Climate Horror: The Haunting of Climate Change in Gaia and The Feast

Illustration for Climate Horror: The Haunting of Climate Change in Gaia and The Feast by Maxwell Van Cooper

The fear of nature as an antagonistic force has been present in collective consciousness for centuries. In cinema, it has developed into a genre categorization called “ecohorror.” In recent years, this subgenre of horror has become an allegory for anxiety about climate change. Gaia (South Africa, 2021) and The Feast (Wales, 2021) are two such cinematic responses to impending climate catastrophe. In both films, the natural world is endowed with supernatural qualities and personified into gods, threatening the annihilation of the human world. The ecohorrific progression demonstrates a move towards the non-secular in the horror genre: a transition from science experiments gone awry or natural disasters to spiritual entities demanding retribution. Why this sudden connection between spirituality and impending climate change? As we become more and more reliant on technology, there is a growing romanticization of nature and subsequent anxiety about its collapse. Ecohorror films transform these emotions into patterns of narrative: wilderness gods demanding blood atonement for humanity’s sins against nature. Gaia and The Feast utilize mainstream horror and folk horror motifs to join the ongoing dialogue regarding morality, guilt, revenge, and ultimately grief surrounding climate change. In these films, nature becomes the supernatural entity from which protagonists must fight for survival, be it from fungal humanoids or land gods.

In her piece, “‘Hand of Deadly Decay’: The Rotting Corpse, America’s Religious Tradition, and the Ethics of Green Burial in Poe’s ‘The Colloquy of Monos and Una,’” Ashley Kniss writes that the fear of death, decomposition, and even nature itself, can be traced in the U.S. back to the arrival of the Puritans. There was an association of the American wilderness with the “savage” and “uncivilized”—a clear projection, as Kniss observes, of the racist fear of Native Americans. Ecophobia, or the fear of nature, is found in accounts of Manifest Destiny, as well as in Gothic Literature as a response to Enlightenment-era secularism. In the twentieth century, ecophobia emerged by way of a new genre of cinema: ecohorror. Ecohorror is thought to have begun as a 1950s reflection of nuclear anxiety post-World War II. Early iconic films of the genre include Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Godzilla (1954), and Mantago (1963).

Ecohorror continued to develop in the 1970s as the environmental movement took hold, with movies such as Frogs (1972), The Long Weekend (1978), and Night of Lepus (1972). These films demonstrated growing concerns about pollution and introduced the idea of “nature’s revenge,” often shown in these films as animal attacks. In the new millennium, films continued to focus on pollution as a source of horror. This can be seen in films such as The Host (2006), The Bay (2012), and later, Crawl (2019). Recently, films have become a more direct allegory for climate change, but with a supernatural, mythological spin. 

Gaia and The Feast were not the first ecohorror films to lean into folk horror tropes, but they are useful representations of the subgenre’s development over time. Folk horror can be defined as a subgenre of horror movies which uses mythological traditions and rurality to elicit fear. Folk horror’s common narrative arc, is summarized by scholar Benjamin Bigelow as, “[an urban outsider] drawn to an ostensibly benign rural community where pre-Christian folk traditions, beliefs, and ritual are doggedly upheld in a folk community that sees itself as a bastion of tradition against the rising tide of cosmopolitan and urban modernity.” At the end of both of these films, the seemingly peaceful rural community’s nefarious intentions are shown through ritual blood sacrifice for “pagan gods of an agrarian cult.”

Gaia is a South African ecohorror movie about a forester, Gabi, in the Tsitsikamma forest, fighting for survival. After losing her way and becoming injured, Gabi is taken in by two Afrikaner survivalists living off the land. The survivalists, Barend and his son Stefan, take her into their home and heal her. Gabi begins to question her situation when a monstrous mushroom/human hybrid attempts to attack them: a creature with a human’s body covered in fungi and a mushroom for a head. Barend later explains that he worships “God,” a mycelium network underground in the Tsitsikamma forest. The forest god is a real, physical entity, communicated with through a sacred tree. As a response to ecological destruction, “God” is spreading her spores through a virus that turns people into human/fungi hybrids. Stefan ends up killing his father after Barend tries to sacrifice Stefan to the forest god. During the fight, Gabi is infected, and later taken over by a blanket of fungi. It is implied that Stefan kills her, leaving the woods for the city. The last shot of the film is Stefan leaving a fast food restaurant, mold and fungi growing on his leftovers. 

