the monstrous vegetal in fiction and film

And while humans may occasionally become food for predatory animals, we all, whether buried in the ground or scattered on the earth, become sustenance for plants. Ashes to ashes. Flesh to food.
Why Are Plants Horrifying?
There were two kinds of monsters, the kind that hunted the streets and the kind that lived in your head. She could fight the first, but the second was more dangerous. It was always, always, always a step ahead.
Victoria Schwab

The Sense of the Monster Plant
Monster plants are everywhere. T.S. Miller (2014) traces their cinematic history from the passing appearance of a vampiric venus fly trap in F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) to killer-stalking vines in Carter Smith’s The Ruins (2008) and suicide-inducing plants in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening (2008). In between, there are also numerous examples of the monster plant trope on film. These range from the comedic (John De Bello’s Attack of the Killer Tomatoes [1978], a spoof that casts the popular and innocuous fruit in the lead role), through the more darkly comic (Frank Oz’s cinematic version of the Little Shop of Horrors [1986] includes the memorable man-eating Audrey II), to the more sinister and shocking (Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead [1981], in which trees possessed of demonic powers sexually assault a woman). Miller also traces the literary history of the monster plant trope, taking us back to the tree stump with the monstrous appetites in the Czech folktale (and subsequent 2000 film) Little Otik, to Frank Aubrey’s 1896 romance The Devil Tree of El Dorado, and even further back to the wak-wak tree that appears in numerous Arab legends from the tenth century onwards. And then there are more modern works: H. P. Lovecraft’s 1931 novella At the Mountains of Madness, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1937–1949), and Yann Martel’s 2001 novel The Life of Pi (pp. 470–475).

The Pre-cosmic Squiggle: Tendril Excesses in Early Modern Art and Science Fiction Cinema
The often satirized, unintentional comedy of the modern plant horror genre hinges on the far-fetched characteristics of horror-plants. The typical “monster plant” is almost the opposite of a plant: it grows rapidly, often menacingly so; it walks around and chases its human victims with snatching arms like a predator; it often sucks their blood or eats them, occasionally with a mouth full of fangs; and sometimes it even wants to merge with the human body. Attempts to read these fabrications as a comment on the human relationship to plants often produce unsatisfactory results. Instead, they are best explained with reference to the range of meanings attached to the symbolic motif of the tendril and its corresponding aesthetics, which has its roots in the medieval iconic tradition.

Green Hells: Monstrous Vegetations in Twentieth-Century Representations of Amazonia
José Eustasio Rivera’s La vorágine [The Vortex], first published in 1924, exemplifies the way in which Amazonian nature—the jungle—was represented in the early decades of the twentieth century. Contemplating what “upsets and confuses us when we travel through the jungle,” the writer describes the trees as “perverse,” “aggressive,” and “hypnotizing”—all because, we are told, they are bled and “persecuted” by groups of rubber workers who extract their latex juice. The vegetation’s violence is a way of fighting back—and it is this that “scares us,” “makes us shudder,” “oppresses us,” and makes us “want to flee.” Because of this dread, Rivera concludes, “thousands of rubber workers never emerge from the jungle” (1935, pp. 230–231). This vengeful character of nature, consequent upon the “taming” endeavor, is central to Rivera’s text and signals a destabilization of the idea of controlling and consuming the region’s natural resources.


Sartre and the Roots of Plant Horror
Trees enjoy a prominent position in the major writings of mid-twentieth-century existential philosophy. The simplicity, openness, and universality of trees make them ideal stand-ins for the encounter with the world in general, and, in the writings of Martin Heidegger and Martin Buber, the experience of looking at trees provides an opportunity to investigate the integrative quality of all perception. In What is Called Thinking? (1968), Heidegger writes that “we stand before a tree in bloom, for example—and the tree stands before us. The tree faces us. The tree and we meet one another, as the tree stands there and we stand face to face with it. As we are in this relation of one to the other and before the other, the tree and we are” (p. 41). In a similar mood, Buber (1970) writes, “I contemplate a tree.… I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It.… The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it—only differently. One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity” (pp. 57–58). Heidegger and Buber extend a romantic trope according to which a tree is a noble vision of elemental connectedness and wholeness, a joining together of earth and sky, of air and water, of animate and inanimate matter, and, ultimately, of human consciousness and the non-human world.

Monstrous Relationalities: The Horrors of Queer Eroticism and “Thingness” in Alan Moore and Stephen Bissette’s Swamp Thing
Following a one-off appearance in the comic horror anthology series House of Secrets, Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson’s Swamp Thing was given its own title run from 1972 to 1976. In the series, scientists Alec and Linda Holland work diligently at a biorestorative formula that encourages the sustainable growth of plants and greenery regardless of environment. Because of the highly classified nature of their work, the couple and their formula are hidden deep within the Louisiana swamp and placed under the protective detail of Lt. Matthew Cable. However, even under Cable’s watchful eye, Alec and Linda’s work is tragically interrupted when a nefarious crime syndicate places a deadly explosive device in their laboratory. The ensuing catastrophic explosion forces Alec to hurl his flaming body into the nearby swamp, where it mixes with the remnants of his formula to produce a “muck-encrusted” caricature of the man he once was (Wein and Wrightson 1972, p. 31). No longer human, Alec emerges from the shallows of his would-be grave a humanoid-vegetal hybrid known only as “Swamp Thing.” When the creature returns days later to its home on land, Swamp Thing finds it is too late to save Linda, who has been shot and killed by syndicate goons. The rest of the series traces Swamp Thing’s journeys as it attempts to evade detection by Cable, who mistakenly suspects the monster for Linda’s murder, while simultaneously protecting Cable and, eventually, the plucky Abigail Arcane from bizarre evildoers and various Monsters of the Week.


