This is a guest post by regular contributor Maria Ramos.
More often than not movies reflect interests and fears of the current times back at us, either directly or veiled in metaphor. This is especially true in the past few decades, as humanity as a whole has started to become more aware of our influence on the environment and this has consistently been echoed back to us on screen.
In the 1950s, the threat was nuclear weapons and its hazardous effects. Today, the threat is climate change, particularly since we’ve become more aware of the global troubles that will ensue should we allow current consumption of fossil fuels to run rampant. However, no matter what the current danger, the silver screen has become an interesting funhouse mirror to amplify, distort, and reflect them, making a statement all its own.
After the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, the world became aware of the hazard of both large-scale destruction and the wrath of nuclear fallout. Both Japan and the United States released nuclear creature-features in 1954, Godzilla and Them!, though their approaches reflected each country’s point of view.
The Godzilla franchise may have become known for its camp nature, but initially it was a metaphor for a godlike force of destruction, with director Ishiro Honda using scenes that purposefully evoked Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Them!, on the other hand, viewed its gigantic ants as an unintended side product of mankind’s meddling who turned about and attacked the very forces who had created them.
The 1970s and 1980s brought increased awareness of the effects of pollution and toxic waste into the public eye, and so environmental horror changed as well. 1984’s C.H.U.D. served double-duty as a warning against both toxic waste pollution and 1980s corporate greed that led to the dumping of the waste into the sewers. In the 2000s, water pollution became the pollution du jour to fear, and films like 2012’s The Bay were caused not by toxic waste, but by agricultural runoff.
With the advent of rapid global travel and high populations, epidemics are another on-screen threat that Hollywood has not shied away from. 2002’s 28 Days Later and 2013’s World War Z couched their epidemic through the ever popular zombie metaphor, while 2007’s I am Legend displayed its epidemic in more of a vampire variety. 2012’s The Crazies combined a few issues, with a polluted water supply infecting a town’s population with a virus that sent its residents into a frenzy.
Climate change issues of today have been especially well represented lately in environmental horror. This category is particularly topical given recent issues like the 2015 Paris Agreement. With a global increase of 80 percent between 1970 and 2004 alone in carbon dioxide, according to Direct Energy, the situations proposed in the following films seem less and less outlandish. 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow took a lot of flack for being an overblown special-effects fest, but as the general public has become more familiar with terms like “superstorm,” it has begun to seem less far-fetched than it did a decade ago. 2006’s The Last Winter, while featuring a ghost-heavy plot, also centered around the idea of destructive drilling practices being largely at fault.
Increasing temperatures are a major factor in the destruction at the heart of 2009’s 2012 – though the temperature is of the Earth’s core and not the atmosphere and oceans, such as we are seeing today. And in 2014’s Into the Storm, shifting weather patterns due to atmospheric warming causes unprecedented tornado activity, similar to activity that has been seen in recent months.
People are influenced by the media that they consume, even something as seemingly diverting as horror movies. With the combination of awareness of issues as plot points in environmental horror and visibility in the news, the possibility of the public taking these issues seriously may become much more likely. If it is real enough to fear onscreen, it is real enough to fear in real life – and real enough to do something about.