Antagonistic Nature: The Loss of Anthropocentric Authority in Eco-Horror of the 1970s and 80s
by Matthew Jones
Abstract: [page 33] Ecological concerns and anxieties stemming from the effects of environmental damage became readily apparent within the North American consciousness starting in the post-World War II era. These fears manifested themselves in a variety of ways including the birth of a cycle of environmentally conscious horror films showing up on cinema screens beginning in the 1970s. This essay will examine how an important yet largely critically overlooked group of ecological horror films of that cycle transcend surface-level environmental concerns for the expression of deeper collective fears stemming from the potential loss of what will be referred to as anthropocentric authority. This concept revolves around humankind’s collective perception of dominance over the natural world. Four films will serve as case studies for this project: Frogs (1972), The Food of the Gods (1976) and Food of the Gods II (1989) and Alligator (1980). These texts will be read through the lens of oppositional representations of the uneasy relationships between humanity and nature. This approach will allow a proper exploration of the films’ articulations of a non-human agency, an anthropomorphized and intelligent nature with seemingly sentient human motives expressed in premeditated vengeance.
Keywords: anthropocentric authority, collective fears, eco-horror, non-human agency
Ecological concerns and anxieties stemming from the effects of environmental damage manifested within the North American consciousness beginning in the post-World War II era. The preceding decades saw modernity's technological encroachment on wilderness spaces coupled with a series of catastrophic enviro-events, leading to both the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the birth of Earth Day by 1970. One of the foremost event catalysts that drew public awareness and ire occurred in 1969, when a Union Oil drilling rig accident off the coast of California precipitated a [page 34] large-scale ecological disaster that devastated local marine and coastal life while impacting nearly eight hundred square miles of ocean and leaving close to 35 miles of coastline soaked in oil (Clarke and Hemphill). Along with a revitalized ecological concern came a pervasive public antagonism aimed squarely at the oil companies responsible, giving way to a more pointed distrust of industrial activities and the motives that drove them. Out of this historical context came a cycle of horror films whose themes reflect a deep concern for the natural environment; films such as Phase IV (1974), Empire of the Ants (1977), Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) The Long Weekend (1978), and Prophecy (1979) posit the rise of a terrestrial threat where, as Andrew Tudor stated in Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie, "an unanticipated consequence of human activity is the antagonism of normally indifferent nature" (61).
Narratives constructed around themes of natural environmental disruption due to human activities and the devastating consequences of nature’s response were not entirely new to the cinema in the early 1970s. In fact, ecological horror in the cinema, at least in a primitive form, dates back to the mid-1950s with the emergence of a few key progenitors for the subgenre; Gordon Douglas’s Them! and Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla, both making their monstrous appearances in 1954. While these films are clearly very much aware of the potential consequences of general environmental disruption, they tend to foreground anxieties surrounding nuclear apocalypse and the potentially catastrophic effects of the atomic age.
This essay will examine how an important yet largely critically overlooked group of ecological horror films of the 1970s and ’80s transcend surface-level environmental concerns for the expression of deeper collective fears stemming from the potential loss of what I refer to as anthropocentric authority. As human beings, we presume our position on this planet as dominant and very rarely question our authority over the other biological systems inhabiting the [page 35] Earth. Our ability to produce and wield the technological means to achieve progress plays a prominent role in how we see ourselves positioned within the hierarchical structure of life. Human history supports the view that nature does not possess complete authority over even itself, minimizing nature to the point of mere provision. Anthropocentric authority, then, is humankind’s collective perception of dominance over the natural world. There are a host of parallels between contemporary Australian ecological horror and its North American counterpart of the 1970s and ’80s, and Catherine Simpson’s “Australian Eco-horror and Gaia’s Revenge: Animals, Eco-nationalism and the ‘New Nature’” looks at Australian eco-horror and films that critically examine the relationship between humankind and nature. One of Simpson’s main conceits is that, in all variants of ecological horror, the monstrous threat serves to “undermine the notion of human supremacy over nature” (47), that is, the anthropocentric authority; it is exactly these terrestrial threats that act as the impetus for the horror of humankind losing its perceived “supremacy.” Eco-horror films reveal that various forms of loss, including the erosion of perceived dominance over the natural world, are a main source of anxiety for humankind.
