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The Roots of Evil: Botanical Horror

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

When someone asks you about horror cinema, there are a few things that probably come to mind, whether you’re a die-hard horror fanatic or someone who hides behind the sofa when they’re forced to watch anything even remotely scary. Classic figures like Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, or his ill-fated bride. Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, or Ghostface. Newer franchises like ‘The Conjuring’, ‘Saw’, or ‘Insidious’. Creepy and disturbing films like ‘Hereditary’, ‘Midsommar’, or ‘The Witch’. Gory films like ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’, ‘Hostel’, or ‘Hellraiser’. Sci-fi horror movies, supernatural horror movies, feminist horror movies, slasher movies, haunting movies, dystopian movies, werewolf movies, vampire movies, exorcism movies, the list goes on and on and on.

But how often does someone mention botanical horror?

Botanical horror is a subgenre that explores plant-related horror. It has been around for almost 200 years, and yet it remains one of the most understudied and underappreciated subgenres in both gothic/horror literature and cinema. There are many hidden gems within the botanical horror filmography, including films that you perhaps wouldn’t perceive, appreciate, or understand as botanical horror on your first watch.

I want to change that. With the impact of climate change and deforestation on our world, not to mention increasing space travel (we’ll get to that), botanical horror is not only terrifyingly relevant, but we’re likely to see more films exploring this subject matter in the upcoming years.

This feature explores the subgenre’s fascinating origins and its development, how it found its way on to the big screen, the ways in which it was used on screen, and where botanical horror could go in the next couple of years.

Let’s embark (bark…like a tree, get it? I’ll stop) on this journey together.

Orchids and daisies and leaves, oh my:

Victorian Botanical Horror

Like many of the subjects within the gothic genre, botanical horror started with the Victorians. Lasting from 1837 – 1901, the Victorian era was one of drastic industrial, medical, cultural, and colonial change. Factories became the norm, chimney smoke clogged the lungs of British cities, the potato famine ravished Ireland. Families of 10 or more shared a single bedroom, the working class died of cholera, typhoid, and scarlet fever, while the middle-class were unwittingly being poisoned by the arsenic in their beautiful floral wallpaper.

But it wasn’t all bad – the telephone, the x-ray, and electricity were invented, working-class and feminist politicians rose up the ranks and enacted social change, germ theory was integrated throughout Britain’s hospitals, and museums and art rose in popularity.

One of the era’s most defining characteristics was its thirst for the unknown, be that supernatural, scientific, or mysteries across the water. Victorians became obsessed with Ancient Egyptian mummies, going as far to have mummy unwrapping parties, and yearned for beautiful clothing and pottery made in the recently reopened Japan.

But what makes them stand out was their reaction to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859 and took the Victorian world by storm. Some people clung to their religious faith even harder, denouncing his works as heresy. Some were troubled by it, their faith in humanity’s position as perfect and at the top of the food chain shaken. They also feared that if his theory was true, humanity could degenerate or devolve too, making humans less than animals.

Others embraced this new idea, overjoyed at finally having a more secular approach within the scientific community. Science in the Victorian era was still called ‘natural theology’, which Britannica explains was ‘the attempt to establish religious truths by rational argument and without reliance upon alleged revelations. It has focused traditionally on the topics of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul’. Darwin’s theory created a path that moved away from this way of thinking.

It can’t be understated just how impactful Darwin’s work was on the Victorian era. It played havoc with the nation’s psyche and subconsciously, and sometimes consciously, informed their opinions, actions, and decisions.

Botany was a wildly popular pastime in Victorian Britain. It was cheap, easy to do, and considered lady-like and healthy. It was also pious – the study of nature was a huge part of natural theology because studying The Creator's work allegedly confirmed both his existence and his goodness. Victorian adventurers soon began travelling to new and exotic lands to explore, and unusual plants were among the most highly valued items to bring home. Orchids were especially prized.

Darwin’s theory of evolution was already in the back of many of these travelers’ minds and all the baggage that came with it – fear of degeneration, existentialism, the disruption of species hierarchies – but what really fanned the flames was Darwin’s publication of Insectivorous Plants in 1875. In this study, Darwin investigated carnivorous plants and their eating habits. He noted that they evolved depending on where they grew and which prey they ate, and that they had various physical stimuli that implied a kind of sentient intelligence.

