Tree horror and irresponsible science:
the earth bites back

Severed: Forest of the Dead addresses the dangers of genetic experimentation, but it also highlights the need for communal action and a biotic community to overcome its repercussions. Overhead shots of a massive dense forest establish the setting and introduce the film’s first conflict between environmental activists and loggers. Shots of protesting activists are juxtaposed with footage of loggers cutting down and preparing timber, illustrating the whole lumbering process from forest to truck to processing. Activists chain themselves to trees while loggers work. A banner shows us that these young environmentalists represent the Forest Action Committee. Their signs declare, “Greed will not clean our air” and argue against depleting natural resources. They shout at the loggers, “get out of our forest!”

Mac, the logger boss (Julian Christopher) at first confronts the environmentalists, warning his men to be careful because the protesters are too close. But he also opposes the company bosses for whom he works. When he sees two company research scientists taking samples from an enormous tree, he tells them to come down for “less talk and more chop.” One of these researchers, Carter (J.R. Bourne), notices extra thick sap and announces, “Something isn’t right… I’ve never seen this volume of sap before,” but he tells Mac there’s no cause for alarm instead of revealing its source: the company is testing GX1144, a new GMO product the company believes will accelerate growth and increase yields.

Tree horror is the result of these genetic experiments. When a logger cuts down the altered tree, the remaining trunk is covered with red sap that flows down its bark like blood. It oozes as the logger saws through the trunk. Activists have spiked the tree in protest. The chain saw hits the spike, sending it flying back. It slashes the logger. Mac calls for help, but the logger begins convulsing. His eyes turn red. He begins to growl and grab at the other loggers. He has turned into a viral zombie, a “natural” eco-zombie, according to S. J. Lauro (2011). For Lauro, the eco-zombie in Severed “incarnates anxieties regarding the abuses of the planet by capitalist industry” (pg. 61). The next scene confirms Lauro’s claim. Lumber company corporate officers and board members discuss the success of GX1144. It has increased profits by 15%. Their goal is to expand the testing area for the genetically altered lumber until a secretary shares bad news about the logging camp. They have lost contact with the camp and blame the Forest Action Committee, led by Rita Hoffman (Sarah Lind). The logging camp is in the testing area, and if Hoffman finds out, it might draw undue attention to their GX1144 program.

To address the board’s concerns, its members send the CEO’s son Tyler (Paul Campbell) to the camp. Although representing the enemy, Tyler ultimately becomes part of a biotic community that also includes loggers and environmentalists. His entrance in the camp also shows us what happens when we disturb the natural order: monsters. When Tyler drives his truck off the ferry, the logging camp is deserted and in shambles. Undead loggers feed on corpses, but Tyler escapes into a forest and hides in a shed with unscathed logger Luke (Michael Teigen), environmental activist Rita, logging boss Mac and company man Carter. Rita tells Tyler he has been “raping the earth” and the GMO-induced infection supports her claim. This secret GX1144 testing area must be quarantined to maintain stock prices, and their survival depends on collectively battling monstrous results of bad science.

The rest of the narrative focuses on the clashes with zombies that the loggers and environmental activists must face together. Rita, Tyler, and Mac form an unlikely alliance that shows the power of community. Carter is the weak link in their group, and ultimately nearly kills them all because he refuses to cooperate. He and the logging corporation usurp the power of the new community. The group’s first attempt to escape is thwarted by the company men who block the bridge to town and through Carter’s unwillingness to share blame. Carter reveals the problems with GX1144 only after Mac threatens him, arguing that he is the only one “who can end clear-cut logging.” Carter and the company men also halt the group’s second attempts to escape through a second logging camp. Company thugs shoot at the group from helicopters. Other loggers capture and hood them, taking them back to their camp. Led by Anderson (Patrick Gallagher), these loggers have created a more hostile community than Mac’s. They threaten Rita and target zombies daily, ritually killing them in a carefully constructed gladiator arena. Carter sneaks away from the compound and deliberately leaves the gates to the prison open, so the remaining zombies attack, killing Mac, Carter, and Tyler. Rita escapes, reaching a road. The last shot shows Tyler’s heartless father in his enormous mansion toasting his dead son.

Ultimately the message of this campy film makes legitimate claims. First of all, messing with nature through genetic experimentation can be dangerous. Although the science behind these genetically modified trees is highly exaggerated, it is based in fact. Botanists agree these genetically modified “transgenic” trees have the potential to both benefit and devastate the environment. In a University of British Columbia Terry Project report (2015), proponents argue, “Tree genomics has the potential to considerably improve the planting stock by reproducing desirable traits such as resistance to insects, extreme climates and herbicide or increasing the wood quantity and quality,” especially in the Anthropocene Age This same report also notes concerns, asserting that transgenic trees may propagate gene flow and Superweeds:

“Gene flow could create considerable species displacement and ecosystem disruption”

The report supports these concerns with examples from experimental plantings in China (Terry Project, 2015). In a briefing paper issued by the Global Justice Ecology Project (2015), Dr. D. Suzuki agrees, declaring transgenic trees have

“the potential to transfer pollen for hundreds of miles carrying genes for traits including insect resistance, herbicide resistance, sterility and reduced lignin [supportive structural plant materials].”

