Monstrous trees and ecology: targeting human threats in the horror film

by Robin Murray and Joseph K. Heumann

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.

Monstrous humans destroy the rainforest in Ferngully. Princess Mononoke protects the forest with help from its spirits.

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.

In Severed: Forest of the Dead trees transform humans into monsters. In The Ruins, vines fight back against human oppressors.
Splinter demonstrates how a communal approach may advance survival. The Happening showcases family melodrama as alternative to selfish exploitation of the natural world.

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.

Environmental historian Carolyn Merchant highlights ecological approaches that stress cooperation among individuals in animal and human communities. Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic encourages a view of ecology and community that includes “soil, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”

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.

Only the Mayan leader’s gun convinces the students they must climb the temple once they violate its vines. Vines infest Mathias’s legs after he falls into the temple’s pit.
Jeff amputates Mathias’s legs to halt the vines invasion. Stacy and Amy enter the vine-infested pit.
Stacy and Amy hear the vines mimicking their cellphone ring tones in the pit. Infected by the vines, Stacy tries to cut them out, wounding and ultimately killing herself in the process.

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 natre 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.

Seth, Polly and Farrell battle the splinter-infested monsters. Genetically modified trees ooze deadly sap.