Death Creeps is a monthly column of ecological readings on horror media. Combining the terror of the climate crisis with terror on screen and in print, Sydney Bollinger looks at how horror can act as a guide and reflection on our dire situation.
The conservation movement has more in common with Frankenstein than you’d think.
[References to politics, land, and conservationism are all through an American lens and refer to the United States unless otherwise specified.]
Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein is often cited as the first science fiction story, but also has a deep legacy in horror, spawning similar stories, retellings, and cinematic adaptations. At the heart of each of these versions of Shelley’s classic is the narrative of someone “playing God” in an attempt to create sentient human-like life. The experiment goes awry, leaving death and trauma in its wake.
Victor Frankenstein, is a student of the sciences at the University of Ingolstadt in Germany, where he conducts experiments to grieve his mother’s death, which occurred a few weeks before he left for school. While there, he experiments with giving life to the nonliving, specifically through his creation of a human-like creature, whose body featured parts from different cadavers. His creation (Frankenstein’s monster — not Frankenstein) is then accused of murder, accidentally murders a young girl and experiences hostility and violence from the community. The monster also threatens Victor’s life and kills his fiance, Elizabeth. At the end of the novel, Victor dies.
The core story here—of creation to life, to meeting the maker, to violence, to death — has been told and retold countless times, a mark of humanity’s interest in stories of not just creation, but creation gone awry. This narrative is not just present in adaptations of Frankenstein featuring the monster. In the past 40-years, films like Blade Runner (1982), Re-Animator (1985), Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Ex Machina (2014), among others, contend with the consequences of human-like creations.
Religious folks, particularly those in the Christian tradition, may argue that the issue inherent in Frankenstein and its predecessors is that Victor Frankenstein attempted to be The Creator, but he can’t be. So, when he gives life to his own creature—the monster—it backfires, resulting in an abomination. Frankenstein’s work was a “fuck you” to God, but as a measly human, his rebellion only meant disaster. The morality of the story, centered on the role of humans in a world created by God, is obvious, but it also points to the tension between natural and unnatural, which is also a theme discussed in tandem with the climate crisis and environmentalism.
What is “natural?”
Conservation groups often use the word “natural” to describe wild, untouched wilderness that needs protection. Nature is this other place, both opposite of human civilization and an escape from human civilization. Additionally, conservation groups (some, not all) are more likely to not take a climate-oriented approach to their work, instead preserving land for it to be enjoyed by those who can afford the luxury. The conservation movement has its roots in colonialism and racism—like many things in the United States—and has historically been exclusionary.
In the conservationist movement, supporters want to keep the land untouched and protected from future development. Additionally, conservationists hoped that their work would maintain “pristine” natural spaces for the enjoyment of themselves—and others. There’s a glaring oversight in conservationist work, though.
The “wild, untouched, natural” land conservationists sought to protect in the United States was Native land. It was not “untouched” land that needed protecting. Indigenous tribes were already protecting and nurturing the land. In recent years, there has been a push to use Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) in the conservation movement because Indigenous land-based practices rely on intimate tribal knowledge to restore the land, while also strengthening the connection between the human and more-than-human world.
Western land use practices have been incredibly damaging, marked by both ignorance and arrogance. For example, efforts to “protect” the land from forest fires through fire suppression only made wildfires worse. Many forests in the Western United States need to burn; trees like the Ponderosa Pine need fire for their seeds to germinate. In short, conservationists aren’t protecting “natural, wild, untouched” wilderness, because the spaces were never untouched. Further, their attempts at “protection” in the last century have (in some ways) exacerbated the effects of climate change.
Rejection of the “unnatural.”
Frankenstein’s monster did murder some people—there isn’t any denying that it happened. The question, however, is can he be blamed for his own actions? As an “unnatural” creation of Frankenstein, the monster only acts in response to how the world perceives him.
Townspeople reject the monster because he looks unnatural, pushing him to dissatisfaction and disgust with himself. At this point, the monster has no hope he will ever be accepted by humanity. On his way to talk with Victor, the monster is attacked once again after rescuing a young girl because the father believed he intended to harm the girl. The monster now refuses to assimilate into human society, believing he will always be perceived as “unnatural,” violent, and monstrous. When the he sets out to seek revenge, he is acting in response to his cruel treatment by humans. Not only did his creator reject him, he also fails to form relationships with other people despite having human capacity and emotions.
As a creation, the monster loses his value to society and is seen as less than. Similarly, conservationists see land through the lens of the “natural,” choosing to believe that land is wild and untouched to further their own ideas and continue in their “ignorance” of the purpose that land has to First Nations. This idea of natural versus unnatural also pervades in climate change theory of some conservationists. Of all environmental advocacy and action groups, those focused on conservation are more likely to be supported by conservative politicians and stakeholders. There is a spectrum of climate change “deniers,” from those who reject all research and findings related to climate change, claiming it’s a hoax, to those who believe the climate is changing, but it’s happening naturally—an expected part of Earth’s cycle (despite the evidence otherwise).
Climate change is unnatural. It’s the result of our own actions. On an even grander scale, nothing (or hardly anything) left is “natural.” From traditional land use practices, to conservation efforts, to the creation of national parks and sanctuaries, much of our world is either protected or regulated by some third party. In the field of environmental protection, we need to see our part in the harm done to the world. Victor rejected his own creation and refused to engage in helping the monster learn to live as part of society. Frankenstein’s lack of care resulted in the death of many, including himself.
We can’t “reject” the climate crisis. It doesn’t care what we think about it because it’s happening anyway. Human-caused climate change is decidedly unnatural; any attempts to say otherwise are just lies.
Sydney Bollinger is a Charleston-based film writer who focuses on the macabre, the teenage experience, and eco-criticism in film. She is the author of the bi-monthly Slay Away column, Death Creeps and an arts and enteratinment writer for the Charleston City Paper and Into. Sydney is the creator of the Thursday Matinee with a weekly newsletter released every Thursday afternoon in addition to film and television reviews.