2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 57, summer 2016
Monstrous trees and ecology: targeting human threats in the horror film
Myths from both East and West attribute the power of life to trees. Christians may decorate evergreen trees to celebrate Christmas, but these signs of the promise of spring resemble the sacred Yule Tree in Germanic mythology. In Hinduism and Buddhism, the Banyan and Peepal trees also serve as sacred trees evoking visions of eternal life. Representations of trees in literary works from Tolkien’s White Tree of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings to dryads in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians reflect this traditional beneficence of trees. This life-giving mythology of trees continues in recent animated films from Pocahontas (1995) to Avatar. In Pocahontas, Grandmother Willow provides wise advice, telling Pocahontas,
“All around you are spirits, child. They live in the earth, the water, the sky. If you listen, they will guide you.”
When she talks to John Smith, Grandmother Willow’s advice grows more direct and offers a way to encourage life over death:
“Young man, sometimes the right path is not the easiest one. Don't you see? Only when the fighting stops, can you be together.”
The Tree of Souls in Avatar (2009) looks like a willow and acts as the spiritual center of Pandora and its source for interconnection. Destroying the Tree of Souls may mean the end of Pandora and the Na’vi. Groves of trees take on the same spiritual force in Fern Gully (1992) and Princess Monononoke (1997), and as in Avatar, human exploitation threatens the forests’ life-giving energy.
Explorations of how trees transform into “monsters” seeking revenge against the human world that exploits them build on the powerful life-sustaining forces of sacred trees. The power of life attributed to trees seems like a precondition for trees being agents of wrath in resisting human degradation of the environment. The recent Zika Virus outbreak reinforces the dangers humans sometimes confront in wooded areas. With its origin in the Ugandan Zika Forest Preserve, the virus also connects trees with horrific repercussions, especially for infants and children. Although first discovered in 1947, the virus began infecting humans outside of Africa only in 2007, when it mutated to its current dangerous form. As researcher Alexander Haddow explains,
"The current Zika virus outbreak in South and Central America is another wake-up call that increased globalization and climate change will continue to lead to the emergence of viral pathogens."
According to Haddow, "We need to be preparing for the next Zika virus now" (quoted in Swails and McKenzie). In the Age of the Anthropocene, trees like these seem ready to fight back against their human oppressors.
In films as diverse as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), trees have fought back against humans, becoming “monstrous nature.” In The Wizard of Oz, trees become animated when their apples are stolen (and a wicked witch intervenes). And in the The Twin Towers, trees called Ents seek vengeance against Saruman (Christopher Lee) and his army when their leader Treebeard (John Rhys-Davies) sees a section of Fangorn Forest Saruman has decimated to feed his iron forges. Plant horror films such as Severed: Forest of the Dead (2005), The Ruins (2008), Splinter (2008), and The Happening (2008) again illustrate how trees might fight back against their human oppressors. But they also tackle contemporary environmental problems and offer biotic solutions that incorporate all the living things in an ecosystem Despite their mystical or supernatural elements, The Ruins and Splinter address eco-concerns based on human exploitation of the natural environment.With a focus on “fair use” economics, The Ruins cautions against humans infiltrating rainforests by drawing on plant horror, forest vines that trap and kill U.S. tourists trespassing on sacred Mayan land. In Splinter, alien “splinters” parasitically invade human carriers and turn them into monsters, a cataclysmic result that underpins the possible consequences of climate change, oil extraction, and exploitation of old growth forests. But Splinter also demonstrates how a biotic community of interdependent organisms advances survival.
By interrogating irresponsible science, Severed and The Happening more explicitly broach current eco-disasters and the biotic communities that might thwart them. In Severed, genetic testing in a remote island logging camp meant to accelerate tree growth and increase timber output also proves deadly to humans when splinters from GMO trees transform humans into zombies who feed on other loggers. Although the “outbreak” seems isolated, its presence in the film serves as a warning against both genetic modification and over-logging of forests condemned in recent news articles, like those highlighting the third annual International March Against Monsanto (2015). The Happening takes this cautionary tale even further, explicitly addressing two environmental issues: the disappearance of bees and plants’ ability to attack deadly threats, including humanity. In both, success depends on community rather than selfish exploitation.
With their emphasis on evolution and natural monsters, horror film theorists Paul Wells (2000) and Noel Carroll (1990) address at least some of these environmental underpinnings. Wells takes an interdisciplinary approach to horror, asserting that, more than any other genre, horror film “has interrogated the deep-seated effects of change and responded to the newly determined grand narratives of social, scientific, and philosophical thought” (2000, pg. 1). Wells suggests the horror genre film responds to the philosophy of K. Marx as articulated in The Communist Manifesto (1848) and the theories of evolution espoused by C. Darwin in On the Origin of the Species (1859). For Wells, horror films draw on the class struggles of Marxist theory by “explor[ing] modes of social ‘revolution” in which naturalized ideas about bourgeois orthodoxy are transgressed” (2000, pg. 4), as in The Ruins and Splinter. The genre also examines the repercussions of humanity’s desire to challenge natural selection and “‘artificially’ impose itself upon the conditions of material existence, while nature slowly but surely, organically and often invisibly, changes the world” (2000, pg. 5), as in Severed. By applying class issues like those of Marx and Darwinian theories of evolution, tree horror illuminates elements of the genre espoused by Wells.