These transgenic trees “have the potential to wreak ecological havoc throughout the world’s national forests.” Transgenic trees may not produce zombies, but they may “increase human exposure to hazardous chemicals” (Global Justice, 2015). Severed mayillustrates an extreme consequence of planting transgenic trees, but its horror themes are based in science.

If a GMO tree crisis occurs, however, the solution is communal rather than individual. Carter and the company are clearly painted as enemies in the film, as greedy exploiters of both human and nonhuman nature. Rita is also culpable in the infestation, since she and her environmental group spiked the tree that infected the logger. Because she alone survives, however, the film suggests her crimes are minor compared to those of Carter and the company men who would let even their own children die. Ultimately, environmentalists must team up with at least some loggers to overcome the corrupt company battling them both.

The family drama The Happening also promotes a communal solution to irresponsible science. When humans kill bees with unbridled pesticide use, trees fight back, and the only escape is a nontraditional family that replicates biotic communities in nature. The opening introduces products of a disrupted nature: vanishing bees and sentient trees’ ability to attack. Neurotoxins trees and other plants can emit are highlighted when those strolling in Central Park suddenly stop, repeat phrases they just stated, and kill themselves. It is 8:33 A.M. Philadelphia high school teacher Elliott Moore (Mark Wahlberg) introduces bee collapse disorder in the next scene when he asks his students why they think the bees are vanishing. A quotation from Einstein above his chalkboard reminds us of the dire ramifications of this crisis:

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then men would only have four years of life left.”

Moore’s class focus on the disappearance of bees draws on current theories addressing Colony Collapse Disorder explored in documentaries such as Vanishing of the Bees (2009) and highlighted by President Obama’s 2015 initiative to preserve their habitats. There is no doubt that bee populations are decreasing rapidly and that their annihilation would have a devastating effect on agriculture.

The Happening highlights colony collapse disorder, but it also asks what if a monstrous nature fought back? As M. Pomerance (2010) asserts,

“not civilization itself but what civilization has wrought upon the wilderness is what we must come to fear, since the wilderness is apparently now getting its own back” (pg. 214).

The film also provides a solution: a return to a biotic community in which humans no longer dominate. In The Happening, nature’s answer comes almost immediately after Moore’s bee discussion: as if reacting to our annihilation of the natural world, something from the trees in Central Park causes men and women to kill themselves. These juxtaposed scenes suggest humans have become a threat and must be defeated. At this point the two environmental scenarios merge. The vice principal (Alan Ruck) calls his teachers into the auditorium and tells them airborne chemical toxins have infected New York City, so they should

“watch for warning signs. The first stage is confused speech. The second stage is physical disorientation, loss of direction. The third stage … is fatal.”

Now Mr. Moore and the other teachers must dismiss their students and escape the attack.

The Happening primarily centers on more traditional narrative conflicts of science fiction and family melodrama. Sci fi moments occur when Moore and wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) escape the infected city with friend and history teacher Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), facing multiple conflicts along the way. Family melodrama inspires Moore to lead Alma and Jess away from the chaos, rejuvenate his relationship with Alma, and analyze humanity’s place in the natural world, laying the groundwork for a biotic community that can include Jess.

Each of these plotlines includes echoes of the environmental issues that opened the film. When their train is stranded in Filbert, Pennsylvania because conductors have lost all contact with the outside world, Julian leaves alone to find his wife. But Elliott, Alma, and Jess hitch a ride with a greenhouse owner (Frank Collison), who tells them plants caused the neurotoxin attack. “They can release chemicals,” he explains, as he talks soothingly to plants in his greenhouse. Trees and other plants “react to human stimulus; they've proved it in tests,” he declares. He even tells the Moores,

“Plants have the ability to target specific threats. Tobacco plants, when attacked by heliothis caterpillars, will send out a chemical attracting wasps to kill just those caterpillars. We don't know how plants obtain these abilities, they just evolve very rapidly.”

When Alma asks, “Which species is doing it, if you think it's true?” the nursery owner designates trees as the source of the human purge. He explains,

“Plants have the ability to communicate with other species of plants. Trees can communicate with bushes, and bushes with grass, and everything in between.”

In The Happening, trees and the plants with which they communicate transform into monstrous nature to attack the human species seemingly bent on their destruction.

Despite this knowledge, people continue to respond to the neurotoxins and kill themselves. After picking up two boys, Elliot has a family of five to protect, so he must go further and apply the scientific method to the scenario. When Alma and the others ask him what to do, he decides to “be scientific” and “Identify the... rules... design the experiment... interpret the experimental pattern, [and] interpret.” When he asks himself, “What if it IS the plants?” answers emerge. Because an infected group was larger than theirs, and “this thing's been escalating all day,” he hypothesizes that

“Smaller and smaller populations have been setting this off. They react to human stimulus. Maybe people are setting off the plants?”

