Environmental Gothic Part Two: If You Go Down to the Woods Today…

Posted by kevincorstorphine on July 01, 2011 in Dr Kevin Corstorphine, Guest Blog tagged with , , , , , , ,

Horror films  from the 1970s onwards have often been labelled as conservative, or at least reactionary, in their punishment of young people who have premarital sex, take drugs, or drink. Women have been victimised in a much longer tradition, particularly when they step outside of societal norms. These points are part of the standard analysis of Gothic texts, film in particular. This, however, is focused on codes of social morality. Recent ecocritical theory has moved away from ‘anthropocentric’ readings towards ones that place humanity in the wider context of the natural world. I’m currently working on a definition of what constitutes the ‘EcoGothic’ and musing on what would be revealed about Gothic narratives if we shift the emphasis towards an ecological viewpoint. My first blog post, about squid and octopus, took a step towards placing horror within nature. The discussion, though, veered wildly into the territory of women being menaced by phallic tentacles:

It hardly takes a Freudian critic to notice that a scene like this, from The Land Unknown (1957), is an obvious example of substituting a plant for sexual menace, in the context of the lost world narrative, likely sexual menace from natives. This subtext is obvious in an alternate cover of Wheatley’s Uncharted Seas, which brings the postcolonial issue of the portrayal of bestial otherness into the equation:

When writing originally about Uncharted Seas and The Lost Continent I started to look at the implications of all these phallic substitutions, and comment discussions led me to reconsider The Evil Dead (1981) and its notorious depiction of a woman being ‘raped’ by a tree. This is often held up as the most shocking scene in the film, although interestingly the tree scene was only cut in the UK for a later video release in 1990 (a comprehensive and fascinating history of this fiasco can be found here

The fact that this is exploitative is obvious, and very much the point of the film, which acts on one level as a parody of earlier horror clichés. The character become tainted by this and transforms into a demon, only to be locked in the basement by her own brother (gender-focused readings start here). What if, however, we take for granted that women are victimised? This is only one example, after all,  in a long history of patriarchal narratives continuing to this day where ‘our’ women are threatened by the monstrous Other, a good example being, of course, Hitcock’s The Birds (1963).

Who, in this case, is the Other? Despite the somewhat spurious device that demons have been released by reading The Necronomicon (a fictional text invented by Lovecraft), the true antagonist is clearly nature itself. The film begins with a group of teenagers retreating to a cabin in the woods; an image indelibly associated in the American consciousness with Thoreau’s retreat to Walden Pond. Here, however, nature turns against them. The only bridge out of the area is destroyed, and the demonic consciousness takes up residence in the woods, forcing the group into a siege at the cabin. Mankind’s ‘rape’ of nature is repaid in kind. This is made even clearer in the sequel, when a mounted deer head comes to life to menace Ash, the protagonist. This is also a clear influence for this excellent horror parody by Queens of the Stone Age.

There have recently been some interesting films dealing with nature attacking humans, that are also wildly tangled with gender issues. I’ve just watched the remake of Long Weekend (2008), although I must confess to having missed the original (1978).

This is about a young Australian couple who camp at an unspoiled beach, only to set about ruining it by throwing beer cans around, chopping down trees, and shooting a dugong. Nature exacts a terrible revenge as plants and animals turn against them, including, bizarrely, the aforementioned dugong. Tensions in their relationship come to the fore, centreing around an an argument over infidelity and an abortion. This  leads to the male character being tormented by nature as he is left behind by his manic girlfriend (interesting that he is played by James Caveziel, famous for playing not just a Christ-like figure but Christ himself). The association of women, and female sexuality in particular, with nature of a dark and evil sort was played out disturbingly in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), which shares the device of a confused and desperate male protagonist. Worthwhile mentioning here too is The Wake Wood (2011), produced by the resurrected Hammer Studios. This plays on ‘The Monkey’s Paw’/Pet Sematary trope of bringing a dead child back to life and wishing you hadn’t, but introduces some very interesting associations with motherhood, birth, and the cycles of nature.

So what to make of all this? In our increasingly fraught relationship with our ecosystem it is inevitable that Gothic visions of nature should come to the fore. It seems to be a ubiquitous point of conversation these days that recent natural disasters are representative of nature’s revenge; a Gothic way of looking at the world informed by popular narratives of fear and one that also feeds back into fiction. There is an element of religious discourse here, of sin and punishment, which I discussed in the first part of this post. Also, there is a feminisation of the environment, going back perhaps to the personification of ‘Mother Nature’, and certainly identified by Cixous in her critique of binary oppositions, where ‘woman’, ‘nature’ and ’emotion’ are contrasted with ‘man’, ‘culture’ and ‘reason’. These dichotomies are alive and well in modern Gothic, suggesting that our relationships with each other are still as much a cause of anxiety as our relationship with nature.

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