How to live under the dark clouds of eco-horror?
We are living in a summer where weather extremes have become daily news. Reports in recent days: floods in Scandinavia, a heat record in Morocco, an inferno in Hawaii. The Red Cross fears a disaster year. For Metropolis M, Olivia Brown delved into the frighteningly realistic film-, art- and literature genre of eco-horror. She discusses artists who do not let themselves be paralysed and continue to embrace the open-ended.
Existing in the first quarter of the 21st century is starting to feel stranger than fiction. I open The Guardian to look at the news. I see a headline about researchers wanting to mine the moon to combat the climate crisis. I close The Guardian.
What stage of the apocalypse is this? Current events around the world aren’t exactly going spectacularly, but the world is spinning and nuclear armageddon hasn’t even occurred yet. It’s February, but in my hometown, the trees are still bursting with green leaves and the air is thick with bugs and humidity. Perhaps it’s a bit too warm for this time of year, but you just push thoughts about the summer down, and enjoy what you have at the moment. My friends and I are watching TV, when a torrent of rain begins to fall. They look out the window warily and remark that thunderstorms now routinely come accompanied with tornado warnings. A distinctly uncomfortable feeling creeps into my bones.
The sensation of eco-horror transcends the genre of thriller films wherein themes of ecological crisis inform the plot. Existing today is to permanently experience a subtle, below-the-surface, yet ever present dread of your life massively changing because of a man-made climate disaster. We’ve unwillingly become the characters in the rising action stage of an apocalypse film.
We’ve unwillingly become the characters in the rising action stage of an apocalypse film
My friends and I are survivors of Hurricane Katrina, so our eco-horror blockbuster debuted in 2005. We mostly worry that Mother Nature Production Studios is going to get the green light for a reboot. As extreme climate events are already underway across the planet, this cohort of survivors only grows. This crisis is not one that will fade quickly with time, but rather seems to accelerate every year. Never satisfied with underachieving, humanity is hitting its quarterly goals for planetary annihilation ahead of schedule. The effect on the mental well being of younger people is, unsurprisingly, abysmal. A large study reported the majority of people aged 16-25 felt very worried about the climate crisis, and betrayed by their governments. As long as headlines continue running about finding solutions on the moon, rather than through regulations here on the planet, it’s doubtful the negative sentiment will turn around. The emotions experienced by the world’s young are not localized to the individual, but part of a collective experience of the eco-horror affect. My friends feel the same when their phones blare out a sudden tornado warning. I feel the same when the ponds refuse to freeze over in Amsterdam.
I suggest that what we feel in these moments is an emotion, or more generally, an affect of eco-horror. Through a complex web of existential fears and tangible individual choices, the affect of eco-horror is the specter that haunts our imaginations and stalks our bodies, delivering spikes of adrenaline when contemplating all that could go wrong. Artists communicated their fears of living under the threatening shadow of nuclear armageddon in the 1905s, their fear of ecological disruption from pesticides in the 1970s, and the changing of the climate in the early 2000s, through to the present day. With the escalation of the climate crisis, works of eco-horror may not cycle out of popular culture so quickly, but could instead just be at the beginning of their renaissance.
One of the many artists engaging with the subject of eco-horror is artist Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, who makes large-scale paintings that frequently blend disturbing scenes of animals, carnage, and distorted humans to make a greater point of our messy interactions with each other. In Don’t Lose Your Lover, a mass exodus of animals flee a forest fire raging in the background, while an oblivious couple kiss in the headlights of their running car. A weeping elephant gores two white hunters in another, titled A Universe Where She Finishes Her Charge. Dupuy-Spencer’s imaginings exist in the putrid and fantastical, not offering a way out, but unapologetically staring down the throat of our complicated world.
This may as well be our only option. The dread of a major shift in the plot of the story of our planet has no base anymore in reality, because the change has already taken place. We actors, on our journey through the 21st century, sit through an era of a mutating eco-horror affect and its resulting creative output. Those fearful emotions of the younger generation absolutely have validity, but they are sadly useless if they remain outside of the realm of action. They also must be open to plasticity, so we do not resign ourselves to forlornly march to the edge of a cliff, sigh, and then fling ourselves into the abyss below. Eco-horror is part of our everyday lives, and we have to remain flexible and open to its presence. A modest proposal may be that we challenge ourselves to move eco-horror out of predictable storylines of pure apocalypse, but into the realm of magical realism where endings stay open-ended, while continuing to deconstruct narratives of absolute destruction. Collectively, we change both the genre and the emotion of eco-horror to one of critical possibility-making, instead of just terror.
