The eco-horror genre of films may now have a proper name, but it’s been around for a long time. Movie goers have been flocking to theaters to see the explosive battle between man and nature since before Godzilla decided to terrorize Tokyo. While the plots of some films in this subset may seem too far-fetched to ever come to fruition, there is more truth behind eco-horror movies than most realize.
A classic theme seen in environmental disaster films is toxic and nuclear waste, more specifically, how that waste can cause crazy chaos and threaten humanity itself. Godzilla (1954) and Them! (1954) show animals taking revenge on the people responsible for their mutations, while C.H.U.D. (1984) pits humans against underground cannibals who have been changed due to toxic dumping. Will we ever have to worry about huge lizards and bugs going on a rampage, or mutant humans eating each other? Not exactly, but there’s no doubt that nuclear and toxic waste destroy nature and also physically, psychologically, and mentally alter humans. Does anyone remember Chernobyl or Fukushima?
Another fan-favorite, but seemingly unlikely, scenario that often plays out in eco-horror movies is the worldwide spread of a terrifying disease or virus. Let’s get it out of the way now: there probably won’t be a World War Z (2013) style zombie apocalypse. But deadly epidemics are a real thing, and outbreaks have become more common as the Earth’s population has risen. Even worse is the threat of biological warfare and a devastating virus or disease purposely being unleashed. So while the zombies may not be coming, a pandemic that nearly crushes humanity a la 28 Days Later (2002) or I Am Legend (2007) could very well happen. Let’s just hope that there will be an immune, super-clever virologist around to save the day, just as Will Smith did in the latter.
This genre doesn’t limit itself to disasters here on Earth. Eco-horror plots featuring a meteorological apocalypse or huge astrophysical event typically have at least a few other planets and celestial objects involved, but the premise is still the same: unless some miracle happens, Earth and everything on it is screwed due to a huge storm or impact event. Sound science often takes a backseat – or gets completely tossed out the window – in these films, but there’s still nuggets of truth behind the drama.
Take the factor that set off the world-ending chain of events in 2012 (2009): neutrinos. We’re bathed in trillions of neutrinos on this planet and they don’t affect the Earth’s core, so the movie is wrong in that respect. However, solar flares are a threat, and it is true that geopolitical corruption has stunted progress in astrophysical and meteorological research, which is a terrible shame. Into the Storm (2014) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004) have more plausible plots, as we can already see in real life how global warming caused by humans has affected weather patterns and temperatures worldwide. In fact, according to Direct Energy, human activity in the United States alone is the cause of about 31 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The theme of pollution in eco-horror films is another that often has shaky science and fantasy elements, but a sound message nonetheless. Take the people-turned-mutants due to toxic water from The Bay (2012), the virus-fueled murderers from The Crazies (2010), and fossil fuel ghosts from The Last Winter (2006) out of the equation, and you get some startling similarities to real life. Political inefficacy, corruption, and malfeasance prevent environmental protection and put communities at risk everyday, even in this country. Governments around the world really do hold biological weapons, and, as analysis from the Union of Concerned Scientists has shown, people actually are causing global warming due to over-reliance on fossil fuels and deforestation. The plots of these pollution disaster films aren’t completely absurd.
Whether an eco-horror film shows a politician who chooses to ignore a pending environmental disaster, or a towering mutant crushing a city, we need to think about the real world connections behind it all. Those truths are what we need to not only think about after the credits roll, but actually work to prevent. If we take away anything from eco-horror movies of the past and present, it should be this: if we keep on destroying the planet, nature will return the favor to us humans ten-fold. Using these films to educate, rather than simply entertain, could help us avoid a real-life eco-apocalypse in the near future.