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Getting to the Roots of “Plant Horror”

From the serious—pod people—to the farcical—”feed me, feed me!”—this genre has produced some strange stuff

Even the venus fly trap, which takes an active role in catching its prey, is almost nothing like us. (Pixabay)
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Given enough time, ivy will rip through walls. As MythBusters proved, bamboo technically could grow through a tortured human’s body. Even seasonal allergies are pretty destructive–a study found that they can cause drivers to behave as if drunk.

Plants can be terrifying.What do plants want? This question birthed the genre of “plant horror,” something that stretches back at least to the Renaissance and continues today in video games like The Last of Us or films like The Happening.

Like other horror genres, such as zombie movies, the social anxieties of the time were played out onscreen in horror films that seemed on the surface to be simple science fiction.  In Cold War America, when the modern genre of plant horror was created, it was about the greatest threat of all: communism. Fear of an alien political ideology and the potential nuclear consequences of the Cold War helped fuel an iconic genre of the era and produce some amazing plant-based creature features.

Consider Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Day of the Triffids or even Little Shop of Horrors. These all involve seemingly passive plants (well, maybe not Audrey Junior, the talking Venus flytrap of Little Shop) turning into monstrous and terrifying problems. And while the zombie-like “pod people” of Invasion might seem a clear parallel for how American propaganda framed those living under Soviet rule in the 1950s and '60s, even carnivorous triffids and Venus flytraps are clear foils for the Soviets in their own way, write scholars Natania Meeker and Antónia Szabari. The invading triffids, which supposedly came out of a Soviet lab, have human-like characteristics but are also distinctly plants.

The secret of plant horror, writes scholar T.S. Miller, is twofold. First, the traditional Western understanding of how the world works places plants at the bottom of a pyramid that contains all living things. In plant horror, they disrupt this seeming “natural order” by rising to the top as apex predators. Second, plants are at the bottom of the pyramid precisely because they are so very unlike humans. We can see ourselves in animals, even animals unlike us. But it’s much harder to see yourself in a rose bush, or even a Venus flytrap. They’re creatures from another world, a cellulose world, which is right next to us and which we depend on—but there’s no way to know what they might be thinking, or what, given the right circumstance, they might do.

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