Animal and even plant horror are familiar categories: you can find entries for horror films featuring mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, birds, and plants, for instance, on Wikipedia (check out the List of Natural Horror Films). So far, however, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything about geological horror. So where are the horror films about rocks and minerals? (That’s not a rhetorical question: if you know of any, please let me know!)
There are, of course, a multitude of films about natural disasters (tsunamis, volcanoes, earthquakes, avalanches etc.), but these films tend not to be horror films (they’re routinely classified as action)—and natural disasters are typically not exploited in the horror genre—except sometimes as plot devices to trap characters in places where they have to face other monsters.
My main purpose in this post is to suggest a candidate for the horror genre that features a boulder. The film is not wholly horror; indeed, it swerves away from horror near the end, demonstrating, in and by that swerve, what actually makes a horror film (and what doesn’t).
The film is 127 Hours (2010), directed by Danny Boyle of 28 Days Later (2002) fame. It depicts the (real) ordeal of Aron Ralston (James Franco), whose arm becomes trapped by a boulder as he’s climbing in Blue John Canyon in Utah: as the title suggests, he spent 127 hours in the canyon before freeing himself by amputating his arm and stumbling across the desert to find help.
What 127 Hours does, before it flinches, is imagine a kind of horrific agency for the natural, geological world. And I would suggest that it is precisely because we have difficulty imagining the agency of the natural world (especially the agency of things) that they so rarely feature in horror films.
In a brilliant book, Jane Bennett has made the case, though, that the world of things does indeed have agency. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010) argues for the efficacy of “what is typically cast in the shadow”—the “material agency or effectivity of nonhuman or not-quite-human things.” Things have “vitality,” she claims, not only impeding “the will and designs of humans” but also able “to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own.”[i] Such is the boulder in 127 Hours.
In the moments during and after Ralston’s entrapment by a falling boulder, the film dramatizes the rock’s agency. Even a falling stone, writes Spinoza, “‘is endeavoring, as far as in it lies, to continue in its motion.’”[ii] At about twenty minutes into the film, the camera tracks back from a relatively close-up shot of Ralston, trapped by the boulder in the canyon, to a culminating shot of the vast landscape, the slot canyon itself a barely discernible fissure in the land, Ralston completely swallowed in its depths.
This long tracking shot represents, I would suggest, the film’s most horrific moment: it suggests the agency of the rock and the power of the vast impervious landscape: the boulder that traps Ralston continues in its endeavor to fall, continues to crush his flesh and bone. The boulder and Ralston become intertwined in a conflict of competing forces—flesh versus rock, each meeting the other in a kindred materiality.
127 Hours ultimately forsakes this moment of horror, however, abandoning it for a more reassuring and human vision. Late in the film (at about seventy minutes), as his water runs out and Ralston realizes he has little time left, Boyle shows him having more and more memories of his life—memories that show how he failed the people in his life, failed to honor his relationships, his commitments. Then Ralston thinks:
It’s me. I chose this. I chose all this. This rock. This rock has been waiting for me my entire life. Its entire life. Ever since it was a bit of meteorite a million billion years ago. Up there in space. It’s been waiting. To come here. Right, right here. I’ve been moving toward it my whole life, from the minute I was born. Every breath I’ve taken. Every action has been leading me to this crack on the earth’s surface.
Ralston denies the material agentic reality of the boulder and makes the story—the agency—his alone. He caused this, he thinks; he chose this. He put himself in the canyon, he trapped himself, because of his continual failure to keep and value his relationships. (On a practical level, that’s why no one knows where he is, why no one will rescue him.) As Ralston makes everything that has happened about him, about his choices, Boyle splits the screen, editing together shots of Ralston and his past on the right and left of the screen and the boulder in the middle. The rock becomes contained (literally) by Ralston’s life.
Val Plumwood, in an essay about her own near-death encounter (with a crocodile) astutely notes that our remaking of the world “‘from the inside’”—that is, about and centered on ourselves (no matter how much it fails to conform to “reality”)—makes the world “sane, survivable, amenable to hope and resolution.” [iii] Indeed, it is directly after Ralston has his epiphany—when he is able to tell himself that he chose this canyon and this rock—that he is able to amputate his arm, get out of the canyon, and survive.
When Ralston makes what happened about himself and his choices, he denies the horrifying possibility that things (rocks) have a kind of agentic force like humans. And while this may have a strained relationship to reality, it makes reality survivable. Indeed, 127 Hours raises the possibility that really feeling the truth that’s embedded in the horror narrative may not in fact be survivable. Things do have their own agency; they care nothing for us, have nothing to do with us; we do not “choose” their every action. 127 Hours reaches this horrifying realization—before abandoning it for hope.
[i] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), viii-ix.
[ii] Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 2.
[iii] Val Plumwood, “Being Prey,” in The New Earth Reader (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), 79.