I. A Mightier Cathedral
Nature, like religion, spirals toward a center that remains forever out of reach. The orbit of our understanding may approach but can never make landfall on such terra infirma. To many, that unattainable void around which both whorl—their elusive quarry—is God. How many poets have claimed to observe Him in a vermillion sunset or a blooming rose, in a bird’s song or a ripple on the surface of a stream? He’s there, they tell us, and we believe them, because we too have sensed the shape of something in those rural idylls: Beauty, it is often called, the sublime, the numinous, mysterium tremendum et fascinans.
In 1869, John Muir, one of the premier American naturalists, took a trek with some shepherds into the Sierra Nevadas. On June 18th of that summer, he wrote in his journal, “Another inspiring morning, nothing better in any world can be conceived. No description of Heaven that I have ever heard or read of seems half so fine.” Days later, he marveled that “so rough a wilderness” would be “so full of good things.” Muir surmised that “God himself seems to be always doing his best” in that wilderness, “working like a man in a glow of enthusiasm.”
Muir, too, seemed to do his best work in the wilderness; there the glow of enthusiasm must have been infectious. According to Denis Williams, Muir “styled himself as a John the Baptist whose duty was to immerse in ‘mountain baptism’ everyone he could.” In 1903, amid the kindling of a new century, President Theodore Roosevelt visited Muir in Yosemite, the mountain baptist’s most baroque baptismal font. Roosevelt later wrote of the experience in his autobiography: “John Muir met me with a couple of packers and two mules to carry our tent, bedding, and food for a three days’ trip. The first night was clear, and we lay down in the darkening aisles of the great Sequoia grove. The majestic trunks, beautiful in color and in symmetry, rose round us like the pillars of a mightier cathedral than ever was conceived even by the fervor of the Middle Ages.”
For Muir, Roosevelt, and other proto-environmentalists like Henry David Thoreau, nature was a mightier cathedral, and communing with wilderness was a way of communing with God. This is an idea perhaps best expounded upon in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s iconic transcendentalist essay, “Nature.” He wrote, “The aspect of nature is devout. Like the figure of Jesus, she stands with bended head, and hands folded upon the breast. The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship.”
Each year, millions of visitors enter the many parks overseen by the U.S. National Park Service—a park system that exists solely because of the preservation efforts of Muir and his fellow early environmentalists—and many go to these American wildernesses with the same devotional fervor of their forebears: to escape the savagery of modern man, to seek sanctuary in the cathedral of nature, to atone for the sins of civilization, to commune with the divine, to return to Eden—or something like it.
But the idealized romance within our “return to nature” narrative belies a darker truth we know but are afraid to voice, one the horror genre is ever keen to exploit: that as much as nature is “so full of good things,” it is also full of danger and malice, chaos and murder, uncertainty and terror.
II. Revenge for the Desecration of the Temple
Before we see anything in Darren Aronofsky’s horror film, mother!, we hear the crackling of a fire. Then, the first image: a close-up of a woman engulfed in flames. She doesn’t scream, though we do hear the shrieks of others amidst the fire’s crepitation. She stares at us through eyes that are, according to the script, “defiant… sad… defeated… but free…” A single tear descends her charred cheek before the white of the flame engulfs the screen.
Nature, like religion, spirals toward a center that remains forever out of reach. The orbit of our understanding may approach but can never make landfall on such terra infirma.
Next: a man named Him places a crystal on a burnt shelf. With this simple act, the scorched earth seems to magically repair itself: now a beautiful cottage in an Edenic landscape. The woman, too, returns—a phoenix from the ashes. The film’s credits call her Mother. “I want to make a paradise,” she says. Soon a Man and Woman come to visit, unannounced, and predictably this paradise begins to fall apart when, ensorcelled by the crystal, the Man and Woman fracture the very object they had been forbidden to touch. The rough outlines of the allegory are easily traced—Mother as Mother Nature, Him as God, Man as Adam, Woman as Eve, the crystal as the forbidden fruit—but the particulars build in enough mystery, mood, and menace that the 1:1 correlations leak deeper, alternative resonances.
By the end of the film, after we’ve witnessed the countless abuses inflicted upon Mother by the crowds that disrupt, disturb, and inevitably destroy both the bucolic setting and the life it sustains, we understand Mother Nature’s rage and recognize its necessity, as she scorches everyone, including herself, in a cleansing fire. The characters of mother! act out the pantomime of one of the main strains of the eco-horror subgenre, where nature attacks as an act of retribution for man’s desecration of her temple. The tagline to the 1979 film Long Weekend sums the sentiment up nicely: “Their crime was against nature. Nature found them guilty.”
