Eleven Ecohorror Films to Creep You Out
Horror is hard to define but easy to recognize. It’s marked by the killer in the shadows, the disintegration of sanity, the monstrous. It shows us what we’re afraid of and gives us a space to play with that fear, to inoculate ourselves against it, or to come to terms with it.
If horror is a genre concerned primarily with fear, ecohorror is most simply concerned with fears related to nature. As Stephen A. Rust and Carter Soles note, “Scholarship to this point has demonstrated that ecohorror motifs are most often found in “revenge of nature” narratives like Steven Spielberg’s iconic film Jaws (1975) but may also occur in less overtly ecocritical works.” However, as Rust and Soles go on to argue, this is only one element of a much broader genre.
As Halloween approaches, I find myself drawn to the creature feature as a fun and productive space to explore cultural attitudes toward the natural world. Creature features are horror films that focus centrally on a creature: an animal, a scientifically-engineered monster, a mutated hybrid, or even an alien. They often express existing anxieties about our relationships with the nonhuman others with whom we share the world; the films’ emphasis on our fear can reinforce cultural desires to distance the human from the nonhuman.
Creature features explore cultural attitudes toward the natural world.
However, these films’ focus on creatures also allows room for pleasure. This pleasurable response may manifest as awe at animals that overcome our senses, fascination with fantastic monsters and extinct beasts, or even simple appreciation of the special effects that go into representing the creatures. And, whatever form it takes, this pleasure can also help create sympathy for and connection to the nonhuman world.
Given this complexity, and building on the work of Rust and Soles, I see ecohorror as summed up in three fears: fear of nature, fear for nature, and fear of blurred boundaries between ourselves and nonhuman nature. The following films illustrate these patterns within the genre—plus, they’re all fun film experiences.
Fear of Nature
1. The Birds (1963; dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
In this classic film, birds begin attacking humans for no identifiable reason. Their omnipresence in the background, followed by their direct attacks and their silent, staring presence at the end of the film, points to the way the natural world is something we take for granted—but perhaps we shouldn’t. The film is a wonderfully unsettling representation of humans’ fear of nature as something that exceeds both our control and our understanding.
2. Jaws (1975; dir. Steven Spielberg)
This thriller about a giant shark terrorizing a beach community (again, for no clear reason) changed the game for animal horror. Other movies borrow from it in many ways, from the plot and thematic elements (see Tentacles [1977, dir. Ovidio G. Assonitis]) to the central idea of the shark—specifically the great white shark—as killing machine. Countless shark attack movies have been made since the release of Jaws, including three sequels as well as shark-related films such as 47 Meters Down (2017; dir. Johannes Roberts), Sharknado 5: Global Swarming (2017; dir. Anthony C. Ferrante), and The Meg (2018; dir. Jon Turteltaub), all released within approximately the last year. The shark makes a perfect creature feature villain, after all. It is big and bitey, it lives in a world alien to us (the ocean), and it is not a mammal. It is not something we can identify with, and it therefore seems cold, unfeeling, and threatening.
3. Jurassic Park (1993; dir. Steven Spielberg)
Spielberg returns with still more fear of the natural world. This time, though, the fear is not simply of the animal but of human intervention in the natural world. What happens when humans interfere with “natural” processes? Or when we create monsters? Jurassic Park identifies a fear of nature as it exceeds our control as well as a fear of our own attempted mastery of the natural world.
Fear for Nature
4. Jurassic World (2015; dir. Colin Trevorrow) and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018; dir. J. A. Bayona)
These films extend the concerns of Jurassic Park but introduce much more sympathy for the dinosaurs. Chris Pratt’s Owen is a dinosaur whisperer whose work training the raptors takes them seriously as dangerous predators but also opens up the possibility of developing a relationship with them. Here, dinosaurs are no longer monsters; they are animals, and monstrosity is more strongly associated with hybrid creations instead, the result of a combination of “mad science” and capitalist meddling in science. This shift is extended still further in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, in which one of the most dramatic and moving scenes features the tragic deaths of many dinosaurs. These films represent fears for nature much more powerfully than fears of nature and reveal nonhuman nature to be the victim of humans’ actions rather than an enemy to be conquered or a monster to be feared.
5. Godzilla (1954; dir. Ishirō Honda)
Another classic film, the original Godzilla (the Japanese version, not the U.S. one starring Raymond Burr) explores the social and environmental consequences of nuclear testing. Like Jurassic Park, it reflects a combination of our fears of nature (Godzilla is a prehistoric monster emerging from the ocean to destroy a city) and our fears for nature (Godzilla is as much a victim of atomic testing as the Japanese citizens, after all). Many sequels reinforce this sympathy further as Godzilla goes on to become the Protector of Earth.