In his seminal Philosophy of Horror, N. Carroll (1990) also highlights the genre’s connection with a disrupted natural world when he declares,
“In works of horror, the humans regard the monsters they meet as abnormal, as disturbances of the natural order” (16).
For Carroll, “horror involves essential reference to an entity, a monster, which then serves as a particular object of the emotion of art-horror” (1990, pg. 41). Tree horror is rooted in such a distressed natural world. The monsters created by trees in Severed and Splinter especially illustrate Carroll’s claims.
Although useful starting points for environmental readings of tree horror films, the theories of Wells and Carroll have their limitations. A more complex ecocritical reading demonstrates two crucial points: The messages conveyed by tree horror films connect explicitly with current environmental issues. They also promote biotic community, an approach to ecology that stresses how both human and nonhuman nature flourish when they interact interdependently and cooperatively. As environmental historian Carolyn Merchant (2007) explains, such an approach to ecology highlights plant communities as living organisms that evolve through succession. A plant community is also vulnerable to disruption or death by technologies such as those that caused the Dust Bowl. To battle such disruption, the environment “strives for a nature of cooperation among individuals in animal and human communities” (Merchant, 2007, pg. 184). Ecologist Aldo Leopold applies this view to human communities in his manifesto, “The Land Ethic,” which encourages an ecologically centered view of the land as a biotic pyramid in which humans are a part. As Leopold explains,
"The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land...[and] changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it" (pg. 203).
Severed: Forest of the Dead, The Ruins, Splinter, and The Happening address Leopold’s ideal. In these plant horror films, humans survive only when they strive for cooperation with the natural world.
Tree horror driven by human exploitation
of the natural environment
Set in and around a secret Mayan temple, The Ruins primarily cautions against disturbing ancient ruins, applying a standard horror film motif. But the juxtaposition of vacationing Westerners with native Mayans protecting and, when necessary, quarantining the site introduces a potentially environmental message: colonizers who exploit the environment and its indigenous populations may face dire consequences in the eco-horror film. As an adaptation of screenwriter Scott Smith’s novel, it may also draw on contemporary environmental concerns. Entertainment Weekly’s G. Flynn asserts,
"Smith has tapped into our anxieties about global warming, lethal weather, supergerms—our collective fear that nature is finally fighting back—and given us a decidedly organic nightmare."
The Ruins also taps into some of the same fears Carter Soles (2014) broaches in his study of slasher films: “fears of environmental collapse, dwindling natural resources, and reprisals for their structural mistreatment of the working poor” (pg. 235). The focus on plant horror in The Ruins provides a way to globalize this fear.
The opening of The Ruins establishes a colonizer/colonized binary and introduces the film’s genre. Vines grow toward and grab a frantic woman as she cries beneath the ruins. A camera pan reveals the rainforest setting of the film. This greenery is broken by a poolside setting where students Jeff (Jonathan Tucker), Amy (Jena Malone), Stacy (Laura Ramsey), and Eric (Shawn Ashmore) celebrate spring break. A lost earring connects the American students with German tourist Mathias (Joe Anderson) and the ruins that open the film. Mathias invites them to join him and friend Dimitri (Dimitri Baveas) for a trek to this secret temple and, craving adventure, the four students agree. Their journey accelerates eco-conflicts that plant horror and its indigenous allies resolve.
The film first highlights how these students are colonizers unable to respond to the Mayans’ attempt to warn them about the deadly vines protecting the temple. Once the students make contact with the vines, Mayans surround them, halting their escape from the quarantined zone. The rest of the film focuses on these five students’ desperate and hopeless attempts to survive attacks from the Mayans and the sentient vines protecting the sacred ruins. Mathias is the first to go after breaking his back in the same pit where the woman in the film’s opening lost her life. Even though Jeff amputates his paralyzed legs when vines penetrate them, the monstrous plants consume Mathias. Stacy is next, when she drops into the pit and punctures her leg, which also becomes infected with vines. In agony, Stacy kills Eric and herself as if offering her body to the vines. During an escape attempt, the Mayans shoot Jeff, but Amy reaches the jeep and drives off. Her escape seems doomed, however, since a final shot shows vines moving beneath her skin. Here the film suggests a sort of “reverse colonization,” as violated nature turns the tables by infiltrating human borders and re-establishing the dominance of the vegetal. The film ends with more vacationers from the resort reaching the temple, continuing the horror.
