Regardless of the ghouls, witches, and worried ghost of Rush Limbaugh analyzing the next few semesters, the scariest aspect of this Halloween might be the looming specter of climate catastrophe. Like a vampire stalking its victim, the floods and fires of climate change spring up when you least expect it, like in a movie theater.
Once the scope of disaster movies like Deep Impact, 2012 or the seemingly countless volcano-themed movies, the weather has moved on to a scarier category, what you might call eco-horror.
In a strange twist of fate, this fall’s Fantastic Fest, America’s largest genre film festival, taking place in Austin, happened in late September as Hurricane Ian headed for the coast of Florida. Ian’s path of destruction left an estimated 112 dead and over $75 billion in damage in Florida alone.
At this film festival, I watched several disturbing films that had nothing to do with lingering voodoo curses, French werewolves or rampaging demons in a funeral home, but with the looming threat of climate change and of environmental destruction.
Watching these films was even more unsettling because the event was distributing drinking water in the most environmentally friendly way possible: in these tiny, toddler-sized plastic bottles. It was disturbing because the festival was taking place at the Alamo Drafthouse, which has a restaurant kitchen and probably enough mugs for everyone.
The filmmakers know that the disturbing stories that really touch us as a culture are the ones that tap deep into our real fears. In classics like Nightmare on Elm Street, terror comes from within our dreams. At a time psychology and the brilliant, terror is associated with a hotel, a building generally considered a place of safety and refuge. Perhaps the cult popularity of The thing not just because it’s a masterpiece of narrative tension, but because it explores the terror of being stalked by the unknown and not knowing exactly who or how to fight back.
Andrew Scahill, assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Colorado at Denver, holds a Ph.D. from the Department of Broadcast-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin and is the author of The rebellious child in horror cinema: rebellion of young people and queer spectators. He described horror films as “allegories of reality”.
So this new wave of very disturbing environmental films is disturbing as the veil is very thin between the frightening world they present and the world in which we currently live.
Fantastic Fest showed the beautifully shot Lithuanian sci-fi film Vespers, where we see ragtag bands of humans trying to survive after both ecological collapse and post-collapse agribusiness seed engineering to produce just one crop. The film agribusiness oligarchs live in big, shiny cities called “The Citadels” while the stragglers of humanity live in seedy hovels and scrounge around the mud for anything edible. Vesper is a clever young DIY geneticist desperately trying to bio-hack seeds so people won’t go hungry.
Vesper’s world is even more disturbing when you consider how closely it mirrors the real world: a widening wealth gap and the fact that basic food production is increasingly concentrated in fewer companies. .
“US agriculture suffers from abnormally high levels of concentration, meaning a handful of corporations control nearly all of our food production, processing and distribution,” Farm Aid’s website notes.
Although our current reality is not the same as in the film, some agribusinesses are already using “tech contracts” that prohibit farmers from saving seeds to use year after year. Enough to make you want to store heirloom seeds from your great-uncle’s garden.
Another engaging festival flick with the painfully looming “big bad” is The visitor from the future, which features a young character named Alice who protests against environmental dangers while her father is a nuclear power plant designer. Soon, a man from the devastated future returns to save humanity from a horrific accident at Dad’s poorly constructed nuclear power plant.
Given that the fighting in Ukraine continues to be close enough to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant to threaten either the structural integrity of the reactor or the water supply needed to keep it cool, this sci-fi movie is horribly close to home. Zaporizhzhia is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. If you’ve seen Soviet-era building methods up close, you’re worried too. (Living in Tallinn, Estonia in the 90s, a piece of concrete from my building fell onto the sidewalk just a few feet away from me. No one else on the street even bothered to stop This was not unusual.)
The festival also showed the Spanish horror film, Old people, where tension is heightened by a growing heat wave in Madrid. The filmmakers said the film’s climatic setting was inspired by several heat waves in Spain, including one last summer. Ever since I encountered this summer’s Spanish heat wave in a Barcelona Airbnb with a broken mini-split air conditioner that required constant restarting, I understood the threat of an impending heat wave in a place without central air conditioning.
Breathable and temperate air is an important factor for human health and happiness. Last week I hosted a coughing visitor as he fled the abysmal air quality in the Pacific Northwest caused by the Bolt Creek Fire, a disaster some blamed on the unusual drought of the region due to global warming. Ongoing wildfires mean some of the world’s worst air pollution in the past week has occurred in Vancouver, Seattle and Portland.
My visitor from Seattle was not a visitor from the future, but sadly, he may be a harbinger of our collective future, where the needless destruction of a habitable planet will take our breath away.
Upon closer examination, perhaps these new eco-horror films have some historical precedence in Hollywood? In the 1990 sci-fi movie and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s muscle display vehicle full recall, breathable air is a commodity to be bought and sold, something Ahhhhhhhhh-nold is rightly obsessed with fixing in this movie.
I asked Scahill why you find the kind of disaster films based on volcanoes or tornadoes, like the hits of the 90s Dante’s Peak Where Tornado so captivating.
“We lived under this fantasy that we can control nature. It’s the idea that the world is revolting,” he said. In that way, this new genre may be more like a monster movie than anything else, a movie in which pollution has awakened a sleeping giant called Earth who is angry at what has been done to him – the monster of Frankenstein for the eco-conscious.
Floods and fires may not have the same menacing aura as Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger, but filmmakers and audiences find them just as frightening, in part because we seem to be experiencing the scenes in real life.
Anna Hanks is a writer in Austin. She wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.
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