Wednesday 26 June 2019

Are audiences getting cold feet about the future?

Polar horror and climate change tales are popular in both literature and on-screen in these uniquely anxious times, writes Professor Darryl Jones

Icy reception: The Night King in Game of Thrones threatens to wipe out humanity
Icy reception: The Night King in Game of Thrones threatens to wipe out humanity

The world is dying, it's our fault, and unless we take radical action now, it will be too late to do anything about it. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, produced this month, made for terrifying reading: we are looking into an apocalyptic future of blistering summers, melting icecaps, drowned cities, whole portions of the planet left effectively uninhabitable, the death of coral, the decimation of insect life, dramatic resource scarcity, unprecedented political upheaval, population migration on a scale we've never seen before, food and water wars, the potential breakdown of any social order.

Increasingly, many of us have the sense that we're living through a horror movie. The walking dead are everywhere, on our screens and at our ports, on our streets and in our homes: there is a widespread sense of helplessness, a wholesale lack of agency. Horror, in fact, is a cultural mode uniquely suited to articulating popular anxieties in an understandable form - and these are uniquely anxious times. Those of us who watch and read horror know that it is not escapism for sickos, but an urgent explanatory mechanism for the world around us. There is a reason vampires cast no reflections in mirrors: it is because what looks back at us is ourselves.

President Donald Trump's decision in 2017 to withdraw America from the Paris Agreement on climate change action followed a sustained campaign of climate change denial by the American Right, which brought together the economic interests of certain parts of corporate America with the cultural anti-modernity of the Evangelical Religious Right. While some media outlets such as the BBC have worked hard, in a way which has often been terribly self-damaging, to maintain a 'balanced' view, the response to global warming in horror fiction, film, and television over the past two decades has been virtually univocal: climate change is real; the earth is warming; this is a man-made disaster; our survival is under severe threat.

Thus, for example, in M Night Shyamalan's The Happening (2008), plants begin to release toxins which are deadly to humanity. Construction worker Curtis (Michael Shannon) begins to have apocalyptic visions of a coming storm which will devastate humanity in Jeff Nichols's Take Shelter (2011). The film closes with drops of black rain falling from the sky. Steroid-laden excrement dumped into Chesapeake Bay from an industrial chicken-rearing plant creates a mutated strain of flesh-eating parasites in Barry Levinson's genuinely disturbing The Bay (2012). The film is an extrapolation of real-life environmental concerns that manure runoff from intensive poultry farms was contributing to a number of ecological 'dead zones' in Chesapeake Bay.

In Jeff VanderMeer's novel Annihilation (2014), a team of scientists investigates the mysterious Area X, a sealed-off area of unknowable nature. VanderMeer's novel has been compared to the work of the great American philosophical ruralist Henry David Thoreau, whose 1851 book Walden is the great American literary meditation on the relationship between humanity and the natural world.

Given widespread anxieties about the melting of the polar ice caps, it is not surprising that the 21st century has produced a good deal of Arctic and Antarctic horror. Polar Gothic is a recurring subgenre of horror. Drawing on the long-unexplored and thus fundamentally imaginary geography of the polar regions, a number of works of horror (and also of fantasy) have been set in the far northern or southern latitudes.

The narration of Frankenstein takes place on board the ship of the polar explorer Robert Walton. At the close of the novel, Victor Frankenstein heads out on the ice, towards the Pole, in pursuit of his Monster. Edgar Allan Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, follows its protagonist on his inexorable journey south, towards its Antarctic climax. Fresh out of medical school, Arthur Conan Doyle served for a time as a doctor on a Greenland whaling ship; his story 'The Captain of the Pole-Star' is an imaginative response to this voyage.

Heavily influenced by Poe, HP Lovecraft's great novella At the Mountains of Madness charts the terrifying discoveries of an Antarctic expedition. All three film versions of The Thing (1951, 1982, 2011), based on John W Campbell's 1938 novella, Who Goes There, are set in polar latitudes (Antarctica in 1938, 1982, and 2011, Northern Alaska in 1951).

Polar horror, then, is not a new phenomenon, but it has gained exponentially in intensity in the last decades. Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow (2004) opens in the Antarctic, where a slice of the ice shelf 'the size of Rhode Island' breaks off due to global warming, a harbinger of the climatic disaster to follow, in which the northern US becomes uninhabitable, and Mexico gives shelter to American refugees.

This was the film which spurred former Vice President Al Gore to make his own influential climate change documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth (2006). In 2017, a slice of the Antarctic Larsen C ice-shelf did break off: it was larger than Delaware, which itself is half as large again as Rhode Island. In Larry Fessenden's film The Last Winter (2006), an ecohorror reimagining of Algernon Blackwood's classic work of Canadian horror The Wendigo, the melting of the permafrost releases supernatural entities, first into a remote oil-drilling camp on the Northern Slope of Alaska, and then, it is implied, worldwide.

When Abby (Connie Sellers), the camp's only survivor, wakes up in hospital, she hears news reports about a widespread disaster; a doctor in the room next door has hanged himself. Stepping outside, she walks through puddles of water: the snow has melted. The hospital in which Abby wakes is presumably in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost city in the US. Barrow's isolation, cut off from the world for long periods, is what makes it vulnerable to a vampire attack in 30 Days of Night (2007).

The Last Winter's trope of the melting polar ice releasing forces inimical to humanity recurs in The Thaw (2009) - with Val Kilmer as a climate scientist - and the TV series Fortitude (2015-17). Fortitude was set in the Svalbard archipelago, the northernmost inhabited place in the world. Svalbard is also the setting for parts of Philip Pullman's young adult fantasy Northern Lights (1995), and for Michelle Paver's remarkable retro ghost story, Dark Matter (2010). Svalbard is the home of the Global Seed Vault, protected there in the permafrost in case we ever need to reseed the planet in the wake of an environmental catastrophe. In 2016, unusually high temperatures - those same ones that are causing the ice caps to melt around Svalbard - caused a flood of meltwater into the vault's tunnels.

Meanwhile, back at home, on our screens, in Game of Thrones - adapted from George RR Martin's series of fantasy novels - the Night King and his zombie army sweep down from the frozen north, marching relentlessly toward the ice wall that has kept them at bay for millennia, and threatening to wipe out humanity. At the end of the last episode, an undead dragon laid waste to the wall. We are all holding our breath to see what happens next.

Professor Darryl Jones is Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Trinity College Dublin and the author of  Sleeping With the Lights On: The Unsettling Story of Horror published by Oxford University Press (£10.99)

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