I enjoy and benefit from non-fiction works on the horror genre; whether on film or in print. Every so often, I have subjected my readers to the “pleasures” of discussion on these commentaries.
Works of this kind– academic examinations of the horror genre – interest me greatly. I intend to create more posts concerning such in the near future. I believe that today’s post is the first I have done on a scholarly text. This work builds upon my most recent post.
In an insightful and moving essay that describes her near-fatal attack by a saltwater crocodile, Val Plumwood (1999) explores what it means to realize, as she puts it, “that I was prey,” uttering a visceral protest of this fact: “This can’t be happening to me. I’m a human being, not meat” (p. 78, p. 88). When Plumwood was attacked, her sense of the world changed, her sense of self becoming brutally wrenched from the familiar: “I glimpsed the world for the first time ‘from the outside,’ as a world no longer my own, an unrecognizably bleak landscape composed of raw necessity, that would go on without me, indifferent to my will and struggle, to my life or death” (p. 79). That humans are meat, part of a landscape that is not “ethical,” as Plumwood puts it, but “ecological” (p. 89), is most starkly visible in accounts (like hers) of human encounters with large animal predators. Plants, though, can also usher in the same terrifying realization. They don’t inhabit but are the “unrecognizably bleak landscape,” even more alien and inimical, even more thoroughly indifferent, than the animal predator. In some horror fiction, plants do become carnivorous predators, most famously John Wyndham’s triffids, but also, for example, the vines in Scott Smith’s The Ruins (2006). These man-eating plants only hyperbolize a mundane fact about our relationship with plants, however: in the end, we become their nourishment. Each of us is, finally, what Plumwood (2012) calls a “food-providing self as material body” (p. 11). And each of us becomes the landscape from which we spend our lives trying to distinguish ourselves.
The above quotation is a little longer than I usually offer up, but it captures the complexity of striving to fathom just what constitutes plant horror.
Plant Horror: Approaches to the Monstrous Vegetal in Fiction and Film is a collection of 14 academic essays. Twelve from scholars and one each from Dawn Keetley and Angela Tenga, the editors. This text was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2017.
Palgrave Macmillan, founded in 1843, is an academic book publisher focusing on humanities and social sciences. Palgrave has offices in London, New York, and Shanghai.
Dawn Keetley is Professor of English at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She teaches classes in horror/gothic literature, film, and television. Keetley was born in Nottingham, England and earned her Ph.D. in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1994. She also writes regularly for a horror website that she co-runs with Elizabeth Erwin and Gwen Hofmann at www.horrorhomeroom.com.
Angela Tenga is an Assistant Professor at Florida Tech, where she teaches classes in literature, popular culture, and history.
This collection is fourteen articles that all relate to plant horror. What follows are very brief comments covering each of the fourteen articles and the ideas put forward therein.
The opening article, authored by book editor Dawn Keetley, served as an introduction to the entire work by presenting six theses. Simply put, these six theses revolve around several themes that reappear over and over in the many articles to follow:
a) plants represent the “other”
b) humans tend to view plant life as just part of the environment; as background to existence
c) uncontrolled plant growth (i.e. wilderness) is seen as the antithesis of civilization
The next article highlights two major points. First, that the invasive nature of plants and wilderness are the opposite of civilization. And second, that a major motif of plant horror is the grasping tendril, coming to represent the invasive and destructive aspect of vegetal forces.
In this article from the second editor Angela Tenga, the abundance and fertility of nature is associated with the idea of sacrifice. This reflects the tension between early Christianity and holdover pagan beliefs throughout the medieval period. In addition, the article presented examples from literature and film in which an inversion of a traditional power dynamic took place. Previously, it was man that controlled plants, now it is plants that control man.
This article explores the power of the vegetal in the Harry Potter saga. At the same time, it reveals key factors underpinning the reality of plant horror—including animancy which is defined as “the state of being alive and animate.” Harry and friends are introduced to a mandrake root; a magical vegetable that bears a striking resemblance to a human being—even with arms and legs!