On the silver screen, nature repays us with every horror imaginable for our hubristic attempts to control her, to consume her, to use her, even to merely discover her. Yes, in these films, even discovery—endeavoring to denude nature of her garment of secrets—is itself a profane act worthy of retribution. As Jurassic Park’s Dr. Ian Malcolm says in Jeff Goldblum’s trademark self-satisfied staccato inflections: “What is so great about discovery? It is a violent, penetrative act that scars what it explores. What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world.”
In the eco-horror canon, man’s assault on nature comes in many forms—man-made climate change (The Day After Tomorrow, The Thaw), ozone depletion (Day of the Animals), nuclear radiation (Them!, Godzilla), drilling (The Last Winter), animal testing (28 Days Later, Rise of the Planet of the Apes), genetic engineering (Piranha, Jurassic Park, Mimic, The Breed), toxic waste (Empire of the Ants, Prophecy, Eight Legged Freaks), pesticides (Frogs, Kingdom of the Spiders), hormones (Night of the Lepus, Alligator, Stung), steroids (Deadly Eyes), and even simple electricity (The Devil Bat, Squirm)—but nature takes back the night in equally multifarious shapes.
Like the pollution that Pickett Smith photographs on a swamp during the opening credits of Frogs, the moral of these stories usually floats a little too luridly on the surface: we ought to be better stewards of the earth. The fire and brimstone prevalent in this particular vein of the eco-horror subgenre sees us as sinners in the hands of an angry mother, but the films’ pharisaic sermonizing—no matter how much we may personally agree with their core lesson of stewardship—betrays a deeper, more disconcerting question: What if the thing we’re communing with in the wild isn’t God at all? What if Roosevelt’s “mightier cathedral” isn’t a house of the Lord but, instead, Satan’s church?
III. Satan’s Church
She, the female lead of Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, warns us of exactly this terrifying fact: “Nature is Satan’s church.” We have not turned her against us with our actions. How silly we are to presume to understand her, to give her such simplistic human motives: anger, revenge, righteousness, etc. Instead, maybe she has always stood in occult and occulted opposition to us. As much as the narrative of nature as “a mightier cathedral” has been woven into the tapestry of American culture, so too has this compelling counternarrative. Cotton Mather, in his 1693 text Wonders of the Invisible World, imagined the shadowy wilds of America as under the dominion of the Devil.
This Puritan fear of Satan’s territories is on display in a horror film called The Witch, which director Robert Eggers calls “a nightmare from the past.” The film, set in New England in the 1630s, follows an English settler named William and his family as they are banished from the seeming safety of their Protestant colony and, alone on the outskirts of a vast untouched wilderness, encounter evil forces at play in the natural world. As in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, “The edge of the wilderness was close by. The American continent stretched endlessly west, and it was full of mystery for them. It stood, dark and threatening, over their shoulders night and day.” The children in The Witch jape—of seeing witches in the wood, of even being the witch of the wood themselves—but they have been told not to enter this fiefdom of the archfiend. “Within the wood? You and mother have always forbade us to set foot there,” says the young Caleb to his father.
As much as nature is “so full of good things,” it is also full of danger and malice, chaos and murder, uncertainty and terror.
This idea of a “dark and threatening” nature—violent, frenzied, mysterious, occulted—is the foundation upon which countless eco-horror films are built, but no one has erected their entire oeuvre on this foundation as thoroughly and as deliberately as Werner Herzog, who in both narrative and documentary features and shorts reminds us constantly of nature’s brutish indifference. Like the self-disemboweling fox in Antichrist, Herzog knows that in the pews of Satan’s church, “chaos reigns.”
In the documentary, Burden of Dreams, which follows the making of his 1982 masterpiece, Fitzcarraldo, Herzog delineates his views on nature over the harrowing and cacophonous orchestra of the jungle: “Taking a close look at what’s around us, there is some sort of a harmony: it is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder. And we, in comparison to the articulate vileness and baseness and obscenity of all this jungle, we, in comparison to that enormous articulation, we only sound and look like badly pronounced and half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban novel, a cheap novel. We have to become humble in front of this overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication, overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order. Even the stars up here in the sky look like a mess. There is no harmony in the universe. We have to get acquainted to this idea that there is no real harmony as we have conceived it. But when I say this, I say this all full of admiration for the jungle. It is not that I hate it. I love it. I love it very much, but I love it against my better judgment.”
