Monstrous Trees and Ecology: Targeting Human Threats in the Horror Film
Explorations of how trees transform into “monsters” seeking revenge against the human world that exploits them highlight the power of plant horror. In films as diverse as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), trees have fought back against humans, becoming “monstrous nature.” In The Wizard of Oz, trees become animated when their apples are stolen (and a wicked witch intervenes), hurling them violently back at Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her friends. And in the second Lord of the Rings film, trees called Ents seek vengeance against Saruman (Christopher Lee) and his army when Ent leader Treebeard (John Rhys-Davies) discovers that Saruman has decimated a section of Fangorn Forest to build his iron forges. Although these scenes are brief, they each draw on ecological approaches to the revenge plot.
As a demonstration of the power of environmental tree horror, four feature films with tree horror at their center underscore contemporary ecological problems: Severed (2005), The Ruins (2008), Splinter (2008), and The Happening (2008). In these films, trees might fight back against their human oppressors in the fantastic context of horror and science fiction. But the messages they convey also connect explicitly with current environmental disasters. By drawing on contemporary environmental issues, all of these films act as warnings against the possible repercussions of environmental degradation in the Anthropocene Age.
In Severed, genetic testing in a logging camp meant to accelerate tree growth and increase timber output also proves deadly to humans when splinters from GMO logs transform humans into zombies who feed on other loggers. Although the “outbreak” seems isolated, its presence in the film serves as a warning against both genetic modification and over-logging of forests, environmental disasters condemned in recent news articles. The film broaches, for example, the May 2014 “March Against Monsanto” and the May 2014 Greenpeace protests against illegal logging in the Amazon. With its focus on plant revenge against trespassers, The Ruins also cautions against infiltrating rainforests, this time by offering a revenge plot in which forest vines trap and kill American tourists trespassing on sacred Mayan land. In Splinter, “splinters” like those in Severed parasitically invade human carriers and turn them into monsters, a monstrous result that underpins the possible consequences of climate change—the emergence and evolution of deadly parasites.
The Happening takes such cautionary tales even further, explicitly connecting the behavior of trees to humanity’s contribution to the disappearance of bees through Colony Collapse Disorder, a condition explored in documentaries such as The Vanishing of the Bees (2009). Philadelphia science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) underlines this connection early in the film during a class discussion prompted by a quote from Einstein scrawled on the blackboard: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left.” The film takes this premise further, asking what if a monstrous nature fought back? In The Happening, the answer comes almost immediately after the bee: as if reacting to our annihilation of the natural world, something from the trees in Central Park causes men and women to kill themselves.
These juxtaposed scenes suggest humans have become a threat and must be defeated. As a high school principal (Alan Ruck) explains,
Alright, there appears to be an event happening. Central Park was just hit by what seems to be a terrorist attack. They're not clear on the scale yet. It's some kind of airborne chemical toxin that's been released in and around the park. They said to watch for warning signs. The first stage is confused speech. The second stage is physical disorientation, loss of direction. The third stage … is fatal.
According to an unnamed nursery owner (Frank Collison), “plants have the ability to target specific threats. Tobacco plants when attacked by heliothis caterpillars will send out a chemical attracting wasps to kill just those caterpillars. We don't know how plants obtain these abilities, they just evolve very rapidly.” When Alma Moore (Zooey Deschanel) asks, “Which species is doing it, if you think it's true,” the nursery owner designates trees as the source of the human purge, explaining, “plants have the ability to communicate with other species of plants. Trees can communicate with bushes, and bushes with grass, and everything in between.” In The Happening, trees and the plants with which they communicate transform into monstrous nature to attack the human species seemingly bent on their destruction.
Severed, The Ruins, Splinter, and The Happening demonstrate the power of plant horror. In these films, the monstrous acts of trees serve as a powerful critique of humanity’s contemporary environmental abuses. They also provide a space in which to explore the complexities of a monstrous nature humans both create and embody. According to a February 2015 National Geographic article, we have entered the Anthropocene, an epic “defined by our own massive impact on the planet” (Kolbert). Severed, The Ruins, Splinter, and The Happening highlight this environmental horror. The real monster is us.