanticipated irradiation/side effects, poor communication between individuals and institutions allows disaster to hit increasingly large populations; a last-minute scramble comes up with either a scientific solution or an blast big enough to kill the threat (usually courtesy of the military).

THEM! (1954).

In THEM!, irradiated ants establish new colonies across the country and get torched by the Army. With It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), hydrogen bomb testing unearths and irradiates a giant octopus, blown up by the Navy. Tarantula (1955) was hit with growth serum and incinerated by the Air Force. Each has plenty of escalating destruction as the threat is perpetually underestimated. Scriptwriter Charles B. Griffith noticed the pattern: “Roger [Corman] came to me and said, ‘I want to make a picture called “Attack of the Giant Crabs,”’ and I asked, ‘Does it have to be atomic radiation?’ He responded, ‘Yes.’”1  At least in what became Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) the creatures were able to psychically communicate with human victims’ stolen minds. Mostly, like the giant locusts of Beginning of the End (1957), creatures were shrieking alien horrors, something previously innocuous, controllable, or just unknown (and therefore not our problem) that were now dwarfing us, even occasionally rendering American father figure the Military powerless. The tingling awareness Man was not the universe’s pivot, that Science and Progress unchecked had severe costs, and as Hamlet said, there are more things on heaven and earth than dreamt of by our Philosophy (that philosophy being Capitalism), began growing.

From the mid-50s through the 60s, scientist John C. Lilly’s research on dolphin cognition and communication gave validity to the idea of non-human intelligence. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring gave damning evidence (straight out of an Atomic Age film) military-developed pesticides intended to eradicate fire ants caused incalculable widespread physical and ecological damage. In what could be termed a major “oh shit” moment for humanity, irrefutable evidence of our environment-trashing coincided with the increasing possibility of other minds judging us. That paranoia soon put vengeful nature onscreen. Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) kept Atomic Age alien inscrutability, but where monstrousness once came from scale, now it stemmed from animal behavior actively hostile to the point of ignoring the preservation instinct.

With the Environmental Protection Agency formed at the decade’s start, it’s not surprising eco-horror hit its stride in the 70s. An example kicking off the decade’s earth-friendly sea-change: thanks to decades of industrial pollution (and the occasional spark from passing trains) Chicago’s Cuyahoga river caught fire many times, but before 1969 it was just considered a side effect of the city’s bustling industry. In 1969, with factories shuttering rapidly and river cleanup already underway, that year’s fire became a national rallying point for demanding federal-level environmental law. The guilt and fear swirling around belated action, potential consequences, and the possibility we were already too late manifested in a decade’s worth of masochistic on-screen punishment. 

The aforementioned Grizzly was briefly the most successful independent movie of all time (knocked out by Halloween two years later). Its stars and director reunited a year later for Day of the Animals (1977), where a high-altitude mountain hike during a bout of ozone depletion leads to trouble when all wildlife above 5,000ft are driven to vicious insanity by UV radiation. The most notable feature of this otherwise half-assed film is that Leslie Nielsen’s ad executive character is also affected, underscoring that Man too is part of nature (unless it’s just a long form lawyer joke extended to ad executives).

Night of the Lepus (1972).

1972’s goofy Night of the Lepus is almost Atomic Age in its plot, save for a slightly progressive step in a different direction: science’s unintended side effects stem from a rancher wanting to humanely deal with a growing rabbit population instead of resorting to cyanide. Lepus notes the population problem is due to rabbits’ natural predators being killed off by ranchers; the film’s happy ending includes a restored ecosystem of coyotes and normal-sized, non-killer rabbits. More befitting Carter-era malaise is Frogs from the same year. Both it and Lepus suffer the same problemnever pick something inherently adorable as your threat. Rabbits are even cuter when enlarged, and slow zoom-ins on grumpy bullfrogs and smiling geckos, even ones underscored with ominous music, fail to render them terrifying as the films need us to believe.

Frogs crosses a Tennessee Williams drama with ham-fisted animal revenge, pitting a wildlife photographer (a confusingly youthful Sam Elliot) as voice of reason against a stubborn, polluting southern patriarch and factory owner. The amphibians use what mother nature gave them as well as manmade options; snakes cause a caretaker to shoot himself in the leg; a son is killed after various lizards “push” greenhouse chemicals off a shelf, suffocating him (oh irony) in a roomful of lush, tended greenery. It’s one of the first active Earth Fights Back movies, with humans reaping what they’ve sown from knowing and hostile natural forces, and one of the first suggesting not only a coordinated wider attack, but a successful one. Frogs implies no human escapes Nature’s wrath. 

Long Weekend (1978).

Slightly more subtle than a frog-stomped flag cake is Australia’s Long Weekend (1978). The film walks a fine line making the human couple at its center, Peter and Marsha, just sympathetic enough not to despise, but asinine and self-absorbed enough to relish seeing nature get its comeuppance against them. Peter’s desire for pristine wilderness, annoyance at seeing a single  vehicle farther down the beach, and complete lack of self-awareness as he sets grass aflame with a tossed cigarette, shoots birds for fun, and hits a kangaroo with his car without stopping, pokes fun at the 70s iteration of natural fetishism. Humans have projected ideals of purity and superiority onto the “natural” world instead of actually paying attention to or learning from it since civilization began, but in the wake of the hippie movement, and with the ongoing energy crisis and lack of faith in government, the 70s saw a back-to-nature movement grow, centered around pastoralism and living off the grid. 