This rebirth of artists working heavily with eco-horror is evident in film, visual arts, and literature, the last of which has seen a great resurgence of the climate fiction (cli-fi) genre. In his 2016 book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, writer Amitav Ghosh put out a call for his readers to investigate their climate imaginaries. Essentially, he asks us to engage with our own thoughts of the future in relation to the climate crisis, and to challenge the way that we build stories in our heads about these futures. A blockbuster example of how our relationship to eco-horror is changing is the 2018 film, Annihilation, based off of the novel with the same title by Jeff VanderMeer. While it was a thriller about an alien and unstable environment slowly growing on Earth, threatening to swallow the planet with unknown effect, the environment itself was not arbitrarily killing the humans exposed to it, contr asting to eco-horror films such as The Happening by M. Night Shyamalan that premiered ten years prior. Rather, the environment recombines in a manner that is unknown to the characters in the film. Hostile, but destructively beautiful, to those who interact with it. I humbly submit that this is a marked change in our climate imaginaries. This century will see us adapting to our unstable climate, with less emphasis on cautionary tales of what will happen if we go too far — the 1,5 Cº mark may already have been passed — and instead refocused on creative ways to adapt and to mitigate. There is no more going back, there is no more time to dream of what we could have done differently, only the demand that we do differently.
In Annihilation the environment recombines in a manner that is unknown to the characters in the film. Hostile, but destructively beautiful, to those who interact with it
That’s very nice and all, but the problem with doing differently is that our horror is a paralytic agent, rendering us to deers in headlights, unsure of our next moves. Ironically cathartic, artists engaging with scenes of horror and recreating them for the viewer offer an outlet for the paralysis. If not only through the sheer satisfaction of some images, then through the comfort that someone is able to stare into the fire of our burning future, and shout back.
What the hell are you going to do about it?
Artist Kim Abeles has an ongoing series called Smog Collectors, one part of which commemorative portraits of U.S. presidents are stenciled onto plates and left outside, slowly saturating with the smog in the air. When the stencils are removed, their likenesses are left behind, the opacity corresponding to their political legacies with respect to the environment. The more aggressive the environmental deregulation, the longer the plate is left outside, and the darker the portrait. Abeles displays them on tables set for dinner, forcing the viewer to imagine themselves eating from a plate tainted with the legacies of political leaders of the past. To me, these works all have a strong element of reality that communicate the urgency of our current situation. Their evocative qualities then ask: how does this make you feel? And what the hell are you going to do about it?
There is no more going back, there is no more time to dream of what we could have done differently, only the demand that we do differently
It’s incredibly difficult to sit with the pain, anger, fear, and frustration of the climate crisis, and instead of succumbing to these emotions, reacting with them. I hope we can stop collectively feeling like hapless characters that events simply happen to, but become active in this eco-horror film we’ve been unwillingly conscripted into acting out. Just as in the 1950s, 70s, and 2000s, our climate crisis has prompted existential dears that have awakened something within us. Though the jury’s still out on whether there will be a happy ending to this piece, change is undeniably underway. And while it may not be enough to stop mountain-top mining, or the delusional hubris of the automotive industry to make all cars electric, we’ll at least go creating movies, books, music, and art about how we lived, and inevitably died, in this place. Full of contradiction, fear and hope, forced to live and interact with a world that changes with us every moment that we are here. We are experiencing a feeling of horror with respect to our climate crisis, but there is certainly space for—and most critically, there must be—changed imaginaries for how this story will go. It is not the first time humanity has faced down an apocalypse, and ours isn’t unique and therefore unchangeable. For the love of God, can we at least make sure this apocalypse is the last? I’m not interested in watching any more reboots.
DEZE TEKST IS GEPUBLICEERD IN METROPOLIS M NUMMER 2-2023 DE HORROR, DE HORROR. STEUN METROPOLIS M, NEEM EEN ABONNEMENT. ALS JE JE NU ABONNEERT STUREN WE JE HET NIEUWSTE NUMMER GRATIS OP. MAIL [email protected]
1 IPCC, Climate change widespread, rapid, and intensifying, website IPCC
2 Elizabeth Marks, Caroline Hickman, Panu Pihkala, Susan Clayton, Erik R. Lewandowski, Elouise E. Mayall, Britt Wray, Catriona Mellor en Lise van Susteren, ‘Young People’s Voices on Climate Anxiety, Government Betrayal and Moral Injury: A Global Phenomenon’, SSRN Electronic Journal, January 2021
is an artist and writer from New Orleans, LA, currently finishing her MA in Artistic Research at the UvA surrounding themes of cli-fi, Black bodies, and contamination