Four films will serve as case studies for this project: Frogs (1972), The Food of the Gods (1976), Food of the Gods II (1989) and Alligator (1980). These texts will be read through the lens of oppositional representations of the uneasy relationships between humanity and nature. This approach will allow a proper exploration of the films’ articulations of anthropomorphized and intelligent nature with seemingly sentient human motives expressed in premeditated vengeance.
The juxtaposition of visual elements in these films is both indicative of humankind’s uneasy relationship with nature and an articulation of a perturbation of the natural system. [page 36] George McCowan’s Frogs opens with a wildlife photographer who unwittingly stumbles upon a wealthy oil mogul’s Independence Day family celebration; when the bodies of family members begin to turn up and the local wildlife begins to act strangely, nature quickly becomes positioned as antagonistic. The film opens with an arrhythmic sequence of shots creating a set of oppositions between frogs, snakes, and other creatures in their natural habitat on one side and the humans and pollution that threaten local swamp-life on the other. Although Pickett, the film’s protagonist, is documenting the environmental damage through the lens of his camera, he and his camera are aligned with the contaminants, human products, floating in the water. The film then positions him in becoming a symbol of opposition and disunity with nature. The film quickly, and uncomfortably, alternates between shots of Pickett documenting the pollution with seemingly unnatural close-ups of various frogs and shots of the discarded waste that litters the swamp. The shots of the frogs are central to creating this visual opposition, as they are anthropomorphized through the montage and appear to be angrily glaring directly at Pickett as he takes photographs of them. Within the same sequence we get a prolonged shot of a doll surrounded in floating plastic trash, and the human likeness implies an additional threat. Throughout the film, humanity is positioned in greater alignment with its own destructive products than with the natural world. The film creates a causal relationship through this opening sequence and despite Pickett’s objective position, he is ultimately coded as part of the cause.
This oppositional relationship is established early in all four films, importantly alongside some form of modern technology. Toward the beginning of Frogs, Pickett’s canoe is purposefully sideswiped by a speedboat driven by Clint (Adam Roarke). Clint embodies the potentially destructive heedlessness of humanity as he is introduced carelessly drinking a beer while speeding through the waves with his sister Karen (Joan Van Ark). The motorized roar of this [page 37] product of technological leisure cutting menacingly through the water is in contrast to the quiet serenity of the canoe and its occupant, visually and aurally suggesting an aggressive and ultimately adversarial humankind with its modernized technology; parallel editing and contrasting diegetic sound cut sharply from the natural serene order of Pickett and the nearly immobile canoe to the hyperaggressive, chaotic threat of Clint and the thundering machine. Similarly, in The Food of the Gods men on thundering horseback accompanied by barking dogs (domesticated nature) are visually and aurally juxtaposed with the peaceful calm of a forest as they chase a lone fawn, all while brandishing the technology of modern aggression (rifles). In Food of the Gods II, this position takes the form of the scientific-technological, shown by a single moving shot of the interior of a very white university science lab foregrounded by a large section of plant life. The rest of the shot is of the professor and his assistant amid the equipment of modern science, and, like the plants, they are surrounded and ultimately dwarfed by the lab space itself. They are dressed in white, matching the lab and the dominance of its technology, while also remaining physically distanced from the plants within the mise en scene. The composition and the aesthetic of the shot articulate human kind’s unity with the scientific-technological and its inherent conflict with the natural.1 The scientific-technological also plays a sinister oppositional role in Lewis Teague’s Alligator, where Slade Pharmaceutical’s grotesque experimentation on lost pets provides the narrative’s inciting incident, a synthetic birth for the horror of the mutant alligator.