There’s a strange message regarding cities in Long Weekend, seen again decades later in The Happening (2008): that cities are both the ideal human superstructure and inherently anti-nature. Both films have humans fleeing cities “into” nature, but as colonies to ants and hives to bees, cities are the naturally-shaped and perfected system for human communal living and population density (I’m a Jane Addams fan). Despite the inciting incident beginning in city parks, The Happening acknowledges this by having its central couple happily back in Philadelphia by the film’s end instead of fleeing to suburbia following a vegetative chemical attack set off by population density. Prophecy (1979) opens with city life’s breakdown through class warfare: EPA officer Rob Verne is sickened by another case of a baby bitten by rats in their crib. Prophecy was shot in actual Bronx slums; this was NYC’s “Ford To City: Drop Dead!” era where a number of films used the decaying borough as location. Rob’s decision to take a job in Maine is motivated by his disgust for humanity, as is his wife Maggie’s decision to hide her pregnancy from him. 

Prophecy (1972).

If one film had to represent The 70s in eco-horror, it’s Prophecy. Polluting industry (a paper mill using mercury), chemical disturbance, displaced native peoples as noble savages and fallible victims, all with a heaping helping of motherhood anxiety and body horror. Though the film’s paper mill has been eco-friendly and compliant for decades, the highly toxic fungicide it once used is a dangerous mutagen that builds up, resulting in freakishly deformed giant tadpoles and a tribe dying of skin disease years later. When Maggie learns how little mercury it takes to permanently deform fetal DNA after eating locally caught fish, she breaks down and tells her husband about her pregnancy. Meanwhile a giant mutant bear slaughters campers and loggers—a boy attempting to escape in a sleeping bag gets popped like a bird by Randy Johnson’s fastball. Maggie and Roy rescue the bear’s deformed cub from a net; needing it alive as proof of corporate malfeasance, poor Maggie lives her worst nightmare caring for a grotesque baby perpetually attacking her. The cub’s screams are haunting; everyone hearing it suffering realizes the enormity of what’s been done to nature. The ending is equally disturbing and appropriate, with Rob repeatedly stabbing the bear well after its death, a Moby Dick moment of being unable to avenge oneself against nature that can destroy the individual. Fortunately for those wanting Nature dead, Regan was elected. 

The 80s was beset by Regan’s abysmal environmental record, including EPA head Anne Gorsuch immediately slashing the department budget by 22% and getting fined for contempt of Congress for refusing to enforce the Clean Air Act, and Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt attempting to deauthorize national parks to allow mining and drilling. It’s not surprising the “greed is good” era had more punitive anti–sex-and-drugs slasher films than eco-horrors, though 1988’s Slugs offers a particularly gruesome take on the “poisoned creature as avatar of natural revenge” theme. Despite this, by 1995 the International Journal of Public Opinion Research declared environmentalism “one of the most successful contemporary movements in the US and Western Europe,” yet there is also a gap in 90s eco-horror. 

The 90s had non-horror exceptions like Todd Haynes’ Safe, as much about the environment as a woman’s place in and reaction to it, and environmentalism was certainly on screens big (60s-Batman-meets-Mad-Max-actioner Waterworld, non-Disney animated FernGully the Last Rainforest) and small (Ted Turner’s cartoon superhero Captain Planet). But horror-wise there’s just Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic (1997). An urban pandemic spread by cockroaches is solved with that favorite 90s trope, genetic breeding. Scientists develop a “Judas bug” to eliminate the cockroach population by speeding up their metabolism. But as other genetic cautioner Jurassic Park noted, life finds a way. The ramped-up metabolism also super-speeds their evolution, turning cockroaches into sentient, human-imitating lifeforms. The film takes the notions of 1971’s The Hellstrom Chronicle (the Oscars’ strangest Best Documentary Winner) and Phase IV (1974) of insects inheriting the earth a step further—not only can insects perpetually adapt to human changes, they’ll supersede us as dominant intelligent life.

In the Earth (2021).

It wasn’t until the late 2000s that eco-horror emphasized man as part of a densely interwoven ecosystem. The Happening, Long Weekend, arctic oilfield-as-haunted-house horror The Last Winter (2006), even late as 2021’s mycelic infection tale Gaia, portray Man as the virus Nature must destroy if it’s to survive. Or in Gaia’s case, infect along lines a little too close to 2013 video game The Last of Us, itself inspired by the parasitic cordyceps genus hijacking arthropod brains to march up trees and die to perpetuate its own lifecycle. The Happening, for all its ridiculous moments (I believe the film has a deliberate sense of humor alongside its inadvertent jokes) is one of the first films to specifically acknowledge plant intelligence. Typical anthropocentric egotism, especially given plants’ half-billion year evolutionary head start on us. Though The Happening highlights chemical influence, more recent films like In the Earth (2021), Unearth (2020) and Gaia go full psychedelic, humans ingesting spores and melding identities with inhuman entities in the first on-screen two-sided communication attempts since humans and ants in Phase IV (a notable box-office flop/passion project from Hollywood legend Saul Bass). Man is acknowledged and humbly understood as one small part of a far larger system.

Despite its silliness, The Happening’s “here we go again” ending, restarting the film’s events in Paris after a happy return to normalcy, accurately depicts the last few decades’ political reaction to all major environmental crises. The Last Winter, which swaps spores for “sour gas” driving environmentalists and oil workers alike insane, is probably closest to what the future holds for humans and film. Unaware throughout their struggle that they’re already well past the point of return, the few who survive at Last Winter’s end are helpless witnesses to their world’s irreversible collapse under the angry spirits of a billion dead animals (literally oil). BFI is begging film productions to cut down on carbon emissions, but as long as there’s profit to be made and fossil fuel to extract from somewhere, humanity will probably continue walking backwards into hell, distracted by our entertainment.

1. Fischer, Dennis. “Charles B. Griffith: Not of This Earth.” Backstory, edited by Pat McGilligan, vol. 3, New California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1997, pp. 157–174.

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