According to early western philosophers, a defining characteristic of animals vs plants is the ability to move about independent of environment. Animals can move at will while plants are “rooted” in place. In the Harry Potter story, the basilisk turns people into stone or paralyzes them, ending their animancy, and therefore reducing those individuals to the level of plants. The mandrake root is the antidote to the petrified. So, the plant that looks human restores animancy to the people petrified, or “rooted.”
There is a perception that nature is a vengeful force against wrongs man has committed against it. This perception is common in regard to the Amazon and particularly in how it applies to rubber plants. The Amazon turns into a “green hell” for humans as payback for all that we have done to it.
Throughout The Day of the Triffids, triffids challenge the belief that defines vegetal life as without locomotion or perception (page 113). Worse than having the ability to move about, triffids show the ability to learn, bringing them even closer to the definition of animals. People struggle to incorporate the triffids into their world view.
In contrast is The Death of Grass by Tom Christopher. A virus from China, targets all grasses but not animal life. Because grass forms the background of our civilization and is almost invisible to humanity, it is ironically the foundation upon which everything is built. Very quickly, the virus leads to global starvation and highlights humanity’s dependence on vegetation. The death of grass equals the end of mankind.
Continuing with the reasoning of Article #6, this article challenges the idea that plant life exists for the manipulation, control and benefit of the human world (p131) by looking at two works of sci-fi / horror; one each from 1947 and 1965.
The first, by Ward Moore, is 1947’s Greener Than You Think. Attempting to control plant life and make plants more useful to humans, a fertilizer is created that causes simple grass to grow at undreamed of rates. Until, at the end, grass covers the entirety of the Earth. Man’s cities are overwhelmed. The last non-grass life is wiped out—consumed; the ultimate expression of the meek really inheriting the Earth.
In 1965, Thomas Disch published The Genocide. The tale opens in 1979, seven years after an alien invasion and colonization of Earth. These aliens farm colossal tree-like beings that consume water and take up huge tracts of land. The few surviving humans are viewed and treated as nothing more than garden pests.
Both works treat humanity as an inconvenience and overturn humanity’s dominant place on Earth.
From the printed word the media format now shifts to film, specifically 1950s sci-fi films. These movies strengthened the idea of “the horror of the other” or, put a different way, us versus them. Three of the many movies mentioned in the article are most illustrative of this idea: The Thing from Another World (1951), The Navy vs the Night Monsters (1966), and Matango (1963).
The 1951 movie, The Thing from Another World, exemplifies “the other” fantastically. In contrast to the work on which the movie is based; John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? (1938), The Thing from Another World makes the creature into an alien plant intelligence. The novella treats the alien as truly alien—in no way connected to vegetal life on Earth. In the movie, the vegetal forces are used to reinforce fear of communism - (invading) alien lifestyle trying to take over.
The Navy vs the Night Monsters from 1966 is based upon the 1959 novel by Murray Leinster, The Monster from Earth’s End. The movie and the book share strong plot elements with the movie The Thing; with even a serious vegetal foe. Though, in the case of The Navy vs the Night Monsters, the vegetal enemy is an ancient plant indigenous to prehistoric Earth rather than an alien invader.
From Japan comes a 1963 movie, Matango. A ship-wrecked crew eats local mushrooms. Very soon they are turned into a kind of mushroom people. As such, their ability to move on their own becomes gradually reduced until they are finally rooted in place. Matango was based loosely upon an earlier story from 1907; “The Voice in the Night” by William Hope Hodgson.
This article views vegetal horror through the lens of the philosophy of Sartre. To be honest, I did not see the connection, or indeed the relevance, to the furtherance of an understanding of horror fiction. The only justification for this, I can even think of is that “…all horror stories can certainly be read as a discourse on existential anxiety” (page 169 bottom). Hence, Sartre.
The central role of The Day of the Triffids, in the plant horror sub-genre, is explored. Indeed, the article states that “The Day of the Triffids is a canonical text of plant horror…” (page 180). Harkening back to my comments on the first three or four articles of this book, the author here emphasizes that the fact that triffids can communicate with each other, i.e. talk, is the triffids most human-like trait. And thus, it is the most horrifying thing about them.
Like the earlier article on Sartre, I struggled with this one. This article featured a DC Comics character, Swamp Thing, in its various comic-book incarnations. In particular, the storyline created by Alan Moore and Steve Bissete from 1984.
