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14 Sep

Chapter on Animal Revenge Narratives in the Making

Written by Michael Fuchs
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"What if nature were trying to get back at us?" Animals as Agents of Nature's Revenge in Horror Cinema

In 1963, the U.S. Congress passed the Clean Air Act, the first United States federal legislation which aimed at controlling pollution. That same year, Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds was released, a movie many fans and scholars consider the first true animal horror movie (i.e., a horror movie featuring animal monsters which closely resemble animals we might encounter in the 'real' world; no giant-sized animals, which roamed the silver screens between the 1930s and 1950s). While the emergence of the birds in Hitchcock's film may be read as a symbol for the emerging sexual tension between Mitch and Melanie, narratively speaking, the birds' appearance remains inexplicable. Since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the book which sparked the environmental movement, was published just a year before The Birds, the convergence of the passage of the Clean Air Act and the movie's release seems no mere case of historical coincidence. Were Hitchcock's birds vanguards of an environmental awareness in mainstream cinema who served as vehicles for imagining what might happen if nature decided to take revenge against humankind's transgressions against the natural order?

Indeed, in her book American Environmental History (2007), Carolyn Merchant notes that "the 1970s became known as the environmental decade" (198). In the same decade, animal horror cinema flourished: frogs, piranhas, orcas, great white sharks, grizzlies, tarantulas—they all began to prey on humans. By bringing human and nonhuman animals face to face with one another, these (and all the other animal horror) movies center on the human–animal divide. As Katarina Gregersdotter, Niklas Hållén, and Johan Höglund explain in their introduction to Animal Horror Cinema (2015), the sub-genre revolves around "how a particular animal or an animal species commits a transgression against humanity" (3). However, this transgression is often preceded by humankind's encroachment upon the spaces of the animal. As a result, many animal horror movies imagine "a just and necessary animal revenge" (10).

In my proposed contribution to this volume, I will present a typology of four particular types of animal horror movies: (a) movies which imagine nature striking back against humanity and which make their environmentalist agenda explicit (e.g. Frogs [1972]); (b) movies in which human beings venture into the nonhuman world, where they encounter wild animals (e.g. Food for the Gods [1976], In the Deep [2016]); (c) movies in which humanity's actions bring forth mutants or hybrids (e.g. Kingdom of the Spiders [1977], Prophecy [1979]); and (d) movies in which ecological questions are overshadowed by human problems (which is not to say that environmental problems are not human problems, too) (e.g. The Birds [1963], White Dog [1982], Grizzly Park [2008]).

As I will argue, movies of the final type reduce animals to symbolic vehicles. As a result, ecological questions and human–animal relationships are largely ignored in favor of (inter-)human issues in these films. While movies of type (a) draw awareness to ecological concerns, they imply that once humankind has overstepped its boundaries, animals will emerge as nature's agents and restore order and natural balance on the planet, undermining the movies' explicit agenda, as this natural self-healing mechanism relieves humanity of ecological accountability. Type (b) movies explicitly (re-)integrate human beings into the food chain, thereby questioning human exceptionalism. However, by de-contextualizing their narratives and, accordingly, reducing their stories to simple man-vs.-nature tales, these films end up supporting the very binaries they seek to question (i.e., the artificial, civilized world of humankind vs. the natural, wild nonhuman world). Although these movies are often very clichéd, I will argue that—counter-intuitively—type (c) movies are the most progressive, for they highlight our planet as a world characterized by what Donna Haraway has called 'naturecultures'—a world defined by the entanglement of nature and culture, the semiotic system and material reality, the body and mind, all influencing one another, interrelated in ways much more complex than binary oppositions would suggest. In this complex network of human and nonhuman actors, Gaia doesn't simply take revenge; however, decisions and actions have—often unforeseen—consequences.