For Some Horror Writers, Nothing Is Scarier Than a Changing Planet

VanderMeer has said that Area X was inspired in part by a 14-mile hike he makes regularly through the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, near his home in Florida. In Area X, such a hike would be lethal. As one critic put it, the place is “a perfect wilderness, deeply hostile to human life”: It’s nature in spectacular force against humanity — it will not be destroyed by us, nor will it accommodate us. Horror has always played on the potential for beautiful landscapes to be deadly; eco-horror adds the sickening twist that we are implicated in the environmental degradation that is now imminently threatening.

In the most insidious eco-horror, contamination isn’t somewhere out there. It’s right here, inside your body, seeping under your skin. As Eula Biss writes in “On Immunity” (2014), a subtle work of nonfiction about the growing anxiety she experienced during pregnancy: “We are no cleaner, even at birth, than our environment at large. We are all already polluted … we are crawling with bacteria and we are full of chemicals. We are, in other words, continuous with everything here on earth.” Pregnancy has long been a source for horror, from “Rosemary’s Baby” to Helen Phillips’s recent novel “The Need,” in which the birth of a child marks the beginning of an intense disturbance for the mother. Convinced that she hears an intruder intent on harming her infant and toddler, she moves through her home hypervigilant, on the brink of panic, “acutely aware of the abyss, the potential injury flickering within each second.” Maternity, and the possibilities for profound loss it introduces, are the real sources of terror here, as they are in “Future Home of the Living God” (2017), by Louise Erdrich, in which a pregnant Native American woman confronts a world in climate crisis where evolution has run amok — or, more precisely, has begun to run backward. The terrors of a world out of control coalesce around pregnancy, the embodiment of an uncertain, and foreboding, future.

Pregnancy may be eco-horror’s most potent trope — a claustrophobic, concentric rendering of humanity’s predicament as both source and victim of harm. The recent HBO mini-series “Chernobyl” (based in part on witness accounts of the nuclear disaster collected by the Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich) unfolds as an eco-horror story, and a pregnant character is crucial to the plot. The radiation is depicted as uncanny; the fire at the nuclear plant emits an eerie light. “It’s beautiful,” a local resident says, watching ash fall like snow and the strange light on the horizon. “The air is glowing,” another says. Then bodies begin to bleed, blister and vomit. A bird falls from the sky behind a group of schoolchildren; a deer lies dead in the forest as the wind spreading radiation crackles through the trees.

“Chernobyl” reminds us that environmental threats are distributed unequally: Powerful interests are protected, and the most vulnerable are the least culpable and least able to protect themselves — another horrible twist. The camera returns repeatedly to a pregnant woman who has been exposed to radiation. In the final episode, her baby dies four hours after birth. “The radiation would have killed the mother,” we are told, “but the baby absorbed it instead.” The story is based on the real-life experience of Lyudmilla Ignatenko, the wife of a firefighter at Chernobyl who died of acute radiation syndrome, but it draws on the imagery of eco-horror in its evocation of the fetus receiving the mother’s toxin and dying in her place.

In eco-horror, pregnancy is inherently compromised, a highly vulnerable and potentially deadly experience of interrelation. In “Sealed,” my own recent eco-horror novel, a pregnant woman and her partner flee a pandemic that causes skin to seal over people’s eyes, ears, noses — every bodily orifice — in an extreme reaction to environmental contamination. Through her pregnancy, the woman is herself sealed into a dangerous ecology — a microcosm of her compromised world.