Unable to help those already infected, Elliot asks Alma, “What if they're targeting us as threats?” and offers a solution:

“This part of the field may not have been set off. Something in this field could be releasing the chemical into the air when there's too many of us together. Let's just stay ahead of the wind!”

Other conflicts highlight human exploitation of the natural world. The first house they enter for a rest is a model home for a new subdivision encroaching on the wilderness. Everything is plastic in the house, emphasizing its artificiality. “You deserve this,” states a billboard advertising the subdivision. Enormous coal cooling towers frame another house where a man shoots the two boys with a shotgun as they demand to be let in for shelter.

Although the last house is off the power grid, its owner Mrs. Jones (Betty Buckley) has shut herself off from everyone and everything and declares, “the world don’t care about me, so I don’t care about it.” Her anger seems to further stimulate the trees around her, so when she races out of the house after ordering Elliot to leave, she is immediately infected. Unlike the other victims, Mrs. Jones doesn’t just kill herself. She smashes her head into the windows of her home to let in the neurotoxins.

Both the science fiction and family melodramas now reach their climax. Elliot traps himself in a storage room to escape the toxins. Connected by a pipe to the springhouse where Alma and Jess play, Elliot hears them and warns them about the toxins. Instead of remaining inside, however, they all walk out to share what they think are their last moments. It is 9:58 A.M., and the episode has ended, connecting this vegetal assault with the terrorism of the 9/11 attack and its aftermath and perhaps suggesting the need for an environmental “alert system” like that used for national security. The film also suggests that Elliot, Alma, and Jess’s love for one another helped them survive. Three months later Jess prepares for the first day back at school. Alma checks a pregnancy test and is elated when it turns out positive. Although M. Pomerance (2010) claims “the family forms without joy,” (pg. 212), Elliot and Alma’s reactions suggest that their communal approach worked.

The family melodrama has resolved happily. But the sci fi conflict is enmeshed with unsolved environmental problems. An evolutionary scientist explains that neurotoxins in some plants and trees rapidly evolve their chemistry to attack threats in ways similar to the red tides in the ocean. The incident three months before was a warning, because “we have become a threat to this planet.” Although the last scenes show Alma smiling at Elliot and holding her pregnancy test, the scientist’s warning provides the parting frame for the film. Another neurotoxin incident occurs in a Paris park. And we see the three stages of infection before dark clouds like those that opened the film fly across the sky.

            The science underpinning these plant attacks may be exaggerated for dramatic effect, but it is based in truth. Although trees may not have the abilities that the film attributes to them ,there is evidence that plants talk to each other on a basic level. J. Armstrong explains that plants communicate in rudimentary ways,

“If you take a very broad definition of communication, which means any type of signal that is made by one organism that can be sensed by another” (McCarthy, 2008).

A plant like a rocket weed may even “recognize plants related to it” (McCarthy, 2008). S. A. Dudley argues such recognition “can increase their fitness by benefiting relatives” (McCarthy, 2008). Recognition highlights low levels of communication but also shows that plants have more sentience than usually expected of them.

Plants also have been shown to release toxins harmful to humans and other animals. Red tides, toxic algae along seashores each summer, are on the rise due to Anthropocene climate change, for example. E. Yong (2010) reports that tobacco leaves emit airborne chemicals to defend themselves against caterpillars. When mixed with caterpillar saliva, these chemicals attract caterpillar-killing big-eyed bugs or wasps. B. C. Freeman and G. A. Beattie (2008) highlight other ways plants defend themselves, including the emission of volatile gases. According to Freeman and Beattie,

“Terpenoids (terpenes) occur in all plants and represent the largest class of secondary metabolites with over 22,000 compounds described. The simplest terpenoid is the hydrocarbon isoprene (C5H8), a volatile gas emitted during photosynthesis in large quantities by leaves that may protect cell membranes from damage caused by high temperature or light.”

Armstrong admits that trees have no need for such chemical defenses, but smaller plants with smaller populations do. As Armstrong asserts,

“When getting eaten is a problem for smaller plants, that’s a common situation where plants are toxic” (McCarthy, 2008).

This is a strategy that Monsanto and Syngenta utilize in GMO seeds. The Happening exaggerates the abilities of plants to make its environmental point. It’s clear that humanity is destroying the Earth. Whether or not trees can fight back, though, is still under debate. To survive in such a world, however, humanity must join the biotic community rather than exploiting it for gain.

Tree horror is rooted in a disturbed natural world like that described by Carroll. But The Ruins, Splinter, Severed, and The Happening also address monstrous nature in relation with contemporary environmental issues. On the surface, The Ruins aligns with Severed because quarantines focus the plot of each film. Severed and The Happening offer the strongest indictments of humanity’s treatment of the natural world. The warning against transgenic trees is powerful in Severed. And The Happening even more effectively cautions humanity to dramatically change its behavior because, as a scientist declares, “we have become a threat to this planet.” Severed, Splinter and The Happening also demonstrate the power of a biotic community, at least among diverse humans. They embrace an organismic approach to ecology that encourages sustainability. When that biotic community is disrupted, the life of the planet is threatened. Tree horror films answer those threats with monstrous results.