Bert I. Gordon’s The Food of the Gods (1976) tells the story of a group of people who must fight for their lives after a mysterious substance leaking from the ground of a remote island turns ordinary animals into over-sized rampaging beasts. Here, the loss of the means of escape—that is, their vehicles, a fatal failure of technology–contributes to the horror of vengeful nature as giant rats eventually surround them, cornering them in an old cabin to fight for their lives. [page 38] Encroaching nature invokes anxieties and undermines humankind’s authoritative hold over both natural and domestic spaces, and in the film, the domestic space, the cabin, is under attack, threatening the last bastion of human survival. Earlier in the film, access to the surrounding woods is restricted by a swarm of oversized wasps who attack and kill Davis (Chuck Courtney) after he and the film’s two main protagonists, Morgan (Marjoe Gortner) and Brian (Jon Cypher), hunt deer via horseback: Davis, acting against nature, chases the deer to take an easy kill despite Morgan’s protest and ends up meeting his end for the transgression.
Where The Food of the Gods reflects fears over humankind’s loss of control over natural and domestic space, Alligator reveals anxieties surrounding the loss of the civilized, urban space: nature is no longer restricted to forests, swamps, or the open spaces of natural environments. Instead, its threat to impinge on the urban landscape ignites chaos. Alligator presents the civilized world under siege by the product of its own actions; humans irresponsibly dump chemicals into the sewers and have unleashed nature’s monstrous threat in the heart of an urban center. After the titular monster bursts through a sidewalk from the sewers below, the city is immediately thrown into a panic, and the authorities are ineffective against the threat.
The emergence of nature’s revenge rising to the surface from another realm appear in the other three films under discussion and has become a convention of sorts within the ecological horror form appearing even in more popular contemporary offerings such as Joon-ho Bong’s The Host (2006) and Barry Levinson’s The Bay (2012). This surfacing of the monster from some sort of concealed underworld to the human world plays into fears of both threats that dwell in the unknown realm below and the potential loss of our authority above. Frogs sees its threats emerge from the depths of the swamp and both Food of the Gods films pay special attention to the subterranean realm of the rats. Food of the Gods II sees the threat surface in a pool filled with swimmers, and [page 39] Alligator, as mentioned, has its monster emerge from the depths of the sewers. An inversion of the extraterrestrial invasion threats from above of the 1950s, these terrestrial threats emerge from below, decentering our perceived position and recoding the human as invader. The animals rise to the surface to eliminate the threat from above and, in doing so, act to secure their own spaces against the invader. In The Food of the Gods, humanity becomes the invading force when Lana falls into the underground home of the rats. Morgan quickly follows her and blasts several of the over-sized rodent occupants with a shotgun. This violent incursion into the hostile domain of the dangerous other parallels the exterminator’s poisonous assault on the rats’ makeshift abode below the campus in Food of the Gods II. Thus, these films make clear that humanity’s invasion into the underground dwelling of the animals not only serves to provoke a threatening response but also casts humans as the invading force, forcing us to reassess our place in the natural order.
Simpson notes that “eco-horror also re-writes the animal as agent, the power of which we fail to acknowledge at our own, human peril” (52). In granting the animals power to protect themselves and their homes (the environment), these films challenge anthropocentric authority by means of a natural agent able to destabilize and undermine human mastery. In Frogs, a variety of natural agents (snakes, scorpions, lizards, tarantulas, and more) work cooperatively and purposefully to overthrow the Crocketts’ authoritarian grip over the swamp environment, while the rats of Food of the Gods II undermine institutional practices and disrupt traditions when the mutant rats run rampant on a college campus, events that culminate in a bloodbath at the opening of the school’s new sports complex. Alligator sees the monster track down and eventually slaughter a number of authority figures, including the Mayor (Jack Carter), the chief scientist [page 40] Arthur (James Ingersoll), and the film’s main antagonistic force, Slade (Dean Jagger), at an elite wedding party.
Like Frogs, The Food of the Gods sees humankind’s disrupting of the natural order as causal to the point that a disturbing of nature’s organic rhythms evokes a destructive and violent response. In The Philosophy of Horror, Noël Carroll argues that, from a human perspective, the monstrous inhuman threats are themselves “disturbances of the natural order” (16). The vicious oversized rats in The Food of the Gods, like the vengeful amphibians from Frogs, become the embodiment of chaos and apocalyptic end through reference to both the Biblical plague of frogs and progressive extinction via the bubonic plague, spread by rats. Both films imply that chaos within nature will cost humankind more that its assumed authority over nature, as it has in the apocryphal past.