Where Muir saw God’s best work in the wilderness, Herzog finds “a land that God, if he exists, has created in anger.” This line mirrors one found in a different eco-horror documentary, The Hellstrom Chronicle, directed by Ed Spiegel and Walon Green, in which a fictitious scientist explains that “the earth was created not with the gentle caress of love, but with the brutal violence of rape.” In other words, the violence we find in nature has been there since its inception, when we—as individuals and, in fact, as an entire species—were still unimagined and unimaginable. Elsewhere in that documentary, the scientist tells us: “Masked beneath the beauty of nature’s world is one simple and ugly truth: life must take life in the interest of life itself.”
There is no moral arc of the universe, which is why Camille Paglia can write that “Nature’s fascism is greater than that of any society.” Nature cares not for maintaining Iustitia’s level balance, nor does she step on any scales. All apologies to the little blue boys and girls in Avatar, but Eywa hasn’t “heard you,” at least not if she’s anything like our mother.
Two of the most iconic—not to mention most terrifying—films of the eco-horror subgenre know this well: that morality, justice, and equality are all outside of nature’s purview. In Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, animals attack for reasons beyond our comprehension. Sure, characters scratch and claw at the doors of understanding, but ultimately, it is only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, they get no closer to an explanation. We can try to make sense of nature, but it remains shrouded in mystery. In Jaws, the murderous great white is described in one scene as “a cloud in the shape of a killer shark”—and that’s precisely correct. Nature—represented in films as a rogue shark, a flock of birds, or any other seemingly material horror—is always still merely the fog of projections on a screen, a mist, a cloud of unknowing.
This idea of a “dark and threatening” nature—violent, frenzied, mysterious, occulted—is the foundation upon which countless eco-horror films are built.
It is only in the acceptance of that unknowing and un-understanding, only in dwelling in that darkness, that we can approach “the occulted world,” which is, by its very nature, unapproachable. In the diner scene in The Birds, just after the attack on the school and just before the attack on the gas station, Melanie Daniels uses a phone to call her father: “Daddy, there were hundreds of them. No, I’m not hysterical. I’m trying to tell you this as calmly as I know how.” During the phone call, an old women sidles up to the bar. Mrs. Bundy is her name, and she happens to be, of all things, an ornithologist. She asks Melanie Daniels about the birds that attacked the school: “What do you think they were after?” “I think they were after the children,” Miss Daniels responds. “For what purpose?” Mrs. Bundy wonders. “To kill them,” says Daniels. “Why?” “I don’t know why.”
The ornithologist may be logical in her determination that “the very concept” of different species of birds flocking together “is unimaginable,” but her logic fails in the world of the film. The unimaginable is the purview of nature, the very fiber of its being. Mrs. Bundy’s certainty, her inability to forget her supposed knowledge, and her refusal to imagine a way out of its subsequent determinations put her at a disadvantage. For all of Mrs. Bundy’s supposed ornithological expertise, we know that it is actually Miss Daniels who is right. Like her, we don’t know why nature is doing what it does, why it is what it is, but in such clouds of unknowing we are pointed toward something, whether the divine or the Devil, whether beauty or terror, all of which, as words, merely outline a shape that eternally recedes in the mist.
The message of The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous work of Christian mysticism from the 14th century, is that the only way to know God is by separating ourselves from everything we know, everything we think, and everything we desire through a “cloud of forgetting” and, thereby, surrendering to the “cloud of unknowing”: “If ever you come to this cloud, and live and work in it as I bid you, just as this cloud of unknowing is above you, between you and your God, in the same way you must put beneath you a cloud of forgetting, between you and all the creatures that have ever been made.”
Philosopher Eugene Thacker explains that The Cloud of Unknowing “combines two types of darkness into one: the darkness of human knowledge (‘darkness’ as privative, as a limit between the known and the unknown) and the darkness of God (‘darkness’ as superlative, as beyond what can possibly be known by human beings).”
The horror film tries to approximate these darknesses, these clouds, but word and image can never quite limn the always-already-terror that precedes, exceeds, and supersedes all things. As Emerson says of the soul, we might say of the occulted world: “Language cannot paint it with his colors. It is too subtile. It is undefinable, unmeasurable; but we know that it pervades and contains us.”