The creators envisioned Swamp Thing as an evolution of life; first as a man, then becoming a monster (human-vegetal hybrid). Then, the plant-part, the non-human part becomes ascendant. Finally, a new fourth form was reached . . . a thing! But that is not what gave me difficulty. Moore and Bissete’s Swamp Thing comic explored a theme rarely encountered in vegetal horror—the particulars of a human/Swamp Thing sexual relationship.
This article delves into a new, related sub-genre titled “ecoGothic,” an offshoot of ecohorror. To begin with, there is the traditional understanding that the natural world is passive. However, when this understanding is inverted, when the natural world becomes active, horror is revealed. Ecohorror is understood to be that unless humanity becomes more environmentally aware, nature will turn on humanity. Thus, ecoGothic tales are defined as “. . . Gothic stories in which the natural environment, or the elements within it, are eerily ambient and arouse our anxieties.” (p218-top)
Interestingly in 2008, two movies were released with significant vegetal horror elements—The Ruins & The Happening. Both were “okay” movies with “barely” passable box office. These two films highlight the “plant is creature” vs “plant is environment/setting” dichotomy.
Regarding The Ruins (one of my favorites – both book and film), the article itself provides a superb commentary on the movie. The Ruins presents a more traditional interpretation of vegetal horror possessing several common plant horror tropes:
•True horror comes from the realization that the plants communicate and are intelligent enough to lure and entrap prey, i.e. humans.•The fact that the plants eat meat, i.e. again human, inverts the understanding of the natural world.
•While these plants are still “rooted” in place, their tendrils reach out far and fast to secure prey.
The Happening, by contrast, is a different kind of creature altogether. Shared between these two movies is the sense of dread/horror coming with the understanding that the vegetal world is communicating . . . and communicating to work against humanity.
Unique to The Happening, however, was the idea that it was not only a plant monster tormenting mankind. Rather, it was the entire vegetal ecosystem turning against man. Nature as a whole was the antagonist; the environment itself became threatening toward humanity. And, it was this knowledge that created the horror of the plot, not death and destruction. It was the realization the natural world, indeed the Earth itself, was turning against man.
In this final article, the importance of The Day of the Triffids is again revisited as an ideal example of plant horror. This piece also explores the idea of the “carnivalistic life” and how it pertains to horror fiction. This implies that the established truth of the world had turned upside down. In Triffids, the “blinding of most of the human population of the earth has changed the rules of the game, and the old orders have broken down.” (page 245 bottom). The horror of the tale comes from the swapping of mankind’s and triffids’ place in the natural order (page 251). It was not the end of the world. But it was the end of man’s world.
Plant Horror: Approaches to the Monstrous Vegetal in Fiction and Film is an excellent introduction to a “new” sub-genre of horror fiction. Through the very brief summaries of each of the articles seen above, several themes emerged as common throughout the collection. One of my goals in this commentary on Plant Horror: Approaches to the Monstrous Vegetal in Fiction and Film was to use it as a guide in aiding my (and, hopefully, your) understanding of future works in the plant horror sub-genre. Specifically, how these themes would affect consideration of future texts. And, more examples of plant horror are coming in future posts.
Keetley, Dawn & Tenga, Angela (editors). Plant Horror: Approaches to the Monstrous Vegetal in Fiction and Film. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.
Meeker, Natania and Antónia Szabari. "From the Century of the Pods to the Century of the Plants: Plant Horror, Politics, and Vegetal Ontology." Discourse, vol. 34 no. 1, 2012, p. 32-58. Project MUSE https://muse.jhu.edu/article/503905.
~. “About: Dawn Keetley.” Horror Homeroom. Web. 28 April 2020. http://www.horrorhomeroom.com/about/
Keetley, Dawn. “Home.” Dawn Keetley. Wordpress.com. Web. 19 May 2020. https://wordpress.lehigh.edu/DawnKeetley/
Von Ruff, Al. “Title: Plant Horror: Approaches to the Monstrous Vegetal in Fiction and Film.” The Internet Speculative Fiction Database. ISFDB. Web. 04 May 2020. http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?2159703