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 Fear Street Trilogy's multiple timelines show a history of violence on Shadyside—a clear allegory for environmental racism.
There’s a tree at the center of Leigh Janiak’s Fear Street (2021) trilogy on Netflix. Though it remains in the same physical place throughout all three films, it transcends time and location, serving as a lasting symbol of horror and grief for the Shadyside community. It’s not just about trees, though. At the heart of Fear Street is the all too familiar narrative of land use. Who has the right to land? Who gets to sell land? Who gets to develop on land?
Fear Street isn’t necessarily a story about the land and politics of land, but the continuous reference to a specific place does garner a lot of attention, especially when looking through an eco-critical lens. Is land use horrific? It can be, especially as natural spaces are being bought up to house new developments and historic buildings. The tree’s land moves from a wild space to a summer campground to an indoor mall. This change in usage speaks to the larger issue of development in the name of progress and how this process has happened over time. It's also a nod to the implication of development on marginalized communities, who are often pushed out of their own neighborhoods so developers can gentrify the area, making it a prime location for the wealthy to move. As a central character, the tree is an all-knowing specter, the only witness to centuries worth of horror and violence, its wisdom aged longer than humans have been alive.
Generally, in horror films, land use comes in the form of a one-off comment to explain something about where something was built or why it was haunted. The most popular and most problematic example of this is the hand-wave-away explanation that an area must be haunted because it is an old Native burial ground. Many horror films also look at the slow-burn horror ingrained in America’s suburban sprawl. When owning and maintaining land is a hallmark of success, especially in the United States where all land is stolen land, depictions of land on-screen are forever impacted by the violent and storied history of the location.
In Fear Street, this place is central to a specific set of connected stories, which allow main characters Deena (Kiana Madeira) and Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) to end Sarah Fier’s curse on Sam (Olivia Scott Welch). In Fear Street Part One: 1994, place is defined by the Shadyside mall. Heather (Maya Hawke) is murdered in the opening scene—a nod to Scream (1996) and a subtle gesture to the importance of the mall. Throughout the scene, the trees loom in and out of the background. At the beginning of the trilogy, it’s hard to know the specific meaning of place and how the history of place affects the lore of the larger story. For Shadysiders, it's yet another tragedy; another reminder that their town is cursed by the ghost of Sarah Fier.
A deeper understanding of place comes in Part Two: 1978. Deena and Josh seek out C. Berman (Gillian Jacobs), the only known survivor of the massacre at Camp Nightwing, the only person known to survive the curse of Sarah Fier. The film’s flashback opens with a group of campers falsely accusing Ziggy Berman (Sadie Sink) of being a witch. The teenagers are convened under the same tree from the mall—though the audience is not aware yet—where they tie Ziggy to the tree and begin to burn her. Of course, counselors arrive and stop the potential murder of Ziggy, but the tree again cements its place as a center for violence. In 1978, this land, which is the same spot where the mall from 1994 is located, is part of an expansive summer campground, where teenagers from Shadyside and Sunnyvale come together.
Though less “developed” than in 1994, the land still has a specific use. It’s being managed and maintained for a purpose in a type of false wildness. Again as a central character, the tree is witness to countless violent acts. When Ziggy and her sister Cindy (Emily Rudd) are slashed to pieces by the incarnations of violence’s past, it’s only fitting that it should happen in the same place where the original horror took place. Cindy's friend Alice (Ryan Simpkins) finds the witch’s hand under the red moss by "Satan's Stone" in the caverns beneath the camp's outhouse. This discovery along with that of Ziggy and Cindy beneath the tree where they believe the witch to be buried immediately ties all three timelines together. Suddenly, Shadyside isn’t just haunted by Sarah Fier, it’s haunted by centuries of violence.
In the same scene—before the sisters are murdered—killers of Shadyside’s past massacres reincarnate, undead soldiers carrying out the curse. There is no scientific explanation for the existence of these corporeal ghosts; this is not a simple haunting. It’s rage, malice, pure evil, all supposedly a channel through Sarah Fier getting her revenge. Even Deena and Josh believe this narrative about the land and about the town. They were cursed by Sarah Fier and Sunnyvale faces no repercussions for whatever happened back in 1666. Sarah Fier was after the Shadysiders who wronged her, after all.
This just isn’t accurate, though. Upon learning the location of the hand from C. "Ziggy" Berman, Deena and Josh make their way to the mall and retrieve Sarah Fier’s hand so they can reunite it with her body, which they found during the events of Part One: 1994. This leads to a flashback, with Deena taking the place of Sarah Fier, finally understanding the truth of the curse on Shadyside in Part Three: 1666. Sarah Fier did not place the curse on Shadyside; she was tragically hanged for being a witch from the narrative central observer, the tree, taking the blame for Soloman Goode’s deal with the Devil. He was the one that placed the curse on Shadyside. His family continued making deals generation after generation, building up the Goode family’s—and by extension, Sunnyvale’s—wealth, while leaving Shadyside in shambles, wrecked by violence and death.
It’s an all too familiar narrative, an obvious allegory for the way colonists and governments stole land from Indigenous tribes, forcing the tribes out so they could develop the land—and this wasn’t just a one-off incident. As land became “more developed,” more and more groups of marginalized people were sacrificed in the name of “progress.” For the Goode family, Sarah Fier was an easy, available scapegoat—a queer woman who the townsfolk already thought of as a witch. The Goode family made out, taking the land they wanted and using it to build their impeccable town, free of crime, disaster, and hopelessness. It was a place of opportunity and often talked about as such. They left the cursed land—and the tree—with the Shadysiders, letting it serve as a focal point for massacres, a permanent reminder that nothing would ever get better in Shadyside.
The tree didn’t attract violence, though. It was made into a violent symbol, and in Fear Street 1994: Part Two, Deena uses the tree’s memory to finally end the curse. Once she unleashed the truth, it had to be acted upon. Often the horrors and violence of history are downplayed, rewritten, and made out to be an exaggeration—surely nothing that bad ever happened, right? That’s a lie, a deflection of truth by those in power who hope to hold on to the control they wield over the stolen land they have long considered their domain. This is a justice problem and an environmental problem—when groups take land and develop, pushing toward progress that can only increase exponentially, resources dwindle, greenhouse gases rise, and the earth gets warmer and warmer and warmer, leaving minority populations the brunt of climate crisis damage.
After years of whitewashing and downplaying violent not-so-hidden secrets, the history of these atrocities is being spread to wider audiences. Climate change activism is not just concerned with the conservation of natural spaces or installing solar panels on roofs; it’s deeply rooted in creating an equitable future for all people, restoring the land from the violence inflicted upon it, and moving forward with creative community solutions to large problems. Environmental justice is racial justice and the two cannot be extracted from each other.
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 entertainment 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.