Andrew Tudor notes the commonality of ecological horror film endings being “open” (73), a feature of the four films discussed above. For ecological horror, this lack of narrative closure often suggests that the destructive natural threat will continue in perpetuity with the only question being humanity’s ability to persist. This is most interestingly crafted in Food of the Gods II, which sees scientific test subject and giant human child Robert escape from captivity, only to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting human society; this particular ending is a reminder that human beings are part of the natural order as well, and nature’s vengeance for human interference need not be in the form of the animalistic. While the other films’ endings presume a cyclical regenerating of the monstrous animal threat, Food of the Gods II sees the human transform into a kinetic force for its own extinction. The film blurs the distinction between human and inhuman and makes ambiguous the boundary between the natural and monstrous, ultimately posing new considerations for both the context of eco-threat and the consequences of a re-engineered natural order. [page 41]
Humans, Technology, and Industry
The ecological horror film can at times speak of a paradoxical relationship that modern humankind has with its own technology, and in the above films, it is simultaneously the antecedent of the threat and that which is employed to restore diegetic order. In The Food of the Gods, Morgan’s voice-over near the start of the film recalls the words of his father: “One of these days the Earth will get even with man for messing her up with his garbage…just let man continue to pollute the Earth the way he is and nature will rebel.” Although the film never makes explicit what caused the land to leak the “food of the gods,” humankind’s modern technology is also implicated through another of Morgan’s voice-overs where he mentions how he will try to “enjoy some of the spaces man hasn’t screwed up with his technology.” In Food of the Gods II, it is scientific technology that gives rise to the threat and modern weaponry that ends it; Frogs makes clear that the threat originates with industrial technology and provides modern vehicles as means of escape, while the narrative structure of Alligator makes obvious the threat’s beginnings in pharmaceutical technology and the monster finds its end via the scientific-technological nature of explosives. The Food of the Gods is the most overt in articulating the paradoxical nature of modern technology by humans, implying simultaneously that it is a necessity for the progression of the species and may bring about its end. In one scene, Morgan and Brian formulate a plan to use explosive technology to blow up a dam and drown the monstrous rats. The plan succeeds, saving the embattled humans and, in a gesture to the future, preserving the life of the pregnant survivor and her unborn child.
These films also suggest that human concerns are petty and self-serving and that activities motivated by self-interest are often the root of the threat of destruction. Growing public distrust of corporate activities following the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill pervade the fabric of North American [page 42] ecological horror cinema of the following decades. The films in this essay identify corporate entities and the relationship between industry and science as the primary causes of the horror that ensues. The Food of the Gods utilizes Mr. Bensington (Ralph Meeker) as an embodiment of the corporate entity. While the H.G. Wells novel on which the film is based posits science gone wrong as the source of the threat, the film clearly identifies corporate practices at the center of the horror. In the novel, Bensington is a scientist who creates the “food of the gods” with an aim to end world hunger, where his filmic version is only interested in the financial potential of the substance that is mysteriously secreting from the land. While the Wells character is not viewed uncritically, the film’s Bensington is coded as exclusively self-interested; he suggests using the car as a weapon against the rats while Morgan wants to use the car as a means of rescue for a stranded couple. This is evident throughout the film, and it is perhaps most significant in the context of oppositions where, in a telling scene, the scientist Lorna (Pamela Franklin) comes upon Bensington on his knees in the dirt attempting to secure as much of the substance as possible in jars. Bensington yells at Lorna to help him and attempts to play on her benignity by mentioning how the substance could end child starvation. To this, she retorts that all he cares about is himself and money. This short scene is significant because it at once reveals the relationship between industry and science while also formulating the symbolic opposition of coded greed (Bensington) and the altruism of pure science (Lorna). When we first see Bensington in the car with Lorna, he is in direct opposition to her, refusing to stop the vehicle to help a pregnant woman despite the scientist’s pleas. In all of these instances, the film positions Bensington with the irresponsible and damaging forces that disrupt the natural order and as the personification of self-interested humanity. [page 43]
Science and Nature
Science in these films, may be not only in opposition to industry, but also in a non-antagonistic position to nature. While Alligator shows how the application of scientific principles and technology can result in destructive consequences, it is the corporate entity (Slade Pharmaceutical) that manipulates the hands of science in its own. The scientist Marisa (Robin Riker) is only interested in ending the threat and teams up with the wronged detective to convince the city officials of the threat and also ends up risking death for the restoration of order. Her motives are presented as genuine and selfless, with her trusting nature and respect for all forms of life (including the monster) evident in her actions and relationships with the other human characters.