And this terrified people. It was bad enough that humans may not be as high-up as animals, but now they were on par with plants? Come on.

What didn’t help were various reports from adventurers who claimed that they had witnessed man-eating plants and plants that actively killed travellers, like the Javanese upa trees in places like Africa and Indonesia. Witnesses claimed the trees emitted a deadly poison that killed victims within a several mile radius. They spoke of the tree as if it were alive in a human sense, with feelings and motivations. Even Darwin’s grandfather was spooked by these tales, writing this verse in one of his poems:

“Fierce in dread silence on the blasted heath / Fell upas alts, the Hydra-Tree of death”

Tales of man-eating trees were also told. The dreaded ya-te-veo was a tree/vegetable-like creature in South America that was said to capture victims with its tentacle-like branches, squeeze the blood from its victim, and discard the empty carcass (to be fair, that sounds terrifying).

These accounts inspired some of the Victorian era’s greatest writers, including Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Arthur Conan Doyle, and H.G. Wells, to channel the fears and anxieties of their world into their stories. Tales of botanical horror explored human sacrifice, harking back to paganism, the terrifying possibility of not only human degeneration, but the evolution of a powerful and sentient natural world that could fight back against human destruction. Indeed, many of these stories explore the Victorians’ uncertainty about the supposed progress of their imperial empire and their impact on the environment.

Victorians were both fascinated by and terrified of nature. It reminded them – and us today – of our mortality, our insignificant place in an indifferent and uncaring universe. We, like plants, are organic and finite. Nature always finds a way, and Victorians feared that their relentless pursuit of materialism and industrialization would spark vengeance in the natural world. Plants would conquer the planet, leaving humans at the bottom of the species totem pole.

This fear has never really subsided, and it found its way into cinema.

Botanical Horror on the Big Screen:

1950 - 1980

Much of early horror cinema drew inspiration from classical literary texts like ‘Phantom of the Opera’, ‘Frankenstein’, and ‘The Invisible Man’ to give the genre more clout in Hollywood. While there are dozens of great botanical horror stories written by respected writers like H.P. Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood, the idea of ‘killer plant’ movies was not something Hollywood producers were particularly interested in – they wanted escapism, not socio-political commentary, or comedy, for that matter.

That is, until ‘The Day of the Triffids’ was published.

Written by British author John Wyndham, this book follows the aftermath of a meteor shower that leaves most of the world blind and a violent species of venomous, locomotive plants known as triffids start murdering people now that they can’t fight back. The premise sounds ridiculous, but it explores a lot of anxieties of its era, namely space travel (the new version of Victorian exotic land travel) and the fear of creatures coming to our world and destroying us. In fact, Wyndham often cited H.G. Wells’ ‘The War of the Worlds’ as one of his biggest influences. Here, we can see the intertwining of botanical horror and science fiction. And it should also be noted that the film is what inspired ‘28 Days Later’, one of the best zombie films ever made.

The film adaptation changes a few things, as many from-book-to-film adaptations do, but the central idea was present throughout: intelligent, violent, man-killing plants. Promoting the film with the tagline, ‘The triffids are coming! The triffids are growing! The triffids are killing!’, director Steve Sekely really hammered home that the source material was literary and therefore had clout. The film is now often forgotten among the 1950s more powerful sci-fi anxiety films such as ‘The Blob’, ‘The Thing from Another World’, and ‘The Fly’, but it did open the door for one of the best sci-fi horror films, and botanical horror films, of all time – ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’. And for once, I don’t mean the original, I mean the remake.

The original film was based on a 1954 novel by Jack Finney and was shot in a neo-noir style. While its creators viewed it as a simple but entertaining thriller, it quickly became a powerful commentary on anti-communist paranoia and the fear of war-induced dehumanization. It well and truly deserves its place in the Library of Congress preservation registry. It did not do particularly well on its initial release in the 1950s, but the 1978 remake reignited people’s interest in the film, thus giving it the credit it deserves.

I consider the 1978 version to be superior simply because it is scarier. It’s visceral, it’s sinister, it’s creepy. The trailer’s narrator sets the tone with his commentary that harks back to the Victorians fear of the natural world. These creatures from space, these pod people, “adapt and they survive. The function of all life is survival”. The way the plants move and take over the bodies of their victims gives me chills. Even the word ‘snatcher’ has such a primordial ring to it; it’s a violation. And who do you trust when the enemy looks just like you? The natural world of plants has overtaken humanity and there is nothing you can do about it – that is horrifying.

