Earth Day Eco-Horror
As a child, my mother would regularly take me to a Nature Center/City Park in in Lincoln, Nebraska. Usually after a long day of shopping, as long as I was good. While there were swing sets and slides to play on, this wasn't just any park. It was also home to a herd of bison, a pair of elk, and numerous species of rescued birds, turtles, and snakes. Some of my most fond memories are sitting with mom at the top of the hill overlooking the bison paddock, eating ice cream that we got from the little roadside shop. With its acres of virgin and restored prairie, Pioneers Park truly is a refuge for nature in an otherwise wholly agricultural landscape.
These memories and experiences would be so powerful, that it would lead me to my first long-term career.
During college at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, I needed a summer job. I was tickled pink when I stumbled across a call for Camp Counselors for youth Summer Camp sponsored by Pioneers Park. When not a counselor, I was employed by the Land Management team as well. My time spent as a "Land Manager" remains one of the most influential eras of my life. While I already had a love of science and nature, working alongside the native flora and fauna at the park gave me a much more intimate relationship with world around me. Something that still colors my thoughts, actions, and even writing.
Today is Earth Day, a holiday that originated in 1970 as a way to bring attention to Environmental Protection. Sitting here at my computer, I don't feel like it has been much of a success. To tell you the truth, for me anyway, its almost a day of mourning. There is little that terrifies me more than the prospect of an ecologically devastated Earth. Between rising ocean temperatures, coral bleaching, pollution, drought, and humanity's apparent disinterest, it's hard for me to see any kind of turn around.
Ironically, one of my favorite sub-genres of horror is "Natural Horror", also called "Eco-Horror", where the scary stuff is derived from a natural source as opposed to man-made or supernatural. A lot of the time, these stories take place in exotic locales and bare some element of the Adventure genre I love. So as not to dwell on the current state of affairs, here are some of my favorite examples.
THE BIRDS by Daphne du Maurier
While Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 film is more widely recognized, the 1952 novelette is worthy of much more attention than it gets. While the film has obvious and lasting pop culture appeal, the short story is both deeper and more claustrophobic. Set entirely within the confines of a cabin on the coast (of Scotland, if memory serves) where an avid birdwatcher begins noticing changes in the behavior of his favorite birds. I won't spoil anything more since my guy says this piece is rather obscure now, but I highly suggest you give it a read. While likely intended as a metaphor for the London Bombings, it's also meant to symbolize man's helplessness in the face of natural disaster. Perhaps today, we can extend that to ecological disaster, as well.
THE RUINS by Scott Smith
The story of young people vacationing in Mexico that end up in a place they are not welcome. This sounds like the premise of so many cheesy horror films, but this book is so much more. While I imagine that Smith conceived the plot as sort of an homage to the ensemble casts of young attractive people that populate countless films, The Ruins takes itself deadly serious. The violence within these pages is unparalleled in twisted brutality. It is also notably dark with little humor or hope. This is a standout as it is one of the few quality examples that feature Carnivorous Plants, a favorite topic of mine.
JAWS by Peter Benchley
Again, we have a novel outshined by its seminal film counterpart. While the movie version is extremely faithful to Benchley's plot, the novel has a few notable differences. Something I think is an interesting note is that Benchley chose to focus almost entirely on Blue Collar men and women, showing a clear division, even contempt, between them and the White Collar vacationers. These feelings of animosity come to head with the conflict between the main character, who wants to warn the people, and the mayor, who wants to keep it under wraps so as not to scare away the big spenders. Jaws, both the book and film, have been shown as a major influence on how the public perceives sharks. Later in life, Benchley would come to regret the hand he played in this. He would go on to dedicate his time and energy in helping educate people on sharks and ocean conservation.
I don't like spiders. I completely recognize the role they play in our complex ecosystem, but that doesn't mean they aren't creepy as hell. In fact, they are so creepy, I have gone 34 years without recognizing that this arachnid infested film is actually a Dark Comedy. A house infested with spiders is something most people can relate to. Here in New Mexico, when the weather changes from Winter to Spring or from Fall to Winter, the insects and their ilk begin to move, usually through houses. I know they are simply searching for more habitable locations, but that doesn't mean they are exactly welcome. This film has numerous iconic scenes and standout performances, but John Goodman as the exterminator takes the cake. A notable detail is that the strange spiders that start this gross ball rolling are removed from their home atop a remote mountain in Venezuela. These spiders are prehistoric in origin and operate more like an ant-hive than solitary hunters. While fictional, this is a good example of the impact that invasive species, flora and fauna from one ecosystem brought to another, can have.
THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS (film)
This film, starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglass, is based of the true story of the "Tsavo Man-Eaters" a pair of male lions that harassed and killed numerous members of a railroad crew in 1898. There are many theories as to why these lions stalked and killed humans, ranging from a viral outbreak to tooth injuries. Both lions were eventually killed and are now on display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois. John Henry Patterson, one of the men responsible for slaying the beasts, wrote a semi-autobiographical novel about his experience aptly titled The Man-Eaters of Tsavo. Published in 1907, the book is a difficult read, but interesting for those interested in African Colonial history. In my mind, this tale serves as a warning that there can be deadly consequences when man encroaches on the territory of wild animals.
GOZILLA (1954 film)
SHIN GODZILLA (film)
AMAZONIA by James Rollins
ZOO by James Patterson
Ultimately, the natural world is a scary place. There is no end of biological inspiration for terrifying adventures, and I'd like it to remain that way. Despite the scariness of it all, Nature is also full of beauty and wonder. The same wonder that filled me all those years ago, sitting with my mom. Maybe I'm over reacting, maybe I'm blowing this all out of proportion, but it hurts me to think younger generations might lose out on this. Zoos and aquariums are fine, but are merely substitutes that pale in comparison to the natural world. I'll admit that I am not an activist, fighting on the front lines. I also admit that environmental protection is a complex issue that effects people all over the world differently. That said, I strive to do what I can, whenever I can, no matter how small, to try and make the world a better place. And in the end, if I'm wrong and Climate Change isn't real, it won't matter. For me, the natural world is something worth fighting for.