The Feast also includes a land god enacting revenge on humanity, but this film utilizes possession motifs and the familiar iconography of the murderous-dinner-party. In this Welsh film, a quiet caterer named Cadi arrives at a wealthy, brutalist-style home occupied by a member of Parliament, Gweyn, his wife, Glenda, and their two sons. The family is quickly revealed to be elitist and dysfunctional, gluttonous and greedy. The dinner guests arrive: a businessman, Euros, and a woman from a nearby farm, Mair. During this dinner party, it is revealed that Gweyn and Glenda have amassed their wealth from a deal with a mining company to drill into their land. As their land has been depleted of its resources, the couple and Euros attempt to convince Mair to make a similar deal. Mair leaves upset, cautioning Glenda that she should know better than to drill on the Rise, where a goddess is told to be resting, cautioning: “She shouldn’t be awakened!” One by one, the members of the family and Euros are killed by Cadi and her supernatural influence. It is revealed that the real Cadi died earlier that day. The unnamed Rise goddess took possession of her body to enact revenge. 

Climate anxiety is often coupled with fears of technological advancements and further modernization. There is a growing curiosity about and even romanticization of returning to nature and living off the land. This can be seen everywhere, from statistics about rising rural populations to internet trends – the popular aesthetic, “cottage-core” being a prime example. However, there is still a prevailing fear of nature, complicated by a sense of urgency surrounding climate change, fear of extreme weather events, and guilt over pollution and mass extinction. Gaia and The Feast explore these nuances through folk horror themes of rurality and modernity: paganism and the natural world still (to many) being associated with the unknown, the unfamiliar, while Christian morality and modernization remain the known, the familiar.

The inexplicable attraction to the natural world despite the fear of it comes to a head in a speech made by Barend in Gaia. Until this moment, Barend has been a sympathetic character, and Gabi takes quickly to his and Stefan’s way of living, which she views as beautiful and pure. The audience, too, may have been drawn to the aesthetic portrayal of this lifestyle. Barend’s outburst shows a darker side to his extreme survivalism. “Look at your world, the creatures are crawling in their cages of shit, clinging to dream worlds on silicon screens. You swarm like maggots around your neon towers, and multiply exponentially in the glow of the whores and the false goddesses,” Barend exclaims to Gabi. “Look how you congratulate yourselves on your achievements, your tremendous victories—the internal combustion engine, the atomic bomb, democracy.” For the audience, this is the first significant crack in Barend and Stefan’s romanticized portrayal of survivalism, and a complicated justification of the spreading of “God’s” virus. 

The tension between anti-modern sentiments and fear of the unknown are further troubled by the repeated loss of characters’ autonomy. The scare tactics in Gaia and The Feast often revolve around the idea of these gods harnessing their victims’ consciousness, depriving them of their free will. Bigelow refers to sociologist Émile Durkheim’s concept of “melding,” in which identities of individuals become fused with social bodies until they can no longer be separated, and applies this theory to the social and psychological dynamics present in folk horror. Rather than an individual merging with the societal collective, as seen in folk horror movies such as The Wicker Man, the melding in Gaia and The Feast is between nature and the interloper, presented literally and supernaturally rather than psychologically and socially.