6. The Host (2006; dir. Bong Joon-ho)
This South Korean film echoes Godzilla in many ways. Its monster is the result of human action and real-world environmental fears, in this case the pollution of the Han River. Although the monster is ultimately defeated, it is also presented sympathetically at times. Here, it’s not that the natural world itself is a danger; instead, our own actions are the fundamental threat. As in many of Bong Joon-ho’s films, the film is visually compelling and also incorporates humor and sincere family relationships.
7. Frogs (1972; dir. George McCowan)
Whereas the previous films are all high-quality films, here my list takes a turn toward low-budget horror. As a result of the limited audience that such films receive, Frogs is, as Jeva Lange has recently argued, “the greatest horror movie you’ve never seen” and “the horror movie you didn’t know you needed.” Its premise is that a wealthy family has been polluting the area in which they live, and the animals attack, led (apparently) by the frogs. The frogs mostly just sit still while the camera lingers on them—perhaps with the intent of making them seem sinister—but lizards, turtles, spiders, etc., do attack and kill most of the human characters. The film is worth watching for its complete embrace of our human end, as well as for a young Sam Elliott, starring as a visitor who cares about the environment. This movie dwells once again on a fear of nature, but it also insists that we deserve what we get. This turn toward blaming the human reflects the growing environmental consciousness of the time—the movie’s release comes just after the creation of the EPA.
8. Night of the Lepus (1972; dir. William F. Claxton)
This is a classic of the low-budget, schlocky creature feature genre. Its creature, however, is not the great white shark of Jaws or even the reptiles and amphibians of Frogs. Night of the Lepus is about giant bunnies. The rabbits overrun a Western U.S. town and then, after a child releases a lab rabbit, they begin to mutate, growing gigantic and attacking people. This film, also released in 1972, reflects the environmental concerns of the time in yet another way. Instead of a focus on pollution, it emphasizes the “balance of nature” concept, which is re-established at the end, when the rabbits are destroyed. This film also provides a strong sense of sympathy for the creatures. Regardless of the film’s emphasis on the bunnies’ dangers and the imbalance of the ecosystem, the scene in which bunnies are electrocuted and their bodies lie smoking in a heap provokes feelings of sadness rather than relief.
Fear of Confusion: Blurring the Line between Human and Nonhuman
9. Blood Glacier (2013; dir. Marvin Kren)
Another film that has not received much attention, Blood Glacier, an Austrian film set in the Alps, takes on a more contemporary concern. One of the glaciers in the Alps is melting and releasing a red liquid that causes animals (including humans) that come in contact with it to mutate; this reflects recent anxieties about bacteria and viruses being released from melting glaciers, highlighting our fear of nature as well as our fear for nature, inasmuch as this is a result of climate change. The film’s emphasis on biological mutation also points to the third fear I’ve identified within ecohorror: the fear that comes with blurring the lines between human and nonhuman.
10. The Thing (1982; dir. John Carpenter)
A remake of the 1951 The Thing from Another World (dir. Christan Nyby), which is itself an adaptation of John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? (1938), The Thing tells the story of an Antarctic research station that is infiltrated by a shape-shifting alien. This alien never takes a clear form itself, instead taking on the forms of the other characters. This feature makes it an unusual creature and reorients the film’s anxiety away from another animal or an element of the natural world and toward other people: are you a Thing or are you human? As one character says, “So, how do we know who’s human? If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know if it was really me?” This fear about blurring the lines between human and Other reflects a larger human fear of losing our humanity, especially a humanity that is clearly defined as distinct from other life forms. It is also a significant influence on later films that address this category confusion (such as Blood Glacier and The Fly).
11. The Fly (1986; dir. David Cronenberg)
The final entry on my list is typically thought of in the context of body horror rather than ecohorror. It too reiterates the fear of blurring the boundaries between human and nonhuman, though, and highlights the connections between ecohorror and body horror, two subgenres that are more linked than is often acknowledged. Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) and his transition to Brundlefly over the course of the movie dramatizes our fear of losing our humanity, our fear of animality, our fear of mutation, and our fear of science gone awry all at once.
Featured Image: Artistic rendering of horror icon Godzilla. Image by Alex Cherry.
Christy Tidwell is an associate professor of English & Humanities at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. Her teaching and research frequently deal with speculative fiction and the environment. She is co-editor of Gender and Environment in Science Fiction (forthcoming from Lexington Books) and is also currently co-editing a book on ecohorror. Website. Twitter. Contact.