The rich cinematography really emphasises the sheer greenness of the enemy, making it much more impactful than its black-and-white predecessor, and its odd, electronic score feels both jarring and weirdly perfect. It also touches on the 1970s era’s paranoia and anxiety surrounding Nixon’s Watergate scandal…who can you trust, when the enemy looks like you? And it arguably paved the way for films like ‘Alien’. It’s surprising how deep a film about killer plants from outer space can be when you look at it seriously.

Saying that, some botanical horror films are less serious, but no less fun. Take Roger Corman’s 1960 film ‘The Little Shop of Horrors’.

This short comedy follows clumsy Seymour, a young man who works in a flower shop in his town’s small Jewish quarter. Feeling bad for his boss, who is worried the shop is going to go out of business, Seymour tracks down an unusual plant at a Chinese market and nurtures it. It grows unexpectedly fast and attracts lots of customers, but it comes with a price: it must feed on human blood.

The film is bonkers and is in no way an intelligent socio-political commentary, but it’s very fun. There was a slightly more serious attempt to make this premise scary in 1965’s ‘Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors’ starring Christopher Lee, but the segment is too short to have any real impact. A much better version is Czech director Jan Svanmajer’s ‘Little Otik’ from 2000. Known for his creepy take on fairy tales, ‘Little Otik’ manages to combine the comedy and the potential fear from ‘The Little Shop of Horrors’ in a much more dark and satirical way.

There are many films that take a humorous approach to botanical horror, including ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’ and ‘Please Don’t Eat My Mother’. There are also films that are just plain bad, but are funny to watch, like ‘The Gardener (AKA The Garden of Death)’ from 1974, in which the main character transforms into a tree after he is fired and uses psychic powers to communicate sinister plots to the garden’s orchids.

One of the best comedic botanical horrors is in George Romero’s anthology ‘Creepshow’, starring The Fright Club NI’s favourite King of Horror, Stephen King. The sequence, ‘The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill’, was based on King’s short story ‘Weeds’. Like ‘The Day of the Triffids’, a meteorite flies overhead and brings with it a rapidly-spreading plant-like organism. The organism spreads like a virus, covering Jordy’s body, his home, everything he touches. The plants on his body, including a fantastic green beard, make his itch like crazy, so he takes a bath to soothe his skin, despite the ghost of his deceased father warning him not to because ‘it’s what they want’.

When he awakes the next day, Jordy has become an all-out plant monster. He pulls out a shotgun [TRIGGER WARNING] and kills himself, as the news presenter in the background forecasts rain, which will accelerate the growth of this alien organism and cover the entire planet. The sequence is silly but it’s so much fun.

Botanical Horror on the Big Screen:

1980 – Present Day

Botanical horror was beginning to be taken seriously again by the 1980s. Though this decade was dominated by violent slasher films, there are two gems that became cult classics: ‘The Evil Dead’ and ‘Swamp Thing’.

Sam Raimi’s ‘The Evil Dead’ is a must-see for horror fans. It stars Bruce Campbell as Ash Williams, a young man who must fight his way to freedom when his friends accidently become possessed by demons after listening to a disturbing audio tape. While the film isn’t an all-out botanical horror like the films I’ll discuss later on in this section, it does utilise trees to their scariest potential. The trees themselves become demonically possessed and [TRIGGER WARNING] brutally attack and rape one of Ash’s friends. The scene is quite disturbing, but it really shows just how fragile, organic, and insignificant humans are next to the thunderous presence of these ancient trees. The way Raimi shoots it makes us feel violated, like Cheryl, and trapped. It’s all quick cuts and close-ups, and it’s very effective. Having the natural world itself become possessed is a fantastic way of showing our powerlessness.

‘Swamp Thing’ takes a different route. The protagonist Alec Holland (Ray Wise) is murdered by the military while researching biological anomalies. He becomes Swamp Thing, a half-human, half-creature, a personification of the site he was murdered, and exacts revenge on his killers while protecting the nature the military want to destroy and exploit. Nature becomes an avenging force, and a justified one. The film is very typically 80s, but it reignited the fundamental Victorian era’s fear that resulted from their imperialist desires: humanity is bad, nature is good. Humanity will be punished for how it treats nature.

