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A Fear of Flora: Why is Plant Horror So Effective?

Wednesday, September 16, 2020 | Opinion


Plants are beautiful. They give us oxygen, food, medicine, and shelter; plants provide most of the first few tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. People spend their lives perfecting their gardens, searching for new species, or finding new uses for plants. Why then are plant-based horror stories so terrifying? Why does Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) still cause nihilistic goosebumps to grow around your body? Why does The Ruins (2008) make you squirm? And why does a childhood obsession with Jumanji (1995) still prevent me from reaching into my wife’s garden to grab the hose?

Part of what makes plant horror so effective is that plants are a constant. Often in the periphery, they make up the backgrounds of our lives. When I moved from Ontario to Yorkshire, England, the plant life looked identical in the distance. But something about the landscape just felt wrong to me. On closer inspection, the plant life was incredibly different from Canadian conifers, and my subconscious knew that something was off. In the first few minutes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, we see a veiny pod growing on the back of a plant. Other than the plastic-ness of the movie prop, most people wouldn’t think twice about seeing a similar pod in real life. But as the audience, we know immediately that this pod is out of place and wrong. It’s not until much later in the film (assuming you haven’t seen 1956 the original) that we realize the true connection between the pods and the doppelgängers they produce.

So, it could be that plant horror is effective because of its interplay with our psyche, but I think it’s deeper than that.

One of the most common fears people have is claustrophobia. Feeling trapped or suffocated is instinctual, a fear that bloody botanical stories capitalize on. As in a traditional zombie film (not the 28 Days Later running zombies), plants are very slow moving, and there is likely a contingent of people saying, “How is a vine scary? I could outrun that!” However, like their living dead brethren, fearsome flora will keep coming for you forever. They don’t get tired like we do, so they can keep chasing until we humans break down, physically or mentally.

As much as we love to see ourselves at the top of the food chain, and like to pretend we hold mastery over the earth, we need plants to survive.

We see plants playing games of attrition in films like The Ruins, based on the Scott Smith book of the same name. The man-eating plants take their time infecting the tourists. They leave spores on their clothes, so even while their prey is running away, the plants can still propagate. Or how about the Creepshow (1982) segment, “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verill”?  Jordy, played by some punk named Stephen King, finds a meteor and cracks it open, unleashing a blue liquid (“meteor shit”), which causes plants to grow at an alarming rate. They keep growing until Jordy’s entire house is filled, and, as implied by the ending, continue growing until they’ve taken over the world.

Similarly, in the short story “Growing Things” by Paul Tremblay, where the characters from his novel A Head Full of Ghosts, in an alternate timeline from the novel, find themselves in an apocalyptic scenario where vines called “the growing things” have taken over the planet. Young Mary can try her best to escape the growing things, but we the audience know it’s useless for her to try and run.

Or maybe what’s so terrifying about plant horror is the subversion of the “safe”. Much popular horror stems from subverting our societal ideas of what is safe. Cujo turns the man’s best friend line on its head and snaps its neck; It makes you afraid of clowns; The Brood makes you fear little kids. Humans crave comfort and safety. It’s hard-wired into our brains to seek these things. And so, taking something that should give us peace of mind, like that orphaned child you just brought home, or that new house you bought, and turning it into horror, is deeply upsetting. It gives the audience a lasting scare that makes them think twice about letting their kid’s new doll sleep in their bedroom. These horticultural horrors take the beautiful flower, or the painstakingly planted lawn, or the tended tomatoes, and turn them into the boogeyman. And the scariest part is that the plants are already here. There’s nowhere on this planet you can go to escape them.

You can avoid the shark by staying out of the ocean; you can stay away from the summer camp where all those murders happened; you can choose not to buy the suspiciously cheap mansion; you can play Monopoly instead of the Ouija board, but you can’t just not have plants. You can’t ignore them; you can’t live without them. And maybe, in the end, that’s what makes plant horror so scary. As much as we love to see ourselves at the top of the food chain, and like to pretend we hold mastery over the earth, we need plants to survive. But they don’t need us. And one day, we’ll be long gone, but as long as there’s life on this planet, the plants will remain. Your house plant, yeah, that one, it’s just waiting to reclaim supremacy over the earth.


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