Possessions have a long cinematic history, from exorcism films to haunted house movies. Following a typical possession narrative construction, the vengeful goddess in The Feast uses two different types of possession: possession of or influence over living persons and possession of Cadi’s corpse. It is inferred in The Feast that the Rise goddess influences or possesses the victims to do harm to themselves and others. For instance, Glenda climatically shoots Euros in the face, and one of the sons amputates the other’s leg. Bigelow describes “melding” as the process where “the individuals no longer exist as individual agents; they are instead melded indistinguishably into the whole.” Because the goddess is seen as a spiritual, mythological personification of the land itself, the goddess’s possessions can be seen as the mental melding between Mother Nature and people. 

Because Cadi’s corpse’s possession is not known at the beginning of the film, her character arc complicates the dualism of an “us” versus “them” analysis. Before she becomes the villain, Cadi is the heroine of the movie. We see the family through her perspective—their cold, elitist, antisocial ways, and we feel for the odd, quiet caterer confronted with this ostentatious, even cruel family. There are clues throughout that Cadi is not human, that she has been melded with the spirit of the land, such as the trails of dirt she leaves when she grazes an object—the dirt contrasting the white, sterile environment of the modernized home. Identifying with Cadi in the beginning builds an unexpected tension within the viewer as she becomes less relatable and more unstable. By the time the fatal dinner commences, Cadi has become an unreliable, inhuman figure who has alienated the audience. Where at first the film is dominated by class dynamics, the hierarchy shifts as Cadi emerges as the vengeful deity: a reversal of power. Scholar Christy Tidwell describes the dissolution of barriers of the Western dualism of “nature” versus “culture:” “the breakdown of the lines between self and other, human and nonhuman, internal and external.” Not only does nature have a mind of her own, but the barrier between human consciousness and the natural world dwindles. The greed and gluttony of the human characters necessitates their being taken over by the natural world they have defiled. The Feast plays on our own assumptions of Cadi, a young innocent woman, and on our sympathies for Mother Nature’s destruction via capitalism. 

 In Gaia, rather than possession, the melding appears more parasitic. Tidwell writes, “That the monster of the story is internal and so thoroughly intertwined with the human bodies expands ecohorror’s range, therefore, into the posthuman.” The posthuman in Gaia are the animate mushroom humanoids, as well as the decomposing bodies overcome by plant and fungi. This portrayal of the posthuman pushes ecohorror’s framework from animal-human hybrids to plant or fungal hybrids. The occurrence of these hybrids in ecohorror demonstrates the human fear of synthesis with nature, the natural decomposition of the body, and the uncertainty of death. When the characters are infected by the mushroom spores, they don’t simply die—their bodies are overtaken by plants and fungi until they become hybrid. An example of this is Barend’s wife, who he takes Gabi to visit. Her body rests on a tree trunk and is propped against some prominent roots. She herself has become part of the tree, part of the root—however, her chest can be seen lifting, breathing. This scene demonstrates that the meld between man and nature is not the physical rotting of a corpse, rather the melding of the infected person’s body with that of “God” and the flora. 

Kniss equates fear of the grave to fear of the wilderness, writing: “The longer the corpse remains in the grave, the more it merges with its environment through the process of decomposition. The grave, like the wilderness, has the power to transform the human into the monstrous.” In Gaia, this is demonstrated through body horror; the forest doesn’t kill, it transforms people as they, half-dead, half-alive, become hosts to the forest. Kniss writes how this fear of decomposing is evident in contemporary embalming rituals and demonization of decay, where people would rather preserve their bodies in heavy chemicals than let the natural processes of decay occur to benefit the ecosystem. Recently, embalming practices have spurred the new “green burial” movement. Kniss writes that green burial uses biodegradable coffins or shrouds to allow for natural decomposition, and “rather than viewing the human bodies (or waste for that matter) as distinct from ecosystems, the ethics of green burial sees the body as part of the environment.” The victims in Gaia could be seen as having a kind of terrifying “green burial,” as the victims are conscious of this slow merge into the ecosystem.