IV. The Occulted-Soul
If mother! is a retelling of ancient Abrahamic mythology given an emphatic utterance (stylized with an exclamation point which Aronofsky claims “reflects the spirit of the film”), then in Antichrist we find a similar retelling that is, in the words of Magdalena Zolkos, “ancient Abrahamic mythology framed as a question.” That question, according to Zolkos, is: “What is to become of humanity once it discovers it has been expelled from Eden and that Satan is in us?”
The horror film tries to approximate these darknesses, these clouds, but word and image can never quite limn the always-already-terror that precedes, exceeds, and supersedes all things.
The Witch, too, confronts us with this Puritanical conundrum, when the children are taught of “a corrupt nature dwelling within [them]” that is “empty of grace, bent unto sin, only unto sin, and that continually.”
Whereas the Puritanical Christianity of the 1630s depicted in The Witch found corruption dwelling within us and our world, Emerson found light and benevolence in our souls. For him, “the soul in man is not an organ, but animates and exercises all the organs; is not a function, like the power of memory, of calculation, of comparison, but uses these as hands and feet; is not a faculty, but a light; is not the intellect or the will, but the master of the intellect and the will; is the background of our being, in which they lie,—an immensity not possessed and that cannot be possessed.”
In his essay “The Over-Soul,” Emerson posited the idea that each of us is eternally connected to one another and to everything in the universe. The Over-Soul connects and contains all souls—is the animating force behind them, is God.
Emerson believed that “evil is merely privative, not absolute: it is like cold, which is the privation of heat” and that “the first lesson of history is the good of evil.” In his copy of Emerson’s writings, Herman Melville underlined that odd phrase—“the good of evil”—writing in the margins: “He still bethinks himself of his optimism—he must make that good somehow against the eternal hell itself.” In response to Emerson arguing that “we use defects and deformities to a sacred purpose, so expressing our sense that the evils of the world are such only to the evil eye,” Melville wondered: “What does the man mean? If Mr. Emerson traveling in Egypt should find the plague-spot come out on him—would he consider that an evil sight or not? And if evil, would the eye be evil because it seemed evil to his eye, or rather to his sense using the eye for instrument?”
For Melville, “Evil is the chronic malady of the universe, and checked in one place, breaks forth in another.” To put it a little too crudely, Emerson was interested more in light, and Melville in darkness. Of course, darkness needn’t be blackness. It would be hard to call the whiteness of that leviathan, Moby-Dick, anything other than dark. Is it possible that it is actually good rather than evil that is privative, not absolute? Or could both good and evil be privative of some other something?
Nature, which is neither good nor evil, seeks no revenge nor stands in opposition to us. It cannot stand in opposition to one of its constituent parts, just as a wall cannot stand in opposition to one of its bricks. “As we degenerate,” Emerson wrote, “the contrast between us and our house is more evident. We are as much strangers in nature, as we are aliens from God.” But just because we seem strangers, does not mean that we are.
It is only in the acceptance of that unknowing and un-understanding, only in dwelling in that darkness, that we can approach “the occulted world,” which is, by its very nature, unapproachable.
Our buildings are merely elaborate beaver dams, our cities merely complex ant colonies, our technologies merely complicated ape tools. And who among us would argue that beaver dams, ant colonies, and ape tools are not nature? Only a fool. And, likewise, it would be foolish to think of humans and our human civilization as outside of nature. If we are strangers in nature, it is only because, as Emerson knew, we are strangers in ourselves.
The thing that connects us is nature, and is thus beyond good and evil, is not so much an Over-Soul, but an Occulted-Soul. What we share with all others is not quite our body, not quite our mind, not quite our soul, but the occulted nature of body, mind, and soul—the inaccessibleness of even our own bodies, minds, and souls, the way they recede from our grasp, the moment we try to possess them fully. What we fear in nature—and, therefore, what eco-horror films exploit—is our recognition of this fog of unrecognizability that permeates our own selves everywhere.
But is it just the eco-horror subgenre that does this? To be honest, eco-horror may not even be a subgenre at all. Its borders trace the same shape that forms the horror genre writ large. All horror is in some sense eco-horror—whether the hauntings take the form of dinosaurs or witches, werewolves or disease, man or the wind—because all horror engages with the always-already-terror, with the occulted world, with the cloud of unknowing—all of which are merely metonyms for nature, or for which nature is itself a metonym.