What Do Plants Want?
One way of putting it: there is no sign of a triffid in Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill” or in Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips” (though, by and large, the botanical world is less secured in Plath than in Thomas). In between these 1945 and 1961 poems is a veritable eruption of plant horror, not the least of it, John Wyndham’s 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids. The existence in nature of carnivorous plants, such as the Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula), has long given rise to fearful fascination regarding forms of vicious vegetation. But after World War II, the situation changed. As Stephanie Lim (2013) puts it, “World War II sparked concern regarding the physical effects the war had on the Earth’s natural resources,” and, as a result, the “latter part of the 1950s brought about a multitude of killer plant narratives.” These narratives serve as “a visual illustration and understanding of what nature would do and say to humans if they could react to our adverse actions” (pp. 215–216). Here, the story is about plants in history, rather than nature, and the difference it makes bears upon what plants might tell us about forms of social life. It is a case of what nature, as Lim puts it, “would do and say to humans” in this altered perspective. But if in Lim’s valuable account the life of plants is historicized, the second, related point, that the plants themselves are invested with the power of speech, is not pursued or investigated. As we shall see, in killer plant narratives from the 1950s and after it is precisely the fact of there being talking plants that is often the most frightening aspect of these narratives. Therefore, what follows is an investigation of this phenomenon of plants that not only talk to but also about humans; often it is most disturbingly this combination of traits that engenders the horror in plant horror itself.

“Just a Piece of Wood”: Jan Švankmajer’s Otesánek and the EcoGothic
In prevailing Western culture, it is widely assumed that there is a stark distinction between humankind and the natural world. Consequently, we have created what Val Plumwood (1991) has termed “the human-nature dualism” (p. 3), in which nature is cast as separate—and subsidiary—to humanity. The plant kingdom, which dominates much of the natural world and is ordinarily encountered in our everyday lives, is surely a significant part of what we term “nature.”1 And yet, as Michael Marder (2013) contends, plants are widely overlooked in modern societies and so rendered as mere “background” (p. 3) to human activity. J. H. Wandersee and E. E. Schlusser (2001) argue that this “backgrounding” of the vegetable world has reached such a degree that we are now afflicted with what they term “plant blindness” (p. 2). The effect of this so-called “blindness” is twofold. On the one hand, plants are viewed as utterly mundane. They are undervalued objects which exist only to serve humankind (they feed us, they provide aesthetic decoration, and, of course, they enable us to breathe). They are seen as entirely inanimate and wholly devoid of any sentience or agency. They comply, therefore, with Matthew Hall’s (2011) assertion that nature is now viewed, predominantly, in terms of a “passive resource” (p. 4). In this sense, then, plants are decidedly not frightening. On the other hand, however, this “backgrounding” of the vegetable world means that plants may be seen, as Marder (2013) insists, as “uncanny” (p. 4). They literally surround us and so carry the potential—if viewed as suddenly strange and intrusive—to be thoroughly disquieting. This is only emphasized when considered in the context of anthropogenic (human-caused) ecological crisis. We now live in a time, as Hall (2011) asserts, when “[m]ost people are aware that human beings are harming nature” (p. 1). There is a widespread (if sometimes subliminal) fear that we are thus due its retribution.

An Inscrutable Malice: The Silencing of Humanity in The Ruins and The Happening
In April and June of 2008, DreamWorks Entertainment and Twentieth Century Fox each released a horror film that featured plants as the principal monster terrorizing humanity. While The Ruins and The Happening both received wide theatrical distribution, neither sold as many tickets as producers hoped, nor garnered much industry praise, although each earned more than its production cost. Critical and consumer response ranged from lukewarm (The Ruins) to vitriolic (The Happening). One film (The Ruins) vanished without much fanfare while the other (The Happening) distinguished itself as a once-promising auteur’s worst film, a major summer flop, and a potential cult classic. Because of these disappointing receptions, discussions about the nature of the monstrous plant remained muted, lost either in the absence of any cultural attention at all, or in a storm of criticism. Within a blockbuster era of cinema obsessed with calculating the odds of expensive productions versus record profits, the innovative idea that plants could act as a legitimate threat to humanity in popular horror film fizzled away, doomed by underwhelming box office performances.


Read more in Plant Horror: Approaches to the Monstrous Vegetal in Fiction and Film 1st ed. 2016 Edition by Dawn Keetley (Editor), Angela Tenga (Editor)

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