You wouldn’t think plants would be the stuff of horror. Or, maybe you would. After all, vegetation constitutes over ninety-nine percent of the earth’s biomass—that is, ninety-nine percent of what’s alive on the planet. Earth is indeed “an ecosystem inarguably dominated by plants.”[i] We are surrounded by vegetation; when humans falter, vegetation surges in to take our place—creeping over our buildings, pushing up through our roads, taking what we were forced to abandon.
In 1996, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen wrote a wonderful essay called “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),”[ii] and, emulating its structure, I’ve written my own piece offering six theses that suggest why plants—defined broadly as vegetation, flowers, bushes, trees—have figured as monstrous within horror fiction and film.** I’ve sketched them out below, along with some plant horror fiction and film you can’t miss.
(1) Plants embody the absolutely alien: While we have long recognized our connection to animals, plants remain absolutely other. In Algernon Blackwood’s 1907 story “The Willows,” the protagonist is struck with terror at the utter alienness of the willow trees:
“Their serried ranks, growing everywhere darker about me as the shadows deepened, moving furiously yet softly in the wind, woke in me the curious and unwelcome suggestion that we had trespassed here upon the borders of an alien world.”
Everywhere taken for granted, when they suddenly loom into view, plants unveil themselves as strange, even terrifying—a fact expertly exploited, for instance, in The Blair Witch Project (1999). As the three film-makers find themselves increasingly lost, they find the woods becoming increasingly strange, as they see the trees rather than just marching through them.[iii] In “The Willows” and The Blair Witch Project, nature becomes “alien” in and of itself, but other horror texts signal the alienness of plants by turning them into literal aliens—The Thing from Another World (1951), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Day of the Triffids (1962), Thomas M. Disch’s The Genocides (1965), and the TV series, Dr. Who and the Seeds of Doom (1976), to name just a few.
(2) Plants lurk in our blindspot: Plants terrify because we typically don’t see them. We take them for granted; they constitute a scenic backdrop for our (animal) lives. Scientists have a name for this: “plant blindness.”[iv] Horror, of course, has fully exploited our “plant blindness” to show us that the life that is all around us can suddenly lurch out of the frame and ambush us (obviously a telling word in this context). Perhaps the best plant horror narrative ever—John Wyndham’s novel The Day of the Triffids (1951, made into a great film in 1962)—plays relentlessly on humans’ plant blindness: humans let the alien triffid plants grow unnoticed in the background, and the “day of the triffids,” the day they launch their assault on humans, is the day when almost all humans are blinded by a comet shower. The novel makes literal our human tendency to be blind to plants—and the costs of that blindness.
(3) Plants menace with their wild, purposeless growth: Plants may not (with the spectacular exception of the triffids) be able to move around, but they can grow—wildly, prodigiously, with a super-reproductively that risks threatening our own capacity to amass more of our species than theirs. The 1950s films about vegetative aliens in particular play on this fear of plants’ prodigious reproductive powers—and at a time, just after World War II, when Americans were engaging in their own Baby Boom. Our reproductive abilities pale, however, in the face of the frothing pods of the aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and the super-reproductive “carrot” in The Thing from Another World (1951).
(4) The human harbors an uncanny constitutive vegetal: While we may think plants are absolutely different from us, science tells us otherwise. Philosopher Karen Houle writes of how we “are built from the very carbons of [plants].”[v] The very substance of our bodies are interwoven with them. For me, the best example of this idea is Scott Smith’s brilliant novel The Ruins (2006), a much more profoundly interesting text than the 2008 film. In the novel, a group of young tourists is trapped on an ancient ruin in Mexico and threatened by killer vines—a premise that could be ridiculous were it not for Smith’s amazing ability to render the sentience, agency, and malevolence of the plants. He also, though, equally brilliantly renders the way in which the human characters start to take on what we think are the attributes of plants—the inertia, passivity, and irrationality of the vegetal, all of which is disclosed to be already present in the human. The plants become human-like and the humans become plant-like in this novel that should make humans feel thoroughly humble about their place in the ecosystem.
(5) Plants will get their revenge: Most horror films involving plants mobilize the idea of revenge, but one stand-out here is the BBC TV miniseries of Day of the Triffids (2009), which really highlights humans’ exploitation of the triffids for oil (as we try to save ourselves from global warming and our depletion of fossil fuels). The film opens with a scene akin to that of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002): a plants’ rights activists breaks into a triffid factory and frees the plants from their chains, spelling doom for the human race. Just as 28 Days Later makes us empathize with the monkeys in the research lab at the opening of that film, the 2009 Day of the Triffids makes the viewer fleetingly empathize with the plants, making their revenge on humans understandable. As in most horror-revenge texts, the film makes us take the perspective of the victim; however fleetingly, we think and feel like a plant.
(6) Plant horror marks an absolute rupture of the known: In the end, because plants have been cast as so alien, because we have been so chronically blind to them, their presence in horror marks a complete break not just with “normality” (that always happen in horror) but with everything we think we know about the world. Plant horror involves an “event,” which Andrew Robinson describes as “something akin to a rip in the fabric of being and / or of the social order.”[vi] M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening (2008), with its mysterious and catastrophic events that no one can explain, is a perfect example of plant horror as “event”: something is “happening,” and it involves plants, but what? It does violence to the film to suggest that plants are simply getting their revenge. That’s an assumption drawn from the familiar, human world—and something more than that, something more than what we can know, is going on in Shyamalan’s film.
**This post is drawn from my essay, “Six Theses on Plant Horror; or, Why Are Plants Horrifying?,” which can be found here: https://www.academia.edu/31818844/Six_Theses_on_Plant_Horror_Or_Why_Are_Plants_Horrifying
The essay is the introduction to a collection I co-edited with Angela Tenga, Plant Horror: Approaches to the Monstrous Vegetal in Fiction and Film (Palgrave, 2016), which can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Plant-Horror-Approaches-Monstrous-Vegetal/dp/1137570628/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1489499256&sr=8-1&keywords=plant+horror+approaches+to+the+monstrous+vegetal+in+fiction+and+film
[i] S. Mancuso and A. Viola, Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2015. pp. 123-124.
[ii] J. J. Cohen, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” In Cohen, ed. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
[iii] Adam Nevill’s 2011 novel The Ritual, inspired by “The Willows,” is a wonderful example of how the forest becomes transformed into a threat in and of itself (regardless of the dangerous human actors in its midst).
[iv] See J. H. Wandersee and E. E. Schussler, “Preventing Plant Blindness,” The American Biology Teacher 61, no. 2 (1999): 82, 84, 86, and J. H. Wandersee, and E. E. Schussler, “Toward a Theory of Plant Blindness,” Plant Science Bulletin. 47, no. 1 (2001): 2-9.