Posted on June 3, 2015

The Return of the Woolly Mammoth

Dawn Keetley

Horror has always been interwoven with science—ever since Professor Van Helsing in Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931) asserted (about vampirism) that the “superstition of yesterday can become the scientific reality of today.” So it’s no surprise that the recent spate of woolly mammoth carcasses, emerging from thawing permafrost mostly in Siberia, should coincide with the appearance of the woolly mammoth in horror film and TV—specifically (to date) The Thaw (Mark A. Lewis, 2009) and the TV series Fortitude (2015), produced by Sky Atlantic and broadcast in the US on Pivot January to April, 2015.

Woolly mammoths have, though, figured in science and in the horror story in vastly different ways. Scientists are excited about what can be learned about the creature that became extinct around 40,000 years ago. A mammoth with an exceptionally well preserved brain was discovered near Yukagir, Russia, in 2010, for instance, leading to enthusiastic anticipation in the scientific community about the ability to study for the first time an intact nervous system structure of a large extinct animal. Debate has even been enjoined about the possibility of cloning a woolly mammoth, which genome research (on the newly discovered carcasses) has made increasingly possible. As a researcher on the genome project said: “Our genomes bring us one critical step closer to re-creating a mammoth…. I think it would be cool if it could be done, but I’m not sure it should be done.”[i] (You’ve got to wonder if the proponents of cloning have heard of Jurassic Park!) Not heeding the lessons it could learn from horror films, science looks optimistically forward, asking what can be learned and what can be done.

Fig. 1: “Yuka,” found near Yukagir, Russia

Fig. 1: “Yuka,” found near Yukagir, Russia [ii]

Horror, not surprisingly, approaches the woolly mammoth’s return with markedly more skepticism. The Thaw and Fortitude are both interesting examples of the newly resurgent sub-genre of “eco-horror,” and both are worth watching, especially Fortitude (in fact, check back for an upcoming post on this provocative series). In both, the discovery of woolly mammoth carcasses serves less to augur a future rich with exciting possibilities than to implicate humans, with all their greediness, ignorance, hubris, and ineptitude, in the destruction of the planet.

To begin with, it’s only because of the increasingly catastrophic effects of climate change, both The Thaw and Fortitude suggest, that the woolly mammoth carcasses are surfacing at all. Both the film and TV series begin with some mention of global warming and consequently vanishing ice. In the image below, from The Thaw, the aerial shot shows the woolly mammoth beneath a thin veneer of ice as dirt intrudes from the edges. The frame shows us the ice literally disappearing before our very eyes.

Fig. 2: Discovering the woolly mammoth in The Thaw

Fig. 2: Discovering the woolly mammoth in The Thaw

The opening scenes of both narratives, in which the woolly mammoths are discovered, are, then, already steeped in catastrophe, conceived in unchecked global warming. The remains of these long dead animals shouldn’t be here. Their bodies are making an uncanny, unnatural return. Human intervention has disturbed the natural order and no good can come from it. Indeed, no good does come from it.

RWM, fig. 3, Fortitude, mammoth 1RWM, fig. 4, Fortitude, mammoth 2

Figs. 3-5: Discovering the mammoth in Fortitude

Figs. 3-5: Discovering the mammoth in Fortitude

What ratchets up the costs of human intervention in nature to even more devastating proportions is what comes out of the woolly mammoth once it’s thawed and hauled off for scientific study (in The Thaw) and financial gain (in Fortitude). In both cases, the unburied carcasses unleash a literal plague on those who discover it. Insects that themselves died hundreds of thousands of year ago start hatching and looking for human hosts so they can reproduce. Infection by these anachronistic parasites produces a zombie-like state all the more terrifying by being naturalized within the plot—explained as a potentially likely scenario in which nature turns on us (after we’ve turned on it).

Both The Thaw and Fortitude make it clear that the woolly mammoth and the parasites with which it once cohabited should not be brought back. Both film and TV series stand as cautionary tales for those who might want to clone what the impersonal processes of evolution consigned to the graveyard long ago. They also stand as warnings to the rest of us that we’ve had our own part to play in bringing woolly mammoths back to horrifying undead “life.”

Anyone know of other horror film/TV starring woolly mammoths?


[i] “Woolly Mammoth Genomes Deciphered,”

[ii] Agata Blaszczak-Boxe, “Mummified Woolly Mammoth Discovered,” Live Science,


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