In The Ruins the rainforest and its indigenous inhabitants thwart the American and European students seeking to exploit them. In a symbolic gesture toward retribution, the film shows us what might happen if nature fought back against human oppressors who are unwilling to join the indigenous Mayans and become part of a biotic community. Instead, they have adopted an economic approach that encourages fair use politics that call for the exploitation of resources for human gain. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP 2015) highlights a few of the ways tourists exploit the environment, including commodification of cultural traditions and economic inequality. The tourists in The Ruins first highlight economic inequality in the typical resort area. When they choose to violate Mayan traditions, however, these spring-breakers ignite environmental disaster.
In reality, rainforest depletion has risen dramatically in the last year. A Rainforest Rescue (2015) campaign to save Mexican rainforests Los Chimalapas, home of the indigenous Zoque people, declares that after “a long history of defending their forest and its biodiversity against outsiders,” the Zoque are losing ground to “loggers and cattle ranchers [who] are crowding in while politicians turn a blind eye.” This degradation affects the world’s largest rainforests in Mexico and Central and South America, a subject explored more effectively in documentaries such as Alma (2011)and Green (2012). Although some of the colonizers have changed, exploitation of indigenous people and the natural world continues. In The Ruins, plants and the people they sustain fight back.
Splinter focuses on at least one of the issues raised in The Ruins, the invasion of wild nature by outsiders. Unlike The Ruins, however, Splinter shows us what might happen if diverse groups cooperated instead of battling one another once the vines fracture the group. On the surface, however, the film highlights contemporary environmental issues: oil extraction and preservation of old growth forests. When Polly (Jill Wagner) and Seth (Paulo Costanzo) go camping to celebrate their anniversary, they disturb an Oklahoma old growth forest near a Mid-State Oil company experimental extraction field site despite a sign warning them to keep out and, perhaps, announcing the first eco-issue.
On the drive to a cheap motel after their tent collapses, Seth introduces the second environmental issue when he tells Polly the forest is nearly 400 years old. Because it “sucks for logging,” it is untouched, leaving trees like a post oak that Seth declares is at least 300 years old. The couple encounters a more immediate danger, however, when they pick up two hitchhiking fugitives, Lacy (Rachel Kerbs) and Dennis Farrell (Shea Wigham) and run over an animal infested with a splintering parasite. These deadly splinters flatten one of their tires and wound Farrell’s finger, heightening the film’s conflict and, perhaps, suggesting plant nature is fighting back through both parasitic splinters and the animal victims they produce. As Sean Cubitt asserts (2015),
“What is remarkable about eco-horror is that often it voices the agony of what has no voice: animals …, but even more so rock, earth, water and air, and suffering Gaia” (pg. 232).
Splinter gives trees and animals a voice, but the majority of the film focuses on how criminals and victims must join together to escape the tree horror these splinters represent. The opening of Splinter has already introduced the deadly road kill and the main setting of the film. In early scenes we see an infected varmint attack a bored gas station attendant (Charles Baker). Their accidental altercation with an infested beast forces the now mixed group to stop for help at the same gas station. Instead of a haven, though, the gas station reflects the insidious nature of “Big Oil” in modern industrialized societies and transforms into the site of their battle against the splintering fungus-like parasite. Lacy is the first victim when the attendant kills her, infecting her body with the parasite. Now only Farrell and the anniversary couple remain. To survive, they must work together, forming a symbolic biotic community that parallels the successful old-growth forest surrounding them.
Although Splinter primarily draws on the clichés of the creature feature, it also highlights the need for this biotic community, at least among disparate humans. When they work together, fugitive Farrell, “firecracker” Polly, and biology Ph.D. student Seth provide skills that ensure that at least two of them will survive. Seth’s responses to Lacy’s severed, mutated hand reveal his strengths. Seeing the animated hand transforms Seth into a “mad scientist” intrigued by the monster. He watches it follow him and explains, “it’s metabolizing.” “It’s feeding.” It’s “digesting blood.” It’s “absorbing the nutrients on a cellular level.” He’s intrigued because he has “never seen anything like it.” Later he explains that the splinters are parasites that consume like a fungus or a mold.
Polly and Farrell reveal their strengths after they retreat to a back room and face a locked back door. Because the now dead attendant has the keys, Farrell advises Polly to remove door hinges with a screwdriver. Together they plan to burn the parasites and attract a fire department to the scene. Farrell goes for motor oil, but Polly leads him to the lighter fluid. When this effort fails, and the parasites get in, Farrell again saves Seth and Polly, leading them into the shop’s refrigerated area.
Seth draws on science once more when he lowers his body temperature to throw off the splinters. But it is Farrell and Polly’s more practical approach that saves them. Polly distracts the parasites with flares, shoots the splintered Lacy, and lures it into the flames. Farrell sacrifices himself for the innocent couple, blowing up the gas station and destroying the remaining splinters. Seth and Polly escape down a deserted road. But the last shots show old-growth trees covered with oozing splinters. The film leaves us with a couple of messages: if criminals and innocents work together, they are more likely to succeed, paralleling a biotic community in the natural world, and if humanity leaves an old-growth forest alone—and perhaps stops extracting oil—splintered plants grow dormant, no longer monsters but trees.
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.
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