In Food of the Gods II, however, science is seen as a potentially destructive enterprise when driven by greed as represented in the form of Professor Delhurst (Colin Fox), whose interests are clarified in a scene where the academic dances gleefully and sings “I’m going to be rich and famous, I’m going to be rich and famous.” Corporate and institutional interests are represented by the dean of the college (David B. Nichols), who reacts to the gruesome murders of two students with apathy, asking the detective on the scene to “tidy this up,” seemingly in service of the school’s image, an alignment of academic administration’s interests with those of corporations. When the protagonist Neil (Paul Coufos) demands that they evacuate the campus, the dean asks the scientist if he understands how such an action would impact the school’s bottom line. Together, the dean and Delhurst represent variations of self-interested humanity, diametrically opposing Neil, who is coded as sympathetic and selfless. He uses scientific knowledge for only the betterment of the world, and his respect for others is evident through his intimate connections to his girlfriend and pet rat.
In Frogs, Pickett is aligned with altruistic science through [page 44] his actions, concerns, and overtly respectful connection to nature, a relationship that is clarified when he answers in the affirmative to Crockett asking him if he is an ecologist. In an oppositional position, Crockett epitomizes both corporate greed and values and egocentric humanity. The film presents his arrogance as founded in humankind’s perceived dominance over nature when he claims, “I still believe man is master of the world!” Later on in the film, he wonders aloud how, with all of his money and technology, he cannot halt the threat of encroaching nature. The film portrays the Crockett family as a representation of humanity’s arrogance: the group is prone to petty, internal squabbles. For them, excess is corruption and leisure activities dominate to where the film presents these in direct opposition to both the benevolence of nature and that of science.
Vivian Sobchack, in speaking of Frogs and its rebellious threats, writes in Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film, “The creatures are, in a sense, anthropomorphised [sic], given an implicit human intelligence, and their destructive actions are calculated and personally directed” (40). The monstrous threats from nature that inhabit these films not only are individually anthropomorphized and driven by human motives but on a larger scale also seem to be guided by a collective, unseen, natural consciousness. This manifests itself throughout the films in a variety of ways. In Food of the Gods II, the subjective camera is used to provide a first-person point of view from the perspective of the mutant rats as they ravage victims both above and beneath the college grounds. While this could suggest an individualized consciousness distinct to each animal, the film transcends a specified singular focus by using this first-person camera in the same way for what appears to be a variety of different animals, who systematically eliminate human threats in a seemingly motivated [page 45] manner. For instance, a pair of exterminators are called in by the university to dispose of the enlarged rat terrorizing the campus. These human threats are targeted and killed nearly immediately, with the lesser of them driven from the exterior of a building to the interior labyrinth of the basement where he meets a waiting mutated rat. Another rat, again via subjective camera, lures an antagonistic research scientist into a back room by knocking a book onto the floor and then finishes him off by pushing the shelf onto him. Later, the monstrous rats appear, through more subjective camera work, to be waiting for the remaining two animal activists (their leader was the first victim and accidental liberator of the animals) as they descend into the sewers to meet their ends. The strong implication of intent and subsequent design on the part of nature in the name of vengeance seems to be firmly in place here. The mutated rats from Food of the Gods II possess Sobchack’s idea of an anthropomorphized human intelligence, but the film goes a step beyond through the implication of a premediated collective effort devised by a sentient unseen nature.