Botanical horror slowed again for a while, with the exception of a few under-the-rug films like 1992’s ‘Seedpeople’, but it started creeping back into the horror genre by the late 2000s.

2008 gave us two botanical horror films: Carter Smith’s ‘The Ruins’ and M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Happening’ (stay with me).

‘The Ruins’ is the superior film. It follows a group of new acquaintances in Mexico who are searching for one of the characters’ lost brothers, whose last known location was a Mayan archeological dig. The ruins are completely covered in vines and the natives become agitated whenever the group tries to step on them. When a member of the group is shot and killed by natives, the rest run up the ruins, wreaking havoc on the vines. The group are slowly devoured by these sentient vines, who worm their way into their bodies through open wounds. The horror is gory and very vivid, shots lingering just long enough on the gore to make you grimace. We never get an answer as to how or why the vines are sentient, but if anything, that makes it creepier.

"If the audience is going to buy that this vine moves and can get into your body and all that, the world of the film has to be absolutely realistic. We took elements from lots of different real-life plants when designing our vine. It's in practically every single shot in the film after the characters reach the hill, so it has to look like something that could really be growing there. But it also has to look menacing once you realise what it is capable of doing”. Director Carter Smith

‘The Happening’ is…bad. The plot revolves around an inexplicable natural disaster that [TRIGGER WARNING] causes mass suicides. That in itself is a convoluted idea, but it gets worse. The suicides are at first thought to be caused by terrorist bio-chemical warfare, who use an airborne neurotoxin to target victims, but it’s revealed that it’s the plants; plants have evolved a defense mechanism, the neurotoxin, to protect them from humans.

This premise isn’t awful, but it’s executed so poorly in ‘The Happening’ that it’s hard not to cringe the whole way through the film. The team behind the film claimed they were making a modern-day B-movie, but the film lacks all of the cheese, comedy and charm that exists in the work of the likes of Roger Corman. Do yourself a favour and watch ‘The Little Shop of Horrors’ instead.

Alex Garland's 2018’s ‘Annihilation’ and Jessica Hausner's 2019’s ‘Little Joe’ offer some redemption and hope for botanical horror.

Like ‘Swamp Thing’, ‘Annihilation’ draws on the ‘humans bad, nature good’ theme. Set in the future, a team is transported to a quarantined area called ‘the shimmer’, where time has been manipulated and as a result, all plants and animals within the shimmer have mutated (or evolved). While some parts of this film have pretty standard monster movie elements, it elevates itself by using the plants as a way to address depression. The longer the team stays in the shimmer, the more detached from their emotions they become and the more plant-like they become. The mutant plants are shaped like humans, making them very uncanny, and overtake the surroundings and the people. It is genuinely creepy, made all the more poignant by its existential tone.

‘Little Joe’ also uses botanical horror to explore mental health. It follows Alice, a plant breeder who is trying to create a plant that induces happiness with its scent. This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds; scents like lavender have been proven to calm people down and make them feel more relaxed. Naming her plant Little Joe after her son, Alice takes it home and things turn bad. Anyone who inhales the plant’s pollen starts to act strangely and puts the plant’s needs above their own, to their detriment. The film is surreal and dreamlike and uses plants to invoke conversations about the ethics and dangers of brain chemical manipulation. If used incorrectly, plants can help us – but they can also destroy us. The BFI went as far to call it ‘’The Day of the Triffids’ for the antidepressants era’.

Botanical Horror on the Big Screen:

Where will it go?

Botanical horror is a subgenre with potential for truly gripping horror. With the increasing awareness and existential dread surrounding climate change and the impacts of deforestation, I would not be surprised if we witness an upsurge of botanical horror films.

What the subgenre needs is a film like ‘Midsommar’, which reignited folk horror. One big film can reignite this entire subgenre. Films like ‘Little Joe’ may go under the radar, but it also gives me hope that people understand this subgenre and know how to use it.

I’m excited for what’s to come, but I hope no major ecological disasters have to happen for people to take the realities that botanical horror explores seriously.

- Victoria Brown

The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now. - Old Chinese Proverb

You can help save the planet by supporting Trees On The Land, a cross-border initiative working to establish young native trees across the 32 counties of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

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