While modern day humans are in a sense, more in control of nature than ever before, it wasn’t long ago when every noise in the night was something potentially deadly. While the world has changed, our fears haven’t, and new man-made environmental damage is bringing those fears back to the forefront. Earthquakes caused by fracking, floods caused by global warming, and epidemics caused by antibiotic resistant superbugs are a new reality – and we have only ourselves to blame. As the main reason why eco-horror films resonate so deeply with audiences, and the effects of global warming continue to worsen, viewers can see that reality and its consequences reflected in on screen.
As people learn more about climate change and its repercussions, films featuring environmental disasters such as floods or hurricanes have become more popular. Take 2014’s Into the Storm, for example. Directed by Steven Quale, the film shows a rash of incredibly powerful tornadoes tearing across Oklahoma and eventually killing several people. Frightening as it is, it’s especially chilling to know that this isn’t such a far-fetched premise. A recent Texas storm had a tornado count of at least 11, and not only that, but in the coming years global warming is expected to cause an increase in both tornadoes and hurricanes.
Two other major eco-disaster films, 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow, both involve floods and other catastrophic natural disasters. While both films feature the unfortunate massive loss of human life, they differ in that 2012 has a government that actually listens to their scientists warnings to a certain extent. Of course, even the more pro-science 2012 government just uses the information to put together a survival plan which saves only a lucky few that can buy their way to safety – but both political reactions seem scarily possible. There are many real politicians who still refuse to acknowledge climate change, to the detriment of humanity; and it’s also quite easy to imagine a future where the rich and powerful use their resources to shield only themselves.
Nor is global warming the only cinematic threat pulled from reality. Pollution in general, and nuclear waste in particular, are issues that have been touched upon in many films. Classic eco-horror hits like Godzilla and Them! portray radiation damage as something that will mutate and strengthen existing animals. C.H.U.D. goes a step further and has humans suffer the damage, converting them into cannibalistic monsters. While nuclear disasters in real life like Chernobyl or Fukushima haven’t led to enormous man-eating insects, they have had a devastating environmental impact. Animals who were affected by radiation suffered genetic damage that led to birth defects and other severe health issues, not to mention the toll on the vegetation in the area.
2012’s The Bay is yet another film which has turned out to be uncomfortably close to reality, starting out with a premise that sounds spookily similar to the real life water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Scientists discover that the water isn’t safe to drink, and the local government initially ignores this information for their own self interests. In the film, this results in humans being infected by organ eating parasites that take control of their minds and bodies. In Flint, Michigan it resulted in children becoming severely ill with lead poisoning. 2010’s The Crazies similarly focuses on water contamination, but the Breck Eisner film takes government involvement a step further. In the film the federal government caused the contamination, which is turning townsfolk into crazed killers, and it tries to kill everyone in a covert cover up.
While floods, contaminated water, and mutated predators are frightening enough, humanity’s ability to imagine the worst doesn’t end there. After all, if giant bugs haven’t managed to kill everyone, then a global epidemic should get its chance – and if zombies can somehow be involved, all the better. That is essentially what happens in World War Z, a film where a small zombie outbreak grows out of control due to secretive and ineffective government responses to the threat. Though the film shows humanity fighting back, a huge percentage of the world population is decimated first.
28 Days Later continues the cinematic trend of being afraid of rather than for plague victims, and once again features survivors fighting zombie-like infected people. As frightening as these films are, the depiction of bumbling government responses may not be so far off. Most countries were slow to react to the Ebola crisis, often more concerned about quarantine then treatment. Then there’s the unbelievable government response from El Salvador to the recent Zika virus, which is the recommendation that women just stop getting pregnant for a while.
Humanity is determined to kill itself somehow, and equally determined to entertain themselves with prophesies of their own demise first. Global epidemics are a real threat in today’s overcrowded and interconnected world. Natural disasters are on the rise, and it is only slated to get worse. Whether flood, pollution, nuclear disaster or an epidemic, one way or another if people don’t start better shepherding the planet these disaster films will begin to resemble documentaries – hopefully the audiences watching them are smart enough to realize this.