While nature’s sentient vengeance in Food of the Gods II is articulated through the film’s cinematography and the rats’ apparent premeditation, Frogs presents a more overt and at times, abstracted vision of conscious nature while still retaining the structure of a multi-species coordination. The film suggests a spiritual significance to nature through the visual of light streaking through trees (sometimes referred to as “God rays”) with a heavy mist lining the foreground. The motif is held long enough each time it appears to clarify the connotation of nature as a somehow divine entity with the power to bestow judgment on humankind. The humans are framed in the lower third of these shots, which are fixed at low angles, thus emphasizing the suggestion of judgment and juxtaposing dominant nature dwarfing the humans. Here, nature is both aware of human transgressions and actively preparing, as surrounding shots indicate not only the frogs’ (and by extension other animals') awareness of the human [page 46] presence but again, through screen direction, indicate their communication and track their steady encroachment. In a later scene, lizards are waiting for a character in a greenhouse before pushing over several jugs of poison as he enters. The film literalizes the idea of a sentient nature “listening in” when, in another sequence, we see alternating shots of the family discussing how anti-pollution measures are cutting into their dividends and a slow gathering of frogs outside the mansion. Potentially the film’s most overt statement regarding the existence of a conscious nature originates from the antagonistic Jason Crockett (Ray Milland), who blurts out, “The frogs are thinking now, the snails are planning strategy … is that your point?” Of the films under discussion, Frogs is most outspoken about a sentient nature at work, although both The Food of the Gods and Alligator include the idea as well: the former shows us how a seemingly coordinated rotation of wasps and monstrous rats re-take the land through a systematic extermination of the peripheral human presence, eventually pushing back and surrounding the remaining humans in a cabin. The mutant reptile from the latter is highly selective in seeking out victims, including pursuing the wedding party outside of the city.
In the context of anthropocentric authority, these articulations of a conscious, exacting nature can be seen as a reflection of our anxieties about our complicity as invaders. Our fears of a self-aware nature possessing intellectual capacity the same as or greater than our own, combined with our potential for destructive action due to our incessant transgressions, are made lucid throughout the narrative and at the purely visual levels of these films. Thus, these critically ignored exploitation films become desperate acts of caution. In the end, they read as signals to us about our own environmental irresponsibility and self-interestedness, while they warn of the potentiality of a very real human demise. [page 47]
1. The sequence is audibly interesting, playing out over the clear chants of the protestors shown outside the building in the previous scene bellowing “animals have rights.”
Carroll Noël. The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart, Routledge, 1989.
Clarke, Keith C., and Jeffrey J. Hemphill. “The Santa Barbara Oil Spill: A Retrospective.” Yearbook of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers, vol. 64, no. 1, 2002, pp. 157–162.
Gordon, Bert I., director. The Food of the Gods. American International Pictures, 1976.
Lee, Damien, director. Food of the Gods II. Concorde Pictures, 1989.
McCowan, George, director. Frogs. American International Pictures, 1972.
Simpson, Catherine. “Australian Eco-Horror and Gaia's Revenge: Animals, Eco-Nationalism and the ‘New Nature.’” Studies in Australasian Cinema, vol. 4, no. 1, 2010, pp. 43–54.
Sobchack, Vivian Carol. Screening Space: the American Science Fiction Film. Rutgers University Press, 2004.
Teague, Lewis, director. Alligator. Group 1 International Distribution, 1980.
Tudor, Andrew. Monsters and Mad Scientists: a Cultural History of the Horror Movie. Basil Blackwell, 1991.
Matthew Jones is a film studies, photography and media instructor at Arizona Conservatory for Arts and Academics and Estrella Mountain Community College. He is also an independent film scholar and member of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars. His work focuses on the horror film, the gothic and ecological horror. As a cinematographer and photographer, he is fortunate to have access to the vast spaces of the Arizona desert in his backyard, which opens to picturesque Papago Park.
MLA citation (print):
Jones, Matthew. "Antagonistic Nature: The Loss of Anthropocentric Authority in Eco-Horror of the 1970s and 80s." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 7, no. 1, 2021, pp. 33-47.