By: Virginia Li
***Potential spoilers for The Last of Us, Annihilation and Parasite ahead!***
Vampires. Aliens. Cannibals. Whether a chainsaw-wielding murderer or a sinister force trapped inside a mirror, both literal and metaphorical monsters are some of the most fundamental components of the horror genre.
Horror fiction can be traced back to the earliest civilizations, where there was nothing more sinister than the spoken word. Generations would pass down spine-chilling lore about witches and demons, instilling fear within children about wandering too far from home. Even the fairytales of Snow White and Red Riding Hood are rooted in the grisly Brothers Grimm folktales.
Now, modern legends of horror such as Stephen King and Guillermo Del Toro dominate the theatres with their tremendous storytelling skills and imaginative creatures. Likewise, masterminds have created iconic villains and monsters in their respective works, contributing to not only the evolution of horror fiction, but also many people’s worst fears.
But what if there was no monster? No entity? Just the retribution of the natural world?
This decade may experience a rise in climate fiction or “cli-fi,” a genre coined in 2008 by writer Dan Bloom, which explores anthropogenic-accelerated climate change, global warming, and their effects on humanity in our contemporary world. Moreover, eco-horror and natural horror horror subgenres may infiltrate the cinemas.
Eco-horror and natural horror feature natural beings and forces as the main threat to humanity. The consequences of our actions are reflected in monsters and strange environmental events. These subgenres have spewed some classic horror films about violent, abnormally large and strong animals such as Jaws (1975) and Cujo (1983). There have also been monsters like Godzilla, awakened from a deep slumber by a nuclear accident.
Furthemore, plants can also be scary; in the video game The Last of Us, a mutated, parasitic strain of the “mind-controlling” Cordyceps fungi plagues humanity and sends the world into destruction. Similarly, Annihilation (2018) features an abnormal terrestrial zone with its own supernatural ecosystem, and its menacing, unknown nature threatens civilization as it consumes the country.
Of the works discussed, there is one explicit similarity: Mother Nature is now the enemy. The intrinsically-positive, complex natural world is perhaps the most destructive antagonist of all. Nothing beats a demonic entity embodied in a dancing clown like the threat of a dying planet.
It is much more likely that The Last of Us exploits our fears about becoming a zombie or having to fight against them rather than a fear of fungal spores. But the idea that one spore — one breath — can lead to the undoing of civilization is perhaps our worst nightmare.
In climate fiction and eco-horror, humanity becomes prey. The power dynamics in which humans harness and exploit the natural world are flipped. The planet can, in fact, wipe out humanity with an unlimited number of events, whether they be natural disasters or pandemics.
What separates eco-horror from climate fiction is that climate fiction requires a basic science to explain the narrative. While both genres are speculative and may incorporate some knowledge of the natural world, eco-horror is unlimited in its worlds and creatures, whereas climate fiction still incorporates much of the real world, and examines how the world can adapt to its changes even considering its limited capabilities.
There is a different tone of horror that climate fiction creates, making it ultimately scarier and more unpleasant than typical eco-horror. The hopelessness that the audience may feel while empathizing with the victim of a vengeful ghost is unlike the dread felt by an audience that realizes it may be too late to save the planet.
Cli-fi is an echo of the realities that we live and understand today. While the typical audience may still feel comforted in the fact that an eco-horror’s plot and monsters are all figments of the creator’s imagination, climate fiction is an illustration of something completely possible. At the edge of extinction, humanity must instead face the onslaught of natural disasters, perhaps as a result of total global human activity.
Environmental degradation exists beyond the narrative, and it is unfurling in our own world right now.
Climate fiction has existed even before the genre was defined. Margaret Atwood, Canadian author and creator of The Handmaid’s Tale, has explored climate fiction through her MaddAddam trilogy, beginning with its first novel, Oryx and Crake (2003).
That being said, nature has always been a part of art, and even the artists who never look to emphasize it still find themselves drawing back to the natural world. For example, although Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 never examines the natural environment, stunning metaphors and imagery about nature symbolize enlightenment and knowledge within an age of ignorance.
Similarly, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite indirectly examines the relationship between social class and the environment. With thunder, wet concrete, and overflowing, green sewage water, a flood scene effectively demonstrates the deep inequality between classes, exacerbated by climate change. While the storm is but an inconvenience to the upper class, the heavy rain floods the houses of those living at the literal bottom of the neighbourhood and displaces hundreds of families. Thus, Bong highlights the realities of the working class: the marginalized and impoverished will especially take on the brunt of climate change.
Nature will always be relevant. The rise of environmentalism today has increasingly illuminated its inherent presence in our creative work. With greater demand for climate justice and education about our planet, new waves of knowledge pulsate through society. Admittedly, two years ago, I would not have thought about the complex relationship that humanity has with Earth, and how even socioeconomic constructs relate to environmental injustice.
Climate fiction will engage the world the way that scientists cannot: through empathy. The written word and film can evoke emotions in a way that numbers cannot. With toppling numbers of carbon emissions and increasing demands for environmental regulation, people may turn away. But once an individual is immersed into a world, they have no choice but to fend for it.
H.P. Lovecraft once said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” But what if our worst enemy, perhaps the worst thing the current generations inhabiting Earth could fear, is what we do know and supposedly love: our own planet?