The live burials in Gaia are not only horrific, they are also partially romanticized in their dramatic aestheticization. When Gabi finally succumbs to the virus, a long pan shot over her body shows a blanket and web of silver and green roots, lichen, mycelium, and mushrooms decorating her body, the exposed parts of her face fused with the fungi. As Cadi in The Feast being portrayed by an attractive young woman complicates her villain arc, so too does the beauty of nature complicate the villainous wrath of “God” and the fungal virus. Gabi’s merging is soft, familiar, and visually pleasing. The terror then, is not in the visuals of the movie, but rather in the forest’s autonomy. The tension between the aestheticization of green/live burials and the horror of the reversed agency between humans and nature is the crux of the ambivalence currently felt for nature in dire times of climate change. Many of us revere nature, feel desperate to preserve and protect, and yet are terrified of its astounding alienness and fearsome ability to annihilate us. This is amplified by the anxiety that climate change is inherently destabilizing nature into a deadly force.

Ecohorror is one of the few subgenres of horror where the binary of good and evil is troubled; there is no simple villain versus final girl, there is nature fighting back against humanity’s destruction, at the price of the protagonists’ safety. Christy Tidwell and Carter Soles write that while ecohorror frightens audiences, it also “frequently prompt[s] sympathy for the creatures, which can lead to guilt and anxiety about our responsibility toward the natural world and about the future.” Ecohorror, and particularly Gaia and The Feast, are full of contradicting emotions that all are reflected in contemporary society. The beauty of the natural world or its personification in Gaia and The Feast demonstrate one side of the coin, as the god-like force of Mother Nature in the films reflects a growing desire for a deeper communion with the natural world. The other side of the coin is that we have realized this desire too late, and must now pay the price for destroying the natural world. Gaia and The Feast are compelling precisely because they create metaphors that activate our internalized fears around climate change. There remains a suggestion at the end of both films: there is a posthuman future that is still yet to be told, waiting for its chance–a glorious cross-species transformation of the Anthropocene into something new, wild, and terrifying.

Works Cited

  1. Bigelow, Benjamin. “Folk Horror and Folkhemmet: White Supremacy and Belonging in Midsommar.” Menacing Environments: Ecohorror in Contemporary Nordic Cinema, University of Washington Press, 2023, pp. 135–63. JSTOR, Accessed 19 Jan. 2024.
  2. The Feast (Gwledd). Directed by Lee Haven Jones, Picturehouse Entertainment, 2021.
  3. Gaia. Directed by Jaco Bouwer, Decal, 2021.
  4. Keetley, Dawn. “Tentacular Ecohorror and the Agency of Trees in Algernon Blackwood’s ‘The Man Whom the Trees Loved’ and Lorcan Finnegan’s Without Name.” Fear and Nature Ecohorror: Studies in the Anthropocene, edited by Christy Tidwell and Carter Soles. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2023. 
  5. Kniss, Ashley. “‘The Hand of Deadly Decay’: The Rotting Corpse, America’s Religious Tradition, and the Ethics of Green Burial in Poe’s ‘The Colloquy of Monos and Una.’” Fear and Nature: Ecohorror Studies in the Anthropocene, edited by Christy Tidwell and Carter Soles. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2023. 
  6. Tidwell, Christy. “Monstrous Natures Within: Posthuman and New Materialist Ecohorror in Mira Grant’s ‘Parasite.’” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, vol. 21, no. 3, 2014, pp. 538–49. JSTOR, Accessed 19 Jan. 2024.
  7. Tidwell, Christy, and Cater Soles. “Introduction: Ecohorror in the Anthropocene.” Fear and Nature: Ecohorror Studies in the Anthropocene, edited by Christy Tidwell and Carter Soles. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2023. 

Maxwell Van Cooper is an emerging writer and Library Trainee at the Free Library of Philadelphia. They are working to receive a Master of Science in Library Science (MSLS) with a concentration in Archival Studies. Max is also the co-founder of an online publication, tk.collective. Their writing focuses on queer culture, literature and art criticism, and auto theory. Max has been a horror movie lover and aficionado since they were thirteen and watched It (1990).