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.
This ’90s cult classic dives into climate change commentary and never looks back.
Released in the late 90s between iconic classics I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and Cruel Intentions (1999), Robert Rodriguez directed and Kevin Williamson written teen horror The Faculty (1998) offered something different than pent-up teen angst and slasher kills. Today, the science-fiction horror film The Faculty’s narrative has relevance for reasons other than what gave the film its cult classic status. Though unclear at first, the film speaks to one of the most significant controversies in climate change activism—the ethics of leaving a dying planet. It also reckons with what it means to take a stand in the face of an impending climate change induced disaster, even when most people do not see this crisis as the emergency it is.
The idea of colonizing other planets for human use as we barrel into climate catastrophe has been at the forefront of work done by wealthy men like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. However, the argument is that this might not be the best way to forge ahead in a time of crisis. The warming planet can only host humanity for a few more decades, so humans must make innovations and advancements in space travel to save the world’s population, right? In a similar vein, the film asks if action to save the planet will have its intended results—can Earth stay livable through the efforts of activism? It’s these questions that The Faculty dives into with grace and nuance, leaving audiences to reconsider what humanity’s best path forward might be.
The film follows Casey (Elijah Wood), a high school student and assistant editor of the school’s newspaper, who finds an unidentifiable living thing on the football field. He takes it to his science teacher Mr. Furlong (Jon Stewart), who concludes it must be a new parasite species that live in water. This parasite, though, is an alien species that not only live in water but also requires constant water consumption to survive. As the parasite attaches itself to the teachers and staff, the film zeroes in on the amount of water, those infected are drinking. It’s an essential first step to the climate allegory—an alien organism comes to earth and begins using up a necessary resource, without regard for how that might impact their longevity.
Casey and school newspaper Editor-in-Chief and Head Cheerleader Delilah (Jordana Brewster) set out for some investigating to understand precisely what’s going on at their school. While hiding in the teachers’ lounge closet, they watch two high school staff shoving a parasite in the school nurse’s ear canal. While the film isn’t lauded for its gore, the sheer violence of this moment—and others—brings to light the dangers of the thinking that comes with overtaking a planet. For the alien species to successfully take over Earth and make it their own home, they need more bodies—as if an army—to successfully assert their dominance over the land. In essence, the event that Casey and Delilah witness is a small-scale version of the planet takeover. By forcing other teachers to play host to the parasites, the infected faculty assume control and ownership over the body of others, overriding any agency that person may have.
Planets may not be able to assert power or agency for themselves, so it’s paramount to consider how investors approach planet colonization as a solution. This route means inflicting violence onto yet another planet, regardless of the outcome. Casey and Delilah see their teacher’s assault and come to terms with the gravity of the situation. However, they don’t decide to give up and succumb to the wrath of the parasite. They choose to band together and fight for the town and the people they already have because this community is worth fighting for. In going this route, they build a small team of resistance, which includes resident goth Stokely "Stokes" (Clea DuVall), drug dealer Zeke (Josh Hartnett), jock Stan (Shawn Hatosy), and new girl Marybeth (Laura Harris). The students know they have to build collective power to stop the parasite from spreading and that building a coalition across social divides makes them stronger.
The students, now a group fighting for their lives, make an important discovery—Zeke’s drugs kill the parasites and their hosts. With this newfound knowledge, they decide to make more of the substance in order to protect themselves and kill the alien monarch. A horror is revealed, though, when Delilah—now known to be infected—destroys the lab and most of the drugs. It’s here that the situation becomes even more dire. The film relinquishes any feelings of hope it had left, succumbing to the horror of a community infected and out to destroy its own. Even with nothing left, Casey, Stokes, Stan, Zeke, and Marybeth choose to press onward, knowing that they still have the potential to succeed in their mission.
The four remaining students head to the school, where the football team is busy infecting their opponents. They intend to track down the queen and kill her, banking on the existence of an alien hive mind. The film teeters between horror and sci-fi effectively here, building suspense and fear while the characters search for the queen. The surprise comes, though, when the new girl Marybeth is revealed to be the leader of the colonizing aliens. Despite her innocent appearance, Marybeth always intended to take Earth for her people. At the culminating moment of the film, Casey becomes Earth’s protector. In reality, policymakers often try to “reason” with climate activists and scientists and tech moguls who choose to explore sustaining human life on another planet. Casey, though, faces the problem head-on and stabs the queen in the eye—with Zeke’s drugs. In choosing to take action himself instead of waiting for other solutions, Casey demonstrates human tenacity. Humans can keep fighting for the planet.
The tale of searching elsewhere for a home destroyed is not new in fiction. Most media about searching for a new home following destruction are narratives of humans looking elsewhere. Laura Lam’s 2020 sci-fi novel Goldilocks also contends with ethical questions related to colonizing other planets. As the narrator of the novel goes back and forth on her beliefs about the best path forward to save humanity from a planet ravaged by climate change—that was never mitigated, despite the many alarm bells—she works on a team of female astronauts heading to the planet they intend to colonize. The Faculty, however, makes aliens the colonizer, effectively reversing the roles to show humanity the type of damage this might cause.
Casey and his friends are the protectors of the planet and the resources others are trying to take from them. Just as with the current movement in climate change, the responsibility of taking action fell to the youth. The adults are useless, having been taken over by the alien parasites and attempting to destroy the community for the gain of an alien population. The Faculty shows multiple sides of the climate crisis at once; both the swiftness with which humans must act and the ethics of inhabiting another planet to sustain a population. The film is a harrowing warning sign of the state of affairs in sustaining life during the climate crisis.
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.